Missing Persons: Matthew Weiner and the Black Faces of “Mad Men”

In “The Fog,” an episode in the third season of Mad Men, Betty Draper processes the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers as an ether dream during the birth of her third child. If you’ll recall, that’s the episode where Roger Sterling sarcastically calls Pete Campbell Martin Luther King for attempting to market Pioneer televisions to black consumers. It’s also the episode where Pete has an unexpected heart-to-heart with elevator operator Hollis (played by La Monde Byrd) while pumping him for information on Negro buying habits. It was Byrd’s sixth episode of the show since Season One, and by far his largest amount of screen time and dialogue. It was also his last.

As Mad Men ends its esteemed run this Sunday it will have achieved an eight-year, 92-episode chronicle of America in the 1960s, as seen through the ups and downs of a New York ad agency and its haunted, duplicitous center, Don Draper. The show sustained a remarkable run of quality and consistency over its course, much of that due to Weiner’s exacting influence over everything from the scripts to the costumes to the ashtrays and the phones. The result was a show unlike any other before or since–stylish yet always substantive, austere yet often surreal, nostalgic yet unforgiving. But now, at the end, we see that for as comprehensive as Weiner’s narrative vision was, the story of black America–or even a single black American–in that tumultuous decade was not a part of it. And what few black characters the show presented over the years often fell into similar patterns–peripheral, without agency, and always through someone else’s eyes.

Take the first scene of the first episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Don Cherry’s “Band of Gold” plays in a Rat Pack bar and a handsome man in a gray flannel suit (who is white) talks up a waiter (who is black) about his affinity for Old Gold cigarettes. The head waiter approaches and tries to shoo away the black waiter, assuming that he is unwelcome. The white man confirms that they are indeed having a real conversation, and then sympathizes with the black man that he works in such conditions. He makes a good impression on us, the audience. The waiter is never seen again.

This is our introduction to Don Draper and the world of Mad Men, where de facto segregation in Northern cities is still very much alive and well, but where the wheels of change have already begun to spin. As the episode brings us into the confines of the Sterling Cooper  advertising agency, we get a strong taste of this fortress of white male entitlement, and we meet the marginalized at the gate who will slowly but surely invade: art director Sal Romano, projecting charm from deep within the closet, and whose life will collapse a few years before Stonewall; Rachel Menken, the new client, female and Jewish, whose relationship with Don will challenge his prejudices toward both; and of course, Peggy Olson, the future. These are types, be they archetypes or stereotypes, but more importantly they are characters, with dynamics and agency and narrative movement for which they are able to achieve–as are the hard-drinking bosses (Don and Roger Sterling) and callow young men (Pete Campbell, Kinsey, Ken, and Harry) whom their struggles are set against.

And possibly even more important than that, all of these characters have a place within the business of advertising, even when their place and prominence may strictly be anachronistic. The truth is that the advertising world in the 21st century remains a mostly white, mostly male affair–and like the show’s manor-born likes of Roger and Pete, still very much a business of rich WASPs selling to other rich WASPs. But those depressing truths have only made the show’s trailblazers all the more captivating, and their successes all the sweeter. We love Peggy Olson not because she’s a collection of second-wave feminist talking points, but because she’s as brilliant, arrogant, and uncontainable as any of the great men in her orbit. Likewise for Joan Harris (nee Halloway), who began the show as Sterling Cooper’s secretarial queen bee, sleeping with the boss and doling about catty remarks, but has leveraged her expertise (and a whole lot more) into a partnership and millions of dollars. She’s attained the wealth and status she was originally seeking from a marriage, and yet to the world beyond the walls of Sterling Cooper & Partners (such as the pigs at McCann-Erikson) she’s just another pair of tits. They’ve had losses. They have wants and desperations. Their business successes, atypical though they might have been in this era, feel specific and earned because the show has built them as characters. That’s a show’s job. That’s what it should be doing for everything it considers important, and indeed it does–which is what marks the negligence of its black characters as not sloppy, but intentional.

Other than the aforementioned Hollis and Medgar Evers, the bulk of Mad Men’s speaking roles of color have gone to women, and those women are almost invariably secretaries or domestic staff. Chief among them would be Deborah Lacey as Carla, the Draper’s housekeeper from the end of Season One to Season Four, and Teyonah Parris as Dawn, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s first black secretary, hired at the start of Season Five and still on staff as the show draws to a close. One of the show’s constant weaknesses was finding compelling storylines for the world outside of the agency, even in the best seasons. While Kiernan Shipka and Allison Brie both bloomed in initially small roles (as Sally Draper and Trudy Campbell, respectively), much of the time spent not working on accounts was spent on Betty’s perpetual unhappiness or Megan’s stagnant acting career. Carla was often tasked with being little more than someone whom Betty was allowed to be awful toward, and her feelings at any given moment were only often expressed in side-glances and regretful looks behind Betty’s back. The closest thing to a modicum of agency she was ever allowed was standing up to Betty’s father senile Gene in Season Three, as he repeatedly called her by his own black maid’s name. “White people not being able to tell black people apart” would go on to be a curious runner for the show, as in Season Six, when Dawn and fellow secretary Shirley would jokingly call each other by each other’s names.

Unfortunately, such commentary too often stood in place for character developement, especially for Dawn, who could have been much more than simply a mirror to the white characters’ prejudices, but was not. Season Six’s “The Flood” provides the most unintentionally apt image of her character’s function, as she arrives to work the day after Dr. King’s assassination. Don and the other characters have been afraid for her safety, living as she does in a Harlem that has erupted into violence, and when she comes to work they try to send her home. She insists on staying and working, however, and Joan wraps her in an obviously unwanted hug and apologizes for her loss. How she actually spent her night, or her personal thoughts on the event, are immaterial to the characters around her. And while that is a valid, if insensitive, response for the characters–we can’t help but interpret great events selfishly–the show itself is not doing anything to correct it. In that moment, Dawn becomes a totem, meant above all to bestow some meaning or other to the white characters around her, barely better than Kinsey and Lane’s one-and-done black girlfriends in Seasons Two and Four.

And as for black men, the most dynamic one to appear on the show after Hollis was the mugger who indirectly facilitates Roger and Joan’s child. Chew on that one for a while.

So Matthew Weiner is not interested in writing about the black experience, or even attempting to craft a compelling character of color. This much is clear, and the possible reasons why are ultimately immaterial. The question for us is, was he ever obligated to do so? Though Mad Men is a historical show and has clearly put incredible effort into its verisimilitude, it is not in fact a textbook, and Weiner, creator and meddling god of this world, is not a reporter. He should have been free to chase his muse as he sees fit, as is our right as narrative artists. His work ought to be judged upon the stories he told, rather than the stories not told. We should follow the road paved, rather than dream about where it might have gone.

But at the same time…there’s a wonderful moment in the Season Two episode “The Jet Set.” Sal has been nursing an episode-long crush on Ken Cosgrove, but it comes to a crashing halt when young copywriter Kurt casually announces in the break room that he is homosexual, then leaves the room as if nothing unusual just happened. As the other men in the room trade disgusting quips (Ken to Pete: “Kurt’s a homo!”; Harry: “I wonder which bathroom he uses”) the camera lingers on Sal as ten thousand feelings pass across Bryan Batt’s eyes: shock and pain and envy that Kurt could be so cavalier about something that haunts Sal so thoroughly; disappointment and offense and sadness that Ken, the boy who seemed so sensitive and understanding, was at the end of the day just another bigot. Sal’s tragedy is that he was born too early to ever live his own life. We know that because of the course of history, but we also know it because the show had built him that way over the previous season and a half. It gave us opportunities to know Sal and to love him. The show loved Peggy and Joan, and so did we. Don Draper can fall and rise and fall again because we love him, at least enough to hope for a final note of grace in this last episode (even if it comes at his death). Matthew Weiner afforded us no opportunity to either know or love the black men and women of Mad Men, and that substantial failure must be considered in the show’s legacy alongside its many substantial achievements.

 

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