What Happened on Mad Men
This Sunday, the critically acclaimed television series Mad Men will air its series finale. In the video above, Vox‘s culture editor Todd VanDerWerff attempts to explain what makes Mad Men so unique. One of the primary facets he points to is how the story is delivered. He states, “Artistically, it’s the idea that you don’t have to say everything. Everything can remain subtext.”
If you watch the series, you know that this statement is dead on. In fact, even show creator and head writer Matthew Weiner admits to this, saying:
Telling somebody what happened on Mad Men, you know, that’s like a sentence. How it happened is the part that people are like, “No, you don’t understand. Pete said, ‘I know who you are.’” And that’s all that happened. And then Cooper said, ‘Who cares?’ That’s not what it’s like watching that episode. You have a knot in your stomach, and it’s fifteen minutes.
If you have never seen it, the middle of that quote does little for you as it references unfamiliar characters and plot points. But that’s perfect because describing the plot of any episode will do little for you even if you’re a huge fan. Mad Men is very rarely about action. It’s about feel.
Despite this fact, it is incredibly engaging and can leave you with much to think about. It has a way of affecting you, and it makes you dig into the characters’ humanity and your own without explicitly hitting you over the head with the “moral of the story” or “the point.”
As we turn toward communicating in the context of communities of faith, there is a tendency to emphasize “the point.” Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When we are tasked with making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, clarity is important. We don’t want there to be any barriers to someone hearing about and receiving the good news of the Gospel.
Yet, what if there were a way to leave more room for the Holy Spirit to speak by us not saying so much? Every episode of Mad Men usually has a theme. So while they don’t explicitly say, “I hope you leave this episode thinking about integrity,” there is no doubt that you will reflect on this after you see Don Draper struggle (or not struggle) to compartmentalize three or four different identities throughout a single day.
Sometimes, when I sit down to write a sermon, I can feel it well before I can write it. I know what I am going after even if I can’t find the words. I will finish a draft and feel as though the goal was just outside of my grasp–I could get the tips of my fingers on it, but I couldn’t grab it and pull it closer. This usually has very little to do with whether or not I got the plot points of the Scripture’s narrative correct or whether I covered what the three commentaries said about Paul’s state of mind. As I reflect on what moves me during an episode of Mad Men, perhaps the issue is that I crammed in too much.
The best episodes are slow burns. There will be the occasional shocker episode, and you can always count on the season finales to shake things up a bit, but my favorites are ones where very little actually happens. Like a great night of tapas with someone who knows what to order, you find yourself eating little bits off lots of small plates, and, by the end, you have had an experience.
Do you pay attention to the arc of feelings in your sermon, lesson, or talk? How do you incorporate emotion without necessarily resorting to action? Are your messages so crammed with content that there is little room to experience what is being presented? Have you ever noticed that sometimes giving examples narrows how the hearers will interpret and apply what they have heard? What role does the Holy Spirit play in filling the space you embed?