Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Ballad of Pete Campbell (It’s Not Easy to Be Me: “Signal 30” and “The Other Woman”)

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.
 I feel as if I’m walking into a self-made trap talking about – what seems to be give or a take a “Fat Betty” – the most loathed character in a show which I tend to appreciate more than I love. But, as I said, discussion is a good thing. And, it all started with a punch… Although it exists as one of the two near perfect episodes of the season one development of “Signal 30”  left me unsettled. Lane’s anger regarding the brothel incident being directed towards Pete seemed, to me, a gross exaggeration of the situation. Of course the subsequent beat-down was spurred on by Pete’s ill-placed “fag” comment but I found the moment so disingenuous for Pete. It’s not that I wouldn’t buy that might be condescending about Lane’s sexuality in his mind, I probably would. What made go hmmm was thinking that Pete has so resolutely been the obsequious type of man who places emphasis (perhaps too much) on public propriety and appearance and thus seems like the least likely to candidate to ease off such a statement; especially in such a cavalier manner. Something as lazily flip has echoes of Roger Sterling written all over it.

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?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are not alone in your fandom.

I'm not sure it's a contrivance though. First, let me be clear: I love Pete.

What makes this work:
1) Pete is business savvy - I think this is well established. He knew that if Joan didn't sleep with the pervert, they lost the account. Ken confirmed this belief to Peggy and Roger & Burt knew it too.
2) Pete thinks he himself is a whore. The whole "and THAT is what I do" to Emile shows that he has no illusions. His job as account man is to make the client happy no matter how loathsome they are. As Vincent Kartheiser said in "Inside Mad Men", Pete is amoral on this topic. He doesn't see it as horrific. He knows the others do but at the end of the day, he believes the ends justify the means and just needed to see if Joan would agree that was the case.
3) Pete actually respects Joan but he's seen her be very pragmatic. He suspected she might acquiesce. When she said "you couldn't afford it", Pete SMILED (with his back to her). Whether or not she knew it at the time, she had just indicated there WAS a price.
4) Pete didn't really fool the partners. They were free to go talk to Joan. Yes, he left off the "you're disgusting" bit but his assessment (correctly) was that the company could come up with a dollar-figure she might consider. They didn't have to trust Pete -- and Pete knew this "you should be thanking me!" -- they just had to have plausible denialability. And he gave them that.
5) It was LANE who went to Joan and told her the partners were discussing it. Pete sent up his trial balloon but didn't approach her again until she came to HIM. As far as Pete knows it was only from his trial balloon that Joan reacted and demanded a partnership.
6) "It IS a lot of money!" Pete was right, before the partnership idea came up - his notion of $50K was enough to turn Joan's head.
7) Pete was open to the partners -- this might not work. He told Don before the presentation (even though it would piss off Don). Of course he told it to him after it was too late (on purpose) but Pete is VERY ambitious and singularly focused.

So... I think what happened was far less about Pete being a 2-D villain and more about ambitious Pete accomplishing what needed to be done (in his AND the bulk of the partner's mind). He did the dirty work and they intentionally turned a blind eye.

And I think Pete is still very sympathetic. It wasn't like Trudy looked sympathetic with her "pajamas at bedtime" routine. She easily came across as wanting 3 things from Pete: a paycheck, another baby, and stop whining about Manhattan He's obviously unhappy and she obviously is all "get over it".

So, for me, Pete IS the office scapegoat and knows it. He'll do what it takes and has come to accept he's not likely to get thanked for it. He's still struggling to feel a connection on the personal front and it's still missing.

I don't think he's a villain. I think twitter-hate is just people who aren't looking at the subtleties.