Last night, Mad Men might have taken its most eyebrow-raising cut so far on race relations.
Even though Carla (Deborah Lacey), Don and Betty’s African American housekeeper, had minimal dialogue, and even though references to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the murder of four black girls in Birmingham were deliberately oblique, the show managed to pack a lot in about the evolving black/white dynamic on the early ‘60s landscape.
I’m still convinced that the show is “better off taking a smaller cut at race issues and really nailing the way they portray black characters, as opposed to weaving in a major racial theme and risking either overdoing or underdoing the nuance”—and in this case, I think it succeeded with that sort-of “less is more” approach.
To recap: Henry, Betty’s would-be lover, shows up unannounced, and a simultaneously amorous but appearance-conscious Betty immediately remarks that they’ll forego any romance because “My girl is due back any minute.”
It’s a revealing comment. Though certainly commonplace for a housewife of the time and place to refer to her housekeeper as her “girl,” it has more meaning to us since we know that really, Betty is the woman-child and Carla is Betty’s de facto babysitter and erstwhile disapproving parent.
Which only increases the racial irony when, later on, Betty offers Carla her unsolicited commentary on civil rights: “Maybe it’s not supposed to happen right now.” The message—you run my household and keep my secrets, but equality might be out of the question. It’s not quite Kizzie (Leslie Uggams) and Missy Anne (Sandy Duncan) from Roots, but it’s getting there.
This leaves Carla experiencing jeopardy on multiple levels. She’s economically tethered to the Drapers, so any disintegration of their family unit can mean unemployment—kind of like black America’s tie to the broader American economy. If you really wanted to stretch the allegory, Carla and Betty’s relationship is the relationship between black and white America. Carla is Betty’s moral compass, but she has to take pains not to look like she wants to be Betty’s moral compass.
Slate’s Julia Turner points out that there’s an interesting juxtaposition of the perspective of the Northern, Westchester County housewives, who see Southern race violence as very, very far removed, and Carla, who’s an afterthought to them, even as she’s literally standing right there, serving them in a domestic capacity, while they discuss race relations at a Rockefeller fundraiser.
Mad Men’s pull, apart from its art direction, is it’s anthropological treatment of mid-century white mores—made more interesting as it airs during the tenure of America’s first black president.
The Drapers and Ossining should be able to see the evolution in society headed toward them, but they feel like it’s still really far away. There are a few progressive souls, like Sally’s teacher (Abigail Spencer) who says she plans to make “I Have a Dream” required reading on the first day of school. She’s forecasting change the same way she sees Don’s sexual advances coming. But just as she goes ahead and caves in to Don, anyway, she can see civil rights coming (she went to Bowdoin, after all), but it’s still far removed. At the end of the day, she’s not a freedom rider or even an inner city schoolteacher, she’s dancing around a maypole in the ‘burbs.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.