Mad Men just wrapped its penultimate season having spent a notable amount of screen time fleshing out the story of Don Draper’s coming of age. The show has always been premised in part on Draper’s need to hide his true past, still the convention of his dark secret has perhaps never been so visually explored as in this past season. Light and dark “twins” abounded: there were two Dons on this season’s promotional art, two wigs for Don’s wife Megan’s soap opera role playing twins, and even two creative directors at the office—figured as doppelgangers by fair-haired, former rival Ted Chaough and the darker Don. This season the dark past returned in frequent flashbacks of Don as an adolescent named Dick Whitman growing in a whorehouse. When Don’s past caught up with him in the present, however, it was embodied by black characters.
This begs the question, Why is Dick Whitman haunting Don Draper in blackface?
The overarching assignment of black characters in season six appears to have been representing Don Draper’s broken home. While this season explicitly incorporated many of 1968’s political events, it seems also to have implicitly functioned within the late 1960s framework of the Moynihan Report and its now notorious characterization of black family dysfunction.
Mad Men used black characters to connote otherness, absence, poverty, shame, and the unknown. It is worth thinking about what it means for the show to deploy blackness in this way in the already-but-clearly-not-yet “post-racial” moment of Barack Obama and Paula Deen.
Don’s dark past as Dick Whitman was first represented by blackness in daughter Sally Draper’s late-night encounter with a thief who breaks into the Draper apartment in the middle of the night. Caught in the act, the suspicious black woman introduces herself benignly as “Grandma Ida” and tells Sally that she raised Don—a claim that Sally is willing to accept. This black maternal figure is symbolically substituted for Dick Whitman’s absent mother. Confronted with a stranger claiming to be from Don’s childhood, Sally grapples with how little she actually knows about her father, a lack of intimacy also underscored by her initial cooperation with the burglar. Ida is literally a dark threat to the home and family Don has made for himself.
In this weekend’s finale, Don takes a step toward being better known by his children in a scene that again used blackness to stand in for his past as Dick Whitman. When Don takes his kids to see the whorehouse where he grew up, a little African American boy stands looking back at them from the front porch of the dilapidated building.
Don grew up in what is now a black neighborhood, one which his son Bobby remarks seems dangerous. Caught in the gaze of both the Drapers and the viewers, the little black boy all alone and holding a popsicle evokes poverty, loneliness, and childhood innocence abandoned to squalid surroundings. When Don explains, “This is where I grew up,” his words bridge his childhood experience and the black child’s, just as this act of transparency begins to bridge the gap between Sally and Don.
The light/dark twin theme of this season along with the ways black actors were tied to Don’s past calls for new reflection on Don’s secretary Dawn, the only black person at ad firm Sterling Cooper and Partners. As a running joke of sorts, the homophonic problem posed by Don working with Dawn has worn thin. Yet the ways that the Dick Whitman past has been embodied by black characters, suggests that Dawn is also the “other” Don, an alter-ego just outside his office door who gate-keeps his relationships, an outsider who can never really be in.
When Draper announces his plan to move to California—part of a plan to reboot his life once again—art director Stan Rizzo remarks that Dawn has disappeared and scolds Don for not realizing how his move would affect her. But it is precisely the point of the move that Dawn as a symbol of dark Don, of the Dick Whitman past, would disappear. Don is motivated to head for Los Angeles as an attempt to get a grip on his darkness, suppressing or integrating it anew rather than managing it daily as a shadow self.
It is hard to think of Mad Men’s use of black characters as a coincidence when the show is so deliberate and ambitious as to draw slow but mounting connections to A Tale of Two Cities and purposeful if tiresome evocations of Freud. When the series has depicted racism, sexism, or homophobia, it has often done so in a way that indicts a particular character or invites critical reflection on our culture’s not-so-past past. But this reliance on blackness is a storytelling choice outside of those bounds.
Mad Men has occasionally used black actors as little more than symbols of the unsavory elements of Don’s past. This conceit is also a symptom, however, of how black bodies in Hollywood are still relied upon as ciphers of the abject, personifications of otherness in an imaginary, white world.