AMC’s critically acclaimed and long-running period drama Mad Men is winding down after a storied seven seasons of boozing, womanizing, and existential crises. The professional and personal exploits of Don Draper, as well as those of his wives, colleagues, and children, have made for some of the richest storytelling in modern television. The show, set at fictional advertising agency Sterling Cooper & Partners as it experiences constant transition during the social upheaval of the 1960s, is decidedly Anglo and largely patriarchal. Much of the praise shoveled onto the series has been related to its savvy in presenting that perspective from a critical lens; showcasing these tipsy white corporate pitchmen protagonists as emotionally crippled, grossly chauvinistic, and latently racist.
The show’s addressed race consistently throughout its award-winning run, but that particular theme came into much sharper relief in the final three seasons with the additions of, first, Teyonah Parris as Dawn Chambers, followed by Sola Bamis, who joined the cast in 2013 as Shirley, the secretary of former secretary turned copy manager Peggy Olson.
“Of course, it's sad to see Mad Men go, but I think the viewers are anxious to see what will happen to these characters they've grown to love over the years,” Bamis says. “When they say, ‘The end of an era,’ it's not just the end of the decade in the show, I think, but the end of an era in television, where this epic story was told. I take with me the pride that I got to be a part of that story.”
Shirley made her the other week, as SC&P was announcing it had been absorbed into industry giant McCann-Erickson, knocking the professional lives of most of the characters into varying states of upheaval. But Shirley’s resignation was revealed to be the result of pragmatism—not panic. With founding partner Roger Sterling confused as to why she would want to quit the company when she doesn’t have to, Shirley informed him succinctly that, “Advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone.” Roger, who himself has tossed around a few racially-loaded one-liners and even performed in blackface earlier in the series, instantly recognizes what she’s referring to. At the core of the show has been the examination of obstacles women face in a world that is blatantly patriarchal and unapologetically misogynistic, but within that dynamic is also the issue of race. And Bamis wants people to pay attention to how the show has presented workplace racism as an extension of our cultural conditioning.
“I think a lot of people operate under the belief that in order for an act or an utterance to be truly racist, it must be overt and intentional,” explains the former pre-med student. “But what most people don’t realize is that for many black folks, especially those who work in corporate or predominantly white environments, many of our encounters with racism are covert, and at times unintentional, and I think that’s the worst kind.”
“Because how do you get to the bottom of a problem when most people don’t even realize that there is a problem?” she continues. “I think what the black women in that office faced then is what many black folks experience in the workplace today. That’s why the ‘Hello Dawn, Hello Shirley’ scene really resonated with people. I think for many folks, especially minorities who live at the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, the scene highlights our hypervisibility in the workplace, on the one hand, and our invisibility in these spaces, on the other. So on the one hand, Shirley, being this dark-skinned black woman with a large afro, bright lipstick, and short dress in an environment that’s predominantly white, male, and middle-class, disrupts the status quo with her presence alone.”
Black stories are becoming more common on contemporary American television, and Mad Men’s commitment to whiteness was not only retro in its setting, but in its approach. The black characters of Dawn and Shirley remained peripheral on the show, an uncomfortable parallel to the role these fictional women played in the lives of the white movers and shakers at SC&P.
“Take for example the scene where Peggy grabs the flowers off Shirley’s desk because she mistook them for her own—there are these instances where other people in the office show a complete disregard for our feelings or our humanity,” Bamis explains. “In that incident between Shirley and Peggy, it was clear that it had never dawned on Peggy that those flowers could actually be for Shirley. Seems like a small thing, but it’s a big thing. And when you add up all these little microaggressions, it makes for a hostile work environment for many black folks. Being a black woman who’s had to personally navigate spaces like this, I think the scenes with us black actors did accurately portray our experiences, and I was definitely able to bring those experiences to the Shirley character.”
Unlike Dawn’s character, Shirley’s backstory was never explored on the show, but Bamis praises the writers for presenting female characters in a way that is fully-formed and layered—even the characters that weren’t at the center of the show’s major plot developments.
“I think the show has done a great job of presenting women as the complex, multi-dimensional human beings we are,” she says. “The women of Mad Men have voices, backstories, and perspectives shaped by their experiences. We have an idea of their inner lives, and their thought processes as they deal with tough situations, whether it has to do with the workplace, childbearing and childrearing, or their relationships with their partners. None of them are perfect, none of them fit into this cookie-cutter idea of what it meant to be a woman during that period. They are human beings, and portrayed as such, and that in itself is empowering.”
We’ll learn the final epitaph for Don, Betty, Peggy, Joan, Roger and the rest in only a few days. After that, the compelling world of Mad Men will cease to exist. The show served as mostly a critique of the “good old days,” but still flaunted a certain degree of celebration for them. After all, a critically acclaimed television drama with a mostly white cast is in no way groundbreaking, and presenting it as a thorough examination of that Anglocentric world rings false when black characters aren’t fully explored even within the context of that world. As Mad Men fades into the annals of television history and into the “Suggestions For You” queues of Netflix subscribers everywhere, and as more shows and networks opt for a less monochromatic approach to storytelling, perhaps we should be ever-vigilant in regards to making sure we don’t get so nostalgic for those “good old days” that we start to move backwards. In that regard, if the end of Mad Men truly is the “end of an era,” that is definitely a moment worth celebrating.