Mad Men Season 5, Ep. 5 Recap

As with last week, there are spoilers a plenty below. You've been warned.

If last week's "Mystery Date" was about the intersection of fear, violence and sex as it relates to male and female relationships, last night's episode "Signal 30" seemed to be about masculinity: how it can both attract women and men in both sexual and platonic ways; how fragile it is; and how masculine ideals can work in some men's favor and emasculate others. Case in point: Pete Campbell.

The episode opens with a shot of Pete, sitting in the back row of a driver's ed class, chuckling at gruesome car wreck scenes while giving a good once-over to young girl in the front row. That's right boys and girls, sleazy Pete is back in business. Of course this shouldn't be much of a surprise. Pete's been unhappy with his quaint life in the suburbs for some time now, complaining of Trudy's post-baby wardrobe of robes and rollers and bemoaning the stillness of the country over the city. In classic Mad Men style, he's gotten everything he's ever wanted, and he hates it. If Don's determined to turn over a new leaf and be the faithful, dutiful husband this time around, Pete seems equally determined to pick up his old mantle.

Of course, what this episode drives home over and over again is that try as he might, Pete can never been Don, at least not the superficial sense: obviously he's no match  in the looks department (beauty's in the eye of the beholder, but I'm just sayin'), he's not particularly athletic, nor does he posses a strong physical build. And while Don, at least at the office, asserts control through a cool, detached presence, by being in command of himself and his employees, and letting his work speak for itself, Pete prefers in-your-face arrogance and a smug air of superiority, resorting to biting insults, backstabbing and clumsy grabs for power to achieve his goals.

Nowhere is this most clearly seen than in his deteriorating friendship with Lane Pryce. Over the moon after managing to snag a new Jaguar account during a outing with his wife's new friends the Bakers, Pete is dead set on shitting all over Lane's and SCDP's good fortune by listing all of the reasons why it's no big deal and will be nothing but trouble for the company. Lane lays a verbal smackdown (and of course a physical one too--but don't worry, we'll get to that in a minute) when he reminds Pete of the lack of new business that he's brought in. Pete's blustering lie of "I'm busy" when Don, Roger and Bert suggest someone help Lane with the dinner he's set up with the new client shows how deep into a funk he's sunk: his desire to see Lane fail is stronger than his common/business sense. Even Don's reminder that "It's a car" falls on deaf ears.

No doubt Pete would've savored the sweet satisfaction of watching Lane crash and burn during the dinner with his fellow Englishman. It's clear he's not a natural born account man. All evening he tries to follow Roger's (good? bad? outdated?) advice that he find some personal, conspiratorial common ground with the new client, perhaps revealing bit too much about himself for Mr. Baker's taste. Sadly, Lane fails to realize that Mr. Baker's idea of male bonding involves unhooked bras and used wads of Juicy Fruit stuck to nether region follicles.

I really felt for Lane in this episode: he genuinely thought he'd both made a new friend and had landed his own account, but had both illusions jerked out from under him unceremoniously by Pete, who exercised none of Mr. Baker's tact when revealing the latter thought Lane was a homo and that he sucked as an account man. Mr. Baker's assumption, along with the madam at the whore house, that Lane and Don must be gay because the former is too emotionally candid and the latter is not a raging nymphomaniac also speaks volumes about what constituted masculinity then, and to a certain extent now. However, the final straw came when Pete remarked that Lane had outlasted his usefulness the day he fired them from Sterling Cooper back in season three. Then....IT...WAS...ON! Ties and glasses came off, and dukes were put up! Calling him a "grimy little pimp, (an echo of Pete's father?)"  SCDP's conference room morphed into Madison Square Garden as Pete and Lane battled for supremacy. The cherry on the sundae was Bert Cooper's immortal line "This is medieval." Maybe he meant to say Lane went medieval on Pete's ass, because that's exactly what happened.

After Pete crumpled to the floor Lane left to lick his wounds, physical and otherwise, alone in his office. Perhaps in attempt to pay him back for comforting her at a low point, Joan enters to offer ice and sympathy, reassuring him that's okay if he's not like his business partners. Some may say Lane planting a sloppy kiss on Joan was proof that he was, in fact, like everyone else at SCDP, though I think the storyline about the lost wallet in the season premiere gave more weight to that idea. I feel he was just reaching out at that moment for some sort of affection. Joan being the master of discretion and decorum that she is, simply gets up, opens the door and sits back down as if nothing happened. Lane's sense of masculine pride, which was no doubt soaring a few minutes ago, is clearly crushed when he adds her silent rejection to the list of the day's humiliations. However, Joan salvages it by joking that many a SCDP employee have wanted to use Pete's face as a punching bag. And ta da! All is well again! I guess Joan isn't as tired of making a man feel manly as she thought. Could this be a sign of a burgeoning romance between our lonely English boy and the newly single Mrs. Harris? Ehhh.....I wouldn't bet on it. But you never know.

Now back to Pete, who's unhappiness is as transparent as saran wrap during a dinner party with Don, Ken, Megan and what's her name....Alex Mack? Cynthia, that's it! In Pete's mind, life in the suburbs equals death. But what's interesting is the idea of being in the suburbs seems to make both Don and Ken's skin crawl as well, if only for a different reason. Unlike Trudy, and to a certain extent Megan, for them the country is not some exotic, tranquil final destination where kids toss their bikes on manicured lawns. It's a harsh, stagnating world where days are spent stepping in horse shit and nights are spent walking to outhouses in freezing temperatures. The real country's a place to escape from.

While in the past Pete has resented and even attempted to blackmail Don, he still seems to hold a torch for him; he practically showers him with affection when he walks through the door and even says "we've been waiting for you." Don is the guest the entire party is centered around. He even gets the biggest piece of steak. While Pete puts on a happy face, it has to bother him on some level that his wife is going through so much trouble and is so excited to bring another man into their home. Pete brings up the first dinner invitation he extended to Don back in season one, saying it felt like a lifetime ago now. "It was for me," Don says bluntly. There's a few things you can take from that statement: that Don's happier with Megan than he ever was with Betty; that while Pete maybe consciously or unconsciously imitating Don's Lothario past, Don has--or is at least, trying to--moved on. Pete's manhood takes another hit when Trudy reprimands him for still holding to the gun he bought after taking back a wedding gift in season one. The point is clear: City Pete got to do whatever he wanted. Suburban Pete does what he's told.

The next day at the office Pete maneuvers Lane to the background on the Jaguar account, explaining he, Don and Roger will meet with Mr. Baker, ask all the hard questions and get their hands dirty. He continues to abuse Roger, talking to him condescendingly in front of Lane, then dissing him again after he expresses surprise over actually being invited to the dinner. But not before coldly spitting out that "Lane couldn't close a car door," easily one of the episode's best lines. He finally throws Roger a bone during the meal when Mr. Baker alludes to getting some female entertainment for the evening. It was almost heart-breaking to see Roger's eyes light up at the thought he might actually be useful for a moment; it was like watching an old show dog being trotted out for the last time. The boys wind up at a whore house, where Don's the main attraction even though he's playing designated husband and not touching any of the merchandise. Pete, happy to indulge under the guise of "doing his job," lashes out at Don on the ride home.

In a flashback to the "Flight 1" episode of season two, Don doles out some advice, telling him to forget his indiscretion and go home. The "moving forward" mentality is by now a familiar Don Draper mantra, but this time it came off not so much as a searing survival tactic than as a recommendation from a doctor to take two aspirin and call him in the morning. When Pete keeps needling him about his past philandering, Don responds more gruffly, all but smacking Pete on the back of the head to wake him up to the fact he's screwing up his marriage and family.

But Pete, too lost in his own misery, doesn't look like he'll listen. Although he's not the most sympathetic character, it was hard not to feel a least a little sorry for him, watching his face sink and seeing him reluctantly clap as all the women swoon at watching Don fix the leaky sink job that he botched. The same thing happens again when the driver's ed girl turns her affections from him to a young, muscular jock. And most viscerally when he gets his ass kicked by Lane. All around him are strong, conventional if not altogether real (especially in the case of Don/Dick) images of masculinity, and set next to each he comes up short. It's why he tells the prostitute "no" each time she pulls out a persona--the stay-at-home wife, the young, innocent virgin--that prefer the Dons of the world over him. Pete comes off as the misfit in high school who despised the jocks and the suave lady killers but secretly wished to be like them. And whatever personality he may have had outside of that desire has been subdued by his new suburban life.

Ken Cosgrove had an interesting story arc as well, which also extended to Megan. A moderately successful writer whose short stories may be getting made into a book, he's upset when Peggy spots him talking to a man she assumes to be a client, when he's in fact a publisher. After reassuring Peggy at the office that their pact is secure (hmmm....a pact?), Ken bemoans that this little sliver of his private life has been contaminated by the world of SCDP. It's ironic that out of all the characters in the show, one of the least conflicted or introspective would be so intent on building a separate, inner life away from the office. Unfortunately for Ken, Cynthia brings up his secret profession at the dinner party, a secret that Pete is all too happy to pounce on and blab about to Roger. The idea that artistic pursuits--writing for Ken, acting for Megan, even modeling for Betty--have to be abandoned in order to make way for "real" jobs and raising a family is one that's still relevant today, particularly in this current economy. Maybe the writers will explore this, and this side of Ken, more down the road, as next week seems to be a Peggy (and hopefully Dawn! Fingers crossed!) episode.

In the end though, the show belonged to Pete, the man with the miniature orchestra. In the elevator with Don post-fight, he again lashes out at him again for his new fangled morals and leaving him to get punched out by Lane. Don responds with shrug-like "What did you want me to do? Punch him?" Maybe Don wasn't too keen on assisting Pete after the crack he made about Megan at the party. In my view, Pete must still believe Peggy slept with Don at some point to get her promotion and believes Megan's doing the same. But I digress.

In an uncharacteristic move, Pete breaks down, tearfully confessing to Don that he is alone and has no one. Surely Don can relate? Of course he can. But the King of Angst, perhaps uncomfortable seeing what is in some ways younger version of himself--an ambitious kid now trapped in a lifestyle he thought he wanted--standing a few feet away, he says nothing. It's obvious he's done giving advice, and sympathy's never really been his bag. Nor is such a public display of vulnerability as crying, which checks another point off of Pete's level of old-school manliness.

Pete's not the new Don. He's not even sure who Pete Campbell is anymore. If he ever really knew who that guy was in the first place.

So what did you think of the episode? Discuss.