Five episodes into its fifth season, the narrative pendulum of Mad Men finally seemed to swing back to its usual position. Last week’s disturbing look at violence against women was a little darker than usual, while the first three episodes were much lighter than that which we’re accustomed.
The existential musings of “Signal 30″ — from Pete Campbell’s domestic dissatisfaction to Lane Pryce’s desire to be more than he is to Ken Cosgrove’s alter ego — felt much more in the wheelhouse of Matthew Weiner and Co.
On to the breakdown.
1. Again, Schadenfreude Isn’t as Satisfying as You Would Think
He’s in a driver’s education class with teenagers, finally coming of age in that respect alongside a bunch of actual teenagers who eventually make him feel his actual age (one by spurning his not-so-subtle sexual advances, another by confusing him for the instructor).
He is trying to be the model suburban husband, in this case attempting to fix a leaky sink in he and Trudy’s new home, but ultimately making the problem worse. In the end, it is Don Draper, paragon of masculinity that he is, who fixes that drip-drip-drip — without any plumbing tools and in a matter of seconds, no less.
The one thing Pete can do well in his life — entertain and ultimately sign a client for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — even ends up backfiring and leading to humiliation. After a trip to a brothel to seal a deal with Jaguar goes awry, Lane Pryce is harshly critical of Pete’s methods and Pete, in turn, insults the entirety of Lane’s role at SCDP. The verbal barbs escalate to a schoolyard-style fistfight in the office that leaves Pete battered and bloodied.
Yes, Pete Campbell gets punched right in the face in “Signal 30″ — a dream come true for many Mad Men fans, and one not even remotely close to realized earlier this season when he runs into a support beam in his old office. And yet, it wasn’t all that satisfying, was it?
Maybe it’s just me, but four seasons worth of pent-up hatred for sniveling, whiny, entitled Pete Campbell wasn’t enough to make me fully enjoy seeing him finally get clocked, something he has deserved almost since the moment he was beamed onto our television screens. There was almost no joy in seeing an obese Betty Draper. There was some joy in seeing Pete get his comeuppance (especially from a foppish Englishman), but not as much I thought there would be. Pete is unhappy and it’s hard on a number of levels to really understand why, something that Don brings voice to in the brothel as Pete accuses him of hypocrisy for not participating in the debauchery. He has everything — house, child, Trudy (who, in contrast to Betty Draper, doesn’t have to be dragged to things that will help her husband’s career and will instead drag her husband’s colleagues to such events.) And yet, it’s clear he feels he hasn’t earned any of it because, well, mostly he hasn’t.
I try to avoid comparing Game of Thrones and Mad Men because they really have nothing in common other than a Sunday time slot, my adoration and critical acclaim. But it’s telling, isn’t it, that seeing Joffrey Barratheon get slapped, first by Tyrion and then by Cersei, was immensely satisfying and yet seeing the same sort of humbling befall Pete Campbell was not even in the same ballpark.
Joffrey is a monster. Pete? He’s just a deeply flawed human being. I’m not saying I want everything to go smoothly for him, but I’m not actively rooting for him to be so thoroughly degraded either.
2. Knowing the Unknowables
“Signal 30″ spent a lot of time on characters we don’t know very much about personally. Viewers were able to crawl deep inside the mind of Lane Pryce, which even after a couple of seasons was a welcome opportunity. Lane is the heavy at SCDP, the dry Brit with the ledger sheet doing little more than ensuring the firm’s fiscal responsibility.
It sounds like a boring role, and Lane himself seems to be bored with it, as well as all too aware and sensitive to how he is perceived as a result. It’s no surprise, then, to see him take the reins with Jaguar, something for which he is ill-equipped, or to see him take on Pete when that heavy role of his and his failure to break out of it is made explicit and criticized.
Anyway, Lane isn’t the only person’s soul of which we get a deeper glimpse. Roger Sterling shares a rare moment of frankness with Lane as he is prepping him for his dinner with Jaguar, encouraging him to form an emotional “conspiracy” with the potential client. It’s jarring because we’re rarely reminded that Roger is more than a caustic, gin-soaked malcontent (not that I don’t love him squarely in that pigeonhole).
Finally, there is Ken Cosgrove, who might be the most anonymous regular player on Mad Men. Cosgrove is so anonymous that his co-workers (forget us) don’t even know his wife’s name. It’s “Cynthia!” as Megan blurts out during the dinner party at the Campbells. We learn that he is still writing long after he’s had a piece published in The Atlantic Monthly. And we learn that there’s some serious depth there; it’s his voiceover — seemingly describing Pete Campbell — that, along with that drip-drip-drip sound, hauntingly closes out the episode.
There’s a lot more to Cosgrove than meets the eye. Here’s hoping that we’re going to discover some of it as the show carries forward.
3. Don Draper, You Manpiece You
Don is largely a tertiary character in “Signal 30″, mostly serving as a point of contrast to illustrate everything Pete Campbell is not. So in that vein let’s get superficial here. I could hear and feel the women of America swooning when Don jumped up, tore off his collared shirt and fixed the Campbells’ sink in an instant. I’ll never be you Don/Jon Hamm; thanks for reminding me of exactly why.
I could also hear and feel people shading their eyes when the sport coat Megan bought Don is revealed. Describing it as gaudy doesn’t do it justice. Maybe I’m searching for confirmation of my Michael Ginsberg-is-the-new-Don-Draper theory, but I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Don’s blazer and the disheveled one Ginsberg wears during his interview at SCDP. Again, it’s probably just me … but there it is.