Pete Campbell, indeed, is a grimy little pimp. And that’s the real Pete Campbell — the one behind the well-mannered and all-smiles goof dancing the Charleston with his wife at garden parties. The one who never has felt in control of his life and who once practically forced himself on his neighbor’s young au pair and blamed his wife’s absence for his straying. That one. We warm to him at times, and even sympathize as he appears to be the hardest-working member of SCDP. But then off he goes, dropping his act and recklessly hurting people. Thankfully, some of them know how to fight back.
Pete had his own little American Beauty unfolding in Season Five’s solid and surprising fifth episode, “Signal 30,” complete with a teenage blonde to lust after and suburbia representative of living a lie, a favorite theme of the series. Don, of all people, seems to have recognized the charade he was leading (identity theft issues aside) and moved past it. Where many viewers saw a colossal mistake in his quick decision to marry Megan, he rightly saw his salvation. She’s good for him. Is this what he needed all along — someone with a softer touch and brighter outlook on life to serve as a counterbalance to his moodier nature? Megan isn’t a push-over; she regularly calls a spade a spade. She’s genuine, and that’s the one thing Don craves. His world was fake — and still can be, mostly thanks to work — and Megan provides a foundation to cling to (fever dream behavior aside). At the escort house with Roger, Pete and the Jaguar Cars executive, Edwin Baker, he just sits at the bar, annoyed at having to go along with the game, the just like old times gathering of guys out to get into some trouble. It’s bullshit, and so is Pete’s excuse that his rendezvous with a prostitute was all part of him doing his job. He should heed Don’s advice: “I’m just trying to tell you because I am who I am, and I’ve been where I’ve been, that you don’t get another chance at what you have.” “Brave words for a man on his second time around,” Pete said. “Yeah,” Don replied, “and if I’d met her first, I would have known not to throw it away.”
Pete’s resentment of Don always has stemmed from his jealousy. Things come easier for Don, whether it be attracting women, or clients, or knowing how to fix a broken kitchen sink. Pete has never such finesse or usefulness — such control. That may explain why he has strayed from the lovely Trudy several times now: He probably never wanted to marry her in the first place. He loves her, but he’s unsatisfied, and their marriage was just a part of his life plan mapped out for him by family and social expectations. Don was able to break away from what made him unhappy, but Pete doesn’t have the guts. (I’m not suggesting he leave Trudy or condoning his behavior.) He does, though, have a desire to dominate. It’s power that he’s seeking when he flirts with his drivers ed classmate, Jenny, and again when he sleeps with the escort. (Does he want to her to play like a wife? Nope. A virgin? Nope? Someone who tells him “You’re my king”? OK.)
Likewise, at the office, his treatment of Lane is an extension of his need to be on top (no pun intended), and he’s downright cruel. Lane, desperate for connection and acceptance, has been on the verge of snapping this summer — remember Dolores? — and if Pete makes Roger feel like a professor emeritus of accounts, he makes Lane feel like the aging alumnus who won’t quit hanging around the campus center in a long-outgrown Greek sweatshirt. “I can’t believe the hours I’ve put into helping you become the monster you’ve become,” Lane tells Pete not long before he rolls up his sleeves and challenges him to a fist fight in a scene sure to go down as one of “Mad Men’s” most memorable. It’s not the first slightly ridiculous incident to occur at the office; an executive having his toes chopped off by a John Deere driven by a secretary ranks highly, along with Ida Blankenship dying at her desk and being wheeled away on her chair. And somehow, all the bits work. Here, everything was perfect from Roger’s delight in the spectacle — “I know cooler heads should prevail here, but am I the only one who wants to see this?” — to Don drawing the curtains, Joan and Peggy listening in and Bert remarking that it all was “Medieval.”
Afterward, Lane’s continued humiliation (even though, as Peggy put it, he beat the crap out of Pete) by kissing Joan can likely be chalked up not to specific romantic feelings toward her, although the could exist, but to her being one of the few people to show him true kindness. Joan was there to provide comfort and reassure him that he’s valuable, and he was grateful. Her reaction to his blunder demonstrated grace, moving forward and treating his apology — “About what? Everybody in this office has wanted to do that to Pete Campbell.” Ken says as much to Peggy when he assumes Pete is the one who ratted out his sci fi writing under the pen name Ben Hargrove. But Ken has his own last laugh by switching pen names and using Pete’s life as inspiration for a new tale, “The Man With the Miniature Orchestra,” a reference to the stereo Pete is so proud of. “It might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence, and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.” Echoes of a dripping faucet were a nice touch, going back to Pete’s feeling of helplessness. He’s not helpless, though — none of them are. But he’s also not strong enough to ever truly be in control of his life. The country is not what’s killing you, Pete. Living a lie is. However, looking at Ken’s other story of the robot and the bridge, coupled with the drivers ed film Signal 30 featuring real car accidents that Pete found so laughable, we see that caution is still required in our choices. When we go violently off-script and act recklessly, many can suffer. Order is necessary, but it isn’t always fun. That’s life.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in Texas.