‘Mad Men’ – ‘Signal 30’: Down goes Campbell! Down goes Campbell!

Senior Television Writer
04.16.12 436 Comments

A review of tonight’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I build a bridge between two planets…

“Wait til your honeymoon’s over.” -Pete

“Signal 30” brings up a subject we haven’t heard about in quite some time, as it turns out Ken still has the fiction-writing bug that made Pete and Paul so jealous back in season one. His tales have taken a turn away from the autobiographical and into the science-fiction realm, including a story that his wife Cynthia describes at Pete and Trudy’s dinner party as involving a bridge between two planets that falls apart when its robot caretaker removes a bolt, killing everyone on it.

Wreckage is a big part of the hour, which takes its title from the horrific driving safety film that Pete is required to watch as part of his driver’s ed class, and most of the carnage comes out of failed attempts by Pete, Lane and Ken to be more than they are by building bridges from one world to another.

Ken – the one man at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce who’s always viewed the job as merely that, and not the sum total of his existence – continues his writing on the side, but is forced to scrap all his old stories, and his old pen name, when Cynthia dishes about it to Pete, and Pete in turn rats him out to Roger. (Roger’s been dealing with professional disappointment all season, and as “a fellow unappreciated author,” he takes his frustrations out on one of the few people left at the firm lower on the totem pole than himself.) Still, Ken gets off relatively easy: he seemed uneasy about the science fiction stories even as he was describing them to Peggy, and he already has a new nom de plume, and story, by that evening.

Lane and Pete don’t end the work day on such an upbeat note, unfortunately. Lane, who’s already struggling to bridge his love of America with his wife Rebecca’s longing for queen and country, decides to take a turn as an account man. But he doesn’t have the gift for it in the way that Ken can write stories about robots and aliens. He fumbles his way through a dinner date with friend and prospective client Edwin and has the account taken away by Pete. And when Roger turning the evening into a trip to an upscale local whorehouse blows up on everyone(*), Lane’s temper in turn brings out an ugly side of Pete. Like Roger with Ken, Pete’s looking for someone he can beat up on, and Lane – socially awkward Lane, who understandably fears irrelevance at a business that already employs Joan Holloway –  makes an easy target.

(*) “Caught with chewing gum on his pubis” is just a funny phrase. It just is. Sorry, Lane. 

But where Roger’s threat to fight Pete back in the premiere was just an idle one, Lane absolutely means it, and his training in the rules of the Marquess of Queensbury turns out to outweigh whatever advantage Pete’s youth might provide him. He gives Pete the beating that Pete’s deserved, off and on, for much of the life of the series(**), but it’s not tremendously satisfying for him because he’s still been called out for his marginal role in the agency, and his poor job handling the account in the first place. And then Lane nearly makes things much worse for himself by trying to build a bridge between his work relationship with Joan and a hypothetical romantic one. He’s only saved by the tremendous affection and respect Joan has for him, which leads her to open his office door but not walk out it, and to change the subject back to everyone in the office’s desire to deck Pete.

(**) And the beating I imagine Lane wishes he had given his pimp cane-wielding father.

And if nothing else, Lane can take satisfaction in having won the fight. Pete’s left with nothing, not just because he got beat up by a middle-aged fop, but because he’s consumed with a feeling of want without ever really knowing what it is he wants.

Long ago and far away, Pete wanted to be Don Draper. Well, now he is. If anything, he’s got things better than Don did back in season 1, because Trudy is a better wife, mother to his kids and all-around human being than Betty could ever be for Don. (Even Don likes Trudy enormously, and Don likes almost nobody.) And absolutely none of it satisfies him. Even now that Trudy seems to have finally gotten herself composed, Pete’s scoping out teenage Jenny at his driver’s ed class. And when that plan fails after a more age-appropriate suitor steps in his way, Pete’s more than happy to go to the whorehouse, where he doesn’t want the hooker to act like either a housewife or a virginal teen, but simply as someone who will treat him like the king he so desperately wants to be.

And it turns out that Pete wants to be a king who’s loved, not feared. He’s nakedly desperate for Don’s approval at the dinner party – and then resentful, as always, when Don proves his manliness by re-fixing the faucet after Pete botched it – angry at Don’s disapproval on the cab ride home from the whorehouse, and then simply lonely and confused in the elevator with Don, where he confesses, “This is an office. We’re supposed to be friends!“(***)

(***) That’s a very Michael Scott line, and while Pete and Michael aren’t exactly cross-decade counterparts for one another, there’s a sense with both that they were never properly taught how human beings interact with one another, and have been faking their way through it as adults. They just take their cues from different sources, with Pete copying more successful men, while Michael borrows everything from pop culture.

And the funny/sad thing is that Pete is so desperately trying to become a Don Draper who doesn’t quite exist at the moment. This Don, amazingly, is happy. He is at peace with himself and his place in the world. He’s probably not as driven at work as he should be, and he’s still a misanthrope in general, but Megan (for now, at least) has turned out to be everything he dreamed she would be when he impulsively proposed to her. She’s the partner he wants, at work and at home. She helped him build a bridge between his Don Draper and Dick Whitman sides, and he’s doing okay.

But just because Don’s doing so much better than Pete and Lane at the moment doesn’t mean his newlywed bliss will last. We’ve seen Roger and Jane, and now Pete and Trudy. As Ken’s story reminds us, all it can take is the removal of one bolt for a bridge between worlds to collapse.

Some other thoughts:

* John Slattery took his third turn behind the camera after two directorial stints last season, and he continues to have particularly strong command of the comedic moments, once again getting big laughs out of Elisabeth Moss reaction shots (and, in this case, Christina Hendricks). And, as with Jon Hamm’s episode a few weeks ago, there were some transitions that called attention to themselves: the rhythmic tapping of Jenny’s flip-flop leading into the rhythmic dripping of the leaky kitchen faucet, a shot of Ken exiting Peggy’s office cutting into a nearly-identical shot of Lane welcome Pete into his, and the dissolve of Pete’s face in the office to his face at the driver’s ed class. Not sure if those choices are Slattery’s, the editor’s, Matt Weiner’s, or some combination.

* Weiner, by the way, gets shared credit for this script with Frank Pierson, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Dog Day Afternoon” (and nominated for “Cool Hand Luke” and “Cat Ballou,” both close to the period when this season takes place).

* I quite liked the atmosphere at the Campbell dinner party as it raged on and everyone became plausibly but not uncomfortably drunk. Everyone was just sweaty and a little too candid, with Megan unable to stop herself from excitedly blurting out “Cynthia!” when Mrs. Cosgrove’s name finally came up in conversation.

* Also loved everyone’s reactions to the crying yet adorable baby. Not sure Jon Hamm’s ever smiled that broadly on the show before.

* “Mad Men” thankfully doesn’t do a whole lot of temporal irony humor, where something a character says is funny only in the context of what we know in the present, but it can work on occasion, like Pete bragging about his Wilt Chamberlain-sized hi-fi.

* Trudy’s endless story about the origin of the Cos Cob name at least provides some value to Ken, who borrows the name Coe for a character in his new story.

* Where most of last season’s episodes took place roughly a month apart, time has slowed down a bit the last few weeks. Betty and the kids were celebrating the 4th of July two episodes ago, the Richard Speck killings that haunted everyone in last week’s show took place on July 14, and and early in this hour, Lane watches the 1966 World Cup final, which was played on July 30.

* That also means that Joan went back to work pretty quickly after she kicked Greg to the curb, given that her presence at the office is already just a fact of life, rather than deserving of comment.

* Interesting, but not surprising, that Ken and Peggy have a pact to make sure the other has a job at wherever they leap to. Those two have always had a good professional bond, going back to their work together on the radio commercial in the season 1 finale.

* Another sign of how relatively at ease Don is at this point in his life: not only does he briefly discuss his life on the farm in front of work colleagues, but he tells the madam that he grew up in a whorehouse. (Though I’m not sure on the chronology there, since his mother died in childbirth and he was quickly taken to Archie and Abigail’s farm. Was he speaking metaphorically, or was there some point in his childhood where they sent the whore-son back to the whorehouse?)

* A sign that I’ve caught “Suburgatory” fever: I added several exclamation points to the name “Ryan Shay” in my notes when I recognized actor Parker Young as “Handsome” Hanson, who blocked any shot Pete had at young Jenny.

* Insert “obligatory, increasingly unconvincing reminder that the reviews eventually won’t come this quickly” here.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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