Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 5 – Signal 30

“Things seem so… random, all of a sudden. And time feels like it’s speeding up.”

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Poor old Pete Campbell. It’s easy to dislike the obnoxious little toe rag – and kudos to the likeable Vincent Kartheiser for achieving that – but you can’t help feeling sorry for him. Maybe it’s karma, but nothing, absolutely nothing in his life ever works out the way he wants it to – chiefly, of course, his rather sad desire to be just like Don. Pete was front and centre in this episode – shamefacedly attending a stereotypically gruesome Driver’s Ed film at the opening, perhaps feeling like getting his drivers license would make him feel more of a man; and crying in a lift before crawling into bed with his unsatisfying wife at the end. In between, as usual, Pete’s life was a symphony of chaos as he tried and failed to be more of ‘a man’ than he is.

Not that it was all about Pete, though we’ll come back to his catalogue of disasters in a while. Like last week, the episode kept a focus on just a few of the characters, and what they had in common; their jobs and their seemingly empty marriages.If last week’s theme was The Long Dark Night Of The Soul, this week’s was Great Men (and Pete) And Their Wives. As Rod Serling might have put it, “Picture a series of hollow men… their lives unfulfilled at home, seeking empty solace in their work. Portraits of marriages on their way to Signal 30… in The Twilight Zone.”

The marriages in question were those of Pete, Don, Lane, Ken (nice to see him getting something to do again) and even, tangentially, Roger. Along the way, we learned some surprising things about a few of them, impressive for characters we thought we’d known for nearly five years. Ken, it turns out, has been quietly keeping up with his stories and making a bit of a (false) name for himself as a writer of pulp sci fi (hence the Twilight Zone reference). Now a publisher wants to collect twenty of his stories into an anthology, something he’d rather keep quiet.

Unfortunately for him, his proud but unthinking wife Cynthia had to go and blurt it out in front of Don and Pete at an uncomfortable soiree in Pete’s suburban home. And when Roger hears about it, he’s none too pleased about one of his best men moonlighting. After all, for Roger, the job is enough; but as Don tells Pete later, “Roger’s unhappy. You’re not.”

Still, Ken’s marriage to Cynthia seems pleasant enough compared to the hidden emptiness his coworkers are feeling. We know about Don, of course; yet again here, he seemed like yesterday’s man in his relationship with Megan. She wants to go out and have fun with their (read, “her”) friends; he wants, as he admits in a drunken moment of honesty, to “have babies”, something she’s plainly not ready for.

Lane, on the other hand, was finally letting his rather stereotypical English reserve slip to reveal the bottled up passion underneath. It started as he unwillingly let his wife drag him to a Manhattan ‘English pub’ to watch the 1966 World Cup Final (historical references abounded this week). Presently, we were subjected to the rather astonishing sight of Lane, roaringly drunk, cheering the winning England team and slurring his way through “God Save the Queen”.

Bizarre enough, but more was to come, as we saw Lane attempting to woo (in a business sense) the CEO of Jaguar US, who’d offered to bring his business to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. I must confess, as an Englishman used to seeing American TV misconceptions of my culture, I was watching all of these scenes like a hawk, just waiting for the usual slips in dialogue or setting. But no, all was pretty accurate, as you’d expect from a show as meticulous about its detail as Mad Men. The pie and mushy peas in the pub looked real enough, the English accents sounded real, and even Lane’s statement about Jaguar’s imminent merger with the British Motor Corporation was spot on. Well done, Mr Weiner!

Lane’s unexpected snagging of a major advertising account threaded through the episode, entwining the scripts’ examination of our heroes’ professional lives. Roger in particular got a great scene in which we were reminded that he’s far more than a boorish, drunken buffoon; he’s actually a master at his work. The scene in which he educated Lane about his technique of faking drunkenness and using psychological tactics to win over clients showed why he’s a partner in the agency, and revealed him to be far more clever and subtle than we’ve seen of late. Intriguing that this should come up in an episode directed by John Slattery, the man whose portrayal of Roger makes him quite my favourite character.

The other side of the story, our heroes’ marriages, was encapsulated in the centrepiece of the episode, a magnificently strained social evening at Pete and Trudi’s Cos Cob home as he tried vainly to demonstrate to Don and Ken (his former rival) that he was “the man with everything”.The infighting for the position of alpha male began almost immediately, with Pete vainly trying the tactic of showing off his giant radiogram: “It’s like having a miniature orchestra”. Then Don turned up, and it became a contest for who could wear the most eye-burningly hideous checked sport coat (another continuing theme this year):

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Plainly, Don won that one.

Amusingly, neither Don nor Megan could remember the name of Ken’s wife (causing a laugh out loud moment as she realised and involuntarily exclaimed “Cynthia!”). But Trudi was at her most charming, despite Pete’s drunkenly obnoxious ‘gracious host’ turn. Conversation at the dinner table took a gruesome turn as Pete took some relish in discussing Texas sniper Charles Whitman’s university tower shootings.

Then Ken unwillingly told a story that seemed (in a way that wasn’t entirely clear) to sum up the episode’s themes with a sci fi story: ‘The Punishment of X-4’, about a powerless robot whose only means of asserting himself was to remove a vital bolt in a bridge, killing everyone on it. The conversation turned wistful as all discussed what they’d wanted to be whn they grew up, a theme of missed opportunity that also suffused the episode. As Don said, “No one grows up wanting to be an advertiser”. It was a theme we’d return to later.

But the musing didn’t last long, as Pete’s first setback of the episode commenced. His surprising success at mending a leaky tap earlier turned inevitably to humiliation as it burst all over the kitchen, leaving (inevitably, again) the ever-manly Don to do the manly thing that Pete just couldn’t. Ken’s obviously not so worried; he just stood and smirked.

But it was the first in a long line of humiliations for Pete this week, as the script seemed determined to compress all his usual bad luck into a much shorter (and blackly funny) timeframe. His American Beauty-style fixation with a high school girl at his Driver’s Ed class seemed to be going so well… But things don’t go well for Pete, and he was left seething as she spurned him for a beefy high school jock with the all-too-accurate nickname ‘handsome’.

Later, as our heroes helped out with Lane’s recalcitrant Jaguar client, they found themselves in a high class brothel (typically, taken there by Roger), and we got an inkling of what’s really seething in Pete’s rancid little core. Humiliated once again by a prostitute’s faint praise of his biceps, he waited wearily while she tried various turn on techniques; the only one to which he eventually responded was, “you’re my king”.

There’s something desperately sad about Pete and his desire to be, basically, Don Draper; which was reiterated as he turned on a reproachful Don in the taxi home reminding Don of his own former infidelities. And unsurprisingly, given his growing guilt, Don was quick to agree, stating that he’d had everything (like Pete) and let it slip through his fingers. Together with his mellowing towards his ex-wife, this made it clear that he’s more than aware where he went wrong.

But fate (and the scriptwriter’s cruel word processor) hadn’t finished with Pete yet. It turned out that the brothel trip had cost them the Jaguar account; the CEO’s wife had found chewing gum “on his pubis”. Even Pete found that pretty funny, but Lane didn’t, leading to a slanging match (“all the hours I’ve spent on you to make you the monster you are”) and the surprising development of Lane challenging Pete to a fistfight.

Lane might be a steely businessman, but we’ve never had the impression that he was in any way physically tough. Clearly neither did Pete, who ended up on the floor with a bloody nose and a face full of bruises. It was an uncomfortable but irresistibly funny scene; I was with Roger when he commented, “I know cooler heads should prevail, but I really want to see this.”

While Lane celebrated his manliness with an embarrassing attempt to kiss Joan (and thank God she’s back at the office), Pete was reduced to sobbing in the lift. “I have nothing,” he wept at an embarrassed-looking Don. The irony being, of course, that it’s only true because he thinks so. He was summed up by Ken, off screen, narrating a story called ‘The Man with the Miniature Orchestra’, and sounding uncannily like Rod Serling.

This was a blackly brilliant episode. Less dark and intense than last week, it managed to interweave theme, character, and plot in some moments of desperate sadness and laugh-out-loud comedy. Particularly, it was nice to have some focus on Jared Harris as the prissy Lane, and Aaron Staton as the impossible to dislike Ken Cosgrove – the very antithesis of Pete Campbell.

If I have any complaints, it’s just that two episodes in a row with such a narrow character focus felt like the wider ensemble of the show was being neglected somewhat. Still, if Matthew Weiner keeps taking this approach, he could end up with, week by week, some acutely observed character pieces about everyone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. My only request – please, more focus on Roger, and what’s happening with him and Joan.