Mad Men, Episode 4.2: Everything New is Old Again

August 3, 2010
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Don, Joan, Pete, Peggy and Roger outside an office buildingAfter the exciting new sets, haircuts, fashions, and even a new, chastened, Don of the season opening, episode two shows us that it’s not so easy to escape the familiar grooves of custom and habit. Several of the story arcs show characters attempting and failing to break out of last season’s patterns, including Don’s return to form as the irresistible cynic. Freddy also returns (and why Freddy? I want Sal back!), a newly clean and sober freelancer but still mired in his hackneyed and old fashioned ideas. Sally has a new family but is trapped in her old house. Faye, the consumer researcher, tells Don, “Don’t worry… you’ll be married again in a year,” even though “Nobody wants to think they’re a type.” In the end, though, this episode felt like filler with the audience stuck waiting along with the characters for some kind of forward movement. While it may be important for character development, aimlessness does not make for exciting television.

When I was invited to contribute to the Mad Men commentary, my area was race and Mad Men. Obviously, it is not an easy assignment for this episode. This is a disappointment given the glimmers of hope last season, including Pete’s interest in targeting an African American consumer, the connections between Betty and her housekeeper Carla, and even Rodger’s agonizing blackface performance which brought issues of race up to the surface in Season 3. It’s a measure of my desperation that I still wish that Don had been more than tempted by the Asian female waitress who propositioned him in Season 2 (although given her dress and make up “Oriental girl” might be a more appropriate description). As far as I can recall, her scene is the only time someone Asian has spoken in the series. In this season so far, race appears to be almost entirely absent. Carla mostly functions as a symbol of Betty’s poor mothering, and civil rights was only mentioned as a way to separate the “bad” characters (Bert and the male consumer researcher who see civil rights as a step away from socialism) and the “good” ones (Faye who mocks them both).

I think that Mad Men gets it right so often, the period detail, great dialog, strong acting, and the complex ways it explores how masculinity came under fire in the 1960’s, so I want to give the show the benefit of the doubt when it comes to race. After all, the characters, like most people during the 1960’s, were largely untouched by the turmoil of civil rights. The current season occurs right in between the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration Act of 1965 which will fundamentally alter U.S. culture, but most people in the social and cultural class depicted in the show won’t feel the effects for years, if ever. And isn’t this the core of white privilege? It’s the luxury of ignoring race, of floating above the racial strife that surrounds them. What I wish, though, is that like the ennui of the characters in “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” the show could find a way to portray racial privilege without replicating its effects in its viewers.


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2 Responses to “ Mad Men, Episode 4.2: Everything New is Old Again ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on August 4, 2010 at 7:28 AM

    I really like what you say, here, LeiLani, about how the show frequently doesn’t depict non-whites, but does in the process find ways to depict white privilege. It’s a tenuous strategy, though, since they need to give enough brief interchanges between the characters and “race” (because of course the characters have the privilege of not needing to feel they even have a race), or else it’s simply an issue of non-depiction and of the writers avoiding the issue. Like you, I tend to want to give the show the benefit of the doubt, but I’ve probably been over-lenient in my expectations, and part of me says that it’s now Season 4 and it’s time they do more. The Wire‘s a nice model here, of a serial show that realized it didn’t need to do everything at once, but that successive seasons would be an option to start adding layers. I hope Mad Men adds more this season

  2. Allison Perlman on August 4, 2010 at 10:28 AM

    At least since the second season, I have felt that one of the more cynical aspects of Mad Men is its treatment of civil rights. With the exception of Paul’s African American girlfriend and southern sojourn, the show typically slips in references to civil rights, frequently to illustrate the indifferent or callous reactions of our characters — like Betty telling Carla, after the Birmingham church bombing, that perhaps now is not the time for fights for racial equality or Bert Cooper, in this past week’s episode, deriding both the Civil Rights Act and LBJ’s Great Society programs as socialism on the march. The dialogue never lingers long on these conversations, and they are presented as just one topic of many, substantially less important to our characters than office politics or gossip. They often feel included for the audience’s benefit, to signal to us where the show is in time or to remind us just how much the series departs from previous, celebratory depictions of the 1960s.

    I admit that the cynicism works for me, insofar as the show’s treatment of civil rights could not be more different than other popular depictions in which white characters unlearn their racism via their relationships with virtuous African American characters, ultimately linking arms in the fight for racial justice. But I agree that the show’s revisionism hinges exclusively on its white characters’ relationship to politics of the period, the people of color in the series often feeling like props to underscore the racial hierarchies and ugly sentiments of the era but not meaningful characters in their own right.