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Is ‘Mad Men’ Finally Poised To Tackle Race?

AMC’s “Mad Men,” which returned last night with a two-hour premiere, is a show with a relatively small audience, but a disproportionately active one. Sometimes it feels that 99% of that viewership consists of media professionals who look forward to writing their own recaps and tweets the next morning — not to mention designing animated .gifs of the funniest scenes of the previous night’s episode. Remix videographer Elisa Kreisinger has taken the playing to a new, thought-provoking level, creating detailed remixes of scenes from the show’s seasons, including this feminist musical rendering of the women of “Mad Men”:

Mad Men: Set Me Free from popculturepirate on Vimeo.

“Mad Men” is tailor-made for the chattering classes because creator (and Member of the Tribe) Matthew Weiner uses enigmatic moments, historical events and symbolism to create buzz and speculation. Unlike other media-darling shows like “Friday Night Lights,” which is less polished, but whose characters feel like solid, lovable friends, “Mad Men” characters always feel as though they’re just millimeters beyond my grasp. I think I know what they’re up to but I’m uncertain enough that I have to check with my neighbors to confirm my reactions.

As much as it strives for historical accuracy, the show also uses its characters to represent the struggle for the social pecking order. Old WASPs, younger WASPS with energy, women, outsider Jews, and a self-invented would-be alpha males like Don Draper all compete for their place in that order, as the violent social upheaval of the 1960s whirls around them. We know most of these old-school Mad Men are eventually going to be pushed aside, but when and how and with how much dignity intact?

Based on last night’s premiere, the role of race in that coming upheaval appears to be heading to the forefront of the show’s agenda. The episode was bookended by moments that highlighted racial tensions and the rise of civil rights. First we saw a rival advertiser’s cruel and racist prank directed at African-American protesters. Young ad executives water-bombed marchers in the streets below, in a scene taken from a real-life incident. They were later confronted by those marchers — and a newspaperman — in their office’s reception area. Looking for a laugh, Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce put an advertisement in the paper declaring itself “equal opportunity” to screw with those rivals heads. But at the episode’s end, black job applicants actually showed up, their quiet presence confronting our characters in their own reception area. Now the firm looks poised to cynically accept integration and hire a black secretary.

It’s about time. While I acknowledge that Weiner’s past omission of significant black characters is a direct (and accurate) commentary on the segregated, isolated world his show depicts, after several seasons I grew frustrated with a lack of interiority when he did introduce the rare character of color. This wouldn’t have been impossible to do right. His Jewish characters who came in and out of the picture, for instance, such as Season One fan favorite Rachel Menken, were peripheral to the Sterling Cooper world. But they were crucially allowed to have their own scenes — witness Rachel talking on the phone with her sister, who (rightly) declares that Don is a no-goodnik.

Why not allow the Drapers’ former nanny and housekeeper, Carla, a phone call with her sister? Why not allow one of the few black love interests — Paul Kinsey’s girlfriend, Sheila, and Lane Pryce’s “chocolate bunny,” Toni — their own asides with colleagues or friends, their own chances to reflect on the action? If race does indeed become a major theme this season, I hope it’s not just symbolic as it was in this first episode, but also on the character level.

As for gender, the show’s big moves in the premiere were the introduction into the kinky inner workings of Don’s now year-old marriage to Megan, formerly his secretary, now a junior copywriter and owner of a swinging ’60s pad, and the re-introduction of zaftig office manager Joan as a new mom struggling with social expectations to stay at home — and her own desire to get back to work.

The women-at-work storylines resonate strongly for me. I sympathize with copywriter and career girl Peggy for having to be the boss of her own boss’s wife (a peril of office relationships that often hurts women like Peggy the most); Megan for her own awkward position, and Joan for her postpartum paranoia that the firm will replace her with someone new.

As for Megan’s now-infamous “sexy French burlesque” at the party she misguidedly throws for Don, and their subsequent power struggle–makeup sex, these plotlines struck me as less compelling than the workplace dynamics: The show can sometimes be guilty of fetishizing Don’s desirability and dominance, even as it seeks to undercut it.

Still, count me as intrigued and ready for next week’s episode, as I almost always am. What did you think of the premiere, dear Sisterhood readers?

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