It’s about time we had a rock ’em sock ’em Pete Campbell episode.
Vincent Kartheiser dug deep to deliver on the meaty material provided in “Signal 30,” penned by Frank Pierson and Matthew Weiner and helmed by John Slattery. This episode has already gone a long way to making me forget the general ho-hum-ness of the previous week’s seg, “Mystery Date.”
Like the fight scene between Pete and Lane Pryce, “Signal 30” was raw in parts and thoroughly unpredictable. (He left chewing gum where?) It played like a “Mad Men” seg from the screenwriter of “Cool Hand Luke” and “Dog Day Afternoon” – which it was.
Kudos to Slattery, too, for keeping a punchy pace and having the bandwidth to be on screen a lot even while he was directing. It’s a very Roger Sterling thing to do all that and make it look so effortless.
Before dissecting the Pete of it all, let’s hear it for the girls who had important moments in the seg: Trudy, Megan and Joan.
Trudy, as Don now knows, is a force. I think they emphasized her determination to take charge as Mrs. Campbell on the social scene to distinguish her from a Betty type. Trudy clearly has ambition and you get the feeling that she won’t let even a philandering husband derail her plans for her family. She’s already overlooked his transgression once, a few seasons back when Pete pushed himself on the German au pair next door.
Megan also continues to distinguish herself in Don’s eyes. She’s not a pushover, she speaks her own mind and, perhaps most comforting to Don, she shows that she’s not so Manhattan hip as to be immune to the charm of a man in a T-shirt fixing a sink. She even gets him to eschew up on his gray suit for the Campbells’ party in favor of a loud plaid number (not quite as loud as the one Pete wore to Don’s surprise party, however). Thought it was interesting that her post-party response to the notion of them having a baby is a swift “no.”
Joan in this episode is back in her natural habitat, finally, and back to her familiar role as the officer fixer. She’s more comfortable in her own skin.
Back to Pete. I thought the pacing of Kartheiser’s performance was so well done. By the time he’s fighting back tears in the elevator scene with Don, you’re just aching for him, even though he really has been acting like the “grimy little pimp” that Lane describes shortly before their fists fly.
Like Don, Pete is feeling buffeted by all the societal change around him and the personal changes in his life now that he’s living on a ground floor for the first time in his life. He’s too old to flirt effectively with high school girls but not old enough to miss living in the city.
He’s tied down with a demanding wife, obligations to his baby daughter and maintaining the lifestyle of success that allows him to show off his Wilt Chamberlain-sized console stereo to dinner guests. (My parents had one of those when I was a kid – a huge wooden piece of furniture in the living room that housed a clunky turntable and a radio and speakers. It always reminded me of a coffin.)
In the outside world, “Mad Men” is pushing the theme of the unraveling of the social fiber with the mass murder cases of Richard Speck, referenced in last week’s seg, and Charles Whitman, the Texas sniper who killed 16 people on Aug. 1, 1966. (I noticed Don “Dick Whitman” Draper corrected someone who mistaken referred to him as ‘Whitmire’).
Even the mayhem in the driving school films Pete is forced to endure in order to get his driver’s license at long last is putting him on edge. Add to that the civil rights demonstrations, urban riots, youth and counterculture movement and there’s no doubt people must’ve been freaked out. (“Things seem so random,” the girl in driver’s ed school tells Pete. “Time feels like it’s speeding up.”)
No wonder Ken Cosgrove was writing dark-edged fantasy fiction. And I noticed that Bert Cooper was prescient in mentioning as an aside to Don that Richard Nixon is “just waiting” for his chance at a political comeback – crazy as that sounds at the time (before America goes through the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968).
The show hinted at drawing parallels between Old Don and New Pete in the season opener – and obviously those lines are much thicker now. Pete is hyper-sensitive about being judged by Don, which may be enough to keep him repeating Don’s many mistakes. After all, he does go home and take a shower after Don’s scolding in the taxi.
The scene with the “escort” going through her repertoire of fantasy seductions was priceless – and telling. Pete wants to be king, something he’s not likely to get much of at home where Queen Trudy reigns.
The Lane storyline I thought was pretty straightforward. He’s a guy that longs to belong but doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. I noticed this time the significance of him having the pennant of the underdog New York Mets in his office rather than the high-class Yankees. The fisticuffs between Lane and Pete underscore the sense of social chaos that surrounds them.
Roger Sterling as usual enlivened every scene graced with his presence. He gives a master class in the art of the sell. “Get your answers, be nice to the waiter and don’t let him near the check.”
Best Roger line of the episode: “Cup of what?” after Lane remarks that England took the World Cup.
Best Don Draper scene of the episode was his exchange with the madam at the escort service party. “I grew up in a place like this,” he says with great sadness. Whorehouses, high priced or otherwise, never were Don Draper/Dick Whitman’s style.
With so much going on, I was so impressed by the artful way Pierson and Weiner tie up this eventful episode, with Cosgrove inspired by his frenemy’s comment about the “tiny orchestra” in his console. As Ken dives into a new literary persona, now that Ben Hargrove’s cover is blown, he channels Pete’s struggle: “Living in the country was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.”
-- Cynthia Littleton