'Mad Men' Addresses Its Negro Problem

After five seasons featuring blacks in the background, the show gives a sister a real storyline.

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Teyonah Parris as Mad Men character Dawn Chambers (Michael Yarish/AMC)

(The Root) -- 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-two-shoe-dom. Unlike Don's other secretaries -- Peggy, who became his protégé, 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 as well.

In the only other episode featuring 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' 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.

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?

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM