What Happens When Don Draper Goes To Hell?

“Midway upon the journey of our life, I awoke to find myself in a dark wood. For I had wandered off from the straight path.” So begins Dante’s horrifying excavation into the pit of hell. AMC’s Mad Men opened season 6 with Don Draper reading Dante’s Inferno on a beach, and it seems that he, midway on his life’s journey, is about to follow in Dante’s footsteps.

Death casts a dark pall on episode one, ominously titled “The Doorway.” The doorway to where? To heaven? To hell? Into nothingness? Violin cases are called coffins; little girls describe losing their mothers; soldiers await death in vietnam; Roger loses his mother and shoe shine.

Don is strangely repulsed and attracted by death. He vomits during a funeral, but attempts to sell a morbid ad campaign to Hilton (depicting a suit, shirt and tie strewn out on a beach, with no one to be found). Don thinks it represents freedom from the business of life, for everyone else (including me) it evokes suicide.

Is Don’s ultimate freedom only found in death? Must he walk through “The Doorway” to hell? That’s what the whole episode seems to imply. Of course, the doorway to hell in Dante’s inferno bears these words, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” Those who thought that Don finally found himself with Megan and became a better man will be disappointed by season 6. Abandon all hope. Nothing changes. Even Don knows that. He makes an hopeless New Year’s wish at the end of the episode, in the arms of adulterer, “I want to stop doing this.”

Dante’s Inferno seems to the interpretive lens through which we must view season 6. It’s all about the loss of hope, and Don’s disillusionment as he sees all the idols he once lived for crumble away (much like Dante watching the punishment of the wicked).

As a Christian, I commend this season above previous seasons. Mad Men’s hero literally killed his old identity, Dick Whitman, to take on a new false identity, Don Draper. It’s about the masks we all put on: the fake, aggrandized self we market to our friends and coworkers. It’s about the parade of idols in vanity’s fair: the way we all try to find meaning and worth and identity in the things of this world.

Don is the supreme example. He’s self-conscious enough to see that he’s living a lie, yet unable to stop living it. In every season he tries on a new mask. He tried to find identity as “Don Draper,” loving husband and ex-combatant. He tried to find his identity in his career, success, and money. Identity in keeping up appearances, and even (last season) in true love. Every idol, every lie, every mask lets him down, leaving Don lost. In season 4 an interviewer asks “Who is Don Draper?” That’s the great question of Mad Men.

Who are you?

In Season 6 Don is lost and empty. He’s passed through the doorway. He sees the empty vainness of his life. A photographer asks Don “To just be himself.” He looks befuddled and confused; he does not know who he is.

In the earlier seasons there was always a hint of hope that maybe Don would find himself. Now there is none. Each episode deconstructs an old mask of Don’s. Much like Dante descending through the spheres of hell, witnessing the variegated punishments of wicked souls, Don descends witnessing his idols crumble.

In episode one Don is in limbo (Dante’s first level of hell). In episode two, “The Collaborators”, Don descends to the second level (where Dante shows the punishment of the lustful). He sees how is own life was destroyed by living in a brothel. Even Pete’s life is destroyed by adultery. In Episode three Don watches his success crumble as he loses one of his biggest clients. So it continues.

If we live life without God, we are condemned to a hell of hopeless idolatry. We are condemned to wear a lie. If you wanted to be Don Draper before season 6, I doubt you do now. As Christians we can look at this TV show and agree that it depicts the abject horror of living within the inferno of a godless world.

But remember that Dante himself saw the greater truth: this life is a horror only because we all sense that we were made for something far better. Mad Men is a tragedy because in its universe there is no such thing as heaven. But if you think you live in a world without heaven, then at least be as honest as Don and abandon all hope. As Blaise Pascal said of this view, “The last act is tragic, however happy all the rest of the play is; at the last a little earth is thrown upon our head, and that is the end for ever.”

For those of us who know of the life to come, let’s thank God and live in light of a heaven where we are freed to be who God made us to be, without the drudging train of idols and false identities.

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