Barker Chappell Daglas Mad Men Roundtable: “Signal 30”

Hey all, it’s that time again. This Sunday’s Mad Men was one of the strongest the series has ever done, and the Barker Chappell Daglas Reviewing Firm is here to break it all down for you. Enjoy this, or Les will challenge you to a round of gentleman’s fisticuffs.

Cory: Les, Andy: Welcome back to the Barker Chappell Daglas Reviewing Firm. I don’t know if it’s just that this episode was Pete-centric, or that it was nice to get away from all those damn dreams, but “Signal 30” felt like the most satisfying episode of the season, and one of my favorites in the series’ run. I think I’ve made it clear that I like my Mad Men with a healthy dose of Campbell, and this episode was a fantastic showcase for everyone’s petulant constant-climber. We had been given hints that Pete was extremely dissatisfied with his life already this season, most notably with his childish needling of Roger and the complaining over the office space, but “Signal 30” brought us a full helping of Pete sadness. He’s taking driver’s training in hopes of gaining license, but more importantly, in hopes of gaining some freedom from what he sees as a closing window on his life. Beautiful wife, beautiful/alien-looking child and a new house. Apparently, none of those things make Pete happy, even though he spent a good deal of the last few years trying to grab them. Now, he’s making passes at teens in his driver’s training course and having (from what we could see, fairly passionless) sex with ladies of the night. So, Pete’s basically Don, three years ago. And to make matters worse, current Don is no longer sympathetic to either his own past mistakes or the ones Pete is replicating in the present. Gents, how did we feel about Pete’s descent into misery? And does Don really have the right to judge so harshly (if he is at all)?

Les: Definitely this felt like the most satisfying episode of Mad Men this season, and also – partially because of John Slattery’s direction – one of the more genuinely fun episodes of the series. In that vein, how much fun was the Pryce-Campbell bare-knuckle brawl in the conference room? (Roger had the best line of the entire episode in that context: “I know cooler heads should prevail, but am I the only one who wants to see this?”) That was a sequence where I honestly can’t feel too bad for Mr. Campbell, because as Joan observed we’ve all wanted to kick the tar out of him at various points throughout the series. 

We’ve talked in previous installments about our affection for Pete Campbell, but he clearly wasn’t much of an admirable figure this episode – I personally spent a lot of time yelling at him not to do something stupid by sleeping with the high school student he’s taking driving lessons with, because I could completely see that as something this character would do. Pete is, as we’ve said, a character who always wants more despite being in a very good position with his life, and this episode was full of Campbell moments where he’s just not happy with the world. He forced Ken to praise his new sound system, pointed out how pleased he was that Don deigned to come to his house, and when he wound up in a room with another woman only assented to sleep with her if she called him a king. He’s clearly fought hard to get some measure of respect – and in cases like season four’s “The Rejected” has earned it – but in his mind he’s always going to be overshadowed by the Don Drapers of the world, who can fix his faucets when his own successful repair work is just a coincidence. I do like the guy after a fashion, but he brought this on himself by insulting Lane’s value to SCDP, and personally I was right alongside Roger in betting on Lane over the “grimy little pimp.”

And as an aside, observations of an alien child? Spot on there Cory. My first thought was that evidently she and Gracie Bell Taylor are the advance forces for the hive mind which will eventually consume us all. Andy, thoughts on the fight or the role of the other partners in just letting it happen?

Andy: Give me a moment, I’m still sussing out which of the two of you I mean to challenge to old-timey fisticuffs. 

As you’ve both observed, Pete hit for the slimeball cycle this week (attempted statutory cheating, call girl carousing, coworker belittling, oblivious whining), and that’s usually a recipe for success* But everyone’s favorite incurable malcontent wasn’t the only one facing the sting of perceived failure. 

*I can’t help but notice how, on a night when much of my Twitter feed was discussing the “privileged-white-people-bitching” ethos of HBO’s debuting comedy Girls, ol’ Pete Campbell was putting on a clinic in how privileged-white-people-bitching is done, son.

And Lane – even if he too is a comparatively blessed individual who refuses to acknowledge the fact – at least has a legitimate reason to feel undercut by the world. As master of the coin for an agency on shaky financial footing, he’s constantly got to be the one saying no, shutting down the wants and needs of others. Here, he finally gets the chance to add some value, to play offense for the firm instead of defense. Yet first he’s mocked by a jealous Pete, who throws Lane’s penny-pinching proclivities back in his face. Then he loses his grasp on the account as quickly as he got it, in part because his new friend thinks he’s, er, quite unsuitable for a bit of proper whoring. (And why does one hire an ad agency in the first place if not for the call girls?)  

Emasculation is a common theme on Mad Men, and generally handled as unsubtly as it is here. But while it’s often presented as a symptom of insecure men who can’t bear to surrender a shred of their entitlement (as it is with Pete), I think there’s something more nuanced in Lane’s story. Even successful people need to feel like their lives have some forward momentum, some sense of accomplishment. Like the English World Cup team, Lane’s plateaued; even a taste of victory is fleeting and may never be repeated. Losing Jaguar not only because he’s too poor at schmoozing clients but also because Roger is too good at it, that’s a genuine setback for a man running out of chances to prove himself.** No wonder the man’s feeling bold enough to live out the twin dreams of the Mad Men universe: planting one on Pete, and then planting one on Joan.

**As opposed to, say, losing your teenage flirting partner to a suitor more age-appropriate…and way hotter.

Reverting to Pete briefly: Cory, you asked whether Don has any right to judge the guy, considering his own well-documented transgressions. I think that’s precisely why Don has the right to judge. I don’t think he means to shame Pete but to warn him. Much like another of New York’s finest products, Mr. William Joel, Don don’t like watching anybody make the same mistakes he’s made. Which once again presents us with a picture of Don Draper: Upstanding Dude. Guys, we’ve talked about whether or not Don can truly mature. Since that appears to be the case (for now), my question becomes: Can Don mature…and remain an interesting character? 

Cory: Andy, your point about Don is spot-on. I just recorded a podcast with a few fellow critics, and we discussed how Mad Men seems to be forcing us to consider how we actually feel about Don. This season, he has been placed in one familiar location after another where we assume that he will fold, and do the Don Draper thing (i.e. sleep with all the women, ever). Whether it is the backstage of Rolling Stones concert or the hot-spot of a fancy whorehouse*, Don has constantly avoided giving in to the urges that used to define him so strongly. He turns in to a young girl’s dad at the Stones concert and here, he’s entirely unimpressed with all the spoils around him. Matthew Weiner and company want us to consider how this Don makes us feel. We presumably want him to change and “be happy,” but those changes and that happiness might lead to the version of Don we’ve seen on-screen thus far: responsible, detached and a bit bored. Most fans probably want Don to be Don, which doesn’t fit with “happiness.” I personally think “Happy Don” is an interesting character, but I’ll admit that part of my interest in this version of the character is the waiting for the one moment where he fails. 

*PHRASING. 

And yet, even Don’s reaction to Pete and the suggestion that he’s actually just looking out for young Mr. Campbell, is a bit staggering to me. I don’t think Don’s ever had it out for Pete, but he certainly hasn’t cared about him in the past. Here, he quickly folds and attends the Campbell party (once and all proving that no one on the planet can resist Alison Brie or women she embodies) and gives Pete legitimately quality advice. WHO THE HELL IS THIS PERSON? I would love for Don to become this weirdly prescient mentor to Pete as the latter descends into drunken depression, or even crazier, what if Don helps Pete out of the tail-spin? Les, your thoughts on Don, Wise Old Man, and Lane’s issues in this episode?

Les: Quick clarification Andy: Marquess of Queensberry rules I assume, or are we carving it down to Fight Club‘s eight? I never get into a match unless I know how the game is played.

But anyway, Don Draper as interesting character/wise man? I think it’s certainly possible for him to mature and remain interesting, partly because Jon Hamm’s such a terrific actor and partly because Don’s got so much history and personal drama that deciding to settle down a bit isn’t going to take away what made him interesting in the first place. We saw an instance of that at the party in the little moment at the dinner where he found himself mentioning the name “Whitman” and there was a pause Megan (and curiously not Pete) noticed, and again when he mentions to the madam that he grew up in a whorehouse. Don’s sleeping around and self-destruction were symptoms of something deeper, and maybe Megan can treat those symptoms but that doesn’t mean the cause is removed. I do agree with you Cory that we’re waiting for the honeymoon to be over – as Pete predicted will happen – because Mad Men’s conditioned us to do so. But at the same time, why can’t he just be happy? People are occasionally allowed that, even in a universe as cynical as this one.

Truthfully, I think the fact that Don’s a more neutral figure means he could be an interesting center around which the inter-agency conflicts could bounce off of, of which there’s a lot. While last week we were talking about Roger’s personal issues being front and center, it’s now clear that Pete might be even more damaged. On Twitter several of our friends have been talking about the possibility that the latter’s emotional nadir could be driving him to thoughts of violence against either Roger or himself – it can’t be a coincidence that Trudy mentioned his rifle during the party and we saw it among his things when he moved to Harry’s office. Literal Chekov’s gun* perhaps? Pete’s not a happy person, and he’s now been humiliated by Lane even more than when he was passed over for head of accounts in favor of Kenny and his haircut. If anything, Don’s advice may be the one thing keeping him from eating his rifle, to find some new inspiration as he tries yet again to please his father figure.

*Yes, I know the Chekov’s gun is a facile argument. And also woefully esoteric. Fetching a rug now.

And despite bringing the pain on Mr. Campbell, Lane’s clearly not any better off emotionally. The tension between him and his wife over being expatriates has been around since he was introduced, but I have to admit I was very surprised by just how insecure he is about his own position at the firm. The show’s portrayed him as being as essential to running the firm as Joan was, but to see him so upset over not being able to close the deal with Jaguar and admitting he thinks Joan could do both their jobs seems a bit out of character from what we’ve been told. (I’m also pleased that my premiere prediction that something between Lane and Joan would happen has borne out, even if it’s a moment of desperation as opposed to a mutual hook-up – and one that Joan handles as perfectly and diplomatically as you’d expect Joan to do.) Does he really believe this or was it just a moment of weakness? Of the named partners he seems to be the most useful given Don’s disengagement, Roger’s apathy and Bert’s general air of obsolescence.

Once again, it seems like the only person who’s well-adjusted in this office is Ken Cosgrove, whose literary aspirations come up for I think the first time since season two’s “The Gold Violin.” How’d you feel about this spotlight for Ken, particularly learning he’s in Kurt Vonnegut territory and writing sci-fi during his off hours?

Andy: It’s always a treat spending time with Ken Cosgrove (Robots!), and his lovely wife who even Megan strains not to call “Alex Mack” to her face. What worked so well about the re-emergence of his literary moonlighting was how it contrasted with Pete’s and Lane’s malaise. Ken isn’t defined by his job or his stereo system. If his boss decrees Ben Hargrove go into retirement, that just opens the door for Dave Algonquin’s roman a clef. The very fact that he’s comfortable writing under multiple pseudonyms (his need for discretion aside) betrays a level of self-assurance that most of his day job coworkers can only dream of. Could you imagine Peter Campbell ever doing any work that he wouldn’t loudly insist on being hot-welded to the name Peter Campbell?

While we’re accentuating the positive, I’d like to mention a fleeting moment of encouragement for Roger, when he advises Lane on proper wining-and-dining techniques. Although he begins by casually acknowledging that he’s more a “professor emeritus of accounts” these days, he seems to recapture a bit of his old spark with the chance to pass on a nugget of Sterling gold. It’s probably nothing, but it might also suggest an alternate path for Roger. I’d love to see him acquire a more pliant protégé who would not only be grateful for the old man’s wisdom, but who could act as a proxy adversary against Pete. Hey, do you suppose “Handsome” Hanson is in the market for an internship?

Les: I’d like to think that Roger’s getting back in the game, but I think it’s more that he’s finally found people he’s in a position of authority over. Andy, it’s funny you mention Sterling’s gold, which was of course the title of Roger’s ill-fated attempt at a memoir. (“I always liked chocolate ice cream, but my mother made us eat vanilla because it didn’t stain anything.”) Roger himself invokes his past as “a fellow unappreciated author” when he informs Ken that this job should in fact be his all-consuming goal and forces him to kill his earlier pseudonym. After two season finales where he seems engaged at the adversity of a leaner agency only to come back more apathetic than before, I’m even more skeptical about his capability for change than Don’s.

This interaction also raises an interesting question I’ve seen a couple people bring up. We logically assume that Pete ratted Ken out because Pete’s generally a rat (and also very insecure around Ken’s success) but do you think it could have been Peggy? It seems out of character for her – especially given their pact to always work together when they can – but do you think she sabotaged him out of fear he might leave the agency?

Cory: I was ecstatic to see that Ken got something quality to do for the first time in multiple seasons, and I think Andy’s point about how his life contrasts with Pete’s (or Lane’s) is really tremendous. Ken has never really seemed that interested in his job outside of doing just enough to stay employed, and I really loved the moment at the Campbell dinner table where Don more or less acknowledged that Ken’s writing was a good thing. Even in the early seasons, I’m not sure Don actually cared that much about his career either. He’s always been chasing a feeling, or a life, that he never could quite reach. And while Don’s certainly good at his job and values work, I think he respects Ken and maybe even admires his desire to find something else. Especially now. This version of Don is all about finding happiness and sticking with it, and he recognizes that Ken has accomplished just that. And of course, Don might respect a guy with a fake name. Har-har. 

Lane’s issues actually weren’t that surprising to me. You guys mentioned the issues he’s had with his wife, but going back just a few episodes to the premiere, we can see that he’s just longing for something. Lane certainly isn’t as anxious or petulant as Pete, and yet, finding that woman’s picture awoke something in him, even momentarily. I’m not sure if this is a direct extension of that or not, but you have to imagine that Mr. Pryce expected a more exciting life when he took the plunge in creating the new firm a few years ago. The rush of that decision and the terror of the opening months of a new firm likely carried him through, but now, it’s sort of business as usual at SCDP, and apparently, Lane can’t really take that. 

I have two observations that I wanted to throw out there, one of which I believe we’ve already talked about in the past so I don’t want to belabor it too much. It sure does feel like that “the world,” (i.e. the events of 1966) are a lot more present in this season of the series. In every episode, characters are consistently discussing current events or directly engaging with them in ways that are somewhat familiar, but also new as well. It’s fair to say that the world’s changes are too difficult for even the most naive and ignorant white males to ignore at this point in 1966, but I’m curious as to what you guys think the narrative or thematic purpose of this is. Thoughts?

And secondly, it also seems like we’ve spent more time outside the office this season than in previous years. That might be entirely off-base, but the actual work being done by the firm and the power-players in it feels…less important. Two episodes have been built around parties, another featured Don mostly outside of the office at the Stones concert and in another, he was out sick. Is this part of Don becoming less focused on work and less central to the story, or is something else going on here?

Les: I think we can add a third to those seasonal observations, in that the time period of the show appears to be slowed down much more than usual. The premiere took place in June, and based on events in the show (Fourth of July, the Richard Speck killings, England winning the World Cup) we’ve now spent three episodes in one month when usually the show likes to jump ahead one to two months between installments. Are they trying to drag out Don’s happiness as long as possible before the collapse? Or do they just to slow down the clock so season six can be full-bore 1967?

As to the other two, I think you’re right Cory that the insular world of the agency has been disrupted by the intrusion of real-world events and Don’s own disengagement with the office. On a lesser show I’d say that they’ve just run out of material and are now trying to find something new to do after four seasons, but Mad Men is not a lesser show. I think the thematic purpose ties back to after four seasons these characters have been through a lot of personal and professional struggles, and season five is where a lot of them are trying to figure out exactly what sort of person those struggles have left them as. Don’s trying to switch his attentions from work to Megan, and that seems to be working. Joan kicked her husband to the curb and returned to be queen of the castle, and that seems to be working (at least in the brief glimpse we got). Lane, Pete and Roger are all still warring with that self-examination, and for the most part they don’t like what they see, hence the resulting insults and fisticuffs. 

So to that end, it makes sense that the show would be spending more time outside the office, as a lot of these characters are simply trying to find something new. And given how much is going on outside the office, it also makes sense that those real-world events would shape the way Don and company go on that journey.

Andy: I think you’ve both captured it nicely. The big temporal leaps between episodes has always evoked the quotidian passage of real life – things mostly happen the same way, one day to the next, such that weeks and months go by unremarkably. Slowing down this season may speed things up, underscoring the growing unease of people who can’t seem to turn on the TV without encountering one scary incident after another. And we know it’s going to get even scarier. After all, Nixon’s not even back in the news yet.

Les: Though he is still on the radar of some in the know. It was lost in the spectacle of the great Campbell/Pryce bare-knuckle brawl, but Cooper predicts (correctly as we of 2012 know) that Nixon’s lying in wait to try again. Maybe his people turn to SCDP a second time for advertising? Given that happens in 1968 – which would fit for the show’s seventh and presumably final season – that’d give an interesting bookend feel to the narrative, or show us how much/how little has changed in eight years.

Cory: Most definitely. In many ways, this season feels like one of transition. As Les mentioned, a few of the characters are coming closer to the life they want, and the others are working on getting there. Add that with the proverbial “changing times” around the characters and we have ourselves a really intriguing, and likely important, series of stories this year. We just need more workplace boxing. Until next week, gents. 

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