Every week for the sixth season of AMC's acclaimed series Mad Men, our roundtable of Eleanor Barkhorn (Sexes editor, TheAtlantic.com), Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for TheAtlantic.com's Entertainment and Sexes channels), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent) will discuss the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Barkhorn: Last week we asked whether Mad Men could ever address race as well as it has tackled gender. This week's episode gave us more fodder to answer that question, and I don't know about you two, but to me the answer continues to be a resounding NO.
News of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination burst into the New York Ad Club's awards gala, stopping the festivities before they even began. This seems like a good metaphor for race in the show itself: Ostensibly Mad Men is about advertising, but because of the era when the show's set, it's impossible to ignore the turmoil beyond Madison Avenue. News from the outside world keeps breaking up the party. (This is true of subjects other than race: Remember when the JFK assassination ruined Roger's daughter's wedding, or when Marilyn Monroe's death made Joan want to spend the day in bed?)
There was a wide and realistic range of responses from the white characters. Henry and Abe both saw the assassination as a turning point in their careers. Harry Crane only cared about how the news affected TV advertising. Joan gave Dawn an awkward hug. Peggy gave Phyllis a slightly less awkward hug. Michael's dad told him to go have sex. Lots of the characters turned to work for solace. Most interesting of all, Pete showed signs of empathy. After his own wife refused to let him come home, he acknowledged the personal tragedy in the event: "That man had a wife and four children," he reminds Harry, in perhaps the episode's most poignant piece of dialogue.
But the black characters remained, as ever, two-dimensional. At least last week's episode tried to take a look at Dawn's internal life. We saw her at dinner with her friend, discussing work and romantic frustrations. There was none of that this week. All the responses from the black characters were surface-level, merely hinted at: Dawn reporting for duty at work and asking to stay because, presumably, she felt safer and calmer in midtown than in the chaos of Harlem; Phyllis also coming into the office but then leaving as soon as Peggy sends her home; Bobby conversing with the black janitor at the movie theater.
Maybe the show's refusal to flesh out its black characters is in itself a commentary on the time: The show is about about the advertising industry in the '60s, which is dominated by white people. So maybe the show is presenting the era as white people would have experienced it. We're supposed to notice the absence of richly drawn black characters and be frustrated by it. Maybe. But if that's the case, it feels like a cop-out.
What do you guys think? Am I being unfair? Or just impatient? Do you have hope the show will get better at this?
Fetters: Well, they went there. Sort of.
Mostly I agree, Eleanor: The show isn't anywhere close to being as nuanced in its portrayal of race as it is in its portrayal of gender, at least at this point, in that the tellers of the story are all still white.
But that's been a consistent complaint from Mad Men viewers ever since it came on the air. It does retell history from a white perspective and sometimes, especially early on, a male perspective, largely because—like you said—the advertising industry at the time was mostly white and mostly male. Mad Men hasn't addressed race nearly as much as it's addressed gender at this point, and maybe if we continue to see more of the civil-rights movement (and, importantly, more of the black characters' outside-of-work lives) incorporated into the rest of this season, we'll want to evaluate later on.
I do have some hope, though. What I did like about this episode is that, even in its tiny way, it looked at civil rights the way the show so frequently (and so effectively) looks at feminism: as a phenomenon that even its supporters and beneficiaries interact with in vastly different ways. Peggy and Joan both seem compelled to give their condolences to their respective black secretaries as though a family member has died; Phyllis gratefully accepts Peggy's hug and her offer of the rest of the day off to grieve, while Dawn just seems weirded out and rejects both those same gestures of sympathy from Joan and Don, perhaps not wanting to encourage any sort of patronizing special treatment.
On the one hand, yes, it would have been nice to see more of Dawn's and Phyllis's private reactions. It would have been even nicer to see their stories unfold onscreen more prominently, and earlier on. But on the other hand, I like that Matthew Weiner didn't try to suddenly shift the focus to its existing, heretofore minor black characters in this episode just to show the response from more diverse parts of the community. I like that he stayed in the familiar, established (and yes, primarily white) world of SCDP where a majority of the show takes place, and used its usual cast to illustrate a well-intentioned-yet-sometimes-clueless-1968-white-person perspective on the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination. Those two awkward scenes with the secretaries exposed a big gap in cultural understanding, and Roger's remark to Don capitalized on that: "The man knew how to talk. I don't know why, but I thought that would save him. I thought it would solve the whole thing."