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.