Another kind of “for white people” work is much easier to grasp. It conveys up front the notion that white people are a breed apart, morally, spiritually, intellectually. “Birth of a Nation,” “Gone with the Wind,” and “The Searchers,” yeah, sure, but also the first scene of the first episode of HBO’s “The Wire,” a moment that seemed so condescending to me that I could go no further with the series that virtually every white writer I know loves to pieces.
The opening of the series is a murder-scene conversation between a young hood-rat witness and a sage, world-weary white detective about the death of a lowlife named Snotboogie:
MCNULTY watches as the body, now bagged, is hauled into the back of the MORGUE WAGON.
MCNULTY: I got to ask you. If every time Snotboogie would grab the money and run away, why’d you even let him in the game?
MCNULTY: If Snotboogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?
WITNESS: You got to. This America, man.
The WITNESS looks away, oblivious to the poetry of it. MCNULTY turns around, takes in the scope of the tragedy that is Baltimore.
Yes, of course, the Witness wouldn’t grasp the poetry of his own words. Of course, this is McNulty’s moment to sigh deeply at the “tragedy that is Baltimore.” This America, man.
“Mad Men” doesn’t condescend in that way, but I still find it hard to relate to. Money and status seem to be on the line in nearly every encounter. That’s why one character, a formerly slim, icy and glamorous blond who has become plump and was rechristened by “Mad Men” fans on the internet as Fat Betty, is a tragicomic figure in this show’s universe.
The direction and music seemed designed to convey that nothing is sadder than being overweight and shoved to the margins of the rat race. Betty is living through the aftermath of a divorce and a cancer scare, sure, but the fact that she can’t suffer these misfortunes in style, like Jackie O strutting down Madison Avenue, compounds the tragedy. It made me think of John Cassavetes’ brutal kiss-off to middle-aged Gena Rowlands in “Opening Night”: “You’re not a woman to me anymore.” Fat Betty is the flipside of chubby, lonely but bubbly Queen Latifah staring down the abyss in the comedy Last Holiday.