Will Mad Men Ever Be as Good on Race as It Is on Gender?

Our roundtable discusses the third episode of the sixth season.
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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.

Fetters: Well, thank goodness we finally got some Joan up in here. I think we were due for some quality Joan time.

This lighter third episode of Mad Men Season 6 found the queen of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce doing what she does best: Acting as the much-needed adult in the room when things fall apart at the agency.

Lately, SCDP has factionalized and splintered off into different directions: Ken and Harry go rogue on a side project with Dow Chemical while Don and Stan are getting high in a closet while collaborating on their own secret "Project K" bid for Heinz (much to Michael Ginsberg's chagrin); the assistants are playing hooky, and the old chain of command is lying in ruins, as it's suddenly unclear who exactly can or can't fire a secretary on the SCDP premises. Petty, squabbling Harry can't seem to untangle his reaction to Scarlett's termination from his jealousy at Joan's partnership in the company, and consequently vintage Joan—the tight-ship, shit-together Joan of yester-season—returns to try to restore order in the office.

The mass immaturity continues on in Joan's after-work life, when her wide-eyed out-of-town friend drags her first to a teenybopperish soda fountain where the kids can flirt between tables over the telephone and then to a lava lamp-y makeout lounge that's queasily reminiscent of the back room of a junior-high dance. At the end of her long day, Joan does (regally!) indulge an eager new friend in some four-to-a-couch, dorm-room-style heavy petting, but Joan's potentially happy ending actually comes the next morning. Hung over and humbled, Kate confesses to Joan that she's in awe of her independence and success in the city.

"You're an executive," she reminds Joan.

"It's a title," Joan replies. "I've been there for 15 years and they still treat me like a secretary." But it seems Joan realizes in saying it that she deserves better from her colleagues at the agency, and as Kate puts it, it's "right in front of [her] for the taking."

We've seen Joan come to terms with her own career ambitions a few times in the series—first, memorably, in Season 2 when Harry entrusted her with a script-reading duty that she loved, and then he took it away. It's sad that now Harry's the one out to taint her rise to partner status by spitefully reminding the entire boardroom what its conditions were ("at least my accomplishments are in broad daylight!").

Meanwhile, at the Drapers': Don continues to be the worst, and relations between him and Megan are getting even murkier and weirder. That on-eggshells scene where Megan breaks the news to Don about her love scene with Rod had so much subtle subtext it kind of made my head hurt: Upon hearing the news, Don's first reaction is, "I don't care, Megan." Seeing that that clearly isn't the one she wants, he asks her, "What do you want me to say?"

As Megan throws out some sample responses, Don's sarcasm ("I can't wait to hear what I say next") distracts from the fact that he actually does adopt the attitude she assigns him—that he won't support her onscreen romance, but he can tolerate it—to appease her. Does Don really care that his wife is about to make out with another guy? An adulterer himself, he doesn't exactly have a right to, and it doesn't appear that he does—and yet he elects to make his first-ever visit to the set of Megan's soap opera on the very day she films the scene.

Don is flippant and detached at a moment when he should be showing a little possessive concern, yet he's suffocating when his wife wants space. Nasty guy, Don Draper, and that's without even mentioning that he's also still sleeping with the lady downstairs.

Elsewhere in the Mad Men universe this week, both Peggy's and Don's equally Don Draper-esque Heinz ketchup pitches got rejected, the Stan-and-Peggy friendship has seemingly come to a screeching, bird-flipping (and fabulously .GIF-able) halt, and, subtly but perhaps most importantly, Mad Men made another one of its tentative scratches at the race issues of the 1960s when Dawn voiced her frustration that, when it comes to her white bosses and colleagues, "All they see is Yes-suh."

Tell us your thoughts, Eleanor: It's 1968 now, the year of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination—is race going to become a thing on Mad Men the way gender is a thing on Mad Men? And can Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce get its act together, or is this the beginning of the end?

Barkhorn: That's a good question re: race. Given the timing of the show, it seems obvious that race relations will become an increasingly large part of the story. So far, though, Mad Men doesn't seem to be taking on the issue with anywhere near the complexity and nuance as it has with gender. The black secretary who just wants to work hard and feels some resentment toward her friend who's getting married is hardly a revolutionary character type. The fact that Dawn's able to keep her job later in the episode because Pete's afraid of firing a black employee also felt frustratingly predictable.

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