Mad Men recap – 5×04: ‘Signal 30’

Courtesy of AMC

This week on Mad Men it was all about Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) shameful descent from his self-made pedestal, culminating in one of the most hilarious moments of the entire series.

Let’s take a closer look after the jump…

I’ll be the first to admit it, as much as I absolutely despised him in season one, Pete Campbell has been pretty tolerable in my books for the past few seasons. Perhaps I’ve become accustomed to his selfish ways, but my overwhelming need to punch him has dissipated over the years. So when Lane (Jared Harris) got his dukes up against the little rat, I was surprised how satisfied I was to see Pete get the living snot beat out of him.

Perhaps it was the incremental build up to this moment – manifesting perfectly throughout this week’s episode. We know that Pete’s been pretty unhappy since at least the beginning of the season, but since he successfully usurped Roger (John Slattery) in front of all of SDCP a couple episodes ago, I thought he was on the up and up. And we see his smugness at episode’s open as he creepily plots to hit on the young teenage blonde in his driver’s ed class. Furthermore, he fiddles around with his toolbox to fix the incessantly dripping faucet in his kitchen. He pats himself on the back at finally turning things around. Why, he’s even able to get the elusive Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to visit him way out in the ‘burbs for a dinner party on Saturday night. The boxes are being checked – Pete may be the unhappy husband, but he’ll soon have a ripe young 17-year old mistress, and now that Don is clearly his new bestie (Don likes music! It means he’ll be over to visit Pete all the time now!), Pete sees himself as a young Don Draper in the making.

But Pete’s unstable house of cards starts to fall in catastrophic fashion by the end of the second act. It’s quite purposeful that we get the slow unraveling of Pete’s gains. Just before dessert at the dinner party, it turns out Pete’s Mr. Fixit with the faucet was just a fluke and it takes a shirtless Don (well not completely shirtless, but in a wet, white undershirt is practically there) to fix it with his bare hands to prove this. Pete impotently thumbs through his itty-bitty toolbox as the women drool over Don’s display of idealized masculinity. Then we see a young, tanned, muscular teenager aptly named ‘Handsome’ (well, his real name is Hanson which allowed for the appropriate nickname) swoop into driver’s ed and quash any hopes of Pete bedding the fresh-faced 17 year old blondie. I especially appreciated how the camera lingered over Handsome’s (Parker Young) perfectly sculpted biceps, fetishizing his physique as if to rub salt in the wound.  There’s no way Pete can compete with this guy.

Courtesy of AMC

But the pièce de résistance comes to us when Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) can take no more of Pete’s insolence and demands satisfaction in the boardroom. When Pete accuses Lane of being incapable of doing anything but crunching numbers, the Englishman gets out his fists of fury in an attempt to show this little weasel who is boss. What transpires is truly one of Mad Men‘s best scenes ever. Hats off to director John Slattery because I absolutely loved the way this scene is presented.

Lane slowly takes off his jacket and rolls up his sleeves while the other partners, Sterling, Cooper (Robert Morse) and Draper stand with jaws agape, literally projecting equal parts horror and fascination. And I must admit I had the exact same reaction. Was this really happening? A fistfight between Lane and Pete? In the office boardroom?! Are any of the other partners going to do anything? The camera angle and framing of the three bystanders was just priceless – angled ever so slightly to suggest their superiority as they stand, paralyzed with thinly veiled delight and trepidation. So what do they do? They draw the curtain so, at the very least, the entire office doesn’t have to witness what is sure to be a gong show of a fight. And of course, the fight is absolutely hilarious. As much as I love Jared Harris, he’s no spring chicken when it comes to heavyweight fighting. It is a train wreck on all accounts – so, so wrong but impossible to look away. I mean really – we’re looking at the scrawny account manager vs. the prim and proper chief of finance. The episode sets things up so that Pete will clearly take the fall (although he does manage to get in a couple of easy punches). And down he goes indeed. The way Pete’s face looks at the end of it, you’d think he’d been in a full out brawl.

It truly is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. At episode’s end, Pete finally accepts what a pathetic mess he is. Unloading to Don in the elevator (seriously, what is it with elevators and spilling out your deepest emotions? Are we on Grey’s Anatomy or something?) he says, “This is an office. We’re supposed to be friends.” Pete isn’t asking Don these things; he’s stating them. He  knows why the other partners didn’t step in to either defend him, or stop the fight altogether. Since when is it acceptable for grown men to have a fistfight in a boardroom? When you don’t give a lick about the underdog, exhibited by Don’s awkward silence as Pete laments.

It’s at this point that Pete realizes the image of himself that he’s built up in his head doesn’t exist. He and Don aren’t BFFs, no one likes or respects him  – the artifice has been shattered. And just to really hammer it home, we get a very telling accompanying narration about the man with the miniature orchestra by “Dave Algonquin”, the newest pet name of Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton). A man who weeps because everything “ordinary has become too beautiful to bear, ” Pete symbolically descents in the elevator, telling Don that he has nothing. We hear the subtle drip of that leaky faucet from the beginning of the episode before a melancholic rendition of Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy” plays over the ending credits. Again, the symbolism is running rampant in these closing seconds.

Other thoughts:

  • Lane is absolutely lovable throughout this entire episode as he tries to expand his skill set as Account Manager. Clearly he’s not really cut out for it, but it doesn’t stop him from trying. We see this again when he kisses Joan (Christina Hendricks) after his fight with Pete. Although she rejects his advance, the whole scene is played out in the most respectful and innocent way. I love these two as allies and I appreciate Lane’s valiant efforts to occupy roles that he clearly isn’t cut out for (I.e. the brute hero that gets the girl, swinging playboy etc.)
  • Don’s behaviour is quite interesting during this episode. While at the whorehouse, he couldn’t look more genuinely uninterested. He also makes a comment to Campbell that if Megan (Jessica Paré) had been his first wife, he wouldn’t have gone through a divorce. After what happened in last week’s episode and from what we know about the dissolution of Don’s first marriage, it’s unlikely that Don has magically changed overnight. Much like he’s able to wear a hideous plaid sports jacket and make it work, he’s merely “donning” (pun!) another persona for now.
  • Speaking of Megan – it’s interesting how she doesn’t want to have babies. Sometimes I think she’s keeping Don on too tight a leash by dressing him and nagging him about the number of drinks he’s had, but then she does something that makes me think perhaps their marriage might last. As much as I fear her nagging will lead to her downfall, I think it’s exactly what Don needs (Well this version of Don anyway)
  • Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Ken apparently have a pact. If one of them jumps ship to another agency, the other one must follow. An interesting development that is sure to bear fruit in future episodes.
  • Speaking of Ken, I’m glad we got to know a little bit more about him – namely that he’s a talented fiction writer on the side. Much like how the Drapers don’t remember his wife’s name, Cosgrove is always there, not quite important enough to really pay attention to, but we like him anyway. As I predicted, we get flashes of information about the periphery characters when it services what’s going on with our main protagonists. I think Cosgrove’s exposition is clearly meant to complement Pete’s descent.

So what did you think Mad Men-ers? Did you let out a bit of a cheer when Pete so gracefully ate it in the boardroom? What do you think of Megan and Don’s marriage the more we observe of this couple? Are they meant to last? Sound off in our comments section!

Mad Men airs Sundays at 10pm EST on AMC

About tvangie

Angie is a TV addict currently pursuing a PhD in media studies. A freelance researcher and writer on the side – she really misses talking about her favourite shows because none of her friends watch them. Help her out.

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