Mad Men: Signal 30

"I can't believe the hours I've put in to helping you become the monster you've become."

I experienced a crushing blow watching Signal 30. The latest in a number of Mad Men-related disappointments, gravitating from the ugly reality that doesn't always present itself every week on this show, the admiration you have for certain characters that is unexpectedly upturned. Because Pete isn't a good person. He's funny and charming and adorably unaware of his weekly downward spiral into inevitable disappointments, and all of this combines to make him somebody you can almost root for. But then we get an episode like this one, where he exhibits behavior that is beyond reprehensible. And, somehow, he can't get away with it like Don does. He just ends up appearing pathetic, and suddenly you're hit with that realization that he's truly not good at all.

But it's an important distinction that he can't get away with this behavior, as it forms the entire crux of the hour. Don is somebody who naturally radiates confidence, no matter how morally unacceptable many of his actions are, especially in regards to women. He owns his sleaziness, while backing it up with an ease and presence that is attractive to most of the people in his life. Pete isn't Don, if only because everything he does is so aggressively 'done'. There's no ease or comfort there, only the appearance of somebody trying so hard to be something that they're not.

There were numerous personal humiliations here, least of all whenever he came into contact with women. Attending a driver's ed class, Pete gets talking to an attractive high school girl. They banter a little, seem to strike up something of a rapport. But there's something about these scenes that feel naturally sinister. Don behaving the same way would similarly creep you out, but Pete's actions are so 'conscious' that the girl ends up appearing uncomfortable, rather than at all aroused. It also doesn't help that Pete isn't hugely appealing as a physical embodiment of attractive businessmen. Pete has the face of a 12 year-old but the mannerisms of a middle-aged man in his father's business wear, and his charm sometimes reads as more than a little rapey. He has none of the matinee idol swoonworthy-ness of Don Draper, and struggles to articulate with the opposite sex. He's also no good at hiding his jealousies or overt temptations. He looks at Mr. Handsome with resentful disgust, and salivates over the poor girl like a cuckolded old man.

We also forgave Don for stepping out on Betty because there seemed to be something of an even playing field within the Draper home. Betty wasn't having affairs like her husband when the show opened up, but we as an audience were always made aware that Betty, too, knew her marriage was a sham. Compare her to Trudy, somebody seemingly so happy and carefree and supportive of her husband -- and it hurts to see Pete sleeping with a hooker instead of her.

Even at the office, Pete confuses workplace bravado with outright rudeness. His treatment of Lane (calling him a 'homo', ridiculing his usefulness) disgusts his peers, presumably going against what Pete had in mind. At the same time, the general reaction to their fight was that Lane only did what they never had the guts to do. Nobody likes Pete, and despite his cries of self-pity ("I have nothing"), it's difficult to see him as anything other than pathetic.

While this was something of a stand-out episode for Pete, the rest of the cast were given equally strong material to work with... naturally. Lane spends most of the hour trying to woo a client with a checklist of mind games talked up by Roger, only to find that any one of his approaches (traditional or otherwise) would have never won the client over. Lane is painted as a stranger in a strange land, trying to figure out his role in both the office and at home. And when his colleagues visit prostitutes and dispense personal insults, he's left feeling more lost than ever. His kiss with Joan was another burst of misplaced sexual enthusiasm after his telephone flirtation in the season premiere, but you can't help but wonder if there might actually be something there after all. Joan didn't immediately pull away, and there's definitely something of a connection between them.

The Gold Violin is one of my favorite Mad Men episodes, so I loved the return of Ken's novelist subplot. He's not a character that often gets a whole lot to do, but it fits in perfectly with who he is in his private life. He's quiet, unassuming, seemingly faithful to Alex Mack, not particularly interesting -- but an observer of others. He abandons his existential sci-fi work and instead begins writing a story of a man he's glimpsed recently in his own life. He watches and listens and spots Pete's emotional meltdown while not always being a direct viewer of it, and his narration over the final collection of shots was an uncomfortably intimate parallel to Pete's crisis.

Meanwhile, the specter of aging remained an ever-present force. When a teenage girl even remarks about the rapid passing of time and her desire to return to her youth, you have to feel for those far older than her and unable to go back to their past selves. Or in the case of Pete Campbell, become the fantasy version of themselves that could never, ever work; let alone be taken seriously. We all have fantasies, and we all sometimes wish we were a certain type of person, or somebody who exhibits a certain appeal. But you have to either be very confident or very stupid to throw caution to the wind and pursue it. And Pete, being Pete, fell on the latter.

Notables

- I probably should have discussed it more, but Lane's fight with Pete was nuts enough to work. It looked pretty brutal, too -- even if you didn't at all feel bad for Mr. Campbell.

- A ton of wonderful bits and pieces: Don and Megan unable to remember the name of Ken's wife, the recurring motif of the dripping faucet, the Superman heroics of Don stopping the water explosion and how impressed the women were, Don once again going out of his way to not sleep around.

- Lots of showy visual cues this week, presumably as guest director John Slattery wanted to make something of an impression. The office-door cut was neat, but it got a little overblown with all the fancy segues later on.

- I loved Joan's dignified reaction to Lane's kiss -- to get up very slowly, open the office door, and return to sit next to Lane. Aww.

- I'm sure Ken's story worked as some kind of metaphor, but I couldn't exactly land it. Was Lane the robot? Doing what he's told but unsure if what he's doing was right? Or is Pete the robot, desperate for escape and unable to reach spontaneity?

- Pete and Trudy's daughter had a face you just wanted to eat. If I had ovaries, they'd be melting right now.

- We seriously need to bring back the word 'pubis'.

Quotage

Lane: How lovely your face becomes when you tell me you need something.

Don: Saturday night in the suburbs? That's when you really want to blow your brains out...

Roger: Hey, Heathcliff -- how was your date?

Roger: Jesus, Don. Even in this place you're doing better than us.

Lane: Mister Campbell, you and I are going to address that little insult.
Pete: Are you kidding me?
Lane: No. You're a grimy little pimp!

Joan: Everyone in this office has wanted to do that to Pete Campbell.

Pete: I have nothing, Don.

Previously posted at Unwelcome Commentary.

6 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Wow, Max. You nailed Pete, right down to his toenails. I hated that he cheated on Alison Brie, and was hitting on that teenage girl. Seeing Lane beat the crap out of him was remarkably satisfying.

I was shocked that Don is remaining faithful to Megan. Maybe he really does love her. I sort of think that he's convinced himself that he does, but doesn't really.

Jess Lynde said...

I liked reading your analysis, Max, but I'm surprised to hear you say that this episode upended your image of Pete. Because Pete has never struck me as a good person. He's a great character, for sure, but not a good person.

He does appear to actually be good at his job. And Trudy's presence in his life occasionally elevates him to tolerable status. But for the most part, he's always been a needy, grasping, terrible person. Someone who can never be satisfied with his life, even though he seemingly has everything (much like Don). Wasn't he cheating on Trudy when he showed up at Peggy's door in the very first episode? And didn't he assault an au pair at some point (or at least attempt to assault one) while Trudy was away?

He's been on the Don path for a long time, and it seems to me that he's been getting away with it for awhile, even though he lacks Don's roguish charm. He just reached a new low this week, and some accounts finally came due.

Suzanne said...

Max, I loved your review as always. Great analysis of Pete's spiral downwards. I agree with Jess in that I have always seen Pete as a pathetic and often highly dislikable character. I definitely remember him forcing himself upon the au pair (let's call it what it is -- rape) on a previous season. He also seems to have a giant chip on his shoulder stemming from childhood when he felt his older brother was treated a lot better than he was. His final "I have nothing" was really pathetic given what we saw he had with Trudy and the baby.

Pete is trying to be the Don he thinks he sees, but we really know better. We have seen the complexity of Don, good and bad, and Pete's imitation of Don is
one-note and nothing like Don. I am not justifying Don's affairs in any way, but I never found them to be creepy in the way Pete's actions (even going back to Peggy) have always been. Don seemed to be searching for a connection whereas Pet wants to be "king." It is all about power for Pete. I don't see that with Don.

None of this is to say that I despise Pete. I see vulnerability there, and with Trudy, I think he could change. He would need to see his life for what it really is though and lose the chip.

maxpower03 said...

I think that's where the discomfort came from -- that reminder that he's not a good person. I remember the au pair, and the first season sleaziness. But I think his keeping Don's secret marked something of a turnaround for him, and I feel like he's been written in a kind of lovably nerdy way for a while now. And Trudy is so adorable.

But maybe that's just the way I remembered him, or chose to remember him, making his actions here so shocking. Even if they're really not.

Remarkable episode, though, and Vincent was spectacular.

Thanks for all the comments. I didn't respond last episode, but those were really rewarding, too.

Suzanne said...

Yes, I agree that Pete has been lovable at times, and that it has been disappointing seeing his sleasiness come to the forefront again. This is why I think he could change, if he would just stop feeling so put-upon all the time.

Jess Lynde said...

I get where you are coming from, Max. And I certainly understand the impulse to want to believe previously despicable characters have changed. I think of other numerous examples (on other series) where I've let myself "get past" the awful things some characters have previously done, because they seem to be becoming better people.

I guess I just never let myself warm to Pete, or forgive him for past transgressions. Although, for Trudy's sake, I wish he could wake up and let himself become the man she deserves. I just don't see it happening with this particular character.