The assassination of Malcolm X took place at the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. Gunmen killed Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel three years later: April 4, 1968. Somewhere between these critical dates in Black history lies May 31, 1966, the date when the ad men of fictional agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce decide to embarrass bigoted rivals dropping water bags on African-American protestors outside their Madison Avenue offices. So begins the fifth season of AMC’s Mad Men in its two-hour season premiere, breaking an 18-month hiatus. From the first frame, Black Americans get thrust center stage.
But we don’t stay there; we merely bracket the episode. Despite the real-life success of Black advertising execs like Caroline Robinson Jones, Georg Olden and Clarence Holte back in the 1960s, Mad Men never tells that story. On the celebrated period drama, Black men are elevator operators, janitors, muggers, and—in last night’s episode, “A Little Kiss”—gay party hosts. Black women are domestics and love interests, or, more accurately, sexual interests. Toni Charles, actress Naturi Naughton’s Playboy bunny from Season 4, is one of two examples in the show’s history, a part that led to her starring role on NBC’s short-lived The Playboy Club.
Still, the civil rights movement sets parentheses around Mad Men’s season opener in a way that hints at the subject being a major engine for the show this year. The premiere deals mainly with aging Don Draper, the dapper ad man whose 40th birthday centers the episode. Megan—his French-Canadian, 25-year-old wife fresh from the secretarial pool—organizes a surprise birthday party at their spacious Austin Powers-ish apartment, inviting everyone her husband would never socialize with for five mintues outside of the office. She also mortifies her man serenading him in French (with singer Gillian Hills’s “Zou Bisou Bisou”) in front of all his frenemies. Don is not amused. Our hero goes straight to bed with no birthday sex.
This being Mad Men, the couple reconcile in characteristically un-PC fashion, making love days later as Megan scrubs the floor in frilly underwear.
Thus far, viewers haven’t expected Mad Men to tell them the temperature of race relations in the ’60s anymore than they turned to Six Feet Under or Sex and the City to do the same for modern times. But as a period piece, the series is already two years past the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and edging closer to the gradual, eventual racial integration of Madison Avenue. Rather than stick to a white-bread Seinfeld script, Mad Men seems directly headed for the powder keg of Black Power and its reverberations on America. (At the surprise party, a beatnik writer complains of “four riots in three cities in two months.”)
The episode ends with a couple dozen blacks in the office of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, résumés in hand, being placated by financial officer Lane Pryce. “Couldn’t we just hire one of them?” Don finally asks at the end, surely a harbinger of things to come.