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 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 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. Unlike Don’s other secretaries – Peggy, who became his protege, 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, Peggy underscores their differences.
“I know we’re not really in the same situation,” Peggy tells Dawn, “but I was the only one like me there for a long time. I know it’s hard.” Dawn is demure here, neither agreeing nor arguing. When Peggy offers to help Dawn become a copywriter, Dawn politely rebuffs her. She’s fine just where she is.
Later, Peggy’s purse, packed with cash, 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.
There’s also uncomfortable moments in April 28’s episode, “The Flood,” dealing with the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.
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.
“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, 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.
Back at the office, another secretary sweet-talks Dawn into punching her time card for her. Of course, omnipotent 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 at the diner. The truth is that cutting and isolation isn’t imagined. 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.
It didn’t take much for Dawn’s character to fill out a bit. Just a meal with a friend.
At the diner, 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 has 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.