‘Mad Men’ Addresses Its Negro Problem

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

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

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, male-dominated 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.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.