When Joan and Roger are robbed at gunpoint by an African American in “The Beautiful Girls,” they deliberately avoid making eye contact. Roger hopes that by not looking at the criminal, the two represent less of a threat (i.e. they won’t be prosecution witnesses later on) and avoid an escalation of violence.
Interestingly, that posture also mirrors Mad Men‘s use of minorities in Season 4. Nine episodes in and the audience has seen very few black characters. In fact, they’ve had less an impact on the storylines than previously. Matt Zoller Seitz, a critic and Mad Men fan, touches on this in his recap of “The Beautiful Girl” for The New Republic. He ponders if rather than civil rights in general, women’s rights are “the show’s true interest” this season.
The only black characters on this show have been domestics and elevator operators—and now a mugger. Even if you take the show’s upper-middle-class white milieu into account, the arms-length respect paid to African American sacrifice feels like an evasion posing as an acknowledgment. The topic is so rich, and still so emotionally powerful, that treating it as a looming presence and nothing more is dramatically risky. Whatever “Mad Men” is doing here, it had better pay off.
Neither he (nor I) question the motives of Matt Weiner and company in taking this approach. Nonetheless, it’s a choice worth noting.