Last season, when “Mad Men” took on Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, I wrote that what was interesting about the episode was less how the new African American characters reacted, and more about how the white ones thought they ought to respond: “Unaccustomed to honest discussions with black coworkers and wholly unfamiliar with the idea of genuine cross-racial solidarity, their reactions to King’s death ended up coming across as awkward and contrived, because, of course, they were.” “Mad Men” has met with a fairly steady stream of criticism for portraying Madison Avenue as less diverse than it actually was, but that episode reinforced my sense that when the show addressed race, it would be more about whiteness than about black self-conception. The episode that aired this last weekend — which featured Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Lou Avery (Allan Havey) throwing temper tantrums at their secretaries, Shirley (Sola Bamis) and Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris) — developed Shirley and Dawn further, but it also took care to show just how similar and hidebound Peggy and Lou can be.
In an accident of scheduling, “Mad Men” also aired against a terrific episode of “Veep,” in which Selina Meyer’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) campaign tries to recruit a universal child-care activist named Alicia (Tracie Thoms) for Selina’s campaign rollout, only to nudge her to the side on the big day. “Mad Men” characters such as Peggy and Lou are not aware of just how much they are marking themselves as of a passing era by taking out their anxieties on their black co-workers, secure in the idea that they can treat Shirley and Dawn as if they are dispensable. But while the contemporary political operatives of “Veep” know that they need people like Alicia, they are also better at faking that they care, expending the minimum energy to get by.
In “Mad Men,” the confrontations between Peggy and Shirley and Lou and Dawn are both motivated by acts of stupidity and selfishness by the advertising executives. Peggy, seeing flowers on Shirley’s desk, automatically assumes they are for her, and makes off with them. Lou throws a fit when Dawn is not at her desk to manage Sally Draper when the girl shows up at the office.
In both cases, when they are confronted by the facts that their problems are of their own making, Peggy and Lou behave horribly. Peggy accuses Shirley of claiming her flowers to flaunt the fact that she is engaged. When Dawn explains to Lou that “I skipped my lunch to buy your wife perfume. If you had been thoughtful enough to get her a gift when I told you about it 10 days ago, I would have been here,” Lou tells her indignantly that “none of this has anything to do with me.”
Both Shirley and Dawn are upset and humiliated by the impunity with which their employers tell these lies, and then demand to Joan (Christina Hendricks) that they be transferred. But it is Peggy and Lou who suffer in our eyes, as we sympathize with their discussion in the kitchen about how Shirley ought to have handled Peggy’s theft. And Joan finds a way to both do a solid by her secretaries and get revenge on Peggy, Lou and Bert Cooper (Robert Morse). In a stroke of brilliant office politics, Joan accepts a promotion and chooses Dawn as her replacement. “Mad Men” is smart enough to recognize the complexity of Joan’s motives and their likely impact on Dawn, who has both been granted a position of power and become a target in the office. Dawn arrives at her new desk in darkness, to a ringing phone that has a touch of the horror movie to it.
Forty-five years later, the characters on “Veep” no longer exhibit the same sort of casual racism that characterizes “Mad Men.” But they are looking to use Alicia, who with her friend Dee, is staging a lonely walk to call attention to the need for universal child care. Former White House aide Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) shows up on her walk route, ostensibly to interview her, but more to monologue about his new blog. “You want to ask me a question?” Alicia finally asks him. “Tell me your story. Question mark,” Jonah replies. But soon, Alicia has bigger suitors: Vice presidential chief of staff Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky) shows up to recruit Alicia for the rollout of her boss’s presidential campaign.
“Veep” excels at demonstrating how swiftly these operatives pivot from sweet-talking Alicia and her young daughter to showing their real, abrasive, instrumentalist approach to the campaign. “I just want you to know that universal child care is something I’m going to be passionate about in my campaign,” Selina tells Alicia on the phone, before telling Amy that she has to get back to a dress fitting and hanging up on her abruptly. “You guys are an inspiration,” speechwriter Dan Egan (Reid Scott) tells Alicia and her daughter, then without pause, launches into an obscene attack on a “Saturday Night Live” staffer. To get back at a senator who is trying to foil her efforts to include child care in her platform, Selina snatches up Alicia’s adorable daughter and uses her as a prop. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if I mentioned her in my speech as a face of the future?” Selina asks the man, brandishing the little girl in his face.
Unlike Dawn and Shirley, who are limited by the same unwritten rules that allow Lou and Peggy to treat them so poorly, Alicia has options. She may not be able to pin down a commitment from Selina to champion universal child care. But Alicia can see that the campaign needs her because it is willing to use her. And when Jonah pops up again, trying to get Alicia to comment on an insult from Selina’s staff, she senses that she can make herself valuable by covering for the man. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Alicia tells Jonah. “This is the problem with you new media guys. You don’t check your facts.”
This time it is Jonah who is left spluttering and frustrated. The sorts of rules that gagged the Dawns and Shirleys of the past may have been horrendously unfair, but the Alicias who followed learned how to navigate those changing norms to their advantage. Peggy and Lou may be able to vent their spleens without consequence in 1969 in “Mad Men,” but coasting on privilege turns out to be bad preparation for 2014.