Of all the trippy, trippy scenes in The Crash, quite possibly the trippiest of all — and maybe the trippiest in the history of the show — was the scene where a middle-aged African-American con woman who called herself “Grandma Ida” broke into the Drapers’ apartment where the kids were home alone, and had Sally and Bobby within a hair’s breadth of being convinced that she was, indeed, a part of their father’s past life. She slips in through the back door that Don has carelessly left open and, when caught by Sally, insouciantly relates a fish story about how she “raised” Don. She knows his name. She’s able to fake the rest of it, like knowing that Don was “handsome” and that Sally’s mother is alive and “still a piece of work.” Working likely with information overheard from domestic workers in the building, and able to sneak into the building through the back entrance disguised as a maid, she spins a character — a fried-chicken-fixing mammy stereotype — that she knows 1960s white suburban children are likely to buy, but which probably doesn’t have much to do with who she really is. (It wouldn’t surprise me if, when not running her con, she actually talked more like Cicely Tyson than Aunt Jemima.) And who is she, anyway?
I’ll tell you who she is. She’s the African-American female Don Draper.
Think about it. We’ve been watching an entire series about a man from a dirt-poor background who stole another man’s identity, cultivated a personality and image that wasn’t his but which he knew his con targets (in his case, advertising men and glamorous women like Betty) would respond to, and (at least figuratively) snuck in through the back door in order to land his dream job, by getting one of the partners drunk and taking advantage of his mental lapses while inebriated. Sound familiar? But Don is white, male, handsome, able to affect the trappings of being educated and middle-class, and thus, unlike the woman “playing” Grandma Ida, has thus far managed to elude prosecution. She will go to jail; he will get to go on and on, taking and taking and taking, because the world rolls over and plays dead for guys who look and act like him, and wipes its collective tuchus on women who look and act like her. He gets away with everything. She gets away with nothing. And it’s all about class and race and sex and looks.
I’ve seen complaints about how this show handles the issue of race, and I can’t really disagree with those who say that Mad Men has been superficial in its treatment of the life experiences of black people in the 1960s. And frankly, if they are going to do that, they need to hire some African-American writers who are around Grandma Ida’s age, because having young (or even middle-aged) white people write those scenes is mostly going to be awful. But the show has dealt head-on, more than any I’ve ever seen, with the issue of white racism in all its myriad forms, overt and covert, from liberals and conservatives, squares and hipsters, young people and old people, in a way that suggests no one, not even the most well-meaning white person, is immune. And Grandma Ida, if only for a few minutes, is able to exploit that; after all, Sally and Bobby were practically “raised” by a middle-aged African-American woman who probably had the intellectual capability of becoming much more than a housekeeper but was thwarted by prejudice, and their mother was “raised” by a domestic (Viola) too. So why couldn’t the same thing have happened with Don, as far as they’re concerned? He could be Batman or the Joker, for all they know.
But white racism being what it is, she can get only so far before she’s caught with valuables that were purchased off the backs of women much like herself but more morally upright, valuables she has no other way to obtain. Just like Don, who couldn’t have pulled himself up by his bootstraps because he had no boots, and had to steal someone else’s. Is Grandma Ida’s arrest a portent of what’s to come with Don? He might have gotten away with it a lot longer than she did, but that doesn’t mean the sand won’t run out on him someday soon.