If you, like me, scroll down the list of recent pieces in this column and feel like (save for Wishbone) there's a lot of hellfire and end-of-the-world cropping up in my titles—well, you're right. I get emails at least weekly about upcoming movies that deal with the Rapture or the tribulation or other end-of-the-world judgments (just got another today, in fact), and of course there's the Nic Cage Left Behind reboot in two months.
Actually, I haven't seen much of anything made recently that isn't about the apocalypse: an impending one, or the world right after one. Last week, I saw Snowpiercer, which is about a train-bound post-apocalyptic dystopia. I also saw the upcoming The Congress, a bizarre film about a futuristic dystopia in which people ignore their circumstances by drugging up, in which reality has been replaced by something else entirely, in which people have brought their own apocalypse down on their own heads.
Of course, I'm watching The Leftovers, which has already experienced its apocalypse or is waiting for it, depending on how you read it. And there's tons more on TV and the movies: especially obvious ones, like The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games. I wrote about a bunch last summer. Everyone thinks of these as apocalyptic.
But there are less obvious ones, too.
Apocalyptic stories are not just ones in which a catastrophe brings the world to an end. They're more than that. In apocalyptic literature, one way of life is ending, but another one is beginning. The stories pull back the veil on what "seems" real to show what's going on underneath. The book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature for just that reason. In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith puts it this way:
Apocalyptic literature—the sort you find in the strange pages of Daniel and the book of Revelation—is a genre of Scripture that tries to get us to see (or see through) the empires that constitute our environment, in order to see them for what they really are. Unfortunately, we associate apocalyptic literature with end-times literature, as if its goal were a matter of prduction. But this is a misunderstanding of the biblical genre; the point of apocalyptic literature is not prediction but unmasking—unveiling the realities around us for what they really are. So apocalyptic literature is a genre that tries to get us to see the world on a slant and thus see through the spin.
In other words, though we often think of the genre as being about what "the end of the world" will be, it actually does something a little different. It shows us ways the world could end, or what the world could be like after it ends—and by "world," I don't mean everything, but rather a particular social order—and it does that in order to show us things about ourselves.
It's in that way, then, that I call a show like Mad Men apocalyptic. It's certainly about the end of a social order. The 1960s were undeniably apocalyptic, and certainly must have felt that way. The old social order was ending and a new one was beginning. But the show functions as apocalyptic because it reveals something about ourselves, or at least about the way that some people think about what humans are. (There will be plenty more on that early next year, when the show airs its final seven episodes.)
Similarly, I call The Americans apocalyptic; in that show, set during the Cold War, something is going to have to come to an end. It will be the Soviet Union or the United States. But nobody knows yet, and the way they react to the possibilities—the ways they configure their families, their societies, and themselves—suggests to us a great deal about how we, too, would do that.