Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Mad Men: Signal 30 (5.5)

I experienced a crushing blow watching Signal 30. The latest in a number of Mad Men-related disappointments, gravitating from the ugly reality that doesn't always present itself every week on this show, the admiration you have for certain characters that is unexpectedly upturned. Because Pete isn't a good person. He's funny and charming and adorably unaware of his weekly downward spiral into inevitable disappointments, and all of this combines to make him somebody you can almost root for. But then we get an episode like this one, where he exhibits behavior that is beyond reprehensible. And, somehow, he can't get away with it like Don does. He just ends up appearing pathetic, and suddenly you're hit with that realization that he's truly not good at all.

But it's an important distinction that he can't get away with this behavior, as it forms the entire crux of the hour. Don is somebody who naturally radiates confidence, no matter how morally unacceptable many of his actions are, especially in regards to women. He owns his sleaziness, while backing it up with an ease and presence that is attractive to most of the people in his life. Pete isn't Don, if only because everything he does is so aggressively 'done'. There's no ease or comfort there, only the appearance of somebody trying so hard to be something that they're not.

There were numerous personal humiliations here, least of all whenever he came into contact with women. Attending a driver's ed class, Pete gets talking to an attractive high school girl. They banter a little, seem to strike up something of a rapport. But there's something about these scenes that feel naturally sinister. Don behaving the same way would similarly creep you out, but Pete's actions are so 'conscious' that the girl ends up appearing uncomfortable, rather than at all aroused. It also doesn't help that Pete isn't hugely appealing as a physical embodiment of attractive businessmen. Pete has the face of a 12 year-old but the mannerisms of a middle-aged man in his father's business wear, and his charm sometimes reads as more than a little rapey. He has none of the matinee idol swoonworthy-ness of Don Draper, and struggles to articulate with the opposite sex. He's also no good at hiding his jealousies or overt temptations. He looks at Mr. Handsome with resentful disgust, and salivates over the poor girl like a cuckolded old man.

We also forgave Don for stepping out on Betty because there seemed to be something of an even playing field within the Draper home. Betty wasn't having affairs like her husband when the show opened up, but we as an audience were always made aware that Betty, too, knew her marriage was a sham. Compare her to Trudy, somebody seemingly so happy and carefree and supportive of her husband -- and it hurts to see Pete sleeping with a hooker instead of her.

Even at the office, Pete confuses workplace bravado with outright rudeness. His treatment of Lane (calling him a 'homo', ridiculing his usefulness) disgusts his peers, presumably going against what Pete had in mind. At the same time, the general reaction to their fight was that Lane only did what they never had the guts to do. Nobody likes Pete, and despite his cries of self-pity ("I have nothing"), it's difficult to see him as anything other than pathetic.

While this was something of a stand-out episode for Pete, the rest of the cast were given equally strong material to work with... naturally. Lane spends most of the hour trying to woo a client with a checklist of mind games talked up by Roger, only to find that any one of his approaches (traditional or otherwise) would have never won the client over. Lane is painted as a stranger in a strange land, trying to figure out his role in both the office and at home. And when his colleagues visit prostitutes and dispense personal insults, he's left feeling more lost than ever. His kiss with Joan was another burst of misplaced sexual enthusiasm after his telephone flirtation in the season premiere, but you can't help but wonder if there might actually be something there after all. Joan didn't immediately pull away, and there's definitely something of a connection between them.

The Gold Violin is one of my favorite Mad Men episodes, so I loved the return of Ken's novelist subplot. He's not a character that often gets a whole lot to do, but it fits in perfectly with who he is in his private life. He's quiet, unassuming, seemingly faithful to Alex Mack, not particularly interesting -- but an observer of others. He abandons his existential sci-fi work and instead begins writing a story of a man he's glimpsed recently in his own life. He watches and listens and spots Pete's emotional meltdown while not always being a direct viewer of it, and his narration over the final collection of shots was an uncomfortably intimate parallel to Pete's crisis.

Meanwhile, the specter of aging remained an ever-present force. When a teenage girl even remarks about the rapid passing of time and her desire to return to her youth, you have to feel for those far older than her and unable to go back to their past selves. Or in the case of Pete Campbell, become the fantasy version of themselves that could never, ever work; let alone be taken seriously. We all have fantasies, and we all sometimes wish we were a certain type of person, or somebody who exhibits a certain appeal. But you have to either be very confident or very stupid to throw caution to the wind and pursue it. And Pete, being Pete, fell on the latter. A+


- I probably should have discussed it more, but Lane's fight with Pete was nuts enough to work. It looked pretty brutal, too -- even if you didn't at all feel bad for Mr. Campbell.

- A ton of wonderful bits and pieces: Don and Megan unable to remember the name of Ken's wife, the recurring motif of the dripping faucet, the Superman heroics of Don stopping the water explosion and how impressed the women were, Don once again going out of his way to not sleep around.

- Lots of showy visual cues this week, presumably as guest director John Slattery wanted to make something of an impression. The office-door cut was neat, but it got a little overblown with all the fancy segues later on.

- I loved Joan's dignified reaction to Lane's kiss -- to get up very slowly, open the office door, and return to sit next to Lane. Aww.

- I'm sure Ken's story worked as some kind of metaphor, but I couldn't exactly land it. Was Lane the robot? Doing what he's told but unsure if what he's doing was right? Or is Pete the robot, desperate for escape and unable to reach spontaneity?

- Pete and Trudy's daughter had a face you just wanted to eat. If I had ovaries, they'd be melting right now.

- We seriously need to bring back the word 'pubis'.


Lane: How lovely your face becomes when you tell me you need something.

Don: Saturday night in the suburbs? That's when you really want to blow your brains out...

Roger: Hey, Heathcliff -- how was your date?

Roger: Jesus, Don. Even in this place you're doing better than us.

Lane: I can't believe the hours I've put in to helping you become the monster you've become.

Lane: Mister Campbell, you and I are going to address that little insult.
Pete: Are you kidding me?
Lane: No. You're a grimy little pimp!

Joan: Everyone in this office has wanted to do that to Pete Campbell.

Pete: I have nothing, Don.

Guest stars Alison Brie (Trudy Campbell)
Writers Frank Pierson, Matthew Weiner Director John Slattery

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