The critical success of the show Mad Men, which has just returned for its third season, is probably due to how seductively easy it is to write about. Writers on deadline are ravenous scavengers and, when they run out of things to say about its pre-Beatles 60s setting, its slick period aesthetic or the New York advertising world where most of its characters are employed, they can – if suitably fortified – go on to talk about the themes of deception, identity, repression and moral instability that bob all over its deceptively calm waters.
The show is centred around twin protagonists. Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, is the creative head of a tony, but second-tier, Madison Avenue ad agency and, when we meet her, Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) is his new secretary. She quickly demonstrates the ability and ambition that takes her out of the secretarial pool and becomes a copywriter, an ambassador deputized to help explain the throngs of women who are increasingly becoming their target audience, while Don reveals himself to be very different from what he seems, beginning with his name, stolen from a fellow soldier killed alongside him in Korea.
Like any quality drama, Mad Men is stuffed with soap opera incident – infidelity, illegitimacy, suicide, dementia, alcoholism, financial ruin – but played with a stringently flat, affectless tone; another surefire recipe for critical raves. Now that you know why critics love it, you’re probably waiting for me to explain why I haven’t been able to miss an episode and regularly revisit it on DVD. I have a lot of reasons, but prime among them is Father Gill.
Played by Colin Hanks, Fr. Gill arrived early in the show’s second season and, ever since then, I’ve been worried for him. For anyone who watches too much TV, the arrival of a Catholic priest onscreen is the equivalent of a loaded gun – sooner or later, the gun is going to be fired and the priest, nine times out of 10, will either play a tedious role as an agent of intolerance and hypocrisy or he’ll betray his vow of celibacy. Both, if the writers are desperate for an Emmy.
To be sure, Hanks’ Fr. Gill took an immediate and insinuating interest in Peggy, asking her for help with his sermon and challenging her to put her professional skills to work on the poster for a Catholic Youth Organization dance. When, under the guise of confession, Peggy’s sister filled Fr. Gill in on one of season one’s big revelations – the child Peggy had after a one-night stand with Pete Campbell, one of her married colleagues at the agency – Gill took it upon himself to become her conscience, imploring her to seek forgiveness just as the Cuban Missile Crisis hit its two-minutes-to-midnight stage.
With lesser writers or actors or poorer direction, Fr. Gill would have come across like a scold, dispensing his counsel with a moral high hand. Instead, the scene between Peggy and Gill lets both of them have their dignity and the young priest might actually reappear in the third season without turning into a smutty gag older than the Reformation – the kinky cleric.
For the viewer, one of the show’s great dramatic undercurrents is implicit in its setting. The 50s began within a year or two of VJ Day and lasted pretty much until the Beatles landed at Idlewild Airport and, while most of the characters seem to bask in the long cultural interregnum between social upheavals, we all know what’s coming. Indeed, some of the show’s fans even hope that Mad Men gets cancelled before Don Draper is obliged to grow sideburns and wear Nehru jackets.
Among Fr. Gill’s better scenes is the almost wordless one that concludes an episode, where we see him in his austere little room, removing his coat and collar, then pulling a guitar from under his bed and launching into Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Early In The Morning.” It’s a premonition of Vatican II’s colloquial effect on the church; you can almost hear the burlap vestments and felt banners being sewn and you’ll forgive me if I betray a shudder.