Monday, April 16, 2012

"Mad Men" recap: How I learned to drive

Spoilers for this week's episode of "Mad Men" below. Don't click through if you don't want to know.

While all the "Mad Men" characters are flawed in some way (or in many ways), Pete Campbell has always been one of the show's more reprehensible characters. Yes, he's good at his job. And yes, his dysfunctional upbringing by cold, withholding parents gives him a vulnerability that makes him hugely sympathetic at times (particularly in his scenes with Don). But the guy's still a whiny bully who takes any opportunity to condescend to those around him. This season alone, he's been obsessed with putting Roger in his place. And, on last night's episode, he foolishly tries to do the same with Lane and gets a much needed punch in the face.

In fact, it was a rather Pete-heavy episode last night. Aside from his humiliating lashing from Lane, the episode focused on two other key relationships in Pete's life: his relationship with Don and his marriage to Trudy. Ever since the pilot, Don and Pete have had a contentious relationship. It's sweetened over time, as Don has gradually learned to give Pete just enough of the approval he so desperately craves to keep him loyal (witness him paying for Pete's share of the company late last season). Though Don still disapproves of (and probably dislikes) Pete in many ways, he obviously respects him more than someone like Harry. More likely, Don sees the worst of himself in Pete, and is both repulsed and understanding.

Pete, meanwhile, constantly craves more from Don, which is why Trudy pressures Don into coming out to Connecticut for that awkward, fawning dinner party. Pete's thrilled -- but that takes a turn when Don easily fixes the sink that was giving Pete so much trouble. Pete worships Don, craves his approval and yet is enormously jealous of him at every turn. The Pete-Don relationship (though less compelling than the Don-Peggy friendship) is pretty key to the series, and I liked seeing it get some attention here.

But Pete has another major relationship in his life, which is even more contentious than his relationship with Don -- his marriage to Trudy. Oh, poor Trudy. Perhaps Pete's constant cheating on her is even more painful to watch than Don being unfaithful to Betty -- mainly because Trudy is so deeply supportive and loving toward her husband. Yes, we've seen her panic when the new firm was leaching money from their family, but, overall, Trudy is a decent wife and doesn't deserve what Pete's done to her.

 Don points this out to Pete, but doesn't understand that Pete doesn't want Trudy to love him. He wants her to worship him. She sees him more as a peer, and not as someone strong and worldly. Pete briefly gets the 17-year-old girl from driving class to see him that way, but she eventually drops him for the more age-appropriate classmate (hilariously nicknamed  "Handsome"). Pete gets the prostitute to call him her king, but, then, he's paying for her.

To deal with being upstaged by Don and not worshiped by his wife, Pete tries to show he's a man by belittling the understandably perturbed Lane. But he goes too far and Lane, who's had his share of bullies in his life, calls his bluff and challenges him to a fight. And how awesome was that fight? As Joan points out, EVERYONE in that office has wanted to punch Pete Campbell in the face at some point -- which is why the other partners stand around and watch instead of jumping in.

Pete is, over course, humiliated, but he doesn't learn anything. He tells Don he has "nothing" -- a ridiculous statement from a man with a loving wife, a baby daughter and a promising career (which he presumably still has, even after the fist fight). But, to Pete, that seems like nothing, because it isn't what he wants. He wants, basically, to be Don. He wants to be worshiped by women and respected by his peers. But he doesn't realize that that life is just as tough, if not tougher, than his own.

Anyway, here are some more of my thoughts on Signal 30:
  • Lots of focus on driving in this episode. Pete's learning to drive, so he can get around his new home in the suburbs. Of course, it seems like all they do in that class is watch movies, so I'm not sure how helpful this will be. But we see how badly he wants this freedom, particularly when he has to make the lengthy, expensive cab trip back to Cos Cob from his night out with the guys (no, he probably wouldn't have been able to drive home from gathering, but Pete seems particularly shamed in the backseat of that cab, expecting this strange to ferry him home).
  • While we saw Pete's marriage is in trouble again, Don seems to be doing pretty well at being a good boy. He behaves in the whorehouse, and drunkenly tells Megan he wants to have a baby with her. And what do we make of Megan's response -- "That's impossible." Was she just teasing her drunk husband? Can she not have kids? Does she not want kids? I'm expecting that to come up again at some point.
  • Aside from Pete, a fair amount of focus in this episode was put on Kenny and Lane. Kenny, we learn, has continued to write fiction (an idea that came up several seasons again when he had his "date" with Sal that he didn't realize was a date). He's been pretty successful, too, but is hiding it from the firm. Wonder who tipped Roger off about Kenny's side job, by the way. Given their tense relationship lately, I actually don't think it was Pete who told Roger. It might have been Peggy, but, given the pact she and Kenny have (and how interesting is that??), I doubt it. Maybe Don?
  • Lane also gets a lot of play, here, and we see that he's still struggling to find his place in the firm. He does a decent job getting the Jaguar guy on the hook, though he turns out not to be much of a salesman. Still, he's better at handling the delicacies of working with an Englishman than his cohorts, but they overlook that to their peril. Indeed, Lane has always seemed like one of the few adults in this firm, which makes it all the more jarring when he challenges Pete to a fistfight. Then, perhaps this was what was needed to put Pete in his place. And at least Lane has the decency to feel bad about the altercation afterward.
  • Given Lane's deep need for tenderness and affirmation (and the fact that he gets neither from his wife), I figured it was only a matter of time before he took Joan's collegial support for something more and made a move. Joan, in true Joan fashion, is classy about it and doesn't embarrass him And, frankly, after Greg and Roger, maybe she kind of likes getting the affection of a man who respects her enough to sincerely apologize when he crosses the line.
  • After last week's tip to the Chicago nurse massacre, we get a reference to another real-life crime -- Charles Whitman's shooting spree at the University of Texas that killed 16 and wounded 31 (one of the surviving victims actually died years later as a result of his wounds from the shooting). It's yet another sign that our characters are living in a world that's going crazy. (Note: The "Lost" fan in me couldn't help but hope the fact that one of the characters mispronounces his name as "Charles Whitmore" was a reference to Charles Widmore. I'm probably wrong. But I hope.)
  • On a lighter note, I loved the many ways that Don and Megan worked around the fact that they didn't know Kenny's wife's name ("!), particularly when it culminated in Megan gleefully blurting "Cynthia!" when Kenny finally mentions his spouse by name.
  • Speaking of hilarious, dig Don in that loud sport coat!
  • Really good episode for Vincent Kartheiser, a member of the ensemble who isn't always used to full effect. His portrayal of Pete always beautifully walks the line between innocence and brattiness -- making Pete an object of disdain without making him wholly unsympathetic.
  • Gum in the pubic hair? That sounds painful.
What did everyone else think?

1 comment:

Bill Scurry said...

This was indeed a marvelous showcase for Kartheiser. His body language sold so much, like when he was looking at the young prostitute in the mirror, shooting down her guises until she struck the correct note.

Tangenting off Pete's woes, the fistfight was more thematically appropriate than viewers might think -- here, you have the two most emasculated characters duking it out for dominance in a "loser's bracket." Whomever loses this scrum weeps in the elevator ride home.