Mad Men, “Signal 30”

Has there ever been a Mad Men character more hateful than Pete Campbell?

Don is a terrible human being, but that’s part of what makes his character so attractive.  (I haven’t read Adam’s work on the related subject, but the assumption in the book’s title rings true to me — Don may be a sociopath, but we love him for it.)  He’s charming, urbane, and utterly ruthless.  He’s a winner, and we love to watch him win.

Pete, by contrast, is a loser.  He never gets what he wants, that is, until he does get it — and then it immediately loses its value.  This is at least partly because the thing Pete wants most is whatever Don has.  (This has always been true, but perhaps never so pointedly as in this episode.  I especially liked how Pete pervs after a ponytailed blonde high school girl, and then the next day Don’s wife shows up for work dressed in what basically looks like a cheerleading outfit.)

If Don is a sociopath, Pete represents an infinitely less attractive and more creepy strain of social oddity — the lonely, bitter misfit who strikes out at the world from a sense of thwarted entitlement and a position of weakness.  This episode is overshadowed by the news story of a Texas gunman, who shoots his mother, his wife, and a bunch of students from a clock tower at the University of Texas, and who is unsubtly connected here to Pete, who bought his own rifle after trading in his wedding present.

Pete’s weakness and angry entitlement set him apart from the other inhabitants of SCDP.  At the end of the episode, he pleads to Don, “why are we even having a fight at work? This is an office. We’re supposed to be friends.”  That he thinks that these people are his “friends” is ridiculous, considering how he treats them.  He has blackmailed Don (or at least tried to), he has undermined Roger, and in this episode he tattles on Ken.  His way of engaging in interpersonal conflict is totally different from his co-workers — he stabs people in the back, whereas the other men stab people full in the face.  When Roger hit on Don’s wife, Don retaliated by pranking him, in a way that sent a clear message.  There wasn’t any sneakiness about it, and afterwards, Roger and Don remained friends, more or less.  When Pete insults Lane in this episode, Lane is totally forthright — he simply challenges Pete to a fight.   Pete’s comment about not fighting friends misses the point — partly because these people really aren’t his friends, but even more because it is Pete’s unwillingness to fight, or engage in open conflict, that makes it so unlikely that these people will ever be his friends.

I’m still on the fence about Don’s marriage.  Megan’s very good at handling Don — she’s sweet, but firm, and she knows how to get what she wants from him.  It’s clear that Don likes being “handled” — for example, he genuinely seems to like Trudy, who is also very good at making Don do what she wants.  Don even goes so far as to compare Trudy to Megan, telling Pete that he wouldn’t have fooled around during his first marriage if he had been married to Megan or Trudy.  But I doubt Don is right.  Surely Betty was once smart and audacious and good at getting what she wanted, before her life (and, in no small part, Don) embittered her and caused her to lose her confidence.  In other words, Don could never have met Megan first.  He had to have the first marriage — with the kids, the suburban house, the extramarital affairs, and the wife whom he trapped in a cocoon of deceit, belittlement and stultifying domesticity — before he could have the second marriage.  In this, at least, Pete knows better than Don.  There’s nothing wrong with Trudy — she’s smart, lovely, sweet, and a great partner — but she’s the first wife.  Pete already wants to skip ahead to the second.

15 thoughts on “Mad Men, “Signal 30”

  1. One thing I thought was artful about this episode was the abrupt introduction of Pete into the high school scene. We had already had Don’s elaborate fantasy, and the situation seemed so surreal that one might have suspect that Pete was dreaming — already pathetic enough, but not as pathetic as when we retrospectively realize that he’s literally in driver’s ed as her fellow student. And of course he ultimately gets displaced by the muscular high school student, just as he gets displaced in his own home by Don, the more authentic “country” boy (in his undershirt).

  2. What did you all make of the revelation of the “pact” between Peggy and Ken? It’s not totally nonsensical — if either of them were to strike out on their own, Peggy would need an accounts man, and Ken would need a creative; and they’ve always gotten along with each other. But does this mean that Peggy thinks she’s learned all she needs to learn from Don? And even if she likes and respects Ken — which she clearly does — she’s always been very ambitious, and I wouldn’t pick Ken as the best person to run accounts for a fledgling agency. Especially now, with the revelation that he has been cutting client meetings short in order to go home and write.

    It occurred to me while watching the episode that it was Peggy — not Pete — that tattled on Ken. There’s no real evidence of this, but it just didn’t seem all that plausible that Pete would do it. While it’s not hard to believe that Pete’s a snitch, I don’t get why he would go to Roger. They dislike one another, especially recently, and Pete’s been on an active campaign to diminish Roger’s standing in the agency. Going to Roger to lay down the law concedes Roger’s status in a way that I think Pete would be unwilling to do. Pete would be much more likely to tell Bert, or even Lane; or to talk to Don to urge him to take Ken’s writing more seriously.

  3. I wouldn’t pick Ken as the best person to run accounts for a fledgling agency.

    I assumed they were both mostly thinking of either getting a job at an established, and more prosperous, agency.

  4. I don’t see a motive for Peggy to tell Roger about Ken’s writing. While, it may be odd for Pete to go to Roger, the motivation is clearly there, remembering how jealous Pete was in season one when Ken had a story published. There was was a whole storyline about Peter trying to get published-and I think he did in Boy’s Life or something.

    So is this season foreshadowing that something violent is going to happen at SCDP? How did you guys interpret Ken’s robot story at the dinner? Is Pete the robot that destroys the bridge that connects the planets and therefore connects people? It would tie in with what you pointed out jms concerning Pete’s back-stabbing ways. And I didn’t think about it at the time but Pete’s comment in the elevator about the workers in the office supposing to being friends is ridiculous. Pete is now a man in free fall, spiraling downwards.

    Did anybody else get on youtube and watch the video “Signal 30” after this episode? Yikes.

  5. Also, I took the sound of the dripping faucet that began and ended the episode to represent the inner turmoil in Pete’s mind. Don was the one to fix the faucet in the episode, and the scene played to show Don’s masculinity upping Pete’s. But has Don finally hit some sort of redemptive arc?

  6. No, I agree Pete has every reason to try to harm Ken, and it’s well within his wheelhouse to do so — I just think Roger is an odd choice for the person that Pete decided to tell.

    Also, something about how Roger brought it up — “a little birdie told me” — made me think it wasn’t Pete. Roger would love to cause problems for Pete, and the fact that Roger avoided saying Pete’s name in his conversation with Ken seemed odd. Peggy is the only other person who definitely knows about the writing (well, also Don, but I doubt it was him). It’s not really in line with her character to snitch on Ken, but given the timing of the revelation re. the pact, it makes some sense — she might think that snitching will result in either forcing Ken to quit writing and focus on his accounts work, or that it will make things uncomfortable enough for Ken at SCDP that he will start actively looking to leave. Either of those options, if she’s serious about leaving SCDP with Ken, are a good thing for Peggy.

  7. Maybe that very oddity is the point, showing the clumsiness of Pete’s backstabbing. He can’t directly confront Ken about the writing, because they’re all supposed to be “friends.” So he goes to the other account guy — but thereby winds up undercutting his desire for dominance over Roger by setting up a situation where Roger seems to be “in charge” (an odd resurgence after he’s had to literally bribe people in a previous episode).

    I wonder if we’re supposed to see a parallel with Lane’s client, where Roger gets the glory of being the experienced hand, advising him in the ways of account seduction, while Pete (somewhat inexplicably, really) gets all the blame for the lost account.

  8. (Potentially funny twist: with Trudy!!!)

    …after a firm retreat in California, whereupon Pete and Megan get in on (with Megan in the cheerleader’s uniform). Two years later, Ken adapts the story into a screenplay, renaming the characters, Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice.

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