Wednesday, 18 April 2012

MAD MEN, 5.5 - "Signal 30"



A fantastic episode, the best of the season so far, and a brilliant spotlight on Pete Campbell (Vincent Karthesier), who so desperately wants to be like Don Draper (Jon Hamm) it's negatively affecting his approach to life. He's the junior partner in a successful New York advertising firm, married to Alison Brie, and father to a beautiful baby girl, but his whole idea of what constitutes "success" has been warped. He was keener and prouder to show friends his fancy new stereo, rather than his own daughter….

By the end of "Signal 30", the sexy teenage girl at the Drivers Ed class Pete's attending (whom he makes a connection with, expecting things to go further), has paired off with a guy her own age—nicknamed "Handsome" as if to rub salt into the wounds. Pete's learning he's reached his mid-thirties, where you're not "old" but neither are you "young", and it comes as a shock to realise many girls in their twenties don't instantly see you as a prospective boyfriend. (Indeed, many assume you're married with kids by 35, especially in the 1960s, which in Pete's case is actually true.)

What's difficult for Pete is that idol Don's experiences have been very different, as he's lucky enough to be so good-looking he's been able to sleep with women half his age all his life. Even now, Don's turned 40 but his new wife Megan's yet to reach her third decade. In Pete's eyes, it's beyond frustrating that he's unable to be a playboy in Don's image—instead forced to pay for an escort to service his sexual urges and boost his self-esteem, asking her to role-play as a submissive woman who treats him as the Alpha Male (i.e. the Don Draper).

Maybe it's time for Pete to find value in himself, but he's the kind of person who needs role models to ape. Unlike many viewers, I actually have sympathy for Pete and his situation, maybe because I'm a comparable age. He's always being taken down a peg or two, yet struggles on thanks to pure ambition and belief. In this episode, at a house party the Campbell's are hosting for Don, Ken (Aaron Staton) and their spouses, when the kitchen sink explodes with water, Pete scurries for the toolbox but it's Don who fixes the leak with his bare hands—even stripping off to his vest and being compared to Superman by the swooning women (a fun reference to Hamm's connection to that iconic superhero in the gossip columns).

And then, a more overt demonstration of Pete's deficiencies came with The Fight. That remarkable and hilariously unexpected moment when a riled Lane (Jared Harris), fed up with Pete's unsubtle remarks about his failures to schmooze clients, challenges the younger man to a punch-up in the conference room. He eventually decks him, too—to the shock and half-amusement of astonished spectators Don and Roger (John Slattery). Pete's never been lower, literally, telling Don "I have nothing" while heading home in the elevator with a bruised face. But it's not that Pete truly has nothing, it's that he's not the man he wants to be.

Being the person you want to be, particularly after a certain age where the life choices you've made are harder to reverse, was also the theme for a likable subplot for Ken Cosgrove. "Signal 30" returned to the subject of Ken's extra-curricular fiction writing, which is what he's passionate about if he's honest with himself. There was a lovely dinner scene at the Campbell's party where Ken's proud wife Cynthia (Larisa Oleynik), a publisher by trade, extolled her husband's talent and a particular sci-fi story he's written.

At first it felt like Ken was about to be embarrassed and outed as a geek in the company of more conventional friends, but the response from them was surprisingly favourable. Or maybe just polite. Don seemed genuinely interested in his story about a robot, though, right? Although I guess Pete was secretly so jealous that he squealed to Roger about Ken's sideline, knowing Roger would ask him to stop—which is exactly what happened. A lesser man would probably heed their boss's advice, like Pete, but it was heartening to see Ken instead adopt a new nom de plume, Dave Algonquin, and start writing a new story called "The Man With The Miniature Orchestra" (inspired by something Pete said about his stereo system). Is that the beginnings of the book he earlier mentioned being asked to write by Farrar Straus, showing he's made the decision to pursue this rare opportunity?

I also loved the scene where a post-fight Lane was nursed by Joan (Christina Hendricks), dunking his bruised fist into a bucket of ice before seizing a chance to kiss her. What made this scene great was Joan's calm and dignified response; opening the office door to end their privacy and assuring him she's flattered. Is this the dutiful behaviour of a woman used to men planting their lips on her unexpectedly (i.e. Roger), or is Joan secretly happy to have earned Lane's obvious affection? Maybe Lane will soon become proof that even "Mr Toad"-like men have a chance with younger women, as a further knife twist in Pete's ego? We'll have to see if anything develops between Lane and Joan this season, or if this was a one-off mistake Joan was polite about—perhaps because she likes Lane and appreciated his recent assurances about her merit in the workplace.

Overall, "Signal 30" was a truly wonderful episode and another fine example of the things Mad Men does better than any other television show. Simple stories hiding a deep reservoir of subtext under the surface, where every single moment counts and can be reflected on—like how, unbeknownst to Pete, his hero Don saw something in Pete's life to be jealous of in Trudy and her baby. His idea of starting a family with Megan was undoubtedly inspired by what he saw at the Campbell residence, which is ironic given how Pete's the one following Don's lead.

Brilliant.

Asides

  • Did anyone else catch this episode's sneaky Lost reference, when the name "Charles Whitman" misnamed "Charles Widmore" at the dinner table? Charles Widmore being the mysterious billionaire played by Alan Dale on that island mystery show?
  • England won the World Cup in this episode, to Lane's feigned delight (another example of someone pretending to be something they're not in order to fit in socially). This actually confused me to begin with, as I was under the impression season 5 was taking place in 1968. But no, I was totally wrong. It's summer 1966. I can't explain why '68 got lodged in my brain this year.
  • Fun to note the parallels to Fight Club in this episode, with Pete getting beaten up in the workplace and having an early midlife crisis. The annoying "drip drip drip" of the leaking tap, bookending the episode, was symbolic of passing time and reminded me of the Fight Club dialogue "this is your life, and it's ending one second at a time."
written by Frank Pierson & Matthew Weiner / directed by John Slattery / 17 April 2012 / Sky Atlantic
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