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TV Recap: Mad Men “Signal 30”

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

In the opening scene of this excellent episode, Pete Campbell is squeezed incongruously into a high school classroom chair, chuckling at a gruesome driver education film and trading glances with a pretty girl. This fades into Pete in bed at home late at night, wide awake due to a dripping faucet (on the loud side of plausibility). This plays like a dream sequence, but we find out Pete’s really enrolled in the class – he never needed a driver’s license before he moved to the suburbs. Pete leaves his wife Trudy in bed and goes to the kitchen to fix the leak, slamming his toolbox-shaped manhood on the counter and getting busy down below. When the job is done, Pete’s face says “this is me now.”

“Signal 30” provides illuminating updates of the status of other characters like Lane Pryce, Ken Cosgrove, and Roger Sterling, but Pete’s the center of the episode. He’s one of the core characters in the series, and has received careful handling in his transit from near-villainy in the first season to a more sympathetic role. Unlike Don Draper, Pete seems only able to sustain a mask when he’s with clients – the rest of the time his face bunches with delight or petulant rage like a baby’s. He feels constantly undervalued and misunderstood, but he also knows when he’s fallen short of his own standards.

Lane starts on his collision course with Pete when he lucks into a social evening with Edwin Baker, a fellow Brit who turns out to be the public relations director for Jaguar Motors, who are looking for a new American ad agency. At the next meeting of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce partners, Lane’s smugly proud to be the only one with a potential client to discuss. Pete is a partner too, even though his name’s not on the door, but his resentment still flares at Roger and now at Lane. We’ve seen how Lane can pinch pennies when it comes to client service, so Pete stagily mocks him: “My lawdy, new business – not heah, suh!” as if he were all the characters in Gone With the Wind at once. Everybody else is appropriately thrilled at the prospect of a prestigious automobile account, and even Roger, whose color this season has been Curdled Superannuation, offers to coach Lane on how to land his first big fish.

Trudy’s always worked heroically to forgive Pete and prop him up; her inexhaustible loyalty to Team Campbell is one of the windows Mad Men offers into Pete’s humanity. (Pete’s also been shown to have progressive attitudes about advertising and society, and has an almost comically mitigating family background.) But now Trudy has a baby daughter dividing her attention, and she and Pete have moved to a house in Connecticut where he feels out of place and adrift. In earlier episodes he complained about Trudy letting herself go, not bouncing back from childbirth fast enough. But Trudy’s still on the ball, expertly maneuvering Don and Megan toward the dinner party she’s arranged for them and the Cosgroves.

Don and Megan embark for this party from their technicolor pad in Manhattan. (I know Mad Men won the Nobel Prize for Set Decorating, but this is their first domestic set that I would totally want to Occupy.) We arrive a few minutes ahead of them, in time to catch Pete showing off his hulking new stereo credenza: “It’s seven feet long – Wilt Chamberlain could lie down in there!” Pete and Don have basically swapped living spaces this year, since the Campbells used to have a stylish apartment in the city, and now we see Don offering a perfunctory “you have a lovely home” on their doorstep as if he expects to find Betty’s old fainting couch in the living room. It’s impossible not to notice the fabulous multicolored flower pattern on the white curtains by the stereo, and they match the couch!

At the center of the episode, this dinner party scene brings to mind all the earlier Mad Men party scenes we loved: Sally’s birthday party in the first season, Roger’s Kentucky Derby garden party, the desperately frantic office Christmas party and Peggy’s Warholian loft party in the previous season. But this one’s in a different key – this season’s already given us Don and Megan’s totally bitchen soirée a couple of weeks ago, and this episode has two more set pieces coming right up.

Pete’s fairly giddy about letting Don know he’s being treated as the alpha (“you get the big steak,” Ken tells him) and reminds Don that he brushed aside a long-ago invitation to dinner when Pete was just a scheming junior weasel. Trudy is clearly elated she got them all together and sparkles with small talk about the derivation of the name Cos Cob (their exclusive neighborhood in Greenwich) which Pete adds “sounds a lot like the Algonquin word for briefcase.” When the conversation turns to this week’s Wikipedia-bait, the University of Texas tower massacre in August, 1966, Ken’s wife (damn it, what’s her name?) mistakenly calls the killer Charles Whitmore. Don corrects her to “Whitman” with all available aplomb; Megan has a brief intake of breath in his direction but carries on.

Pete doesn’t dare complain too blatantly, but he rebuffs every attempt to get him to say something nice about living in Connecticut: “People talk about how there’s so much crime in the city…I was ripped off* by the kid who mows my lawn.” Then, when the wives are rinsing the dishes in the kitchen, the previously dripping faucet explodes into a fountain. Pete races off for his tools, but while he’s away Don slams a saucepot over the faucet, tears off his shirt (“look, it’s Superman,” says…Cynthia!), and has everything under control in about four seconds. “The supply was turned all the way up…it forces the valve,” Don explains maddeningly.

Meanwhile, Lane’s dinner with the man from Jaguar didn’t go exactly the way Roger said it should, and now the rest of the SCDP crew will have to take another shot at winning the account. Pete has a brief scene continuing his flirtation with the girl in his driving class, but he’s due for another emasculation in the tall, buff form of “Handsome,” a boy who mistakes Pete for the instructor and starts chatting with the girl. The camera movement tells us Pete is sizing up this kid’s muscular torso under his tight shirt.

The tag team assault on Jaguar goes swimmingly. Married man Edwin Baker lets them know he’s ready to sign but – “I just want to make sure that I enjoy the people I work with.” Roger knows how to tiddle that wink, and we’re off to the high-class whorehouse. Baker, Roger, and Pete pair up with girls (Pete’s got one who looks a bit like a debauched version of his high school friend) but Don does not. Pete tells his girl he’s ready for some role-play; she tries out a few scenarios (“Nope…nope…”) until she hits on the one he likes: he’s her King.

While Don sits alone at the bar, the madame comes by to see if there’s anything wrong. Don plays the “whorechild” card but we know he’s not above hiring prostitutes. Last week’s symbolic murder of his past romantic entanglements means he’ll be trying to stay faithful to Megan for the time being. In the cab going home, Pete and Don sit as far apart as possible, disheveled and distracted respectively. Pete resents Don’s untimely display of rectitude, and thinks Don – of all people – is judging him for doing his bit for the firm. Pete is finally able, in this half-hearted tussle with his funhouse mentor, to say that he’s unhappy. The cab driver tells Pete that if he’s going to take him all the way to Cos Cob, “you gotta pay both ways.” “I’m aware of that,” Pete sighs Petishly.

And there’s worse to come! Next day in the SCDP offices, Lane assembles the partners and tells them that “your activities last night” (he’s looking at Pete) have torpedoed the Jaguar account. It turns out that Edwin Baker’s prostitute managed to leave her chewing gum “on his pubis!” where it was next observed by his wife. S, C, D, and Pete all crack up at Lane’s Latinate outrage. Lane refuses to accept that the whole thing was Baker’s idea, so Pete tells Lane that Edwin didn’t invite him along because “he thinks you’re a homo” and – furthermore! – Lane is of no use to the firm. Lane’s coat and shirtcuffs are doffed and rolled almost as soon as the words are out of Pete’s mouth. Roger speaks for everyone, and Don pulls the conference room drapes shut.

As Pete and Lane square off we realize how much these guys are alike, in that they are both:
• socially awkward
• introverts attempting to seem extroverted
• insecure about their status at work
• dominated by a parent
• kind of furtive and creepy about women

This scene recalls the physical tragi-comedy of “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” in the third season, a tone that Mad Men doesn’t often get to use. Lane kayos Pete without much trouble, but the rumble has alerted the rest of the office. Joan Harris finds Lane in his office and tries to settle him down. (This helps us remember how these two characters bonded after a misunderstanding last season.) Lane’s blood is high and he steals a kiss from Joan; her statuesque calm as she gets up, goes to the door, opens it slowly, then sits back down with Lane is amazing in itself but also gives us a chance to admire how her turquoise dress goes with the subdued green walls of the office and the oxblood leather chair.

Pete has to get out of the office, his face covered in welts, and fate deals him the same elevator as Don. Pete feels betrayed by his “friends” because none of them prevented the fight. He knows he betrayed his wife the night before, and now it looks like that didn’t even accomplish anything for the firm. “I have nothing, Don,” Pete weeps.

The next voice you hear is Kenny Cosgrove reciting his original short story, “‘The Man with the Miniature Orchestra’ by Dave Algonquin.” This plays over one more scene of Pete in the driving class, again watching a film, while the unnamed girl and “Handsome” snuggle in the dark. The dripping faucet drips.

Okay, I left out all the stuff about Ken’s further adventures in literature, his dinners turning into drinks, The Lonesome Death of X-4, his Pact with Peggy, and his dressing-down by Roger. I’ll just say it helps explain why this character is still around, which isn’t always crystal. But he’s a genial counterweight to the more anguished Mad Men, and I suppose if he and his wife stay on the show we’ll eventually get to see Ray Wise again as his father-in-law.

Whew! I think if they’d found a way to crank up the Campbells’ dinner party a notch (at the risk of overshadowing the later scenes, I know) I’d consider this one of the best.

* In the summer of 1966, only hippies would have said “ripped off.” Mad Men is often careless about the chronism of idioms.

Mad Men, Episode 5:5 “Signal 30”: A-

Allan Ferguson was born recently near Disneyland and has lived up and down the great state of California for all the years since. He is currently in La Mesa near San Diego where he practices graphic design and recreational atheism. He can be reached evenings and weekends at and apparently on the YouTube, somehow or other.