“I’m not here to tell you about Jesus”: Don Draper and the Death of God

In the first-season episode “The Hobo Code,” which in many ways is the most important of the series, Don Draper is selling Peggy’s copy to a reluctant client. He goes on the offensive, asking them to leave if they aren’t serious about changing their strategy, and along the way he makes an enigmatic statement: “Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus, either he lives in your heart or he doesn’t.” The pitch proves effective, and when Ken Cosgrove mentions how great “the Jesus thing” was (perhaps implicitly asking what it means), Don explains that “sometimes force is actually being requested.” I am probably not alone in finding this explanation, such as it is, less than helpful.

So what does the quote mean? Or better: What role does it play in the episode and the season? Two other threads in the episode could shed some light: Don’s flashbacks to a time when a hobo visited his childhood home and the gathering of bohemians in the midst of which he has those flashbacks. In Why We Love Sociopaths, I argue that the hobo essentially provides the young Dick Whitman with his life philosophy of unfettered freedom and that this is closely tied with the fact that the hobo reveals Dick’s father to be a dishonest man. If we reflect on this crucial scene’s relationship to the enigmatic quote, it becomes clear that the hobo is not entirely unlike Jesus — like the Son of Man, he has no place to lay his head, and he speaks to Dick indirectly via the “hobo code,” which is not entirely unlike Jesus’ preferred method of speaking in parables. The hobo also plays a salvific role in Dick’s life, but it is not the traditional Christian one: he saves Dick by “revealing the Father,” but revealing him to be corrupt and impotent. His role is similar to that of Jesus in Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, who openly reveals the death of God that Judaism had attempted to cover over or disavow.

The bohemians had been associated with Judaism in the previous episode, which ends with the haunting song “Babylon.” As the party is winding down, Don reenacts Freud’s drama. The bohemian with whom Midge is in love begins lecturing Don on how his job invents lies to build a false system, and Don replies: “Well, I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.” Another bohemian is crushed, saying, “Aww man, why did you have to say that?” The death of God, even the malevolent God that the bohemians believe to be pulling the strings, is traumatic but freeing — as Don illustrates when the police come to the building and the bohemians warn him that he can’t leave the apartment. Don corrects them: “No, you can’t.” Don’s ability to assume multiple identities, his lack of principle, his indifference to keeping his hands clean, allows him freedom of movement while the bohemians are trapped.

Yet the Marrano theme that I pointed out yesterday is still operative. The hobo is a kind of negative Christ, who cannot lead Don to final salvation but only to “somewhere else.” Indeed, the hobo seems to give birth to a series of botched messiahs, as Don plays a similar role for Peggy by setting her free from the expectations of marriage and family through giving her a writing job — and immediately after she is promoted, she has her unanticipated child, giving birth to another orphan like Dick Whitman.

What does the quote mean, then? Jesus seems to represent change as such — the willingness to cast off one’s identity and try something new. Having Jesus in your heart means paradoxically to have nothing in your heart, to have a hole that cannot be filled, an irreducible distance that keeps you from getting “stuck” in social obligations or loyalties. Jesus living in your heart means recognizing that God is dead, that the universe is indifferent, that we are radically and vertiginously free — and therefore can never be saved.

6 thoughts on ““I’m not here to tell you about Jesus”: Don Draper and the Death of God

  1. In Zizek and Theology, you point out that one of the things that brings Zizek to engagement with Christian thought is the problem of perennial revolution; Zizek’s account up the that point gives him a way to think the throwing off of one symbolic regime for another, but what he wants from his engagement with Christianity is a way to think living *in* the death of the big Other, or something, rather than being doomed to a successive chain of new bosses whose primary value is that they aren’t the old boss. Just throwing this against the wall here to see if it sticks, but I wonder if Don’s Jesus-as-change-per-se is a recognition, in a way, of the death of God that in fact *staves off* the death of God, recognizing the lack of transcendent necessity only insofar as it allows Don to *swap out* master-signifiers, but still inexorably tied to a masculine subject position (the lack is still always experienced as lack)?

  2. I’m not entirely sure why, but I was reminded of Don’s speech about there being “no big lie” while watching this week’s episode, and was thinking that that speech might function as a key to Don’s character – just as the show isn’t about his redemption, it’s not really about a trauma narrative in which we will unlock some decisive fact about Don’s past which will explain, and so provide the path to cure, his pathologies. As you said in your last post, we already know Don’s “big lie,” and it turns out not to matter at all. I guess this explains the hostility to the flashbacks, which I didn’t really get: if people are expecting that these flashbacks reveal something vital, they’re going to be disappointed.

    I think you made a joke on Twitter a while back about Mad Men‘s critics writing think-pieces on “House‘s Gregory House problem”; but this really was House‘s problem, as the show kept trying to tell stories about House’s character development long after they ran out of ideas as to how to progress this. I thought the same problem was beginning to occur in Mad Men, but if the inadequacy of redemption narratives is the point of the show, that would make sense of a lot of this season and the last, I think.

  3. Don’s background definitely doesn’t “explain” his behavior. You’re right that that’s where House went wrong — he should have been just a brute fact, but they could never decide whether his injury had caused him to be an asshole or if he’d always been like that, etc. Don’s background just provides a background against which his (very) occasional genius moves stand out. It’s not what caused him, it’s what he escaped.

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