Mad Men : Rounding Some Hairpin Plot Curves

This week's Mad Men offered up a much more insular episode, though the sense of decay and decline in New York which I wrote about earlier in the season is evident. The American studies social themes, aside from the trademark dissatisfaction with success and a sense of impending change, are absent. As always, there be some spoilers ahead.

Relying heavily on humor, some of it in forced circumstance, and some switchback plotting, "Signal 30" (the title refers to a drivers ed film endured by Pete Campbell, at last learning to drive, the better to help his new suburban family) focuses on some characters. The action revolves around a potential new client, Jaguar, and a dinner party at Pete's new Connecticut home.

Don Draper, successfully roped in by Pete's persistently smart wife Trudy, and Megan attend a dinner party at the Campbells with fellow Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce exec Ken Cosgrove and his wealthy and smart wife Cynthia.

There the genre geek references flow freely. Pete fixed the plumbing before the party just well enough to have it blow up, requiring Don to spring into action, losing his cape, er, atrocious sport coat (forced on him by now shaky fashion maven Megan) and dress shirt, spurring admiring "Superman" references from the ladies. Actor Jon Hamm was much talked about to star in the new Superman, which went in a younger direction.

It's just a couple weeks since the last episode, placing us around the end of July 1966, and another mass murder has taken place in the wake of Richard Speck's killings of student nurses in Chicago. Charles Whitman played sniper at the University of Texas, gunning down students with a high-powered rifle. But at first he's referred to as "Charles Widmore," one of the big bads of Lost.

Then we learn that Ken Cosgrove, who in Season 1 incited Pete's envy by publishing a short story in the Atlantic Monthly concerning maple trees in New England, has become a significant budding science fiction writer, under the clever nom de plume of "Ben Hargrove," such that an anthology of his best stories is in the works. Science fiction is becoming a very big deal in the 1960s.

Cynthia tells of his latest story, about a robot, stuck in a mechanistic role, who sabotages a bridge between two planets. (A bridge between two planets? Don't think too much about that one.) It's the robot's act of rebellion against his lot in, er, life.

Evidently, like the Free Speech Movement students at UC Berkeley, who aren't referenced, he didn't want to be spindled, folded, or mutilated by a routinized computer punch card society. Or act out in his job at an advertising agency.

Speaking of which, SCDP's expatriate Brit, dragged by his London-loving wife to a pub to watch the World Cup "soccer" (everyone else in the world calls it football) final between England and Germany, strikes up a fruitful conversation with the head of corporate communications for Jaguar. Lane Pryce doesn't much like football, since his abusive father does, but he gets caught up in England's dramatic win. And in the course of things learns that Jaguar is looking to expand in the US and wants an American ad agency.

Jaguar is merely a potential halo account, an account that can perfectly position SCDP in the swinging '60s. Known for its elegant saloons (sedans), it also has the E-Type, one of the most iconic and sexy sports cars in history. In the Austin Powers movies, the revived international man of mystery reveres his, calling it the "Shaguar." And I believe that the Jag E-Type was the first choice for James Bond's ride in Goldfinger, with the producers turning to Aston Martin only after being turned down for the product placement deal by Jaguar. I'll get into that in my next piece for the 50th anniversary of the Bond films, the first of which, "Impossible Missions and 50 Years of Bond, is here on the Huffington Post.

In the US market, the Jag E-Type will be known as the Jag XKE.

Lane thinks he can swing the deal over dinner with his new friend. He gets expert advice from Roger Sterling, but doesn't really have the panache to pull it off. Frankly, despite Lane's attempts to break away from his English past, he's too traditionally English in style to pull it off.

So the big guns of client seduction are called in to close the deal. Roger and Don ... And Pete comes along. He's actually pretty good at it, too, but it's more technique than talent with Campbell.

The trio pulls it off with a big evening, capped with a nightcap of sorts at a bordello. But it all comes a cropper when the Jaguar exec's wife makes an alarming discovery.

As Lane announces to his colleagues: "Chewing gum in the pubis!"

Incidentally, this is a funny gag at first blush, but really not the sort of thing that a man misses. If it were another show, I'd call this plot twist just silly.

In any event, Pete insults Lane for blowing it in his earlier efforts, demeaning him in the process. Lane retorts that Pete is "a grimy little pimp" and demands satisfaction. As in fisticuffs.

Although Pete gets a few punches in, Lane, who has some training, proceeds to mop the floor with his much younger colleague, with Roger, Don, and Bert Cooper an appreciate audience behind drawn shades in the agency's conference room.

Incidentally, speaking of genre geekery, this scene features not one but two Robert Downey, Jr. co-stars of recent smash hits. John Slattery, who ably directed this episode, played Tony Stark's Howard Hughes/Walt Disney-type dad in Iron Man 2. And Jared Harris -- son of one of my favorite actors, the late Richard Harris, known to latter-day audiences as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, which would probably mortify him -- made an excellent Professor Moriarty in the latest Sherlock Holmes epic. Jared Harris, excellent at playing the heavy, is also a brilliant and nefarious scientific terrorist in the under-appreciated and usually excellent Fox TV series Fringe.

But Lane Pryce, while a little odd at times, is no bad guy, which is why Christina Hendricks's Joan Holloway, already back at work after dumping Vietnam re-bound Dr. Blockhead, comes in to tend to his minor wounds and make sure he's okay emotionally. He's not, quite, since he makes a clumsy pass at her, which she handles with typical aplomb. But it's his vanquished fistic opponent who is far the worse off throughout the episode. And I haven't even mentioned his fascination with a teeny-bopper drivers ed classmate.

Pete Campbell, clearly the ascending figure in the agency in the earlier episodes of Season 5, is now suddenly a despairing and rather pathetic man. I still hear the screech of tires around that hairpin plot curve.

What's it about?

Maybe it's Pete and Trudy's move to the tony suburbs of Connecticut

That was Trudy's dream, not his. He loves the city, and really didn't want kids, either.

Trudy, played by the estimable and usually under-used Alison Brie, is still one of the best and most appealing characters on the show. But her kicky fashion forward days of the early '60s have turned into a more conservative look even as the culture is opening up. The dowdy post-pregnancy house coats Pete bemoaned early in this season have gone, but they've been replaced by a more old-fashioned look, especially compared to Megan and Cynthia.

Still, she is very smart and funny and lively, able to take on Don Draper in an effective phone call, a strong match for Pete despite the different pictures of the good life they carry in their heads.

After Pete's self-absorbed, exploitative ways nearly derailed them in Season 3, by the end of that year they clearly had the best marriage on the show, with Trudy a great partner to Pete as the the coup at the old Sterling Coo went down and the new SCDP took shape. She backstopped him and prodded him by turns to make sure he didn't blow it.

Vincent Kartheiser does a a terrific job with the Pete Campbell character, making him sympathetic at times, repulsive at others. He started out all the latter in the series, but has since grown. Till now, at least.

The show sets Pete up as a Nixon sort of figure, very capable but flawed, neurotic, and resentful. The irony is that Pete is a Democrat, an early supporter of civil rights, and he and Trudy were the two characters most supportive of John F. Kennedy, as we see in the outstanding JFK assassination episode, the penultimate episode of Mad Men's great Season 3. (Roger and Bert were hard-core Republican backers of Nixon; Don isn't into politics, Joan hasn't indicated any politics, Peggy is largely apolitical but wanted to work for arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, Harry Crane is a classic corporate conservative, etc.)

Don, who did not partake during the bordello visit, tells Pete he has it good with Trudy and he should avoid blowing it, speaking ruefully of his own marriage with Betty and rather worshipfully of his marriage to Megan.

But Pete, who till now has been doing great this season, aside from his disappointment with Trudy's house coat phase, says he has nothing. And the former "Ben Hargrove," writing now as "David Algonquin," has his own evocative take on Pete after Pete outs him to Roger, forcing Cosgrove to keep his writing sidelight underground.

"It might have been living in the country that was making him cry," he wrote. "It was killing him with it's silence, and loneliness. Making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear."

Oh, the irony.

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