Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Mad Men 5-5: Signal 30

"I know cooler heads should prevail, but does anybody else want to see how this plays out?"
-Roger Sterling

That sentence pretty much sums up how I feel about "Mad Men," now more than ever. The show has a habit of dangling out the possibility of redemption or fulfillment or, dammit, something resembling happiness for its characters, only to yank it back, and nothing about this season so far has suggested that pattern will change. In fact, this week's episode dug the trench a bit deeper as it mercilessly plumbed the endless depths of the misery of Pete Campbell. And yet I can't stop watching.

The tragedy of Pete Campbell just may be that his misery is largely - though not entirely - self-created. By most objective measures the man should be happy: he's a rising partner at an up-and-coming ad agency, with a lovely wife who's also his most effective agent and ally, a baby and a nice house in the suburbs, hell, even the latest in 1960's sound systems! Of course a good deal of this could have been said of Don Draper circa six years ago, who wasn't any happier than Pete and ended up ditching the whole prefab package. Yet Pete's angst goes beyond mere suburban ennui, though there's plenty of that; it's rooted in his persistent sense of feeling overlooked and unappreciated, no matter how much he's achieved. That attitude, fueled by a toxic mix of false entitlement and pathological insecurity, ends up being self-fulfilling. In this it's the obverse of Don's cool (if manufactured) self-possession, as we've seen time and again, though never, perhaps as acutely as in this very Pete-centric episode. I found it almost painful to watch our favorite "grimy little pimp" repeatedly try to play a part - plumber, deal-closer, ladies' man (his hitting on that teenage girl was especially queasy-making) - only to be shown up every time. And not just by Don and "Handsome" Hanson but by Roger and Lane, two men he thought he'd climbed over in the SCDP pecking order. No wonder he ended up having to pay to play "king" for a night - even if he paid as much in guilt and self-loathing, which again was painful to see, as in money.

(Let me pause to note that there was nothing painful about watching the Fight, which gave me much joy despite, or rather because of, its utter absurdity. I need a gif of Lane's boxing pose, stat.)

What Pete, fixated on his own woes, doesn't quite register is that the other guys are hardly any more secure in their masculine self-worth than he is. Roger may show that there's still a spark of life - and utility - in the silver fox, but at the end of the day *he* lost the Jaguar account and spent most of his time reminiscing about the days when the job, as he put it, met all his needs. Lane well-advisedly KO'd Pete - and ill-advisedly kissed Joan - only because Pete touched a nerve in implying he was dead weight at the firm. (Joan, bless her, handled the situation with aplomb and perfect Joan-like discretion.) And even Don, who seemed to resume his post as reigning alpha male, still got outmaneuvered by cunning Trudy (their phone conversation, btw, was a beautiful thing) and his own wife (who doesn't seem to want to make little Don-babies, which could spell trouble down the road).

As always, the only dude with any real hope of being happy appears to be Ken, easily the most well-adjusted and least tortured of our mad men. (Which might be why we only see him intermittently - if that changes, I will start to fear for his well-being.) Yet even his writing - whether it's about robots or the world's tiniest orchestra - reflects their collective feeling of powerlessness and limited free agency. They're all trapped by what they're conditioned to believe are their roles in society, and a growing sense that, like that robot, their only alternative is to blow up the world. Maybe that gun of Pete's will end up going off after all. Or maybe Ken will just go off to become a full-time writer.

Random observations:

-This week's episode was directed by John Slattery, who's helmed before to fine effect. Here's where I should say something smart about his use of dissolves and transitions, but I got nothin' other than: they wuz cool.

-Best moment that was not part of The Fight: Pete considering the prostitute's menu of options ("Nope...Nope...Ok, that'll do.") Perfect deadpan by Vincent Kartheiser, who was quite strong in this episode...even if his character was anything but.

-Favorite line - close call between Roger's wisecracks and Lane's outraged declamations, but I have to give the prize to the latter: "As soon as I raise my hands, I warn you, it shall be too late to run." I gotta start saying that whenever anyone pisses me off.

-Runner-up: "He had chewing gum on his pubis!"

-Least favorite: "This is an office - we're supposed to be friends!" Even if Pete's just hit bottom, I still can't buy his blubbering that line to Don in the elevator.

-It wasn't until after I finished watching the episode that I realized this was the first time this season we've seen Joan working at the office. That's how seamlessly she fits into the world of SCDP! Welcome back, Miss Holloway.


Blogger CMN said...

Nice synopsis. Here's my two cents:

Pete's tragedy is that he thinks achieving success as a man means being like Don, and he'll never be like Don. The irony is that Don has become keenly aware the extent to which real happiness depends on learning not to be so much like Don.

2:20 PM  
Blogger lylee2 said...

Nicely observed, and I agree. Although can Don really help being Don in the long term? That's the question.

7:08 PM  

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