The scene that opens an episode of Mad Men is always revealing. In one brief scene scant of dialogue, Matthew Weiner and company always manage to reveal the themes of the episode, the emotional stakes and often the climax. "Signal 30," a classic episode of the show if one ever existed, is no different.
The opening warning of Signal 30, the highway safety film shown in driver's ed classes, scrolls down a projector screen. Pete Campbell sits in the back of a dark classroom, eyeing a pretty young thing a few rows ahead. He views her discomfort, weighs his chances and opts to give a worldly chuckle at the gore onscreen. His risk pays off - the PYT turns around and offers him a smile. She turns back and Pete gives a long, studied once-over of her form, drawing his eyes down until he finally reaches her daisy flip-flops, one softly tapping against her foot as she repeatedly arches and points her toes. The rhythmic "tap tap tap" slowly becomes the sound of a dripping faucet keeping Pete awake - a faucet in his new suburban home with Trudy and their baby. A faucet that he does not have the skills or resources to fix.
And with that, Weiner and episode director John Slattery (who really did a remarkable job with this episode) have given you all of the information you need to absorb this week's story. Hulk argued in his post that "Signal 30" is an analysis on the trappings of the male mind - a mind that battles emasculation with posturing and bravado. And who better represents the eternal struggle against emotional castration than Pete Campbell?
Pete is a fascinating character. He is not a good person by any measure. He is petulant, as Hulk so rightly calls him. He is selfish and ambitious and offers no reward to the people who respect him and treat him well. The way he treats Roger (who isn't a good person either, but at least he's a good coworker), Peggy, Lane and especially Trudy is abominable. But we never consider Pete the villain of the piece. Why is that? It's because he is so ineffectual. If the hero of Mad Men is Don or Peggy (and I'd argue it's Peggy, but many others would argue for Don), then a suitable archnemesis to either of those two powerhouses requires real power. And Pete does not have real power.
But Pete has his own very specific sort of strength. While Pete will never be dominant, he is indomitable. He fights through professional and personal humiliations and continues on, undaunted, at work. His undiluted attempts for money and success have made him successful, because they are not tempered with ethical or emotional considerations. But his accomplishment at work isn't enough. He wants high school girls to fawn over him. He wants to be nicknamed "Handsome." He wants to be able to sling aside his shirt and fix a sink to a room full of giddy women. He wants to be king. And Pete will never, ever be king.
An aside - can I just take a moment to say how much I adored Hulk's reference to the prostitute's scale of seduction attempts as "IMPOTENCE-COMBATING MAD LIBS"? That's a fine turn of phrase, my big green friend.
As Pete battles against personal emasculation, this week's battle against professional emasculation belongs to Lane "Well, my name's on the door" Pryce. He fights tooth and nail for the Jaguar account, only to lose it due to his pimp associates and his own lack of glad-handling expertise. He asks Joan what exactly it is he does for SCDP, but he beats the shit out of Pete for making the same suggestion. (I love the way all of the other employees just stood around watching or listening to the fight with wry amusement. And yes, Roger's "cooler heads" line is one for the ages.) He kisses Joan simply because she calls him essential, and Joan continues her unabated streak of magnificence with her response: "Everyone in this office has wanted to...punch Pete Campbell."
And fighting against creative emasculation is good old Ken Cosgrove, aka Ben Hargrove. I don't agree with Hulk's statement that Ken is bored with writing sci-fi. I think he pretends to be embarrassed and above it, but only because that's what people expect of him. I think Ken is the golden goose, that elusive happy man who lives a happy life. He has a good day job, a satisfying and potentially lucrative creative outlet, a wife who's proud of him. Roger sees all of this and attempts to emasculate Ken, throwing his weight around because Roger wanted to be a writer. Roger wants a wife who thinks he's special. So Roger forces Ken to kill off "Ben Hargrove," only to have him immediately succeeded by "Dave Algonquin." Ken stays up late at night, writing Pete's life. "Still, Coe thought, it might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear."
And this week, Don exists only as contrast to Pete, Roger and Lane. He's in love with a woman who "can't believe how much [she] loved watching [him] fix that sink." He's having sex in his fancy car with his beautiful young wife. He's Superman in the most literal way possible. Don is superlatively male. He won't be happy forever, but he's happy this week. And I'm happy for him.
"Signal 30" is such a fine episode of this incredibly fine show. Funny, meaningful, heartbreaking and then funny again. It is so good to have our Mad Men back, isn't it?
There were some comments in the thread of Hulk's post musing about Don's noose sketch, Pete's gun, Pete's new office window. Lots of conjecture about upcoming suicides or murders - our characters snapping under the weight of their many issues. For my part, I don't believe that will happen. I believe that ultimately, Mad Men is a small story. An incredibly important, brilliantly realized story, but a story about normal people living out their lives in a very contentious time and place in history. I don't think the show needs the drama of extreme violence between these characters - they only react to the violence that is around them, such as Charles Whitman (UT shout-out!), the nurse massacre, the riots etc.
Trudy is such a badass. As Don pointed out, the woman can close a deal. Pete doesn't deserve her, although that goes without saying.
I'm going to start ordering my drinks like Don: "Something big and brown."
I don't know why, but I loved watching Bert give Roger a shoulder massage. Such a cute moment.
Tune back in next week, when Devin and Henri will take on Episode 5.06: "Far Away Places." The preview's below.
Devin, Henri, what do you think about Don's arc this season? He seems truly happy and healthy with Megan - how long is that apt to last?