Last week in Slate, Tanner Colby argued that the handling of race on Mad Men is much smarter, and more accurate, than it is often given credit for—and he deduced, from a careful reading of the show, that the upcoming fifth season was likely to treat the subject in much greater detail.
For evidence, Colby relied entirely on the first four seasons of the show—as well as the historical context Mad Men so expertly mines. But another bit of evidence might have snuck into the New York Times a couple weekends ago. Among the photographs illustrating an article by Dave Itzkoff published in the paper on March 11 was a candid on-set picture of the familiar Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices. Up front is actor Jon Hamm in full Don Draper attire; Matthew Weiner sits to the left, with a couple crew members members relaxing in the background. If you look closely, though, you’ll spot a not-quite-hidden figure of particular interest: an unidentified black actress in period garb.
In the past, only three black female characters have had much, if anything, to say within the world of the show: Carla (Betty and Don’s maid), Toni Charles (Playboy bunny and one-time girlfriend of Lane Pryce; she appeared in one episode), and Sheila White (girlfriend of “liberal”-minded copywriter Paul, who has vanished since the beginning of Season 4). Since Betty has fired Carla it is difficult to believe that she would have any reason to show up at the office, while the reappearance of either of the other two also seems unlikely. Will Don get a new secretary who shakes things up, and provides even more racial and (sexual?) tension for a show which thrives off of its attention to the unspoken, the taboo, and the scandalous lurking under a façade of careful decorum?
Time will tell. Weiner is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to plot developments—a policy he became even more emphatic about after the Times spilled the beans about another aspect of a previous season premiere. So we’ll have to wait and see if this photo hints at a wave of cultural change that will beset the agency and its inhabitants, or is a mere ripple in the Mad Men pond. Season 5 premieres on Sunday.