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Collision: The Emasculation of Pete Campbell on Mad Men

"What do I do here?"

Throughout the series thus far, Mad Men's Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) has been presented as many things: a slimy weasel, an ambitious businessman, an amateur rapist. But this week's episode ("Signal 30"), written by Frank Pierson and Matthew Weiner and directed by John Slattery, focused on the character flaws of Pete Campbell (referred to as a "grimy pimp" here) to the point that the episode really ought to have been entitled "The Emasculation of Pete Campbell," for the number of male-driven crucibles it put the seemingly smug married executive through over the course of an hour. (Some, such as James Poniewozik and Myles McNutt have argued that this season of Mad Men has replaced subtext with overt symbolism, but while I agree with that assessment, it hasn't diminished my love for the show or my regard for this particular well-crafted installment.)

It's been no secret that Pete is desperate for the approval of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), his surrogate father figure. While Pete keeps a secret for Don, what he's wanted in return for his silence and trust is nothing less than unconditional love and approval, something that Pete was unable to get from his own father while he lived. From the puppy-like beaming when Don and Megan (Jessica Paré) choose to visit him and Trudy (Alison Brie) in the suburbs, it's only too clear that he requires Don's affections, presence, and approval in his life.

But Pete is on a dangerous path. Inasmuch as Pete wants Don's tacit approval of the choices he's making, he's also on a collision course with his own destiny: becoming Don. Pete's return home after their night of carousing (and one hell of a sobering cab ride) is a clear callback to the final scene of the pilot episode, in which Don returns home to Betty (January Jones), revealing that the series lead is in fact married.

But we know that Pete is married, seemingly happily married. We see the influence and input that Trudy, no wallflower, but an intelligent, engaged wife and mother, has on his life, as she hosts a dinner party for two of Pete's colleagues and their significant others. While Betty didn't understand what it was that Don did for a living, Trudy defends the role of ad man and of the industry over the dinner table. She's clearly a champion for her husband, though his own feelings on their marriage seem decidedly conflicted.

The episode is largely about what it means to be a man in the 1960s and how several of the characters construct their own perceptions of that definition. Is it by fixing the kitchen sink of a suburban home, far from the city? Is it indulging in alcohol and whores, while one's wife is asleep in bed at home? Or is it remaining faithful, even in the face of temptation, and changing one's own destructive patterns and impulses?

Does one punch mean the difference between feeling like a hero or a failure?

Throughout the episode, Pete is given several opportunities to prove himself a man in his own eyes (though no one else seems to doubt this self-identity crisis). The taunting drip of the kitchen sink at the beginning of the episode, which is keeping Pete awake at night, acts as a stark contrast to the idealized vision of seduction and pursuit that he engages in with Jenny (Amanda Bauer) at his driver's education class. Half his age, a high school student, Jenny represents an opportunity to reclaim his lost youth, to indulge in a flirtation that is vastly different than his "serious" marriage, with its demands of fatherhood and fidelity. (The Botanical Gardens of their conversation take on an almost Eden-like quality, a church among the trees, an oasis from the quotidian demands of his existence.) His efforts to fix the drip backfire magnificently, when at Trudy's dinner party, the faucet begins to spray water everywhere. But while Pete messes around with his toolbox (a symbol, perhaps, of his own fussy masculinity), Don removes his shirt and tie and fixes the sink without breaking a sweat, much to the adoration and delight of all of the party's female members, including Megan, Trudy, and Cynthia (Larisa Oleynik), the wife of Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) whose name neither Don nor Megan can remember.

Pete's conquest of Jenny similarly backfires, when a younger, more attractive man in Jim Hanson (Suburgatory's Parker Young), nicknamed "Handsome," turns his attentions to Jenny. The balding, older Pete can't compete with "Handsome" here at all; it's as much of a non-contest as it is attempting to compete with Don. As much as Pete might try to present himself as either Don or Hanson, neither path is really readily available to him, neither example of perceived masculinity (handiness with tools and/or women). In fact, it's his visit to a prostitute, while the SCDP lads are wooing the Jaguar account (brought in by Jared Harris' Lane Pryce), that clinches this. As the girl goes through any number of turn-on lines to entice Pete's libido, it's telling that the one that works is the one in which she plays to his need to be "king," a need to feel in control and powerful, following a series of events that have occurred that have proven just how weak and powerless he sees himself.

While Pete gives in to temptation, it's interesting that the "new" Don Draper doesn't, particularly after last week's fever dream. Don has seemingly exorcised that part of him that needed to cheat, and he sees what he has with Megan as something sacred and powerful. But just as Pete wants to be Don, Don seemingly wants to be Pete, to return to the idealized suburban existence he left behind. While Megan is turned on by Don's prowess with the kitchen sink, Don has Megan pull the car over so they can make a "baby." But Don seems to have forgotten one thing: he's been down this figurative road before; he's had the wife, house, and kids, and they still left a void that he attempted to fill by philandering, by finding comfort in the arms of other women and in the bottom of too many bottles of booze.

But Pete longs for the urban lifestyle that Don has: the young wife, the seemingly carefree existence, the easy masculinity that is evidenced in nearly everything Don does. He sees Don as a success, himself as a failure. Pete reads Don's silence in the cab, his decision to forgo the pleasures of the "apartment," for disapproval of his actions. For Don, he can't imagine why Pete would jeopardize what he has with Trudy; a happy man doesn't cheat. A happy man doesn't risk his present and future happiness for a few fumbling moments of pleasure. Roger (John Slattery) is miserable, Don says, which is why he does what he does. But what Don can't fathom is why Pete would risk ruining it all.

Pete's sullen reaction belie a host of seething problems within his psyche, and his furtive shower upon returning home speak volumes about his guilt. But it's not clear who he failed more, whether that's Trudy or Don. He had, after all, been circling Jenny for some time, clearly willing to embark on an extramarital affair with her, clearing following in Don's footsteps as the cheating husband whose arrival at the family home grew frequently later and later.

The scene in the elevator that passes between them the following day, Pete's face red and raw from his fight with Lane (more on that in a second), was powerfully profound and beautifully shot, particularly the part when Pete gets choked up and, while fighting back tears, admits to Don that he has "nothing." But what has Pete lost that he hasn't himself thrown away? How does a successful businessman, husband, and father have nothing exactly? Why must Pete view himself in terms of how he perceives himself next to the other men in his life?

While it's Roger's carousing that actually leads to the loss of the Jaguar account, as Edwin Baker (David Hunt) is forced to confess the night's activities to his wife when she discovers, as Lane delicately puts it, "chewing gum on his pubis," it's Pete who gets the blame from Lane, mostly because Pete has impugned Lane's manhood, telling him that Edwin didn't bring up such partying with Lane because he thinks he's a "homo," and that he has no value to the firm any longer. The fistfight that follows is an attempt for both men to try and reclaim something that has been lost to them, to try and salvage something of their masculine self-identity. (Kudos to Roger for his brilliant line about feeling as though they should take the higher moral ground and stop the fight, but wanting to see where it goes.)

When Lane and Pete scuffle, their battle is just as much an internal one as it is a collision between the two men, as they trade blows, protecting their business ties as much as they are their individual egos and sense of male pride. That it's Lane who knocks Pete to the floor is significant for them both, as Lane reasserts his own sense of self and Pete loses the last vestiges of his own. Yet, Lane isn't quick to celebrate; the fight has only exacerbated his own existential crisis, as he ponders the question above, "What do I do here?" It's a question that's about each of our own essential natures, our roles in the world as men. Is he essential to his family, to his agency? Can't someone else fulfill these roles?

(It's not the only collision that occurs here. Besides for the driver's ed videos depicting car accidents and Lane and Pete's fistfight, the episode also depicts the collisions between the old and new worlds, between American and British ways of conducting business, between generations and ideals, between Don and Pete, and between the self and the other that powers much of our exchanges.)

Perhaps in the fulfillment of multiple Lane-Joan (Christina Hendricks) fanfic fantasies, Lane impulsively kisses Joan, once again in a attempt to display his own masculinity, turning to sex as a means of proving his virility to himself. While Joan dismisses the advance, she does so delicately and carefully, not storming out of the office, but rather opening the door to appeal to Lane's genteel views on propriety. And her playfulness, stating that many men in the office have wanted to do what he's done (i.e., punching Pete Campbell, rather than making an advance on her), defuses the situation magnificently. Lane saves face, even as Joan puts him back in his place. (For now, at least. While I can see the potential for something developing between them, Joan is in no place right now to even consider another relationship.)

Kenny is only too happy that Lane has "kicked the crap" out of Pete, something he wanted to do, particularly after Ken's side gig as a science-fiction/fantasy novelist--writing under a pen name, Ben Hargrove--has been discovered by Roger, who dissuades him from continuing. While Ken claims that he was only writing in order to please his wife, who works for a publishing house, it's clear that he derives satisfaction--and a strong sense of self--from this endeavor, even though he's writing under a nom de plume in order to conceal his own true identity.

But Pete is too obvious a suspect here. While he's weaselly enough to go to Roger and tell him about Ken's side job, the more likely culprit is actually Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), who has a pact with Ken that if he leaves SCDP, he'll take her with him. He's far less likely to do so if his writing career takes off, and Peggy is an opportunist when it comes to her career. If it means clipping Ken's wings so that he'll be forced to stay at the firm for now and concentrate on his advertising career, the upshot is that their pact remains in place. If he continues to write, if he becomes successful, their pact becomes meaningless. Plus, we've seen recently that Peggy and Roger have gotten closer these past few episodes. If someone was whispering in Roger's ear, it's more likely to be Peggy, in my opinion.

But getting knocked down doesn't mean that you're out of the fight altogether. As the episode ends, we're given a glimpse into the mind of Ken Cosgrove, who has constructed a new identity for himself, a new pen name (Dave Algonquin) as he begins to write a new story (“The Man With the Miniature Orchestra”) as his wife sleeps next to him. The titular character would seem to be Pete Campbell, proud owner of a stereo who imagines a "tiny orchestra" dwelling within. And as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony plays to an unhearing audience, Pete lays in bed in the dark, replaying the sight of Hanson sliding his hand up Jenny's skirt, while hearing that dripping kitchen sink faucet, a tell-tale heart reminder of his own failures as a man.

On the next episode of Mad Men ("Far Away Places"), Peggy is rattled by a particularly difficult pitch; Don visits a potential client.


Quentin said…
I've read all of the episode analyses/commentaries this season, but this was probably the most interesting, insightful, and eloquent. A particularly good point was made regarding why it was likely than not Peggy who revealed Ken's literary activities to Roger. And yes, Roger's line about knowing cooler heads should prevail, but still wanting to see Lane and Pete go at it was "brilliant." I look forward to the commentary on next week's episode.
Murph said…
Something I noticed -- Jared Harris's wife says, "You love football," and he replies, "That was my father." A bit of reality in the show's dialogue, since Richard Harris, Jared's real life Dad, did love football - the rugby version. I wonder if Weiner knew that and put that bit in.
k122n said…
(Some, such as James Poniewozik and Myles McNutt have argued that this season of Mad Men has replaced subtext with overt symbolism, but while I agree with that assessment, it hasn't diminished my love for the show or my regard for this particular well-crafted installment.)

I'd argue this is what was happening in the social consciousness in general around this time, a move from the subtle to the loud. To me this move is a reflection of the times and a deliberate style shift.
Jace Lacob said…
Very astute point about the larger notion about subtext vs. symbolism in popular culture. The tone of the day is definitely "loud," so it might make sense for Mad Men to shift in this direction. Hmmm.
Jace Lacob said…
I definitely believe it was Peggy, even though the episode left this deliberately open-ended. And thanks!
Anonymous said…
Did anyone else notice that when Don stripped off his shirt to fix the sink at Trudy's dinner party, that Pete handed him a wrench and called him, "Dick". I thought that this fit with the multiple roles of masculinity mentioned in the post(i.e. business man vs. suburban handyman/husband). Don is both an ad man but also has the skills of his upbringing (a man who works with his hands). He moves fluidly between the two roles whereas Pete is clumsy in both worlds. Pete can't fix the plumbing problem in his own home. His solution to the plumbing problem was a temporary fix that just added to the problem. (Although, based on the ending and the tell-tale dripping at the end of the episode while Pete is in bed, Don didn't necessarily fix the problem either. He certainly did it with more flair though.)
Anonymous said…
This was by far one of the best desciptions I have ever read and I have read quite a few. Due to the fact that Pete is my real life son (I like to know what people are saying about him). I share some of Pete Campbell traits as when I pick up a power tool my wife screams .....IT'S Alive. Funniest part of that is I sell tools for a living. I just wanted to say what a great commentary you wrote and keep up the good work....Thanks

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