Monday, April 16, 2012

Last Night’s Mad Men: “Signal 30”

We’ve known that Pete Campbell is a piece of work since early in Mad Men’s first season. Lots of people are indecently ambitious, but not many of them manage to be perpetually aggrieved. Pete resorted to intra-office blackmail without batting an eye in Season One’s “Nixon vs. Kennedy” because he had persuaded himself that extreme measures were excusable, even justifiable, in light of Don’s perverse refusal to acknowledge that he deserved a promotion on the merits. And remember, the blackmail scheme wasn’t Pete’s first misbegotten challenge to Don’s authority. It took Bert Cooper’s intervention to keep Pete from getting fired after the unsuccessful run he made at Don in connection with the Bethlehem Steel pitch in Season One's “New Amsterdam.”

Most people in Pete’s situation would have been looking for a new job and a different boss. Yet just a couple of weeks after he struck out as a blackmailer, Pete laid his new Clearasil account before Don like a cat lays a freshly killed bird before its owner: “It matters to me,” Pete meowed, “that you’re impressed.”

Pete’s unhedged psychological investment in Don’s approval would have been unfathomable if we hadn’t already seen roughly the same oedipal dynamic play out in Pete’s dealings with his father. Recall what happened in Season One’s “New Amsterdam” when Pete came to his (now deceased) father looking for help financing the Park Avenue apartment that Trudy had her heart set on. You wouldn’t think that a scion of one of New York City’s most prominent families would break a sweat securing a modest advance on his inheritance. Yet Pete’s father took unseemly pleasure in turning his son down on the ground that Pete had soiled the family name by going into advertising rather than a white-shoe profession.

“Why,” Pete asked, “is it so hard for you people to give me anything.” “We gave you everything,” his father replied. “We gave you your name, and what have you done with it?” Pete’s visible humiliation and barely suppressed rage suggested that his determination to get ahead in the advertising world is an expression of a son’s primal need, on the one hand, to obliterate the father who stands between him and manhood, and, on the other, to bask in the paternal love and respect that he’s owed merely by virtue of being a son.

We’ll never know whether this father and this son would have reconciled with the passage of time because, as we learned at the beginning of Season Two, the father was one of the ninety-five souls lost when American Airlines Flight 1 plunged into New York City’s Jamaica Bay on March 1, 1962. When Pete got the bad news in the office, he lost his bearings entirely, as if his father’s gravitational pull was the only thing keeping him in a regular orbit. That Pete immediately gravitated to Don showed that, with his father gone, Don became the most formidable mass in Pete’s psychic solar system. Pete’s zeal to secure Don’s respect was compensation for the humiliations of being his father’s son.

Last night’s episode showed us that, despite everything that has happened, nothing much has changed in Pete's relationship with Don. You’d think that Don’s recognition would now mean less to Pete now that he’s SCDP’s principal rainmaker. And don’t forget that Pete secured Don’s heartfelt gratitude last season by turning away some much-needed business to get the Department of Defense off Don’s trail. Yet there was Pete last night, throwing a party with the transparent purpose of giving himself an occasion to bask in Don’s recognition of him as a peer. When she was twisting Don’s arm to attend, Trudy couldn’t have been more explicit: the party’s sole purpose was to have Don take an honored seat at Pete’s table.

Be careful what you wish for. In one respect, the party and events soon thereafter succeeded beyond Pete’s wildest expectations. He not only got Don’s undivided attention, but a generous helping of paternal regard. The problem is that seeing the reflection of himself in Don's eyes reveals to Pete that, despite his best efforts, he still isn’t measuring up.

It was bad enough that, now that Pete was raising a family in a plush suburban home that looked uncannily like the Draper residence before Don and Betty divorced, Don had reestablished himself with Megan in the city. It got worse when Don effortlessly fixed the faucet that Pete hadn't fixed the night before when he was trying to be the man of the house.

Yet, as far as Pete is concerned, things go steadily downhill from there.  The next evening Pete, Roger and Don paid a visit to a high-class brothel with a prospective client. It drove Pete crazy that Don waited chastely at the bar for colleagues to conclude their separate transactions. When Don dispensed some hard-earned wisdom in the cab on the way to their separate homes about not spoiling a perfectly good marriage by catting around Pete looked like a surly teenager who’d just had his allowance cut off.

What little was left of Pete’s self-esteem was exhausted the next day when Lane punched his lights out in the office. Don could have stepped in to stop the fight before it started. Instead, he pulled the curtains inside the conference room so that Lane and Pete could settle their differences man to man. Maybe Don thought that, even at this late date, it might help make a man of Pete.


Kelli O'Neill said...

Dear Ron: Thank you for the well-writien, thoughtful, and astute blog post. I'm a first time but continuing reader of yours, now. You reminded me of so many character/plot points that I had forgotten over the viewing years. This season of Mad Men has featured an act of violence reported in the media and commented by the cast in each episode. When Trudy flippantly mentioned that Pete still kept the rifle in his office, I did a sofa shiver. Then the rest of Pete's downward spiral played out. I hope we're not being served a "red herring" but I can't look away and will open widely for the next bite. Well done, you!

Anonymous said...

Ron, I love your character study of Pete Campbell. He's such an odd, quirky man/boy, but I think you've captured his essence. I agree with the earlier commenter that I shuddered when I was reminded about the rifle in Pete's office. I hope Pete doesn't use it on anyone. He seemed so desperate in the elevator in the ending scene with Don.

JJ said...

I think that, if Don is Pete's substitute father, Kenny is his substitute brother. Pete told Roger about Kenny's writing out of sibling rivalry. Pete knows, down deep, that he can't keep up with either Don or Kenny and it is killing him.

Kelli O'Neill said...

I agree with you both, Anonymous & JJ. I know I mentioned the use of the rifle reference but that seems almost too easy of a distraction. Pete does have the new office with windows and could take a dive out, reminiscent of the first eps when a competing ad agency was dropping the paper bag water bombs.

I've thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog today. I look forward to reading more from you, Ron. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

I think Pete is too narcissistic pitch himself out a window. It is more his speed to find someone else to blame for inadequacies, like Trudy or Ken.

Anonymouser said...

I can't figure out whether Pete and Ken are friends? Ken seems friendly with everyone, but Pete is hot and cold. It was likely Pete who tattled taled to Roger about Ken's writing.
Also, I agree with Anon at 4:37. Pete is way to narcissitic to hurt himself. His style is much more passive aggressive.

AnnB said...

Excellent insight.

Pete is not a coward, surprisingly enough. He went ahead and "pulled the trigger" on the black mail. He stood up and fought Lane. When push comes to shove, it won't be narcissism that keeps Pete from committing suicide. It'll be his sense of inner nobility -- he actually has one. It may seem like it's from a different planet but it's there.

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