Mad Men cau­tiously ad­dress­ing race

Se­ries’ lone black char­ac­ter fi­nally gets shades of grey

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By He­lena An­drews

SINCE Mad Men pre­miered in 2007, the show’s di­ver­sity (or lack thereof) has been an on­go­ing, real-life sub­plot to the se­ries’ suc­cess. For a show set against the racially charged back­drop of the 1960s, crit­ics say, the ab­sence of sig­nif­i­cant black char­ac­ters isn’t just an over­sight; it’s in­ac­cu­rate.

But last week — af­ter five sea­sons — the show fi­nally fig­ured how to in­te­grate with­out be­ing in­gra­ti­at­ing.

In the episode “To Have and to Hold,” sec­re­tary Dawn Cham­bers, the only African Amer­i­can em­ployed at the sto­ried ad firm Ster­ling Cooper Draper Pryce, ac­tu­ally had more to say than “Good morn­ing, Mr. Draper.” And all it took was din­ner.

Dawn (played by Teyonah Par­ris) isn’t a rev­o­lu­tion­ary. She’s quiet, sweet and sin­cere to the point of goody-twoshoe-dom. Un­like Don’s other sec­re­taries — Peggy, who be­came his pro­tegé, and Me­gan, who be­came his sec­ond wife — Dawn seem­ingly has no big­ger as­pi­ra­tions than do­ing her job so well she gets to keep it.

“What am I gonna do? Throw a brick through their win­dow?” asks Dawn once she fi­nally gets the op­por­tu­nity to vent some of her frus­tra­tions to some­one who looks like her, some­one who might ac­tu­ally un­der­stand — a friend whose wed­ding Dawn is in.

Up un­til now the se­ries has given Dawn lit­tle to do be­sides as­suage the con­cerns of the com­pany brass, par­al­lel­ing re­al­ity rather ob­vi­ously. She ar­rived dur­ing the hit drama’s fifth sea­son, af­ter an­swer­ing an “equal op­por­tu­nity” ad that was only placed as a pub­lic­ity stunt meant to show up a ri­val firm. But Dawn stayed.

From Carla the maid to Toni the Play­boy Bunny, black fe­male char­ac­ters on Mad Men haven’t been the most vo­cal bunch. Of­ten they’re sur­rounded on all sides, con­sumed by other peo­ple’s prob­lems in­stead of their own. This has been the case for Dawn.

In the only other episode fea­tur- ing a Dawn-spe­cific sto­ry­line — last sea­son’s “Mys­tery Date” — Dawn and her pre­de­ces­sor, Peggy, have an im­promptu sleep­over that re­sults in new rev­e­la­tions about Peggy and none about Dawn.

Dis­cov­er­ing Dawn asleep on her boss’s couch be­cause she’s too afraid to ride the late train to Har­lem af­ter ri­ot­ing in Cleve­land, Peggy in­vites Dawn to her apart­ment. They have a few beers and awkward con­ver­sa­tion about women’s lib ver­sus civil rights. In an at­tempt to con­nect with Dawn, Peggy un­der­scores their dif­fer­ences.

“I know we’re not re­ally in the same sit­u­a­tion,” Peggy tells Dawn, “but I was the only one like me there for a long time. I know it’s hard.” Dawn is de­mure here, nei­ther agree­ing nor ar­gu­ing. And when Peggy of­fers to help Dawn be­come a copy­writer, Dawn po­litely re­buffs her. She’s fine just where she is. Peggy and Dawn are sep­a­rated by more than just the ti­tles on their desks.

Later there’s a sit­u­a­tion with a purse. Peggy’s purse, packed with cash she got tak­ing on some­one else’s work, lays open on the cof­fee ta­ble in the liv­ing room in which Dawn is sleep­ing. There’s an un­com­fort­able beat be­fore Peggy re­tires to her bed­room, leav­ing Dawn and the purse un­su­per­vised. Should Peggy grab her purse be­fore go­ing to bed? Will she look prej­u­diced if she does?

In the end, Peggy leaves the purse where it is, but that silent pause said a lot. Peggy had a flash of prej­u­dice and then rec­og­niz­ing it, forced her­self to leave the purse so she wouldn’t be per­ceived as prej­u­diced — as if Dawn her­self didn’t no­tice. Dawn says noth­ing, but the next morn­ing she slips out be­fore Peggy, leav­ing a curt thank-you note in her wake.

Dawn’s in a sticky sit­u­a­tion. As the only black woman in a white, male­dom­i­nated busi­ness, she’s has had nowhere to re­al­is­ti­cally vent, and thus re­mained, since last sea­son, a shadow of a char­ac­ter. That is, un­til last week.

“I get on the train, and it just gets thin­ner and thin­ner till about 72nd. Some­times it’s just me and this old shoe shine, and even he won’t look at me,” laments Dawn in last week’s episode, when the friend who’s get­ting mar­ried won­ders why Dawn can’t meet some­one nice down­town.

Dur­ing their brief scene — two women meet­ing at a diner as any­one who has to eat and catch up with a friend would — we learn more about Dawn than we have in most of her other screen time com­bined. She’s sin­gle and look­ing, and she knows full well she’ll never meet any­one at work. She feels iso­lated. Dawn’s is­sues sound strangely fa­mil­iar.

Later, back at the of­fice, an­other sec­re­tary sweet-talks Dawn into punch­ing her time card for her. Of course, om­nipo­tent mega-sec­re­tary/ newly minted part­ner Joan dis­cov­ers the de­cep­tion and sum­mar­ily fires the time-steal­ing sec­re­tary. Dawn worries she might be next.

“I told you those girls aren’t your friends,” Dawn’s real girl­friend ad­mon­ishes her later at the diner. It was a line that struck me like an echo­ing boomerang, a line that I’ve heard from my own “real” friends af­ter un­load­ing about of­fice pol­i­tics and in­trigue when I was “the only one” in a work­place. The truth is that cut­ting and iso­la­tion isn’t imag­ined. Those girls aren’t Dawn’s friends, no mat­ter how friendly they may act. And Dawn, though she doesn’t want to ad­mit it, knows it.

“Well, I don’t care if ev­ery­body hates me here, as long as you don’t,” Dawn tells Joan af­ter apol­o­giz­ing about the time card in­ci­dent.

It didn’t take much for Dawn’s char­ac­ter to fill out a bit. Just a meal with a friend. At the diner, pre­sum­ably in Har­lem, Dawn was able to re­veal more of her­self than we’ve seen so far. The cri­tique of her char­ac­ter has been that she’s too po­lite, too unas­sum­ing, too stereo­typ­i­cally meek. But per­haps that’s been the point. Dawn’s as­sumed that role for a rea­son, don­ning a mask as she heads south of 72nd Street and not re­mov­ing it un­til her shift is up and her time card is punched.

ALLEN J. SCH­ABEN / LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

Tay­onah Par­ris plays Don Draper’s sec­re­tary Dawn on Mad Men.

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