With Mad Men wrapping up, the media has been buzzing, not just with dissecting the series’ ending, but also about the religious overtones of the final episode: The show’s lead, Don Draper, winds up at a meditation retreat and maybe finds inner peace. (I say maybe because I watch Mad Men on Netflix and have been trying like hell to avoid spoilers for the second half of season seven!)
While this episode (or what I know of it from various pictures and headlines) certainly memorializes America’s shift into New Age/Eastern practices, it is not the first time Mad Men has incorporated religion into the show. In fact, the series has examined the intersection of religion and modernity throughout its run.
Both regular characters (Peggy Olsen, Michael Ginsberg, Paul Kinsey) and tertiary figures (Rachel Menken, Sylvia Rosen) have brought religion to the fore front of the show. Menken, in conversation with Don about “What Jewish people want,” notably described herself as Jewish—but not that Jewish. A move which highlighted the cultural, rather than religious, dimensions of faith. Rosen, citing Catholic values, criticized Megan Draper (Don’s second—or is it third?—wife) for considering an abortion while carrying on an affair with her husband behind her back, evoking a number of tut-tuts from viewers who already knew she was selective in her interpretation of religion.
The early seasons of the show illustrated the tension of Olsen’s Catholic upbringing and her desire to unshackle herself from past values and chart her course as a professional woman. Not only was this overtly seen in episodes wither her family or parish—uncomfortable exchanges which had her confront the priesthood and her family head-on, but this was also expressed in her approach to advertising, which often highlighted the ritual dimension of activities. Her pitch for Popsicles featured a mother dispensing treats to her children in a Virgin Mary-esque pose, and her pitch for Burger Chef was centered on the idea of breaking bread—the central eucharistic ritual of the Catholic mass. The incorporation of faith into Olsen’s character both professionally and privately illustrated how intertwined religion was (and is) with other areas of life, both as a social practice and collective mythology.
Ginsberg, too, was a character who was compelled to redefined religion in a changing world. His biography seethes with adjustment: born in a concentration camp during the holocaust, he had a difficult relationship with his conservative father, and was acutely aware of his outsider Jewish status. Nevertheless, no matter how much Ginsberg rebelled against his upbringing, he still played the role of dutiful son, skillfully blending time-worn values of faith and family with his success in the secular world.
And, of course, there was that time when Paul Kinsey had joined the Hare Krishnas.
Mad Men portrayed religion as both a cultural touchstone as well as an institution in transition, as a new generation redefined their relationship to ideas of the past. Mad Men has always looked to religion to provide, if not its main story line, fill in some of the details on the people who inhabited the show’s world, enriching their characters with a personal depth that mirrored the complexity of the relationships on the show.
So sure, Don Draper went to Esalen (or somewhere similar, from what I hear). Like other treatments of religion in Mad Men, it was a way of reflecting the rapidly changing times. Religious themes, expressed through the character development of both key figures and walk-on characters, brought into the open the assumptions, entrenchments, beliefs, and prejudices which surrounded religion both new and old in the latter half of the twentieth century.