Race has always hovered around the edges of the storytelling in Mad Men, though the racial politics of the sixties have usually served to illustrate characters’ personalities, rather than driving the storytelling. When Pete Campbell notes the emergence of a distinct black market, it’s an illustration of his sharpness as an advertising executive, and his inability to push the insight forward through conversations with the office building’s elevator operator serves as a reminder of his social deficits. Paul Kinsey’s decision to go on a Civil Rights organizing trip with his girlfriend is more about demonstrating his desire to simultaneously ingratiate himself and prove he’s on the cutting edge than about him actually having particularly evolved racial attitudes. Lane Pryce’s dalliance with an African-American Playboy Bunny was an act of fairly childish rebellion against his father, as much as his wife. And Peggy’s willingness to take Dawn, her replacement as Don’s secretary, home for the night, only then to worry that the more junior woman might steal from her, is an illustration of the struggle between her desire to be kind and her self-interest.
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s been actively resistant to the idea that he has to tell stories about the Civil Rights movement on the show in the past, even though he’s obviously made a choice to depict a segment of Madison Avenue that’s whiter and more male than the industry was overall. So Sunday’s episode of the show, in which we both learn more about Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris), Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s first African-American employee, and see racial and gender strife come to the firm not through a racial incident but through the kind of petty office politics that have driven so much of the show’s drama for the past five years, feels both like a response to long-running criticism of the show and a rebuke to the critics, Weiner showing us that his show would get to a key subject in what he determined to be good time, and in his own way.
What Weiner decided to do was make Dawn’s race a factor in a conflict that was simultaneously larger and smaller. While Dawn wasn’t willing to skip out on work to help Scarlett (who must be named for Miss O’Hara, in a great nod to pop culture’s influence even on these pop cultural characters), she did agree to punch her fellow secretary’s time card. When Joan found out, she fired Scarlett for effectively stealing wages from the company, setting up a confrontation between her and Harry, who resents that Joan is a partner, while Harry’s work on television hasn’t earned him the same thing—”It’s a shame my accomplishments happen in broad daylight,” he spits at her in public, ignoring that what earned the partners that title was sacrifice and investment, not personal accomplishment—and bringing up the question of Dawn’s race as one factor, along with her lower level of complicity in Scarlett’s offense, in the decision about whether to fire her.