'Mad Men' Recap: 'Signal 30' Brings The Fight To Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce

Don't read this unless you've seen Season 5, Episode 5 of "Mad Men," entitled "Signal 30."

"This is an office. We're supposed to be friends."

Oh, Pete. If you only knew that those sentences just don't go together at all. In fact, those are two almost diametrically opposed concepts.

Work is work. It's where people are supposed to get paid and, if they're lucky, feel a modicum of satisfaction. Contrary to what Roger Sterling thinks, a job isn't the be-all and end-all of one's existence (and it never was). At various times, certain Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce employees have certainly tried to live their entire lives at work, and some still derive most of their satisfaction and validation from their day jobs. But from what we've seen on the show, characters relying completely on work for their emotional satisfaction leads to disaster. SCDP is, like most workplaces, a weird family, but woe to the employee who doesn't try to build a real life outside it.

Weirdly enough, Don isn't one of those people who lives at and for work anymore. He wants to keep his real life and his work life separate, and that was one of many reasons he wanted to stay the hell away from Cos Cob. Speaking of those who are no longer work-obsessed (or never were), Bert Cooper checked out long ago and is just marking time (and don't ever change, Bert -- we need you for the occasional comic relief).

Roger, though he proved in his tutorial with Lane that he's a really great accounts man and could have done amazing things had he been more disciplined and rigorous during his career, is obviously checked out. Of course, whether he ever checked in is debatable, given how much he's coasted all his life, but at this point, the game is almost over for him; even he admits that he's the "emeritus" head of accounts.

All three men are far less invested than they used to be in the their work lives, yet all were paying full attention when Lane and Pete went at it in the conference room (and if you want to relive it, let's go to the tape). No matter how jaded they all were, that was something they didn't see every day. In fact, for marketing guys, they really missed a golden opportunity to either sell tickets to that bout or sell off chances to punch Pete Campbell in the face.

No matter how many good or worthwhile things Pete has done of late, as Joan said, pretty much everyone at SCDP would have loved to sock him in the jaw. Pete Campbell is the Theon Greyjoy of "Mad Men": He's eternally in search of approval and eternally unlikely to get it, for any number of just and unjust reasons.

John Slattery, who plays Roger, directed this episode and he did an especially great job of capturing the reactions of the three men who were equally horrified and fascinated by the confrontation between the pugilistic Brit and the bantamweight WASP. I don't know what was more hilarious, Lane's ever-so-proper, Marquess of Queensberry fighting stance or the way he called Pete a "grimy pimp." (Score one for the Limey!) But throughout, Don, Roger and Bert's horrified, fascinated reactions were absolute comedy gold.

Pete had been full of himself all episode, but he couldn't quite believe that the firm's prim accountant was going to be the one to call him on his resentful and grating arrogance. But Lane did, and what's more, he won the fistfight. And he even kissed Joan! She didn't reciprocate, exactly, but she made it clear that she still considers him a great friend. Oh, Lane. You are a bold one, when it comes down to it. Between England winning the World Cup and Lane besting Pete, it was a good week to be an Englishman.

Lane's Flying Fists of Fury were something of a shock, but Pete certainly had that beatdown coming. The problem with the junior accounts man was a tendency to overplay his hand on several fronts. He allowed himself to think he had a chance with the pretty young girl in his driver's ed class; he began to throw his weight around at the firm in ever more arrogant ways, and he began to treat both Lane and Roger as if they were already irrelevant (and they may not be all that relevant, but they're still more than willing and able to cause trouble for young pups like Pete).

Trudy's right -- Pete has done well for himself, but his ascendance at the firm is by no means certain. His name isn't on the door. The men who do have their names on the door got to where they are for a reason -- to borrow a phrase from "Game of Thrones," they know how the game is played, and they've been playing it a lot longer than Pete. They learned to drive a long time ago, son.

But once it became clear that the Freaky Incident of the Week would be the deranged shooter in clock tower in Texas, "Signal 30" was all about ratcheting up the pressure on Mr. Campbell, to the point that I was waiting for him to grab his own rifle and start shooting people. Things never quite got to that point; Pete was more broken than enraged by the end of the hour. He wanted to think that sleeping with a prostitute was all part of doing the job, but Don managed to avoid that aspect of the night out. His resentful speech to Don ended, as Pete's speeches almost always do, with the younger man sliding into self-pity.

What Pete is too young and stubborn to see is that he and Roger are almost frighteningly similar. Both are unhappy at home, despite having gotten what they allegedly wanted. Both think the world owes them something and no matter how much recognition and affirmation they get, it's never enough. But with Pete, the entitlement and the anger go deeper. Pete has shredded a lot of his life (and how he will rue the day if Trudy ever finds chewing gum on his person).

But unlike Don, his turmoil isn't essentially the result of self-hatred -- it's all about that desire for recognition and approval. Nothing that happens at work will ever fill that void, and now that Lane humiliated him in front of the entire firm, a random jock easily swiped his sweet young thing and Don showed him up at home with the sexiest kitchen repair in American history, Pete's stores of rage are very well stocked. He's even more of a wild card than ever.

During one of the shots of a sweaty, disheveled Pete, I realized something: He's the Richard Nixon of SCDP. I don't mean his politics align with Nixon's, I just mean that there's a sense with Pete that there's always a chip on his shoulder and he'll eternally feel misunderstood and undervalued. He'll always inspire a mixture of pity and exasperation, because he's smart and insightful, but he can be a piece of work (and the show even made the reference explicit with Bert's mention of Nixon before the Partner Meeting That Went Terribly Wrong).

How about Pete ratting out Ken Cosgrove and exposing his literary career? How does that help Pete? But both Pete and Roger (who are, again, so similar in many ways) can't stand the idea of someone at the firm having something of value outside of work. They have to tear apart what they can't have; it's childish move, but it's certainly not a tendency that's rare in the world.

Don may have come to a more settled place, and Roger may have more or less accepted his old-lion status, but Pete, Ken and Lane are all trying to assess and increase their value and worth as men. Lane wanted to land an account and prove that he could add to the firm's bottom line. Pete has gotten to the "is this all there is" stage that Don was in a few years ago: He's good at his job and has a family in the suburbs, but he's realized it isn't enough and Pete simply doesn't know how to deal with that.

As for Ken, he was smart to keep his writing career separate from work, but as Don has found, trying to keep aspects of your personal life walled off can be really difficult. At least Ken (or should I say, "Dave Algonquin") finds great material in Pete's pathetic situation. In Ken's hands, Pete sounds like a character from an Updike or Cheever story; the suburbanite's situation sounds haunting and poignant. It's almost better than Pete deserves.

Whether or not they read "Dave's" story, these men were still going to wonder: Are they the robot or the commuters on the bridge? Do they have any kind of control over their lives, or are their lives programmed forever?

The latter seems unlikely, and not just because Ken, Lane, Pete and other characters keep testing the limits of their lives and trying new things (some of them work out well, some of them disastrously). Whether or not they seek it out, change is happening all around them. Life is more random, and it's somehow darker. To me, the theme that is emerging in Season 5 is one of decay and decline. Look at the city streets as Mr. Baker got out of the taxi; there was litter everywhere.

The city seems dirtier, harsher. The characters sense change all around, and it scares them (when they're not trying to speed up the pace of change, as Pete was). There's a sense of ominousness this season. Is it just me, or do you also sense something big is shuffling toward these people?

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." Those are the lines that come to mind as I think about the overall mood of the season.

A few final notes:

  • It really is a bit of a "connect the dots" season, with some violent or notable event being used to bring out the theme of that week's episode. It's almost to the point where I want to surf the Internet and look up September 1966 in order to know what everyone will be talking about next week. What do you think -- is it too predictable of a format for the season? Or are you OK with the current-events theme?

  • Fifty miles away from Manhattan, things are "infinitely more wholesome"? I'm not sure about that, Mrs. Baker.
  • Tom and Lorenzo are the kings of fashion and decor critiques of "Mad Men," and I do wonder what they'll make of Trudy's dresses -- they seemed very old-fashioned for 1966. Of course she's a conservative character, but her fluffy skirts were such a contrast to Cynthia and Megan's simple, fashionable shifts.
  • Speaking of Megan, she's really a very different kind of partner for Don. She doesn't make it a point to know the names of employees' wives, she orders him to wear a much more with-it plaid jacket, and she won't get them out of the party in the suburbs. And she's not about to have his baby any time soon. She's no Betty 2.0.
  • I do feel a bit sorry for Pete: He was so obviously pleased and nervous about Don's visit to his house. His desire for approval was a little bit endearing and a little bit pathetic. Having said that, it took a no nonsense Trudy to actually close the deal and get Don out there.
  • Notice that Dick Whitman was very sure of the last name of the man in the clock tower in Austin, Texas. And he also quite casually referred to his past on the farm. Having said that, he elaborated a little when he said he grew up in a whorehouse. He was the son of a prostitute, but grew up with the awful Archie Whitman in the country. But being the son of a prostitute is surely a defining feature of who he is.
  • Nice job of Parker Young from "Suburgatory" as the jock who stole Pete's young crush.
  • "You want some more, Mr. Toad?"
  • Links to Joan/Lane fan fiction are appreciated. I am definitely on Team Loan at this point.
  • As we do every week, Ryan McGee and I will be talking about "Mad Men" (and "Game of Thrones") in the Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast. The new podcast, with a special guest, will be live on iTunes and here late Monday or early Tuesday.
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