At least now we now know how we got from here: (spoiler alert) To here: So far, my take on race in Mad Men is that it’s enjoyable (read: not stressful) to watch the show deal with race in a mostly ancillary fashion—the black characters have been presented sparingly, underscoring just how insulated and out of touch with the times the Sterling Cooper mob is. Clearly this changed in episode three when Roger did the blackface bit. Now the show’s brain trust is weaving in race as a major theme, which goes along with the show’s progression—tracking societal change via the people least prepared for it. But as I’ve argued, that presents Mad Men with a greater responsibility to get it right. There’s a lot to unpack in the elevator scene. I think they got it right this week—but just barely. It was a great scene, but almost too poetic. My first reaction was that it didn’t ring completely true—too much dialogue between guys who never dialogue. But after watching it a few times, I got the sense that Pete is just the sort of habitual line-stepper to corner the black elevator operator to ask him an unsophisticated, yet still probing question about the shopping preferences of “Negroes.” So, O.K. If you look at the scene as sort of a mini, one-act “I’m Not Rappaport,” then it gets the job done, particularly considering Pete’s ad world ambition (“Atlanta, Oakland, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, D.C….Is it possible that Negroes are outbuying other people 2 to 1?”). With the backdrop of the Medgar Evers’ murder already established, Hollis’ cautious, intrigued reaction to Pete’s voir dire makes more sense. LaMonde Byrd should get an Emmy for his facial expressions. But my only problem is when Pete asks Hollis why he doesn’t watch TV and Hollis responds, “Why should I—we’ve got bigger problems to worry about than TV, O.K.? Indeed. But since he had just told Pete that he didn’t want to get into trouble for speaking freely with one of his white elevator patrons, even with Medgar Evers on his mind, were his buttons pushed enough to let loose like that? I don’t know. This deserves some input from someone who lived through that era. So far, they’ve done an impressive job with race issues, but now that they’re biting off a bigger chunk, we’ll just have to keep watching to see if what they come up with is authentic or forced. In any case, the subsequent scene where Pete tries out his “research” on the guys from Admiral TVs is instructive. He presents his alternative strategy for boosting sales: “This…is Ebony. By Negroes, for Negroes.” True enough, but when he goes to his “integrate it” pitch, not only is it too much for the Admiral brass, but it seems a bit out of character. He’s pushing an ad campaign, not politics (not intentionally, anyway)—the political statement behind his words feels a tad contrived. That said, Pete loses his battle, but clearly folks like him won the war over time. If you listen to urban radio or watch the CW, you know that African Americans are mercilessly targeted by advertisers and that Pete Campbell’s legacy is alive and well: Ba da da da da… Mad Men… ”I’m lovin’ it”… —DAVID SWERDLICK
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.