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Mad Men Review: "Signal 30" (Episode 5.05)

April 16, 2012  |  12:47am
<i>Mad Men</i> Review: "Signal 30" (Episode 5.05)

Before either of us say anything, let’s get one thing out in the open: I like Pete Campbell.

That’s not to say I’d want to hang out with him—God no, he’s a total stick-in-the-mud—nor is it to say that I’d want to trade places with poor Trudy. No, I don’t really care much for Pete the person. But Pete the character fascinates me. It’s easy to dismiss Pete as the show’s resident asshole and leave it at that, but in truth, he’s one of the most complex, underrated characters on TV today.

We finally got a much-needed look at his post-baby home life in this week’s Pete-centric episode, and—surprise, surprise—it’s no walk in the park. Except, it kind of is. Pete’s seemingly got it all: a wife who loves him (enough to effortlessly guilt Don into showing up to their party), an adorable baby, a big house in the country full of lots of stuff. The American Dream, right? His biggest complaints are a leaky sink, a long commute and the occasional rodent in the backyard.

Here’s one thing to understand about Pete though: this isn’t his dream. It’s other people’s. It’s Don’s. Pete would rather have a swank apartment in the city and be childless, but he’s not because that’s not what married people do. No, married people in the ‘60s don’t raise families in the city unless they can’t afford to live elsewhere. They don’t leave their wives for someone they might possibly be in love with—instead they “work late” and carry on in classy whorehouses. Pete’s a slave to appearances, and now that he’s finally got everything he thought he wanted, he’s starting to realize he never wanted it to begin with. That dripping sink’s more like a fucking geyser in reality, and if he doesn’t do something to plug it up soon, he’s going to drown.

That sink (which beautifully bookended the episode and, also beautifully, gave Jon Hamm an excuse to rip his shirt off) was just one of several recurring images in this week’s episode meant to underscore that, try as he might, Pete is not Don. Pete grew up wealthy. He never learned how to be handy or how to drive because he never had to, and he’s insecure about it—from day one at Sterling Cooper, he’s set out to prove he deserves to be there, that he’s worth more to the company than just his last name. That little look of satisfaction when he thought he’d fixed the sink spoke volumes, and unfortunately, so did his pained expression when Don had to swoop in and repair his handiwork in front of the entire party.

The other image that kept cropping up this week was cars—in fact, the first thing we see is a car crash being projected in Pete’s driver’s ed class. Don and Megan also pull over and get it on in the car this week (after she tells him how hot it was when he fixed that sink). Lane flirts with and loses a car account (Jaguar). Cars are tough. Cars are sexy. Pete can’t drive, and Lane loses the Jaguar account—this is no accident. It was really only a matter of time before these two would duke it out in the office to try and assert their masculinities and protect their egos.

Pete’s tried from the very beginning to emulate Don, and to a certain extent, he’s succeeded: beyond the wife and family in the suburbs, he’s got Roger right where he wants him, and he’s worked his way up to partner. But he’s not Don. He can’t fix a sink, and he doesn’t know how to fight. Most importantly, however, he’s not a lone wolf. In the episode’s most painfully telling moment, after getting beaten up by Lane, he says, “This is an office. We’re supposed to be friends.” Pete’s not Don. Don’s accountant gets invited to his birthday party, and that’s the way he prefers it. Pete, on the other hand, guilts his co-workers into coming over on the weekend because he doesn’t have any other friends. Like Don, work’s his entire life, but perhaps Pete’s slowly coming to realize that, as Ken so eloquently put it in the final voiceover, living that American Dream can sometimes make “everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.” Dreams, like cars, can sometimes come crashing down, and Pete seems to finally be realizing that he’s not steering. He’s riding in someone else’s—and maybe headed towards a ditch.

Stray observations:
-Pete’s failure to seduce the high school girl in his driver’s ed class shows he’s caught in this weird, in-between state. He’s not a kid anymore, but he’s not quite ready for adulthood either. It’s worth noting that at the whorehouse, neither the sweet virgin or naughty housewife lines work for him. Instead, it’s “you’re my king” that gets him going.
-Joan’s still being referred to as “Mrs. Harris” in the office. Are we to assume she hasn’t filed for divorce, or that she simply hasn’t told the office about it?
-Peggy and Ken have a pact? We never really see these two interact, so it was interesting to see that they’re closer than we know.
-Keep writing, Ken Cosgrove! Or Ben Hargrove. Or whatever your name is now!
-I loved the scene where Roger taught Lane how to reel in an account. The little tricks he revealed showed us that he’s better at his job than he lets on.
-Does Don’s disgust with Pete (and his refusal to take part in the whorehouse) really mean he’s a changed man? Wow. Who would’ve thought?
-All things considered, we might have jumped the gun a little bit last week when we called Pete and Trudy’s marriage healthy.

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