Too Beautiful To Bear


Sunday's episode of "Mad Men," an instant classic, focused on Pete, who continues to evolve as a focal point of the series. (Credit: AMC)

Sometimes when I watch an episode of “Mad Men,” I feel like I can appreciate but never fully understand its greatness, because I’m a girl. I mean this is the least offensive way. There was just a lot of aggression and nuance in this Sunday’s episode, wrapped in a bunch of identity and pride baggage that seems to explode in a fistfight (which is kind of the feminine narrative equivalent of an eating disorder). Despite this, I thought the episode was near perfect.

The fifth episode of Season 5 (“Signal 30”) begins with the sound of a car crashing and ends with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” In both the first and final scenes, we watch Pete Campbell sitting in the dark, in a crisp blue suit, in a little high school classroom. He’s in driver’s education class, since growing up a rich little boy in Manhattan, he’s never needed to drive himself anywhere. Most of the episode stems from Pete’s struggles with illusions of freedom, power and ownership, as they intersect within the space between his primal versus civilized self and pastoral versus cosmopolitan worlds. It’s very easy to hate Pete, and plenty of times I do, but the really tragic thing about his character is that he hates himself, and for all the wrong reasons.

Pete comes from an old New York family and old New York money. Ironically, he is the first character to discover Don’s secret past and identity. Pete develops a strange loyalty to Don, perhaps out of admiration for Don’s self-made success, the kind he was never given the opportunity to achieve. Growing up in the city where identity was handed to him at an early age, it’s clear that Pete, perhaps subconsciously, has always felt inferior to people who have earned their worth. Like Lane Pryce, who shares his pragmatism, he was brought up in a world of formality, hierarchy and logic. It’s almost understandable that he constantly measures his merit on a scale of pomp and circumstance, rather than simply experiencing life.

Unfortunately for Pete advertising (much like car crashes and symphonies) isn’t that logical or structured, and it’s becoming less and less formal. This is making him more and more angry (and miserable). To illustrate his aggravation, the episode’s plotline is quite appropriately unified (for a boy who can’t drive) by SCDP’s attempt and failure to bring in a car account (Jaguar). In this episode, the car – always the emblem of masculine freedom and success – is skewed as “pornographic.” This is a far cry from the messaging associated with the stylish Cadillac Don purchases for a picturesque family picnic in Season 2.

Running parallel to Pete’s bold and childish outcries for validation are Lane’s pathetic and painfully proper attempts to belong.  In this episode, Lane, who has always awkwardly rejected the rigidity of his British upbringing (his African-American playmate, his night out with Don, the New York paraphernalia strewn across his office, and that weird picture of Delores), recognizes an opportunity to be accepted. When his British acquaintance Edwin Baker (who happens to be the head of public relations for Jaguar) presents him with an opportunity to bring in business to SCDP, he sees his chance to become one of  “the (American) guys.”

In a wonderful scene, Roger coaches Lane on the art of bringing in accounts, which he compares to “being on a date,” or “friendship.” The dialogue perfectly showcases the key to Roger’s success as an account man, and what – despite the advantages he (like Pete) has been given – he is actually good at doing. In addition to being charismatic and witty (unlike Pete), Roger is egoless. He is truly trying to help Lane finesse his otherwise poindexterous persona.

Unlike Pete or Don (i.e. this episode’s “King” and “Superman”), Roger doesn’t thrive on feeling powerful, superior or unique. He likes being happy. Clients like him because he treats them as if they should be happy too, despite the common vulnerability he seamlessly fabricates to forge a connection. As Roger tells Don in the fourth episode of Season 1, “You know you shouldn’t compete with Pete Campbell.” When Don denies that he is, Roger clarifies, “Not on a personal level, but for the world,” for which Don has no rebuttal.

This brings me to our other egoless man of the hour: Ken Cosgrove. Kenny’s understated character is a combination of Don’s intense creative insight with Roger’s carefree likeability. Unlike the rest of the characters, Ken seems to have struck the perfect balance between the roles he plays as an account man, husband and writer. Careful to never derive all of his identity from just one, he appears to be content in all three. As Lane notes in Season 3, “Mr. Cosgrove has the rare gift of making [clients] feel as if they haven’t any needs at all.” At the end of Season 4, he draws boundaries between his work and home life, when he refuses to use his relationship with his wife Cynthia’s father to bring in an account. “Cynthia is my life,” he says. “My actual life.”

We’re introduced to Ken’s writing talent in the fourth episode of Season 1 when his “beautiful and sad” short story about a maple tree is published in The Atlantic and circulated around the office.  In that episode Roger commends his talent, saying in a meeting, “I think it shows tremendous fortitude and I’d like to see more of it around here – people finishing things.”

This week, at a Campbell dinner party all about names, Pete, Don, Trudy and Megan learn that Ken is still writing short stories (under pen name Ben Hargrove), but he’s swapped his countrified subject matter for robots and galaxies. The secret slips when Ken’s wife (whose name Don and Megan can’t remember) compares one of his stories, titled “The Punishment of X4,”  to the University of Texas killings by Charles Whitman (whose name Don does remember). We also learn the etymology of the Campbell’s new town name, Cos Cob, Connecticut, which originates from the surname of the founding family, Coe. Pete, who is no stranger to founding family names, jokes that the name is similar to the Algonquin word for briefcase. But back at the office, Roger scolds Ken for his writing hobby, in direct contrast to his response in Season 1. “I like to think we offer you more than security here,” Roger says. “From one unappreciated author to another, when this job is good, it offers everything. Believe me, I remember.”

The culmination of all this metaphorical allusion and symbolic tension (the drippy faucet explosion of the hour, if you will) comes when SCDP loses the account they thought they’d landed with Jaguar. Edwin, who it turns out prefers lobster bibs and brothels to beef and football, came home to his wife with chewing gum on his pubis. Lane is appalled at the humor Don, Roger and Pete find in the story and Pete reacts to his propriety by belittling his influence at the firm and mocking his heterosexuality. Lane challenges Pete to a fight in a hilarious scene, which begins with Don closing the boardroom curtains and ends with Pete on the ground with his second bloody nose of the season.

The ending brings us back to the Eden-like treatment of suburban life trickling throughout episode. Like God to Adam and Eve, Don warns Pete in the cab, “You don’t get a second chance at what you have.” It ends with city-boy Pete (aka Coe) unable to recognize the value of his existence, as country-bred Ken (aka Dave Algonquin) narrates with the opening lines of his next story: “Still, Coe thought, it might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.”


Author: R. Byrnes

Ryan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Yi! News.

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