Monday, 16 April 2012

Television - Mad Men 'Signal 30' analysis / review

'Signal 30' is an episode many Mad Men fans have waited a long time to see: one where Pete Campbell receives a long-overdue beating. The episode might as well have been called 'The Pummeling Of Pete' for the delight it took in finally taking the character to task for his every insecurity and shortcoming as a human being. Campbell may be part of the youth movement set to displace the likes of Roger, but his problem has always been that he's strived to be like them, to hold a position of power and respect in their kingdom, rather than be his own man.

The culture that took over the late sixties was ostensibly about breaking the formalities of the old rules and enjoying the freedom of self-expression, and while Campbell's views on race relations show him as more politically enlightened than many of those he works with, he's going to be dragged down with the ship unless he stops trying to emulate others and starts appreciating what he has and who he can be on his own terms. In that respect, Lane Pryce may have left the 'grimy little pimp' with a bloody nose, but might also have done him a big favour.
From Hamlet onwards, no worthwhile drama has presented a story-within-a-story without a hefty dose of symbolism, and this episode's theme was tidily encapsulated in the short story Ken Cosgrove's wife, Cynthia, relayed across the dinner table. In Ken's... sorry, 'Ben Hargrove's'... story, there is a bridge spanning two worlds, used by millions of people and serviced by robots. One day, a robot loosens the bolt it is charged with maintaining and the bridge collapses, killing everyone. Pete has been an outsider from the beginning, only getting the job at the agency on account of his parents. His insecurity at being seen as someone unable to achieve anything off his own bat has driven him, from his longing for Don's respect (and attempts to emulate him) to his ongoing feud with Roger, whom he believes he deserves to usurp at SCDP. Pete is always trying to be someone else, and by doing so, expects everything to turn out for him as it has for those he is imitating.

Unfortunately, Don and Roger got where they are because of their natural ability to connect with and adapt to different situations. Roger may be painfully anachronistic, redolent of a fading age, but he is a man shaped by his own experiences, not someone else's. He's worked in the business for decades and has formed it in his own image. As for Don, he may have adopted someone else's name, but he's used that identity to become the man he always wanted to be, a far cry from the whore's son who grew up on a farm. He was unhappy when trying to live a fa├žade in his superficial marriage to Betty, but has found a new freedom with Megan (despite her awful fashion sense) and can recognise a good thing. Pete, on the other hand, has little desire to earn the lifetime of experiences required to give him Roger's charm or Don's ability to connect with people, or even appreciate that he's married to ALISON FRICKIN' BRIE. He wants it all, right now, and it takes a sucker punch from an insulted Englishman for him to see the hollowness of the life he has built for himself.

The working dinner, and subsequent visit to a whorehouse, was the moment Pete loosened the wrong bolt and the bridges he had spent his life building came crashing down. Lane Pryce, quite by accident, managed to interest a Jaguar executive into making SCDP their new agency, but after a difficult lunch - in which Lane attempted to copy Roger's technique for wooing clients - it is decided Pete, Roger and Don will smooth the deal through by taking the exec to dinner, allowing Lane the small dignity of finalising it afterwards. Problem is, whilst all the usual motions are run, a hiccup wrecks the arrangement: the exec returns home to his wife with 'chewing gum on his pubis', one of many laughs in an episode demonstrating Mad Men's easy ability to out-funny most comedies.
When confronted, Pete smugly dismisses Lane's concerns and position at the company, only to be challenged to fisticuffs. Only after getting the snot punched out of him does it dawn on him how little his neediness and arrogance have brought him: none of his supposed friends came to his aid, preferring to watch from the sidelines. He may be able to charm a client in the way Lane cannot, but his lack of sincerity leaves him unable to act appropriately when everything goes south. Don and Roger laugh Lane's anger off as well, but are respectful enough to treat him seriously. Pete goes on the attack, trying to make himself look big in the light of the failure, and suffers for it.

The Campbell Beatdown was foreshadowed earlier in a wonderfully staged dinner party, reminding us what a frustrated life Pete leads. Unlike his wife Trudy, who is confident enough to get what she wants out of Don with a cheery tone and welcoming attitude, Pete does nothing but act like a lapdog to his guests. He boasts to Ken about the size of his stereo - a decent gag given the trend towards miniaturisation - and constantly reminds Don of how happy he is to finally have him over for dinner, indulging him in every way (even over inappropriate dinner conversation, making Trudy uncomfortable) to win his approval. Where everyone else is getting sloshed and having a good time, Pete is unable to enjoy the evening, capped off when his makeshift plumbing blows up and requires Don to strip to his undershirt and fix it, drawing the applause and admiration of every woman in the room and leaving Pete thoroughly emasculated.
His ratting out Ken's secret career as a writer was a bitter swipe at someone not as professionally successful, but more personally fulfilled. It's an opportunity he has seemingly been waiting for ever since getting jealous at learning Ken had been published in a respected magazine back in the first season - his own abortive attempts to be a writer made him humiliate Trudy to get his hilariously awful story about a bear in a decidedly second-rate publication - and Roger, another frustrated author, is only too happy to take out his own feelings of irrelevance on Ken by forcing him to choose between his job at SCDP or his writing career. Ken, of course, simply changes his pseudonym and carries on as usual. The fixes for Pete and Roger, though, won't be so easy.

Lane, meanwhile, was learning similar lessons of his own. A newcomer to America, he's longing to leave his old life behind, but by caving into his wife's requests to pretend to be interested in football (as an aside, Lane will almost certainly be the only Englishman we'll see celebrating a World Cup win this year), he too is forced down a path leading to a painful awareness of how he remains an outsider to the people he has been so desperately trying to ingratiate himself with. His insecurity about his position at the firm make him want to prove himself able to bring in an account on his own, but where the exec clearly just wants to make friends, Lane frets and unsuccessfully tries to follow Roger's formula for winning clients, failing to realise that a personal touch was all that was needed. When the deal collapses, he has not only lost an account, but also someone with whom he might have been able to share his troubles at fitting in.

While Lane and Pete share a similar longing for acceptance, Lane at least recognises that he will only manage it by being himself. Pretending to be Roger didn't work, and where Roger didn't have the balls to fight Pete earlier in the season, Lane does, and his victory allows him to leave the meeting room with his head held high. It's Joan who gives him the words he needs to hear though, reminding him that his value comes from his being different, and he completes possibly the greatest five minutes for any character on television ever by following up his decking of the odious Pete by laying an almighty snog on Joan's unexpecting lips. While she doesn't follow up his testosterone-fuelled burst of desire, she doesn't reject it either, returning to sit by his side. In following his instincts, he may have won himself a heck of a prize in the newly-single Mrs Harris. Called it?
Where Lane ends a difficult episode on a moment of triumph, Pete is left ruminating on his unhappiness, watching as the young girl he sought to romance instead hooks up with a more age-appropriate lover, who literally goes by the nickname 'Handsome' and bears a remarkable resemblance to Chatswin's Ryan Shay. Like the robot on the bridge, the things he programmed himself to believe would guide him to his goal instead led to the worst kind of failure. In the taxi after the dinner, where Pete was angry at Don for not cheating on Megan as the others did their wives (the scene where his hooker runs through a list of personas was a great laugh, recalling Pete's ridiculous first season fantasy about being a hunter), Don gives him the valuable advice to appreciate the worth of his marriage to Trudy. That he weeps to Don in the lift about having nothing shows the lesson has not yet been learnt: Pete is too caught up in self-loathing to do anything but feel sorry for himself, with the sound of the dripping tap a symbol of his fixation on small negatives rather than appreciating the potential of the bigger picture. A new world is waiting for him, but the bridge won't be easily built.


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