SONIA BRAND-FISHER: A meditation on marriage, fidelity, and personal loyalties, “Mad Men”’s “Signal 30″ of season 5 stirred our minds with some disturbing dialogue, an office fist fight, and Don Draper in a plaid sport jacket (that he could not have looked more uncomfortable in if he had tried). This week’s episode was full of moments that felt tightened and tense, between the country dinner party with Trudy and Pete’s friction and Lane Pryce’s search for a solid identity being a British immigrant enthralled by Americanism to the degree that he is allowed.
Pete Campbell is far from my favorite character on “Mad Men,” in fact I absolutely despise him even in his best forms. Though Trudy can occasionally get on my nerves, my heart is breaking for her this season in a very serious way. Yet, her bubbly personality is sustained because the true joy of her life finally exists, which is her child. The pride that she takes in orchestrating a textbook suburban dinner party is hard to watch having seen her husband, through countless seasons and in this very same episode, prey on other women with his smarmy Madison Avenue mask on. Pete is not Don, and never will be, though the fact that Don does not partake in the temptations of the high class whore house, and instead just has a drink with the Madame, throws Pete a total curve ball. The scene in the taxi cab where Pete is chastising Don for taking a moral high ground at the whorehouse really shows the degree that Pete is trying to fit a mold. With ambition comes untamed desires and a desire to have it “all.” Don’s advice to Pete is not to throw away his marriage. What is it, exactly, that Pete is fighting for? We see him constantly butting heads with other people and trying to escape the suburban family existence and what is expected of him through his dalliances in the city. But what is it that he is fighting to protect, if not his own family? His reputation? In the elevator with Don, Pete says that he has nothing after he loses the fist fight with Lane. Pete is watching his life go by very slowly in a very compact space. He is no one’s king.
Lane Pryce seems to be struggling with his loyalties to Britain, and hence his family, and his desires to fully assimilate into a new American lifestyle, represented to him by American women, American business, and apparently boxing. His struggle to negotiate these two identities in the sales dinner that he has with the representative from Jaguar is not insignificant. The dinner was a failure because both men were trying to be both American and British, divided loyalties between one system of etiquette and an entirely different system of camaraderie. Both Englishmen enjoy being led astray by the successful American men of Sterling Cooper Draper (Pryce) as we see in the previous season with Don and Lane, and in this season with Pete, Roger, and Don with the Englishman from Jaguar. The frustrations manifest in Lane’s outburst at the meeting of the partners. We get a very vivid and aggressive sense of what Lane is fighting for, which is why he, as Peggy so perfectly puts it, “beat the crap out of Pete.” What these American businessmen did was rob Lane of the identity that he so desires. In not allowing him to bring in the account, and swooping in to do what they do best, Lane is left as the outsider, the staunch Englishman with the wife and the obligations and the goals.
Season 5 of “Mad Men” is taking on a tone of the macabre, mixed with the vulnerability of the desperate. It’s amazing and terrifying and unspeakably depressing. I love it.
HOWARD MEGDAL: I think this might have been the strongest episode of the season to date. No argument with anything Sonia said, but I’d like to highlight a few other points of note.
One is John Slattery’s direction, which was utterly elegant and noteworthy above and beyond an already impressively detailed show. My favorite little moments: the pan from Don and Megan making out in the car, up to the next day at SCDP, and the return of the drip sound at the conclusion of the episode. Simply beautiful.
In true Mad Men fashion, we get the unlikely knockout of Pete Campbell by Lane Pryce- who had Pryce in the Punch Pete Campbell pool? Nobody! He’d probably have checked in, Vegas-line, below Roger, Don, and even Peggy. So that was great, obviously.
And yet, we don’t get the kind of fantasy day for Lane that probably wouldn’t have rung true. Joan handles Lane’s kiss with quiet dignity, but doesn’t reciprocate. The 1966 Mets won some games, but not the World Series.
As for Trudy Campbell: seeing her get the better of Don Draper on the phone was at least as potent as seeing Lane lay out Pete. Interestingly, I think Pete might be my favorite Mad Men character, not because I find myself actively rooting for him, but because I find his journey to figure out exactly what he wants so compelling, and his lurches so amusing. Has there ever been a better pickup line than bragging that his family donated to create a bunch of the Bronx Botanical Gardens? I say no. But give me Pete and Trudy in any Mad Men episode, together, and I’m happy.
Let’s also remember what I think was the pivotal break in the first Draper marriage. Remember Souvenir? Don takes Betty to Rome, tries to re-connect, and Betty is mollified- for exactly as long as it takes to get home from Rome. In other words, we find out that short of permanent glamorous vacation, there’s no making Betty Draper happy.
So far, that simply hasn’t been the case with Megan, who proves she can be happy with Don simply by dressing him in a loud sport coat, taking him to a dinner in the suburbs, and watching him fix a broken pipe. The contrast couldn’t have been greater, and Don’s change in behavior, and recognition of this dichotomy, speaks well of the character. For now, anyway.