If two weeks ago was The Betty Hour and last week was All About Joan, “Signal 30” was most definitely “The Pete Show.” While this was also a fine showcase for Jared Harris’ Lane (did anyone doubt for a second that he would totally beat the shit out of Pete?) and a nice glimpse into Aaron Staton’s Ken (the nicest guy in the room by SCDP standards), Vincent Kartheiser essentially gave viewers a crash course in why we hate Pete one minute and want to take away his pain the next. And I know I say this a lot when it comes to the Mad Men crew, but this is Kartheiser’s Emmy episode (now for the love of God give one of these actors a trophy!).
Who is Pete Campbell? Over four plus seasons, we have seen many faces to this boy in a man’s body (or is it the other way around?). He betrayed his soon-to-be wife, Trudy, with a very green Peggy (and while there’s plenty of guilt to go around on that front, Pete has yet to comprehend his role in Peggy’s decision to let their child go). He was willing to pimp Trudy out in the name of getting a story published (and all these years later he’s still jealous of Ken). Pete was the first to get the goods on Don and was all kinds of stunned when Bert Cooper simply did not care. And did I mention what basically amounted to the rape of his neighbors’ au pair? What’s not to loathe?
…and yet… Season One’s scenes of Pete and his disapproving father kind of made you feel bad for the guy who just wanted to make it in advertising. Before he and Trudy were able to get pregnant, adoption was a topic of conversation. While Pete was Pete about the whole thing at first, the moment he tried to be a grownup, he was met with another round of familial scorn. Getting back to the Peggy debacle, when she finally came clean about the baby she’d decided to forget, the site of Pete and his rifle was that of a man broken and and suddenly at a loss as to how to express himself (and note that said rifle came up during last night’s dinner party; I am still convinced that this season is heading for a major death, and today I find myself wondering if Pete and his gun will play a role). When it comes to the world of the office, Pete often has the best ideas of the bunch, and as of right now it can be argued that he’s keeping the agency afloat where the business end of things is concerned. There is no easy way to know how to feel about Pete, which is just what so many of last night’s scenes illustrated.
At the very start he is unable to sleep because of a dripping faucet. So we are treated to Pete the family man, or at least Pete trying to fill that role. His interaction with young Jenny during the driver’s ed class is Pete trying to turn on the charm and do his best Don Draper (he really is Don circa Seasons One and Two at this point in the story). Jenny is intrigued, but Pete is no match for a muscled teenager nicknamed “Handsome.” Pete watching the young lovers from the back of the classroom could have had dirty old man written all over it, but instead Pete came off like the small boy passed over in gym class, desperate to be the big man on campus. The dinner party with the Drapers and the Cosgroves saw Pete trying to play that part, only to be humiliated when it falls to Don to properly fix the faucet. After totally usurping Lane’s efforts with the Jaguar representative, we’re treated to a trip to a whorehouse, during which Pete carries on to Don’s disappointment (more on that in a second). The scene with the prostitute is nothing short of all aspects of Pete in under a minute (in the end, he doesn’t really want the innocent Jenny or the loving Trudy; he wants to be recognized as the best at something because he has no concept of how to do anything).
Don and Pete in the cab is one of the episode’s highlights. On the one hand, who is Don to judge Pete? He’s playing at being The Good Husband now, but think of the many, many, many women he cheated on Betty with. But on the other hand, he’s trying to stop Pete from repeating his mistakes. Give Jon Hamm credit for playing noble hypocrisy to perfection.
But the main event is Lane throttling Pete in front of the senior partners (side note: did you not just love the Lane/Joan kiss?; don’t know where they’re going with this, but whereas Pete does not know the meaning of friendship, nor does he really have any friends at the agency, Lane most certainly has a pal in “Red”). Pete is out of line, and he deserves everything he gets. As I already mentioned, there was never a question as to who would emerge victorious. Lane might be older, and his glasses and manners might suggest a mouse of a man. But Lane has likely taken enough beatings from his cane wielding father to know how to defend his honor if and when he has to. Pete’s never had to fight for a goddamned thing, not like Don or Peggy or Joan. Maybe he’s Don now, but Pete is well on his way to becoming Roger in twenty years time if he doesn’t take a step back and really look at himself.
That brings us to Pete’s heartbreaking admission to Don that he has “nothing” (and me wanting to give the guy a hug when I could have hit him myself a few scenes earlier). Will Pete set about on a course of self-improvement to correct his many faults and nurture what is good? Or will he remain “The Man with the Miniature Orchestra,” wordless, jealous, and alone in the back of a darkened classroom?