Retrolicious–Mad Men 6.9: “The Better Half”

Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid

Pete: "Wanna play 'Father Abraham'?" Joan: *direct side-eye*
Pete: “Wanna play ‘Father Abraham’?”
Joan: *direct side-eye*

To paraphrase One Chele from Black ‘n Bougie, it’s Tapback Season…at least on Mad Men. Don, Roger, and Peggy try their luck to get back with former and sort-of current lovers with varied results. Tami, Renee Martin from Womanist Musings and Fangs for the Fantasy, and I chat about this bit of silliness, the joys of “Father Abraham,” and the joy of talking about how the show handles racism with like-minded  folks. Tami kicks off the convo…and, yes, spoilers.

Tami: Can I say how glad I am that we have this space here? I have always found the poor racial analysis of Mad Men by viewers and recappers even more problematic than anything the show has done. And now, in this season, where Weiner and Co. have made some egregious racial missteps (cough…Mammy Thief…cough), I’m even more glad to have a group of intelligent and racially conscious people to discuss the show with.

Monday, on a Mad Men podcast I’ve followed for a few weeks, one of the panel offered the illogical excuse (heard many places) that the show’s dearth of characters of color and the presence of offensive characters like Grandma Ida is realistic, basically, ‘cause the 60s… He crowed that he was glad the showrunners weren’t “all P.C.” Because it is important to show things as they were and not as we would have wanted them to be.

This is an argument about race and Mad Men that I find most aggravating and disingenuous. No one is arguing that the show cast Idris Elba as the new CEO of SCDPCGC. (Although, a little Elba makes everything better. Just sayin. Oh, since John Cho proved in Star Trek: Into Darkness that he is a badass, maybe he can give Don a run for his hot alpha money…But I digress.) It is indeed realistic that our white and privileged main characters would have no contact with people of color professionally and socially in, say, 1960. However, people of color did exist before the signing of the Civil Rights Act. And they did exist in the lives of these characters. For instance, Carla, the Draper’s maid, could have been rendered more multi-dimensional, with a life of her own, without making her a primary character. Moreso, as we approach 1970, opportunities for people of color are changing, even as racism and segregation still exist. Mad Men could offer us more of Dawn–and not just in the black people-themed MLK episode. And then there is this: if the show wishes to handle race in subtle ways (Pete saying this week that his mother would only approve of a “Spanish nurse” if the nurse was “Spanish from Spain” or the NYC cop asking whether Abe’s attacker was “black or Puerto Rican” as if no one else would commit such a crime), fine. But then, the show runners should also take care not to make offensive stereotypes the only characters of color they do portray.

It is not true that before 1970, white people only encountered people of color when they were stabbed or robbed by them. But that is the picture Mad Men is portraying. No one is arguing against portrayals of racism, but instead erasure, marginalization, and thoughtless portrayals of people of color.

Andrea: John Cho’s been a badass since the first Star Trek film, thankyouverymuch. 😀 The second film–though not developing his character arc too well–gave us so much more with so little time. That is why John Cho stays a badass actor…and why we’ve yet to replace him as The Racialicious Patron Hottie.

As for Mad Men: I agree with you, Tami. I would have loved to see Dawn and Carla developed like, say, an Abe or Ted or even Sal. I think Sal stands as a testament to Weiner and his creative team giving some arc to a a supporting character who’s a marginalized person who’s not a white woman. So, we know Weiner and his team are capable. And, with Dawn, they hinted that they could do it, what with Dawn telling her friend about what she wants in a future partner and understanding what her being The First Black Person at a firm means–as I said last week, it gets to her at least express more than saying, “So-and-so’s here to see you, Mr. Draper.” She is a character with aspirations and desires.

As the show is creeping into the 70s–and having just seen the doc Blank City about the New York City that produced the punk-rock scene and cemented the Big Apple’s reputation as a “big bad city” in the late late 60s and 70s because of the city-is-going-broke crime wave–this was the time of mass white flight from the area. So, it’s very likely that the interaction white folks like Abe and Peggy would have with Black and Brown folks is adversarial, if not criminally involved, as well as the bare interactions Dawn has with the rest of the SCDPCGC staff. But, even at that, Dawn should, at least, be so fleshed out as to be a counterpoint to the Mammy Thief, so a viewer can at least say that there’s some attempt at showing Black folks–specifically Black women–with some sort of complexity. But, as you pointed out, we get Dawn’s wispy characterization and, comparatively speaking, Mammy Thief getting all kinds of time on the screen.

Renee: What these fans fail to realise is that you can have characters of colour in secondary roles and still make their lives important and portray their various struggles.  When it comes to this aspect, I often find myself comparing Mad Men to American Dreams.  American Dreams had a White suburban family and yet we still learned about the struggles of Henry Walker (the Black man employed by Jack Pryor)  They confronted riots, racism, The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and a changing America through the lens of Whiteness, but we still got to see how the Walker family was dealing with these issues as well.  It’s absolutely possible to do this as American Dreams proved (note: American Dreams ended in 2005)  but Mad Men refuses to even make a reasonable attempt, and this is one of the things I continue to find so frustrating about this show.  They make absolutely zero effort to try to tell the stories about pe

Dear Abe--We won't yank your radical cred if you did report your assailants. No, really. We won't.
Dear Abe–We won’t yank your radical cred if you report your assailants. No, really. We won’t.

Tami: I am kind of disappointed in the portrayal of Abe. Yeah, I know, clueless progressives exist–as much today as in 1968. Abe is young, idealistic, and naive. Not reporting crime is a foolish and infantilizing way to help people whose ancestors were “brought over on slave ships!” But his heart is in the right place. He is on the right side of history. But the narrative leans toward making his activist values seem foolish, while painting Peggy’s good-hearted complacency as the better option.

Peggy isn’t evil. I’ve been a gentrifier, too. And I understand just wanting to feel safe coming home, damn the bigger issues. But Peggy is also not a person who works toward social change. She may have broken a glass ceiling, for her gender, but I don’t think it was because she was trying. And, in previous seasons, she couldn’t see her privilege in comparison to a black man who might covet a creative job in an ad agency. In fact, Tom & Lorenzo, in their recap, point out that when faced with racial issues, Peggy also falls back on the “But I had it hard, too!” line. If everyone was a Peggy, would all the social change of the 60s have happened?

People like Abe helped shift a lot of things quickly. He may not be right for Peggy, but that doesn’t make him a buffoon.

Andrea: So, along with the need to frame people of color–who, as I’ve said before, are making their press for humanity and basic rights felt full-bore at this time–as stereotypes or barely there, we’re also framing the white people who wish to express their solidarity (even as wrong-headed as Abe was for not reporting his assault even as his assailants were people of color) as fools for casting their lot with people of color. In other words, Weiner is softly damning Abe as a “race traitor.” His reluctance to not report the crime and not realizing that he and Peggy need to leave their neighborhood for the sake of their safety is karmically punished by sacred-to-death Peggy stabbing him. To Weiner, such people deserve their fate for their solidarity.

At the same time, I think that Weiner punishes Peggy for her movin’-on-up aspirations with Abe dumping her on the way to the hospital. He seems OK with Peggy moving up in the company; that shows the changing role of white women in the workplace, especially when he and his team shows the variations of white women in–compared to the Black people on the show–several and rather complex roles with story arcs. But Peggy is written as a scaredy-cat nag for wanting to move to a safer neighborhood, for not giving the neighborhood she’s currently living in a chance.  Abe dumping her for her “bourgeoisie” attitude and material need to be physically safe added insult to that injury. I just gas-faced the whole thing.

Renee: While what he did was absolutely naive he made a point by saying that a report of violence would mean more trouble for Brown/Black people. I have to agree that this kind of liberalism doesn’t help anyone though.  I was sad to see Abe and Peggy break up because I think that he helped her to see the world in a way that Peggy simply isn’t capable of.  At best, all Peggy can see is gender imbalance and, while a fact of life, there are certainly other marginalizations to consider.

On the other side of the equation, I understand what it is to want safety in your own home.  You shouldn’t have to feel terrified that someone is going to break in, in the middle of the night and hurt you.  A person needs to feel free to walk down the streets in their neighbourhood.  I do however think that this is also a privilege of Whiteness and class because many inner city people have no idea what this feels like.  Peggy wants the benefits of her class and race with no understanding of this.

Tami: So, what’s your take on Peggy and Ted? A lot of folks are angry at Ted for the way he dismissed Peggy post-Abe breakup, but I have a hard time seeing him as a villain. More crappy was the way Peggy expected he would jump to embrace her after she got dumped, when she had made it clear just the day before that she had forgotten about their kiss and suggested he do the same.

Renee: I think the problem is that even though Peggy admitted to forgetting about their kiss, Ted admitted to being in love with Peggy.  If he had truly loved her, the idea that she is hurting would have driven him to care about how she was feeling.  I liked the juxtaposition between both Ted and Don closing their doors because he showed that though elements of their personality are different, they actually have a lot in common.  His reaction is very similar to what Don’s would have been, had a woman working with him professed to love him.

Betty Draper, The Tapback Handler.
Betty Draper, The Tapback Handler.

Tami: But ya’ll know people aren’t coming here to talk about Peggy and Abe or Grandma Ida. Betty and Don got busy! And, much to Don’s dismay, this doesn’t mean that Betty is back on the Don train. She was just looking for a little ego boost (Betty thrives on the admiration of men), but she sees her ex-husband clearly. She knows his “I miss you” and “I just want to hold you” is bullshit. And she knows that loving him is the worst way to get close to Don Draper.

Andrea: Betty fucked Don and told him ‘bye. I had to applaud her maturity for realizing what her ex was about. I more than likely will never be on Team Betty, but I thought Betty handled that tapback moment beautifully.

Renee: I actually loved the scene the day after when Don actually seemed confused to see Betty sitting with Henry.  It’s as though he expected that a one night stand would encourage Betty to see Henry as a pale, impotent replacement for Don.  The truth is, Don never really took the time to get to know Betty well enough to understand that she has her own selfish motivations.  If anything, they’re two peas in a pod.

Tami: Also, “I’m Bobby number five!” Hee. Don’t tell me this wasn’t a sly nod the revolving roster of Bobby Drapers.

Andrea: True, but I had to smile watching Don play “Father Abraham” with Betty and Bobby. I kept thinking of Jon Hamm reaching back to his days of working as a daycare teacher to do that. But, in the character of Don, Hamm always seems to have an almost-natural playfulness with the children in the scenes and, compared to Roger or even his own relationship with other adults–and, I suspect, because of Hamm’s background–Don seems to really enjoy his kids.

Tami: Is Mad Men just messing with us, when it comes to Bob Benson? Are they leading us to be suspicious of the only truly nice person in a sea of really flawed, mostly awful sorts? Even if he turns out to be a stand-up guy, he’s still super creepy. So far, he is the office procurer of toilet paper, prostitutes, and nurse maids.

Renee: Personally, I am convinced that Bob Benson is up to no good.  There is something slimy about him.  Of course he went straight to Pete the rapist to recommend a nurse for his mother.  He is working some kind of angle because no one who works for that agency can possibly be so nice.

Andrea: Gosh, this is quite unlike me, but I’m going to give Bob Benson the benefit of the doubt. Do I think he’s nice like, say, Abe? No. But I don’t he’s as sketchy as Don or Roger. I think the angle he’s working on is to get Joan’s panties, if not her heart. Bob went to Pete, really, because Joan suggested that he may need to have a home healthcare worker for his mom. As much as I greatly dislike Pete, he is still overwhelmed with taking care of his mom, who needs extra care. That fact doesn’t diminish his being a perpetrator, my disgust regarding that aspect about him, and my generally cursing him to the 9th Circle of Hell whenever he’s on the screen.

Tami: Roger, remember when you callously said that you would happily throw Joan some money for her son, but “Of course, it wouldn’t be mine”? Yeah, well, Joan remembers.  You can’t just roll into a kid’s life when you get to feeling sorry about how you screwed up your relationship with your first child. That said, Roger’s daughter was a bit over the top about Planet of the Apes, yes?

Renee: The problem with Roger and Don is that they want family on their own terms and as we all know, it doesn’t work like that.  You have to be there for the midnight feedings, the temper tantrums, the horrible school play etc.,to benefit.  You cannot just come and go when you feel like it and expect to have a relationship with your grandkids or family.  You cannot be free-wheeling and self-concerned and expect them to be around when you get around to remembering them.

I actually don’t think Roger’s daughter overreacted one little bit.  Bobby is quite a few years older than Roger’s grandson.  It’s a matter of showing good judgement.  Kids are always going to ask to do and see things that they are not ready for and it’s up to the adult to say no, slow down. Roger probably saw it as a boon because he could sit the kid in front of the screen and not have to interact with him. I would have been angry had someone made that decision for my children.  All he had to do was ask his daughter how she felt about her son seeing that movie and the problem would have been averted. Roger doesn’t get why she is upset because he doesn’t have to deal with the fallout of what happened.  He has never had to deal with any of the consequences of his actions when it relates to his family really.

Andrea: I think the daughter’s over-the-top reaction probably came out of that anger over Roger really not being there as a father or, at least, not father enough to gauge an inappropriate movie for a 4-year-old. I mean, I can see Planet of the Apes freaking out a child that age.

Even with that understanding…his bed hair is full of yes, yes?

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  • alpha

    I keep thinking about Bob Benson. I think he is overly nice, so that comes across as creepy, but I am frustrated that no one on Mad Men is allowed to be actually kind. Everyone is playing a game. And yes, lots of people are like that in real life, but lots of people are actually nice in real life, too. I am hoping that the writers have created this character that everyone is suspicious of, but the big reveal is that he is NOT hiding something.
    Also, I thought the Roger/Daughter incident wasn’t over the top. My family recently had a similar incident (although much more dramatic than just a movie), and as I was watching, I thought that the daughter was just at the end of her rope on a whole list of thoughtless things Roger has done. We don’t have the tally that she has in her head of all the ways Roger has been destructive to her family, but she could recount them all easily. Roger destroys trust with the people he loves.

  • Shawn0680

    Two things: Once again, where was Dawn? And why can’t she get back-story or interaction like Bob Benson? And second, I think Bob is working the inside angle to keep himself in the loop and ready to take a slot when someone gets the boot. He’s already kept himself from getting cut in the merger, and now he’s gotten a second partner potentially on his team.

    And as to Betty? This round was all hers. The advantage of time, distance, and full knowledge of who Don Draper is allowed her to get the D, tell him about himself, and get it again. Then go merrily on her way. You have to give it to her.

    • Wong Chia Chi

      YES! This. Betty gets hated on by fans, and not for without good reason but she is always best at calling him on his BS, to his face.

  • nicthommi

    @Andrea, yes, Roger’s bed hair would make any women in a position to see it say yes to him.

    But see, Roger’s primary source of charm and charisma is not the kind you can use on your kids. His daughter loves him but she’s been over it for a while.

    I personally think her reaction just reminded her of all of the ways he wasn’t there for her, and all of his inappropriate behavior (his affairs, no one mentioned the way she looked at Joan, running off with a girl her age, etc.) So some of the anger is her rightful anger for the kind of father he was to her. I think that had he been a better father to her and a better husband to her mother, she’d have given him a pass.

    Roger is used to his schtick always getting him out of jams. When it fails him, he’s at a loss. Remember, he made a play for Mona after his mother’s funeral (and I feel as if he’s done it at least one other time since their divorce), and I think he was surprised that Jane wasn’t into him anymore either. She was there out of respect and he was trying to be flirty with her.

    He is used to always having a woman he can charm to lift himself up when he is feeling bad.

    The Betty and Don “reunion” reminded me how in some ways they were perfect for one another. They are definitely peas in a pod. A dysfunctional pod but a pod nonetheless. But she’s played this hand and won it before…it’s why they have Gene after all. She had sex with him at her parents house (after her mother died I think) and she knew she was done with him. It’s why she was heavily pregnant when she married Henry…she had long since detached herself emotionally from Don. It would be anachronistic but when they had the scene of what turned out to be Betty in the shorts, they should have been playing the song “The Bitch is Back.” Betty saying to that man “can you believe I’ve had 3 kids?” was classic Betty. January Jones cannot act for sh*t but the iciness and detachment and self-involvement of Betty is PERFECT for her range.

    I’ll cop to thinking that Matthew Weiner was being subtle in his use of black characters based on Carla and on the subtle way he rolled out Sal’s sexuality (although I was sure Sal was a gay man the first time I saw the character, closeted in the way that most men in his era were but unmistakable gay). I remember in the first episode, the guy on the train who worked for “International Business Machines” recognized “Dick Whitman” and what resonated so strongly for me was that my parents WERE those black people that by the end of the 60’s were in Westchester Co, NY and my dad was a white collar professional at IBM and my mom was a school teacher (to an almost entirely white class, somethin that would have been unheard of at the start of the decade).

    I think the use of Aunt Ida would have worked if he’d bothered to give Dawn more substance. I wish he’d take some of Megan’s excessive screen time and use it to flesh out Dawn and her family and friends (b/c I think Jessica Pare is a worse actress than January Jones and I think Megan’s character is annoying although someone should talk about the long con that chick has played to get what she wants).

    I personally didn’t feel sorry for Peggy when Ted didn’t rush to comfort her. I don’t think it speaks badly of him…she’d already said what she wanted and I personally respect him more for NOT letting her be flaky about that. I think out of the context of being a competitor, Ted has shown himself to be a much more compassionate and genuine person than the main players at SCDP.

    I’ll reserve judgement on Bob b/c as an MBA myself, there is a lot of politicking you have to engage that has nothing to do with being good at your job and he’s playing it just the right way. When you play the game at work, you don’t know what it going to yield, so he might be doing a lot of butt kissing and back scratching but he doesn’t know how it’s going to work for him (and I don’t think he knows that the solid he did for Joan saved him from the chopping block on the merger, but it’s a great example of how you play the game without knowing what the moves behind the executive’s doors are going to be). It might seem disingenuous, but it is what has to be done. You have to position yourself as being helpful and indispensable in ways that have nothing to do with your actual job/work product.