In defense of adultery

James K. A. Smith has weighed in on Mad Men and is unimpressed. As one for whom watching Mad Men was something akin to a religious experience, I feel I must respond in some way — leaving open the possibility that Smith himself will change his tune somewhat after (if) he finishes the first season, because as Brad pointed out in an IM conversation just now, it is really hard to get a feel for the show if you don’t have the whole in front of you.

Aside from claiming that the characters other than Don Draper are unbelievable charicatures (an assessment I think is simply wrong), Smith makes two main points. First, the show seems to be designed to shock our politically correct mindset with the stark contrast between now and the early 1960s — yet at the same time, it undermines itself by making the era seem so glamorous and attractive through what is (literally) a loving attention to detail. Second, he seems to regard the show’s reliance on adultery for so many plots as a kind of cheap move to flout convention.

On both points, I would say that he is over-hastily assimilating the show to a kind of culture-wars framework when I don’t think that’s what the show is aiming for at all. On point one, it seems strange to assume that the main goal of the show is to allow us to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come when so much of the show’s atmosphere makes the era depicted seem so attractive — perhaps it’s simply the case that the show wants to attempt to portray that era as it really was, with all its faults and all its attractions, and has no particular desire to intervene overtly in contemporary debates. On the second point, I would say that Smith is ignoring the strangeness of Don’s adulterous drives. Where Roger Sterling is continually chasing the young sexy things, Don is seeking out substantial self-made women who create their own space in the world — in other words, he’s seeking an equal in his mistresses, a partner that his wife can never really be (he already has the sexy young girl at home!). It’s a pretty sophisticated commentary on the internal contradictions of marriage as an institution, in an era when those contradictions were only starting to make themselves felt in a serious way.

Of course, this last point may reveal an axiomatic difference between me and Smith — I detect in the last paragraph of his post a sense that the truly subversive and great piece of art would be one that shows how profoundly good marriage is. Adultery is what’s really petty and banal, whereas the successful marriage is the truly sublime and beautiful subject worthy of art. For me, human relationships are far too complex and varied for one particular institution to be set on such a pedestal. I would regard what Don had with Midge (the bohemian girlfriend) as something valuable and real, even if it couldn’t last forever — and the fact that it couldn’t last forever and couldn’t be turned into an institutionally-recognized relationship (for reasons beyond the simple fact that Don is already married) was one of its most significant conditions of possibility. To me, regarding such relationships as failed attempts at something else seems obviously wrong — they are what they are and should be assessed as what they are, without reference to marriage as a “master signifier” among relationships.

28 thoughts on “In defense of adultery

  1. I love Mad Men. One of the points of the programme seems to be precisely a subversion and complexification of the archetypes that K.A. Smith locates, the bored housewife, the smarmy exec, for one. Draper might be suave, but he is also complex – not attracted to the boho chic of the artists he meets, but also not attracted entirely to ‘selfishly virtuous’ the Ayn Rand hyper-capitalism his boss enjoys. He has the smarts to recognise Peggy’s skill, and often defends her against the lecherous joking of the other Ad Men, and, indeed, if you note, rarely participates in this kind of humour. This attitude is similar to the women he does have affairs with. Don’t forget, he does consider leaving Betty.

    As for adultery, isn’t it the opposite way around. Adultery, because it is secret, seems to be a rather weird display of defying convention, where defiance of convention depends upon a public acknowledgment of that defiance. Don keeps all his affairs very secret.

    PS The gay story line was one of the most tragic I have ever witnessed. So sensitively done. Compare with The Soprano’s take on this

  2. I think the purported convention defying is taking place at the level of adultery-as-plot-device and not Draper’s actual defiance of convention in his infidelity. I haven’t yet seen Mad Men, although this has whetted my appetite significantly. Just wanted to clarify that point. On it’s own, I think Nabokov’s observation is accurate, even if it doesn’t properly bear on Mad Men.

  3. Well, I hadn’t realized that with my brief little meditation on “Mad Men” I would have been wading into AUFS-infested waters. I’m happy to hear that it’s worth it to continue watching the series: that was just the motivation I needed. (I’ll take the recommendation of someone who likes Pynchon and DFW.) So perhaps I’ll suspend judgement until I’m at least finished season 1. That Mad Men might have been a religious experience for you does not come as a huge surprise.

    But let me clarify just a few points, since I think we might be talking past one another a bit:

    (1) I have watched only 4 episodes of the first season. If there’s more to come that will change the picture, fine. But I will say that I had to trust the judgement of others to watch beyond the pilot–which moved the plot so quickly within a 24-hour period as to be unbelievable. (Peggy gets a lunchtime appointment for the pill and puts it to work [as if it would] that night?! Give me a break.) [On the “believability” factor here, I have in mind something like James Wood’s discussions in _The Broken Estate_.]

    (2) You suggest that the show means to create a disconcerting sense of continuity between the period of the show and the present–to show us really how little we’ve changed. Maybe. But there are clearly instances where the script makes the mores of that period laughable: like the pregnant women smoking; or when the child comes to the mother sheathed in the plastic from dry cleaning–a “suffocation hazard” of mythical proportions–and the mother chastises her for taking the clothes out of the wrapper! Here we laugh out loud at how “ignorant” we were. That creates temporal distance and chronological snobbery that makes it harder to see ourselves as “still there.”

    (3) I don’t suggest that the film is playing on the adulterous in order to titillate us and spike ratings. Nor do I dislike the show because it includes adultery–jeez, where would Graham Greene be without adultery? Indeed, it’s notable how tame sex is in the show–always pretty much off-camera (so far). But my point wasn’t that adultery was a conventional plot device. My point was Nabakov’s–namely, that adultery is a pretty unimaginative way to work out the angst that attends middle class affluenza. (Here it seems to me that “Revolutionary Road” is more interestingly complex, but perhaps that complexity is to come in later episodes of Mad Men.)

    (4) You have a knack for introducing terms I never used (e.g., monogamy as more “subversive”). But here I think you’re imposing on my comments things that are better attributed to a past post by Halden. Look carefully at my claim: it’s not about marriage per se, but about art. I do think it remains a project to write the American novel that hallows the mundane, boring, hard work that constitutes monogamy and the drudgery of child-rearing. I made NO claims that this would be more “subversive,” etc.; I only suggested that I think this would be a task for the novel someone like Updike couldn’t pull off. (Actually, the person who might have done it would have been, perhaps surprisingly, David Foster Wallace. After all, if you can write on the IRS, you might be able to pull off a novel on a ho-hum, midwestern marriage.) You try to hijack my claim as if it were a “culture wars” agenda, but I’m pretty sure I was making an artistic or critical claim.

    (I’m up for political polemics about marriage, too, but wasn’t doing that here.)

    And to head off any suppositions at the pass: this is not something I’m interested in due to some kind of cultural isolation. Both of my parents are on their third marriage; my wife and I will have been married 19 years this month. In any case, my reflections are Nabakovian, not Dobsonian.

  4. Sorry to talk past you. In that vein, I think that your point #2 is talking past me as well — I don’t think I suggest any purpose for portraying the era other than portrayal itself. I also don’t recall anything in my post corresponding to the “titillation” of your point #3. As for point #1, that plot point only makes sense in light of her probable radical ignorance of how birth control works, not simply as a 1960s woman but especially as a Catholic — and if you’ll recall, the doctor didn’t give her any actual information, but only told her not to be a total slut, something that probably reinforced the general impression that it was 100% effective.

    The point about my introduction of “subversion” is well-taken; it would have been enough to say that you likely would find an account of a successful marriage more interesting than adultery or at least more difficult to pull off successfully and therefore better as art. I’m not sure if locating things in the middle class is correct, though — Don is in the upper echelons. If they’re going for any cultural stereotype, it’s the rampant adultery among the wealthy, high-powered businessmen who “collect” beautiful young women rather than simply the boredom of middle-class marriage. In that context, Don’s pursuits strike me as very interesting.

    I do agree with you about DFW’s capacity to do the hypothetical “marriage novel” successfully, here thinking more about his portrayal of the AA process in Infinite Jest. He’s great at portraying the day-in, day-out kind of stuff — the tennis discipline comes to mind as well.

  5. By the way, have you heard the buzz surrounding the movie Julie and Julia? Apparently it portrays a marriage that’s not only successful, but actually includes sexual passion! People don’t know what to think.

  6. While we’re talking about writers who could pull off that hypothetical novel, let me throw out the name of somebody who has not written a novel (or at least I don’t think khe has), but who I think could do the subject brilliant justice: George Saunders.

    Alternatively, Lorrie Moore.

  7. Sorry Jamie Smith, but you are SO wrong on this one.

    I think it’s an exquisite series, with some of the most sensitively drawn characters you could find anywhere on screen. And, more than anything else, I found its portrayal of marriage and family life — so fragile, difficult, bewildering; so full of promise as well as dead ends — utterly compelling and believable. Among these characters, adultery is just one of many related symptoms (including, inter alia, the ominous ubiquity of alcohol and nicotine). For me, the real climax of the whole season is that deliciously understated scene involving Betty and a BB gun (sorry, I’m trying to avoid spoilers). And the real triumph of the show is that, for the most part, it avoids explaining any of this. Life is just like that. As Don says in one episode, “Nobody knows why they do the things they do.”

    And really, I thought the deepest connections were not those between the 1960s and the present, but between the 1960s and its past, i.e., the war. For me at least, this was also a very honest and believable attempt to make sense of the significance of that curious modern institution: the picture-perfect 1950s American family unit. I especially appreciated the complete lack of cynicism in all this: there is something unbearably tragic, as well as heartbreakingly beautiful, about the family.

  8. Really it is show in a non-didactic style, no? I’m thinking of Badiou’s use of the concept of didactic films (which I really have second hand from Thomas Lynch). That is, the film presents us with something without anything necessarily behind it. The film Gomorra also struck me in this way. That is not to say that the opposite is then true; saying something like the true message of the series or film is to celebrate its nihilism, but rather that it leaves such evaluations outside of the lens.

  9. Ad Ben: “sensitively drawn characters?” Now you’re just making me question your critical aesthetic judgement. I would invite you to watch the first 3 episodes of season 1 again and see if this claim could stand up. Pete Campbell’s character is so flat and predictable–he telegraphs his movements like a bad high school quarterback. Again, I’m happy to suspend judgement and press on through the series, but my judgements reflect what I’ve seen in the opening few episodes.

    Draper’s character is of interest, and after episode 3 I predicted that he’s actually beset by a kind of PTSD. Am I onto something?

    Ad Adam: Fair enough. Just a couple more points:

    (1) It’s not that I’d find an account of a “successful” (?) marriage “more interesting” (what I’d really be _interested_ in is seeing a bit more of Joan Holloway–maybe then “Mad Men” would be a religious experience for me too!); my point is that the portrayal of such a marriage-minus-adultery would be an aesthetic challenge for the novelist (or screenwriter).

    (2) I take the point re: “middle class.” It’s such an elastic term (I find it means something quite different in the UK, which might be closer to how I was using it). For instance, compared to Pete Campbell’s “society” heritage, Don Draper is decidedly middle class. I also expect Draper wasn’t educated at the nation’s quasi-aristocratic institutions. On the other hand, Draper is clearly comfortably moneyed. But this is a minor point.

    Finally, one more DFW musing: one of the things that fascinated me about _Infinite Jest_ was Wallace’s sort of redemption of cliche (e.g., in the AA story line). Perhaps I’m reacting to what I see as the caricatured cliche of “Mad Men”–but cliche without such redemption. (NB: by “redemption” of cliche I don’t mean some neat, tidy “everything-works-out-great-in-the-end” bullshit–obviously this is NOT what we find in DFW. Rather, DFW finds a kind of wisdom in the tiredness of cliche.)

    Thanks for the conversation. I’ll be interested to continue watching and see why smart people are so taken with the series.

  10. Yes, press on, press on! Honestly, when the season ended (my wife and I watched it over a couple of weeks), I felt a faint indiscernible ache for a few days, as though I was missing a friend: until I realised that I was simply missing the company of Don and Betty Draper…

    By the way, I’m a big fan of your new book, Desiring the Kingdom. The students in my ecclesiology course this semester will be reading and discussing some of it, in relation to formation and “competing liturgies”.

    (Small aside about Mad Men: did anyone else notice the way Don often loses his voice just a little when he’s exhaling smoke? For several episodes, I kept thinking that the actor must have slipped some weed into his cigarettes: but then I read somewhere that the non-smoking actors were using special non-toxic herbal cigarettes, to avoid cancer, death and lawsuits down the track. Mystery solved.)

  11. Good conversation. I agree with Anthony on the non-didacticism of it as a whole which is maybe a trend in recent realist TV like this show and The Wire. We might also add The Sopranos’ but they were willing to show in a dream sequence every so often. In an unrelated note, this show made me want to smoke more. That is all.

  12. Mad Men is a historiography of 60s despair. Draper doesn’t seek meaningful relationships: he destroys others in seeking himself. The irony is that he’s the seducer and in desperate seductions we ourselves are seduced.

  13. Yes, “other than his brother.” The Jewish woman has to take a leave of absence, because of his lies and deceit. He almost destroys his wife and family. … While not destroying them he undermines their trust in him. These actions are affecting his daughter in an as yet unseen way.

    I’d say that one of the shows powerful artistic accomplishments is to seduce into accepting the main character’s despair without knowing it. I would further argue that the implications of this spill over into a critique of what he does, make people want to buy things they do not need.

  14. I’m a big Mad Men fan, watched the first two seasons religiously. But I completely agree with James K.A. Smith’s criticism, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been made more often. Mad Men is an extremely stylized and artificial piece of art, which succeeds triumphantly on those terms. But it’s the Updike/Cheever (and Betty Friedan) take on the 60s. Quiet desparation, the trapped suburban housewife and the victimized secretary. There’s a certain lack of realism in a show which would like to provide the psycho-biography of an era but can’t portray a single happy marriage.

    Also, one thing that bugs me is that age-wise Don Draper should absolutely be a WWII veteran, but is instead a Korea vet. There’s probably something about our national iconography of WWII vets that subconsciously prevented the scriptwriters from getting the years right.

  15. What about the marriage of the guy who becomes head of the TV department? He’s very happily married until he gets drunk and sleeps with Pete’s secretray, and he then immediately confesses. By the next season, they seem to be basically reconciled: she’s encouraging him to go for the promotion, and they are expecting a kid. This is a guy who wants to remain faithful and seems to succeed except for one slip-up.

  16. True, he’s got a not-bad marriage, but I wouldn’t call it a good one. I just don’t feel like Mad Men reflects the range of people and relationships and types I see in, say, my own office environment or my own life. Every relationship seems subtly skewed to make a point about lives of quiet desparation, the Silent Generation, the approaching 60s cultural upheavals (especially feminism), etc. There’s a feel of people living in a strange and distant country where everyone is oddly and somewhat portentuously disturbed in their daily life and relationships. One often sees this kind of skewing in fictional art, and Mad Men is really good art, but that slight artificiality to me keeps it from joining e.g. The Wire among the ranks of the very greatest shows. But you know, just my opinion.

    I found this post again by googling “theology Mad Men”, you will be proud to know it is the very first hit for that topic.

  17. Oh, and I would also say what really is great about the show is the character of Don Draper. He comes to life in a way that goes far beyond political points or representative-of-a-generation type stuff. But at the same time he’s deeply affected by the pre-feminist communication barrier between men and women, in a way that feels quite organic to his character but doesn’t limit it.

  18. Adam. I like your review of season 2. Very well done. Not sure Draper’s found himself, as you seem to imply in the review. As I noted, we have as yet to see the effects of his actions on his daughter. In season 3, ep 1, she’s acting out by breaking the handle on his suitcase. And then he continues his womanizing.

    Yes, he has perhaps found something in CA, but it was not himself. He has found a peace to continue doing what he does: seduce others, as I am insisting. I think we have not plumbed as yet the depths of his or the other characters’ despair. It’s interesting that Sterling has the Japanese print showing a woman being given head by an octopus: he says that it reminds him of the business of advertising. Indeed. We have not yet seen the show undertake the critique that the advertising industry deserves to undergo.

    Draper’s search for authenticity, true self, reality, his mother/father – ultimately he has to confront what he DOES in his quest to find them or himself. And what he does, so far, is to shatter lives. What’s interesting to me is that this show occurs in the heyday of existentialism. I grant you, we don’t see Sartrean nihilists stalking the screen here, but they are nihilists nonetheless.

    FRich @ NYTimes notes that this season occurs in the year that Kennedy is assassinated. It’ll be interesting to see whether and how the show deals with the milieu that gave birth to the hatred of Kennedy. I wonder whether the show hasn’t created too small a canvas and whether its portrait of intimacies and secrets revealed can’t sustain the weight of larger historical narratives. We shall see…

  19. To me, the daughter was breaking his suitcase because she didn’t want him to leave again — and she blamed his absence on mom, not on him. It doesn’t seem plausible that she’s just acting out at random because he’s a bad dad or something. And even assuming she’s already irrevocably scarred by things she doesn’t even realize are happening, we have a grand total of two “destroyed lives.” I’m just not convinced that your weirdly doctrinaire use of Kierkegaardian terms is a good frame for interpreting the show.

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