Mad Men 5×05: “Signal 30”

First off: I love Pete Campbell.  This episode was like watching porn for me.

I sort of tire of a certain genre of film and TV that I think is derivative of Fight Club.  Because at times my soul is about fifteen years old, I still think Fight Club is pretty rad, even though I’ve lost my taste for Chuck Palahniuk as an author.  But there’s a certain genre that you will recognize from, like, Garden State, that has to do with the crushing ennui of being a white male of a certain age in America in the age of convenience.  I think while Fight Club maintains its punch (no pun intended) while other movies about men having life crises (be it mid- or quarter-life) are generally boring when they don’t involve violence or a strong element of the picaresque.  Watching Kevin Spacey or Zach Braff have a breakdown in the first world in the twenty-first century just doesn’t do it for me.

But I do like Mad Men‘s version of Fight Club because where there’s a lack of violence there are complex, compelling characters whose highs and lows I feel deeply.  It leans a little more on the midlife crisis version of things—even if Pete and Ken are young, they have settled down.  If they were main characters in bildungsromans, their stories would be over by now.  Characters have been asking since Season One “what is all this for?” or referring to “all this.”  And now Pete really has all this: wife, non-adopted progeny, a partnership, a house in the ‘burbs when that was still cool.  And he tells Don, tearfully, “I have nothing,” in the elevator, even though Don spent the night before convincing Pete that he does, in fact, have all this.

We’ve had some Pete-centric episodes before—Pete’s father dying in “Flight One,” Pete raping the neighbor’s German au pair in “Souvenir”—but this one takes the cake.  Pete fails at every turn here.  His wife is the one who gets Don to come over.  Pete points out they’ve been trying to have Don over for dinner since he and Trudy got married, which we know was in March 1960, meaning it’s been over six years.  Trudy forbids the gun in the house in front of guests.  Don fixes the sink Pete already fixed while Pete is still fumbling with his tool box.  Cosgrove is still making it as a writer, besting Pete yet again.  Pete’s barely-legal, vanilla-extract-swigging pal in Driver’s Ed forgets his advances when suddenly a boy from her chemistry class shows up and starts paying attention to her.  The prostitute figures out pretty quickly that calling Pete “my king” will float his boat.  To make things worse, Pete feels awkward about the encounter and he makes it obvious to Don, which you know is the opposite of what he wants.  Lane pwns him super hard for being a dick.  For some reason, I’m noticing, too, that Pete’s put on a little weight, Joan says it best: “Everyone in this office has wanted to do that to Pete Campbell.”  Nobody likes Pete and Pete doesn’t like Pete.

I think this isn’t really anything new, but I loved the way it all came together.  It’s Thursday and I still haven’t posted my analysis of this episode for both people who read it.  So I’m going to say that it’s like that part in the “Beez in the Trap” video where Nicki Minaj says “I’m shittin on your whole life.”  And it was the universe saying as much to Pete Campbell.  And it was so great.  And I’m excited to see where it goes for the rest of the season.  Evidence:

While most of the story is about Pete being unhappy, we also learn of Lane’s unhappiness.  We know from his dating Toni in Season 4 that his marriage was pretty much over, but suddenly it’s back on with Rebecca whining for all England.  But we also know from the premiere that Lane will stray—and we really know it when he plants a big wet one on Joan after bemoaning the fact that she could do his job and he can’t do anyone else’s.  I used to really hate Awkward Lane, but I appreciate him here.  I still cringe when I think about “The Good News” and its infamous steak-crotch moment, but his attempt at following Roger’s advice was hysterical.

Ken emerges as the winner in this episode.  Alex Mack—I mean, Bianca Stratford—I mean, his wife, Cynthia, brags about his successful career as a science fiction writer at the dinner party.  Roger finds out about his career and tells him to put the kibosh on it.  Work enough should be fulfilling and he should be working all the time.   I’m kind of interested in how Ken went from writing about maple trees in Vermont to writing about girls who lay eggs.  But mostly I loved his scenes with Peggy.  I’ve always liked Cosgrove, and this episode made me realize how much he’s evolved as a character from pick-up line buffoonery in Season One to perhaps the most well-adjusted guy at SCDP.  I enjoyed the voice-over here (whereas in “The Summer Man” I thought it sounded silly), but above all I enjoyed how Cosgrove just said “fuck all y’all” and will keep up with his writing career.  (And I know he can never know of Ben Hargrove or Dave Algonquin, but I like to think that somewhere out there Sal is collecting all of his stories.)

Stray observations:

I love how Don corrects Cynthia’s pronunciation of the University of Texas sniper’s name from

I lol’d at how the best pen name Ken Cosgrove can come up with is “Ben Hargrove.”

Ken is a much better sci-fi nerd than Paul Kinsey.

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