Mad Men, Season 6

Did You Notice That Grandma Ida Was a Negro?
Talking television.
May 20 2013 10:55 AM

Mad Men, Season 6

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Grandma Ida and Mad Men's race problem.

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Courtesy of AMC

Seth, Hanna,

Paul Ford Paul Ford

Paul Ford is a writer who lives in New York City. He is the sole proprietor of Ftrain.com.

Like the MLK assassination episode, or the Kennedy assassination in seasons past, "The Crash" involved an external influence, namely a whole bunch of speed injected right into the collective ass of SCDP+ employees, leading to a multiday office freak-out, ostensibly in the service of Chevy but more in the service of narrative. The offices became a sort of human zoo. True faces revealed.

Don’s stone face keeps cracking of late, like Mt. Rushmore crumbling; here he is basically begging Sylvia to see him, mooning outside her door and smoking. (Hypothesis: You could edit this show down to just scenes outside of doors, and in elevators, and still catch the plot. You may not even need the doors.) I didn’t get the sense that Don was really grieving over Sylvia. Don is an ambiguity-manufacturing machine, especially in this episode, but he can’t tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. He simply refuses to accept Sylvia’s rejection and the emotional vacuum it creates. He has to fill it somehow.

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He fills it, in the way of asshole dads through history, with work: He doesn’t just neglect his kids and wife but he super-mega-neglects them on speed. He also neglects his body and starts on a coughing jag that pulls him back via flashback to his deflowering (a $5 value but Don’s for free!) at the hands of Ameé (or Aimée, or Amé, she’s done something with the spelling but they never show her signing a check). This lady is a nice-enough prostitute; her face even looks like the face in an oatmeal ad, and 42-year-old Don searches until that ad is found. Comfort, power, and advertising are the three vertices of his sex triangle. But soon enough Aémié gets the boot, and Don gets the spoon. As his stepmother is beating him we see her menacing face, and it harkens back to Grandma Ida’s scary face as shown to Sally. Oatmeal prostitutes, con-woman mothers, and dead fathers with nymphomaniac daughters who practice divination. “History should not be ignored,” Don raves. “Just listen, I’ve got it.” What holds people together: It’s a history. “It’s way bigger than a car, it’s everything.”

Seth, you’re right. That actress who played Grandma Ida: Her face was a revelation in pure malice. And, just in case we didn’t notice, Betty Draper pointed out that she was a “Negro.” Which is where all the very-specialness of this episode wrapped up for me and I was left feeling that awkward Mad Men race feeling. It’s happened so many times before! Remember when Roger and Joan got mugged and the mugger was black? Or when Dawn Chambers helped someone clock out early? Or Carla the maid gets fired by Betty, meaning that Don had to take Megan on vacation as a nanny? Or “the biggest, blackest prostitute you’ve ever seen” from two weeks ago?

Watching mean ol’ Grandma Ida con li’l white Sally 'n' Bobby into revealing the location of Don’s watches, I suddenly thought of a book that I hadn’t thought of in 10 years: The Motion of Light in Water, a memoir published in 1988 by the author Samuel R. Delany, who is best known for his science fiction. The memoir is set between 1960 and 1965. Delany is young, black, gay, married to the poet Marilyn Hacker, living downtown in the East Village, having dinner with W.H. Auden, having sex with strangers in empty trucks, going to art happenings. He moves between high art and the underworld; some of his friends are poets, some are criminals. His life is rich, and weird, and you wouldn’t want to live it yourself but it’s hard to look away; his story is rich enough that most modern memoirists should turn away in shame.

Mad Men, of course, has its own imperatives, as does all art. (Don Draper: “No, I don’t have time for art.”) It shows an insular world and the characters are realistic in that they rarely concern themselves with the lives of people outside of that insular world. The reason that The Motion of Light in Water suddenly rose to the top of my consciousness is that it describes a world of richness and ambiguity where the lives of black and white people intertwined. It’s proof that a compelling, fascinating story about that era and in that city is possible. So why isn’t Mad Men such a narrative? I’m not saying that it should be, or has to be. But what series of choices in the writing room and from the director’s chair has led to the black characters being subordinate, criminal, or both?

Because it has to be a choice. This show is too smart not to know what it’s doing. Mad Men, with its exhaustively researched sets and perfect costumes, promises us a full portrait of a world, dozens of hours of entertainment as Matt Weiner’s marionettes dance to the music of time. Grandma Ida bugged the holy hell out of me not simply because she’s a black criminal—although a rich-looking white woman burglar would have been way creepier. It bugs me because her appearance underscores that the portrait of this world is incomplete. So why make her black at all? Why tease us with skin color, as if this great simmering issue will finally be addressed, only to retreat again? Why is this great and lingering theme in American culture not addressed as fully as the show addresses, say, capitalism, or gender?

It’s possible that there’s some meta-point to be made, that the invisibility of people outside Don Draper’s orbit, except in assigned roles, is evidence of his narcissism; perhaps the writers have decided that rendering those people visible would take too much focus away from Don’s arc. Or perhaps this is setup; we’re told that the cops caught Ida, and she’s down at the station. Will Don go see her with Sally and listen to her talk about her life, ask her why she pretended to be his mother? But I am suspicious, which is a bad place to be with a television show. A question: Could such rigid lines possibly blur, and could this show allow for an answer besides “no,” when Bobby asks his sister,

Are we Negroes?

Paul

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