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.

While the show's exploration of race is still pretty superficial, its treatment of gender was as good as ever in this episode, I thought. I loved watching Joan's dynamic with her friend: The alternating strains of admiration, competitiveness, appreciation, resentment, even sexual tension felt very true to life. And the show gave us a little glimpse of where Joan's competitiveness with other women comes from. That moment when Joan's mom hijacks Joan's dinner plans so she can be included demonstrates that this trait runs in the family. (Though it was nice to see Joan's mom bragging about Joan's accomplishments later in the episode—clearly there's kindness in the family as well.)

I also loved watching the volatility of Don and Megan's relationship: their tense conversation about the love scene; their befuddled, amused reaction to being propositioned by Megan's boss; their fight in Megan's dressing room and her devastating line, "I'm sick of tiptoeing around you every time something good happens to me." This couple is clearly capable of being tender with each other from time to time, but the ugly stuff is getting more and more dominant. It'll be fascinating to see how it all blows up, as I'm sure it will.

Another thing that struck me about this episode was its sly humor. I smirked when I heard the Heinz rep talk about "the prestige that comes with ketchup." The condiment has clearly lost some of its panache since 1968, and it's hard to imagine today's ad men and women launching a secret mission to secure a ketchup account the way SCDP did this week. Another laugh at the expense of the '60s came later, during the pitch scene for the Joe Namath TV special. "Yankee Doodle and the Notre Dame fight song playing at the same time" sounds like a throwaway line from 30 Rock rather than an earnest attempt to make the American people smile.

The show also offered some humor at its own expense. We got to see the set of Megan's soap opera for the first time, and the scene that played out—married man seduces his maid because he feels unappreciated by his family—could have almost been a plotline from Mad Men itself. Some critics have dismissed Mad Men as an overhyped soap opera, so this part of the show seemed to be Matthew Weiner's way of saying, "I hear your criticisms, and I'm laughing them off."

Amy, what stood out to you about the episode? Considering your career of writing about religion, I'm particularly interested in your thoughts on Don and Sylvia's conversation about prayer.

Sullivan: Oh, Don. He is maddeningly hypocritical, laying into Megan for play-acting a scene he engages in for real with their downstairs neighbor as soon as he leaves her. And yet. When Sylvia told him she prays that he finds peace, she cut right through to whatever soul is inside that Grinchy little heart of Don Draper's. It was all the more effective for being unexpected (by him).

Don first asks Sylvia to take off her cross necklace while they make love because he's reminded that she believes in a moral and religious code that they're breaking. And then he tries to taunt her, asking if she prays for absolution each time he leaves. It's a typical Don way to try to ramp up the illicit factor of a liaison. "I pray for you to find peace" takes them back to real life and Jon Hamm's face was perfect as he closed his eyes for Don to register one of those rare moments in which he is seen for who he is.

And then he still turns Sylvia's necklace around so he can't see the cross. We haven't seen anyone other than Peggy attend church on this show, and I doubt Don Draper has some hidden spiritual life. But I suspect this is not the last we'll hear about Sylvia's faith.

Meanwhile, o ye of little faith, Ashley! I think (and hope) that Stan and Peggy's friendship will be just fine, although he'll undoubtedly be a little more careful about what he tells her going forward. I actually was very worried that Stan would ignore Peggy entirely when he passed by her in the bar, but I was relieved to see him flip her off. That seemed playfully appropriate—he's pissed and she knows it (Peggy did send him a rueful look across the bar), but ultimately they're cool.

At least I think that's what was going on. Honestly, it's nearly impossible to read any facial expressions on Stan with that mess of a bushy beard and mustache covering everything. And here I have to register a slight complaint. In my take on the season premiere, I incorrectly assumed the show had moved much further ahead in time, in large part because of the dramatic change in fashions. Don't get me wrong—I'm loving the general grooviness and the way it makes our Don and Joan, in particular, stand out with their fashionable but restrained style.

But really? Seven, eight months and all of a sudden Stan is wearing suede fringe jackets to work and his face has been taken over by Bigfoot? Ginsburg has a godawful mustache and appears to have exchanged his entire wardrobe? Roger is wearing man booties?? (And don't even get me started on Harry Crane.) It's just too much.

A few random notes in a basket of kisses:

  • I'm glad Ashley mentioned that first tense discussion between Megan and Don, and the fact that he once again uttered one of his favorite lines: "What do you want me to say?" It's so revealing that he always just wants to say whatever will get him out of an uncomfortable situation. I just want Megan to yell at him: "Say what you're thinking! And if you're not thinking anything, then tell me that, because that's something I need to know!"

  • Joan must be relieved that she saved her money on dinner at Le Cirque, when all her friend really wanted was to be picked up by a dude at a soda fountain. I do hope this is a turning point for her at the office, though, when she takes her friend's advice: "What does it have to do with them? I don't care how they make you feel. It's right in front of you for the taking." True and true. I also couldn't help thinking that one of Peggy's lines in that great pitch meeting could speak to Joan as well: "If you don't like what they're saying, change the conversation."

  • And Pegs. I was concerned after last week that the show rushed past showing us how kick-ass Peggy is in her new job and went straight to a less interesting drama about her underlings making fun of her. So it was nice to see her come through with a killer pitch this week. Did I imagine a slightly proud smile on Don's face when he saw her in the hallway and then listened through the door? Possibly. I don't care. I love those two.