I still remember the gasps at last year’s Mad Men Extravaganza, as season 5 opened with a group of Black protesters. Was America’s biggest movement— you know, The Civil Rights Movement— finally intersecting with Madison Avenue? Was even Roger Sterling going to have to accept he was no longer living in the roaring 20s of champagne and black face? The answer looked like a resounding yes when the 2-hour premiere ended with the SCDP lobby full of hopeful Black folks waiting to turn in their resume. It seemed that there might be a Black character in the show– not merely a muted helping brown hand who passively stood in the background– but a character who could gives us a glimpse into the not-so-white world of the late 60s.
Unfortunately, the heightened momentum of racial disruption ended as abruptly as it started. While episode 2 introduced us to Don’s new secretary, D-a-w-n, Dawn, unfortunately the most dynamic thing about her was that she shared her white boss’ name. Not only did they do Dawn wrong with a hideous wig, and frumpy wardrobe, she had about as many lines as the Drapers’ formal ‘girl,’ Carla, did, and her presence fell flat. Was this the fault of the actress? Probably not. She did what she could with the lines (and awful wardrobe)
I would continue by discussing other characters of color, but aside from the fabulously flamboyant guest at the “zou bisou” party, there weren’t any, which begs the question- why did season 5 begin with such a fantastic, forward-moving scene of marchers, but end just where it started? Was it to appease the critiques of ignoring race throughout seasons 1-4, or is he setting us up for something we just don’t get… yet?
Whether Matthew Weiner doesn’t know how to deal with race in his show, or he’s simply setting us up for a revolution on Madison Avenue, season 6 must have characters of color– and not just serving as background music. While season 5 was set in late 1966/ early 1967, we’re supposed to begin season 6 some time in the 70s. The 60s is often characterized by peaceful marches and sit-ins (though, it was more complex than this), but the 70s is dominated by a bolder approach to demanding freedom. As we enter the 70s, we must remember that the Civil Rights Movement has provided people of color with more rights and confidence, and the demands from groups like The Black Panther Party is very much present. James Brown is telling everyone he’s Black and he’s proud, and Black folks are movin’ on up with The Jeffersons. Blackness cannot be ignored, and outa sight afros are making sure that America knows that not only are we here, but we are Black and beautiful. In attempts to keep up with the times, Madison Avenue must be a lot more colorful than Megan’s psychadelic dresses, or Weiner’s attention to historical detail proves to be greatly flawed.