This review contains spoilers.
5.5 Signal 30
If you hadn’t met Pete Campbell prior to Signal 30, the episode would still be as full and revealing a character portrait as you could wish for. That Mad Men manages to produce stand-alone, rounded instalments without missing a beat of the continuing drama is one of the reasons its kernel of devotees (they may not be many, as evidenced by this season’s less-than sensational ratings, but they’re certainly vocal) are capable of such giddiness about the show.
More than any so far this season, and likely thanks to the presence of veteran screenwriter Frank Pierson, this week’s Mad Men had the feel of a Richard Yates or John Cheever short story; a discrete snapshot of masculinity in crisis bracketed by the nagging sound of a dripping tap. Yes, the ongoing narrative moved along – SCDP almost gained a new client, England won the World Cup, Charles Whitman’s shooting spree left 16 people dead – but Signal 30 was all about one guy: Pete Campbell, reimagined by Ken Cosgrove’s pen as the man with the miniature orchestra.
Born into old money privilege, Pete began life in Mad Men as an easily hateable, entitled suck-up into whose character humanising weakness was so stealthily injected that if you’re anything like me, you woke up one morning and he’d imperceptibly moved from your mental list of villains to heroes.
Since that scene of Pete cradling a rifle in the office back in season one, he’s just been one tantrum away from pulling the trigger or taking the leap from the window prefaced in every episode’s opening credits. Roger and Don may have a history of heart and panic attacks apiece, but Pete’s stability has long felt the most precariously balanced.
Signal 30, if anything, was about that stability wobbling even more than usual, its foundation being chipped away at in all areas of his life. Pete can’t fix a tap like Don, he can’t write like Ken Cosgrove, he can’t win a high school girl over a handsome jock, and most humiliatingly, he can’t beat an Englishman in a fight. His negotiating skills are even second to those of his wife, as Don concedes to Trudy’s dinner party scheming with the line “Too bad your husband can’t close a deal like this”.
With a job in the city and a family in the suburbs, Pete keeps being told he has everything, but inside feels that he has nothing. Essentially, he’s season one Don but without the looks, talent, or intriguing back story.
Nowhere was Pete’s desire for power more clearly shown than in the high-class brothel at which the SCDP boys were entertaining their prospective client. Pete’s girl exhibited her range, taking on first the persona first of a supportive wife (Trudy, and no), next of a girlish virgin (the high school girl he made a play for on his Driver’s Ed course, and no again), until she finally transformed into what Pete wanted: a racy servant who calls him her king. Taken with last week’s cutting but entirely deserved retort from Joan to Dr Greg about his needing the army to make him feel like a man, season 5 of Mad Men is not being kind to the males of the species.
Other favourites who received kinder portraits this week were Lane Pryce and Ken Cosgrove. Lane’s indiscretion with Joan was quickly followed by her discretion, while would-be sci-fi/fantasy writer Ken was forced to give up his hobby and sell his soul to the company store. “No-one grows up wanting to be in advertising”, says a cynical Don at Pete and Trudy’s dinner party, and ain’t that the truth for Ken. The fact that most of us would happily watch a Ken, Peggy, Joan, Pete, Lane, or Roger-centric episode without feeling too keenly the loss of Don Draper is yet more evidence of Mad Men’s powerful characterisation.
Speaking of Roger, the never-silent partner of SCDP was being remarkably well-behaved this week (save for a touch of adultery), dispensing nuggets of Sterling’s gold to Lane and remembering the glory days when he had a purpose at work. Signal 30 was John Slattery’s third time behind the Mad Men camera, and as each one’s been a charm, long may his occasional jaunts as director continue.
Which leaves us with the episode’s comic highlights: Don pulling the conference room curtains on the absurd yet surprisingly bloody fight (Pete really needs to work on his smack talk if “Mr Toad” is the best he can come up with), and the dreadful checked sport coat Megan forces Don into. Lightness to balance the dark tale of Pete Campbell’s merry-go-ride of humiliation and frustration, and the season’s best episode so far.