Why I Love Pete Campbell

Mad Men is starting again this Sunday. And sure, you can spend some time gushing about how dreamy Don Draper is. Or admiring Roger Sterling’s witty banter. Hell, you can even sympathize with poor closeted Sal. Have them. As always, I’ll be rooting for my favorite mad man, Pete Campbell.

I do realize Pete isn’t the popular choice. He’s awkward. He’s desperate for approval. He’s freakishly ambitious. He wants to be Don Draper, but he falls painfully short every time. He tries to seduce women Draper style, and ends up uncomfortably close to raping them. He throws chickens out of windows. He’s a very odd man.

But, for a minute, let’s overlook all of that.

Why? Because he’s great at his job. You see it as early as the first season where the characters talk about how Kennedy will never win because “the kid doesn’t even wear a hat.” Pete looks up and remarks earnestly, “well, Elvis doesn’t wear a hat.” And then all the other men at the table have a hearty laugh because, wow, that Pete Campbell, what a stupid douchebag, and then they dismiss his comment altogether. Pete is, of course, right.

And, unlike some of the characters, Pete has the kind of work ethic I can’t help but admire. In the first season, when his brother asks if he’ll be taking a vacation, he looks shocked and says “no, I need to be at the office.” No one else in the office appears to feel that way. When his wife wants him to take the day off and help set up their new apartment, he reminds her “I already have a job.”

Which makes Poor Pete complete inept as far as the rest of Mad Men culture goes. Roger Sterling is pouring out drinks first thing in the morning because “hell, it’s ten (AM) somewhere!” Don is taking of for California to frolic with naked bohemians for weeks. Paul Kinsey is jerking off to his own artwork. During the first season, drunken Freddy Rumsen urinates on himself before he’s supposed to present to potential clients. Everyone else thinks this is hilarious. Pete announces to the room “That’s disgusting” and then goes off and tells Duck and Roger to fire him.

Everyone else seems to find this shocking and thinks that Pete must really hate people who drink. “Why did you have to tell anyone?” Peggy asks him “It would just have become one of those stupid stories, ‘oh, remember the guy who pissed himself before the big meeting?’ You didn’t have to tell.” Pete stares at her as though the answer is too obvious for him to get into. “Pete Campbell,” Freddy Rumsen sighs, shaking his head “I know he’s ambitious, but I would never have guessed I was in his way.” He wasn’t. And I don’t think Pete would have cared if Freddy drank himself into a stupor every night, as long as it wasn’t at work. I just think the idea of anyone not taking their job seriously strikes Pete as too upsetting to deal with.

Because Pete is consistently the last one to leave the office. By far the happiest we’ve ever seen him (he dances a jig and giddily calls his wife) is when he’s told he’s being made head of Accounts. However, he’s later passed over in favor of Ken because “while Pete is very good at finding all the clients needs and then meeting them, Ken has that rare gift of making clients feel they have no needs.” Pete would have benefited by working less hard on his accounts.

One of the things that I think is always interesting about Mad Men is seeing how well each character’s personality fits in that particular era. When Duck tells Peggy “this is your time” he’s quite literally correct. Peggy was born in a wonderful era for someone with her skills to prosper. Meanwhile, I often hear people talk about how great it would have been if the Joan Holloway character had only been born ten years later. If she had been, she’d have some opportunity to pursue a career of her own, and not have to turn all of her cleverness to pursuing a husband and supporting other men. I can never help but feel that Pete was cheated by not being a businessman in the 1980′s, where no one would care that he was a douchebag as long as he had that aforementioned ridiculous work ethic (crazy ambition and desperate need for approval wouldn’t hurt either).

I think Pete is good at his job, appreciates having said job and works hard. I like that in people.

But, beyond that, what I love most about Pete is the way we’re able to watch him develop a conscience. And I think that over the years, we’ve seen his sense of right and wrong actually become more heightened than that of most of the other characters in Mad Men.

Okay, fine, let’s talk about the quasi nanny-rape thing. I find that it’s the episode I get asked about most often whenever I express admiration for Pete. In case you missed that particular episode, let me recap it for you. Pete’s wife goes off on vacation over the summer. Pete stays in town because, as we’ve already established, Pete has a job, and seems to enjoy being the only person at the office. While he’s around, he runs into his neighbor’s nanny trying to stuff a dress down a garbage chute. She explains that it’s her boss’s wife’s dress, she wore it and spilled wine on it, and now she’s trying to get rid of it before her boss returns from vacation. Pete says this plan is stupid, and goes out and buys her a new one. He then gives it to her. She says thanks. Later that night, he drunkenly shows up on her doorstep, she hesitantly lets him in and they have sex.Later, the nanny’s boss shows up and tells Pete that the nanny has been crying, and that he needs to go outside his own apartment building if he wants a summer fling. Pete spends the rest of the episode looking stricken and tear stained, and, upon his wife’s return, tells her that she can never leave him alone again.

So, first off, was it rape? I’m hesitant to call it that, but it does seem pretty creepy and coercive. But then, this is not Friends. This is Mad Men. Almost all the sex is creepy and coercive. Don Draper views it as a perfectly legitimate bargaining tactic to finger-bang a client’s wife into submission in a restaurant bathroom while grabbing her hair and telling her that she’s going to do what he wants. And because Don Draper does it, it’s sexy and cool. When Pete Campbell tries stuff like that, we see how disturbing it is.  And so does Pete.

I guess you could say that he only feels bad because his neighbor called him out on it, but his neighbor tells him off so politely that it’s not enough to plunge anyone into the paroxysm of misery that Pete seems to go through. I mean, his neighbor pretty much ends the conversation by saying “just look outside the building, old boy!” and winking. Pete is not worried anyone else is going to find out. He feels bad because he knows what he did was wrong.

And after that, you start to see him treating his wife very differently. He no longer views Trudi as someone whose principle purpose is to prepare his dinner. They actually seem like real partners by the end of Season 3. He also starts making small talk with his secretary and trying to praise her. Remember when she brings him bad hot chocolate, he points out that it’s terrible and then remarks “but umm, you know, it still really hits the spot! Thank you”. Yes, it’s awkward, but he’s trying. It’s the first time we see anyone interact nicely with a secretary without trying to seduce them. He’s come a long way from Season 1 Pete Campbell who was trying to hit on women with weirdly chauvinistic hunting stories.

And what about his sudden new interest in race issues? One of my favorite Pete Campbell moments is when he quite matter-of-factly tells a television company (Admiral) that they’ll make more money advertising to the negro market. Pete is thrilled that he’s come up with this idea for them! He’s been reading Jet and Ebony to try to figure out what might be the best strategy. He’s also tried to talking to the black elevator operator. (The black elevator operator didn’t want to help him with market research, at which point he explained, “no, no, you don’t understand. This is my job.” The elevator operator was not particularly moved). The television executives are appalled. Pete can’t figure out why.

Okay, sure, you can say he only started thinking about race issues  it because he wanted to make more money. But watching his seemingly genuine repulsion when Roger performed his blackface number, you can’t help but feel like some of those nights spent reading Jet sunk in for Pete.

Oh, I’m not saying Pete is a terribly good person. Not yet. But I think like many of us, he’s evolving. And I do believe he is trying. And hell, there are still 3 seasons left.

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    • porkchop

      You’re so right. He has some serious problems as a human being, but he’s really interesting. It’s like the sheer obviousness of his flaws is making him more vulnerable to self improvement. You know who else I love? Trudi! She was so annoying at first–remember in season 1 when she pimped Pete’s good name to their coop board? He felt so cheap and used in that scene. But then later she made them into the perfect team. They were unstoppable at the end of season 3 (he will never be good enough for her).

      • Jennifer Wright

        I’ve come to LOVE Trudi! I felt like both of them were awful at the beginning – the coop thing was terrible, but he did try to pimp her out to get his story in the New Yorker. But now they’re really cute. And she’s bringing in sandwiches for his new office! Also, I want all of her hats.

    • antikfreak

      Nothing more to be said, now I love Pete Campbell too ;o)

    • antikfreak

      Oh yah, you forget to mention that he is sexy, in his own wierd way….an akward baby-faced magnetism.

    • wendy

      don’t get me wrong, i think pete is one of the most interesting of the mad men, all of whom I love as characters . . . but Pete is an absolute douche. a likeable asshole. but an asshole and a date rapist. blog all you want, like all you want, and like rape as a fantasy all you want. but don’t justify it. Don’t apologize for liking what you like sexually, and, please for the rest of women and our society, don’t try to justify rape fantasies.

    • Trilby

      I like Pete too. I love the dance he and Trudi did at that shindig at the country club. Giving up on having a baby freed up their time, obviously. And I had missed how hateful he was to Peggy in Season One and only went back and saw it after I already liked him.

      But thank you. I am glad to hear someone reveal the opinion, so out of favor these days, that there are degrees of rape. A lot of the sex that went on in the bad old days WAS pretty coercive. But I still think there is a difference between, say, having a psychotic bum hold a knife to your throat while he rapes you in an alley, and being pressured somewhat forcefully into sex by your FIANCE who you are going to MARRY and who you have obviously had sex with BEFORE. There are degrees, however unpopular a notion that may be with you youngsters today. Just sayin’.

    • nolalola26

      Another thing Pete did, he was disgusted by Roger’s blackface sing-along at the Whitey Picnic. Everyone else was kind of “Oh, goofy Roger, pushing boundaries,” but Pete looked horrified and stormed off. So yeah, Pete is ahead of the curve there.

      I do have to say something about the Don Draper thing – what he did to Bobbie in the bathroom was terrible. I haven’t read or heard of anyone thinking that was anything other than what it was – going too far. It was disgusting, scary, and showed us how bad Don will get to protect what he’s built up around himself.

      • Emo

        I really think so too=P I have been browsing around the web for some time this week, and its kinda hard to find anything good to read on blogs. Maybe thats because there are too many of those around =) But this site actually keeps catching my attention=] Great posts, and cool design ^__^. Ill be sure to give it more time from now on .

    • SnazzyO

      I adore Pete as well. You’ve done an excellent job of covering so many of the things I love about Pete.

      Other bits I love:
      - He’s seriously UNLOVED by both his parents and yet he goes his own way. He chooses a career in advertising because it’s what he wants to do.
      - He almost never uses his family name. Trudy brings it up. When he thought it was his Uncle Herman he brought it up. And he used his middle name when being introduced to a Viscount. That’s it. Don had no idea he was a blue blood. He thought he was just a college frat boy from money but no clue what that meant. He still is not sure.
      - He is color blind IMO. MW said he was raised primarily by black people. I loved how confused he was when Hollis wigged out at the elevator conversation.

      So, I love Pete Campbell.

      I also agree with you on au pair-gate. Pete pushed the issue and Grundan had regrets in the morning but she let him in and kissed him back. And he grew from the incident. He had no idea she had regrets until his neighbor told him. He won’t do that again.

      Anyway, thanks for posting your blog. I love this complex character and am glad I’m not alone.

    • Farrah

      Has anyone noticed that Pete is also essentially the only one who doesn’t smoke. I think that’s interesting

    • O Cadd

      Loved the article, and I LOVE my main man Peter Dyckman Campbell! Of course, it’s…only about a 50/50 chance of being right. Just so y’all know, adding money and education doesn’t take the rude edge out of people. You could listen to me quote Pete all day, but instead check out my imitation of Pete confronting Don Draper! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3wtsZMD7Lw

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    • Ayerim

      My favourite character has always been Peter Campbell (and Betty Drapper, as they share many traits). I really sympathise. He is the one doing all the hard work yet only gets yelling and ungratefulness in return. Like many of us in real life, he gets punished for taking work seriously and actually working, hence has to apologise for being successful. Everyone is thin-skinned around him yet he can’t get moaning. In fact, he is the one who is entitled to complain, as he has to put up with everyone else’s whims, incompetence and unprofessionalism. He will do anything for his work (even kiss his father-in-law’s ass), unlike Ken or Harry, yet few take notice. He doesn’t pressurize his wife into being a mother or into anything, and in fact, he doesn’t even dream with the family thing and has no problem about women working with him nor recognising their talents, like Joan or Peggy. I’d say he is the most progressive of them all, and feels secretly sorry he no longer enjoys Bob Benson’s adoration. Even though he has played by the book and the rules both professionally and personally, he always has to depend on somebody else’s decisions. He is right to feel frustrated to never feel accomplished, even though objectively he should be. Everybody else seems happy-go-lucky and walk around unpunished when they screw up, unlike Peter, who always has to face consequences for his acts. He lost the one woman he truly loved. He was an energetic young man who got rotten and bitter (much like Betty) only because he saw other less talented/lazy/luckier people effortlessly overtake him. His ideas are gold yet nobody listens. He respected Peggy from scratch and won’t generally join in the sexist jokes, or in collective bullying. In fact, Ken and Harry (and Roger) have uttered aloud most of the sexist jokes yet somehow they are adored. HHe was genuinly shcoked about Martin Luther king and his family. He is the only male character who dealt with the two corpses at the office: Ms Blankenship and Lane Price. I don’t get why all the hate. Or well, I do. I think the reason most people hate Peter is because deep down, he represents and enacts that someone in the office who works harder and hence makes them feel guilty about themselves.