Even if I’d raise my eyebrows just the slightest at its four consecutive Emmy wins for Best Drama Series I appreciate the way that Mad Men encourages provocative debate on its themes. Stimulating discussion on television is often not encouraged as much as it ought to be, and in this past week alone there have been some excellent pieces on Mad Men all of them stemming from plot developments in the most recent episode “The Other Woman”.
(If you’re not all caught up on the latest episode, kindly avert your eyes.)
The mass of the discussion has stemmed from the logistics, ethics and probability of Joan’s decision to sleep with Herb Rennet, a member of the Jaguar Selection Committee to give the company a better shot at landing the Jaguar Account. (I’ll come to that down below.) For some it was an epiphanic moment, for various reasons, and it was for me – but not for any reasons regarding Joan specifically. It took the very high stakes decision made in “The Other Woman” to realise what had been troubling me about this season of Mad Men – the treatment of the character of Pete Campbell’s.
Of course you’d expect the creator of the show to be more in tune with the world he created than the audience. And I forgave the mild contrivance since the episode’s thematic hook was Pete getting trounced – unable to throw a successful party, unable to fix the leaky faucet, unable to flirt with the young girl, unable to land the account, just powerless. And, with Mad Men as a series that’s never been shy about ensuring that motifs hit home, it was necessarily for him to get physically trounced. But each time since then, as Pete would make an offhand unkind remark (necessary more for the reaction it elicited than for it being said by Pete specifically) I’d wonder when he became the mouthpiece for all things unkind. Almost as if to spare the possibility of better characters saying mean words, Pete became the de facto necessary evil. And then, I’d think that my general appreciation for the character and the actor were clouding my judgement…then, “The Other Woman” came into the picture.
The entire A plot of “The Other Woman” rested on a conceit I could not believe, and it had nothing to do with ethics. The thing is, under different circumstances I would buy Joan selling herself out for a partnership but the how (excellently discussed by Linda Holmes here) was what irked me. I had an immediate kneejerk response of disbelief when Pete proposed the situation to Joan. As I’ve noted, Pete’s veneer of respectability depends on appearances and the lack of finesse in the proposition was jarring. Sure, he’s a partner now – but Pete is wise enough to know that he’s not loved and he’s wise enough to know that Joan is, and respected. “We were all scared of you,” Don tells Joan only last week. Partner or no partner, Joan isn’t someone you just walk up to and suggest something as potentially unappealing. Especially when the “one night” doesn’t guarantee anything. But, I mark that misstep up to childish petulance –for in a way, maybe, it could work as something a desperate Pete would do. Then…
Pete makes the incredibly ballsy decision to orchestrate a scenario where he’s the middleman relaying information between the partners and Joan which culminates in Joan accepting the offer for a Partner position and it’s a scenario that takes me out of the episode completely. The episode itself seems to necessitate that ultimately Joan sacrifice some part of herself for a partner position, but the getting there is problematic. No matter how much of a villain Pete is purported to be I hesitate to believe he’s as deluded to believe that he’s as skilful at pulling the wool over the partners’ eyes as he is here. What’s more, most importantly, why does everyone – all of them with significant issues with Pete – take his word with no proof? If I am to buy Weiner’s conceit that Lane, Roger or Don would curtail approaching Joan directly it only means that deep inside they’re all secretly hoping she will do it. But, then, when the episode culminates in that would-be emotional moment where Don “almost” saves her from her fate I doubt it even more.
No one trusts Pete (this season has seen a number of characters voicing that, even those one assumed did not dislike him), the spider web he spun was specious at best but it was essential for plot development reasons and he’s the fitting scapegoat to spin it. But, how much does it work from a realistic standpoint? By letting Pete being the puppeteer pulling the strings, and having everyone else conveniently not realising his schemes (or falling for them in Joan’s case) the “bad” deed occurs but no one is culpable. A fall guy is essential to the story and Pete has turned into something of the de facto villain of the show. I heard someone mention that they hope Joan uses her partnership to wreak revenge on Pete, and I wonder could this be the endgame because logistically it wouldn’t work for me. For me it’s a major misstep in the plot development of the season. Perhaps, deep down, Pete has the will to become a great villain but he doesn’t have the prowess, the script dictates that he force everyone’s hand so outcome X can be achieved, but it doesn’t unfold organically for me and, thus, I don’t believe it. But, the very fact that Pete has become something of a de facto villain doesn’t point to an interesting organic development for the season but suggests an overreliance on contrivances. I now think of the lost boy saying “We’re supposed to be friends” at the end of “Signal 30” and feel duped. True, in real life people are difficult to read, but art is not a verbatim microcosm of life, and the movement from petty tricks to gross Machiavellian antics does not sit well with me.
Do I protest too much as the solitary quasi-fan of Pete Campbell? Or does Pete's insidiousness (and success doing so) require a suspension of belief?