MAD MEN 5.5: “Signal 30”

Pete Campbell and his portrayer, Vincent Kartheiser, got a genuine spotlight episode this week, and it illuminated just how dark Pete’s life has gotten lately. He seems to have it all: a great job, a pregnant wife and a home in the ritzy suburbs. But in Pete’s mind, none of it holds water.

The faucet in the kitchen is leaking, and Pete can’t sleep. The relentless drip, drip, drip of the water leaking away is clearly gnawing at his mind. It parallels his feeling that his life is being wasted and he is wasting away, drip by drip, living in the wilderness of the suburbs and laboring unappreciated at the office. Nothing is working out the way he imagined it, and his life is eroding, drop by drop… The monotonous sound is washing away everything he ever dreamed for his life.

Pete decides to take action: He grabs a toolbox and does some tinkering that makes the drip stop. But he hasn’t fixed the problem; he’s merely silenced it  — while making things worse behind the scenes (or underneath the sink).

Living outside Manhattan, Pete needs to drive, which means he needs a license, so he has to attend driver’s ed. There he meets a pretty high school senior who makes him remember his own youthful dreams of making something out of himself, and how his dreams of domesticity seem so banal and limited now. Like her, he feels time speeding up; unlike her, he doesn’t have a whole life ahead of him. He can no more recapture his youth than he can lure the girl away from a jock classmate.

Trudy (Allison Brie) gets it into her head to host a dinner party, and badgers Don (Jon Hamm) into attending with Megan (Jessica Paré). Megan hectors Don into wearing an eyeball-singeing checkered sport coat. At home, the women hold sway over the men who wield power at the office, get it? Don even remarks that he wishes Pete could close like Trudy does. (Ouch! Another knife in the back of Pete!) Nevertheless, Pete does his best to be bright-eyed and enthusiastic for the party, slavishly thanking Don for driving all the way out to Cos Cob (a real place, just outside Greenwich, Conn., BTW) for the soirée.

Among the other guests is Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Stanton), whose secret career as a sci-fi pulp author has just been exposed, dashing his simple pleasure of being alone to write in solitude. (Pete and Don and Roger aren’t the only married men who chafe under the ring.) More to the point, failed autobiographer Roger (John Slattery) orders Ken to put down the pencil — ostensibly so Ken isn’t distracted at work, but we know Roger secretly resents the idea of someone showing him up in another arena!

I really felt pain for Pete as he rambled on about his behemoth of a stereo console, trying to convince himself that owning the brobdingnagian piece of furniture was an accomplishment worthy of praise, and that surely he is happier owning it. It didn’t even matter that Ken or Don was or wasn’t standing there, because he was really talking to himself. When the kitchen faucet completely blew, Don leaped into action, stripping off his shirt, grabbing a wrench and fixing the problem the right way — in other words, better than Pete. In other other words, showing up Pete, in his own home, at the manly art of Fixing Stuff. (And the way that Megan practically ravished Don right there on the Campbell kitchen floor proved the appeal of a man who knows how to handle his tool.)

The episode wasn’t all about Pete. Oh, who am I kidding, of course it was all about Pete. Lane (Jared Harris) has also been having trouble lately, adjusting to life in the Colonies and questioning his role at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. A chance meeting and bonding session with an executive from Jaguar over England winning the World Cup leads to a chance for SCDP to land the Jaguar automobile account. But Lane isn’t a salesman, and all the coaching Pete and Roger can muster cannot change that. After Lane almost blows it, the pros elbow the tyro aside and show the action-craving auto exec an old-school good time — including booze and hookers! Roger and, surprisingly, Pete cannot resist also sampling the goods. Fallout is sure to follow  — and I don’t mean Pete being paranoid about Don judging him for getting a little action at the brothel.

The next day, after the contrite Jaguar exec cancels, Lane is furious about the boys losing “my account” and challenges Pete to fisticuffs. Boxing. A bare-knuckle brawl! Pete looks to Don for protection, but has to man up and fight. After some slap-happy skirmishing, Lane lays out Pete, who is forced to slink away in shame.

This may have been a somewhat stand-alone episode, but story elements are guaranteed to have repercussions down the ling. Such as Lane kissing Joan (Christina Hendricks)! She handled it so coolly that we know she’s done this sort of thing before; she simply opened the office door and pretended nothing happened.  But surely Pete can’t just dismiss everything from this story.

How much can one guy’s manhood take? If MM were set in 2012, everyone would be cooing about counseling and anger management. But in 1966 — is it mere coincidence that the script mentions the Charles Whitman sniper attack at the University of Texas? I had thought that the seemingly endless string of petty annoyances and emasculations and staring into space were prodding Pete the edge of suicide, but what if he decides to lash out when he finally reaches the end of his tether? Instead of jumping out a window and tumbling to his doom like the animated man in the opening titles, maybe Pete will take out his frustrations on someone else.

“Signal 30” was, by far, the best episode of the season to date, and will doubtless be nominated for any number of Emmys in the fall, including writing, acting — and direction, for cast member Slattery, in just his third effort behind the camera. I think “Signal 30” is the signal episode of this season.

Oh, yeah? Sez you!

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