'Mad Men' recap: Welcome to Fight Club!
One of my very favorite “Mad Men” episodes from last season, “The Beautiful Girls,” focused on the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and their lonely personal struggles. “Signal 30,” which takes as its subject the collective identity crisis of the agency’s male population, works as a kind of companion piece to that wonderful episode: so many men, so many shades of discontent. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy (as I am wont to do), happy men are all alike, but every unhappy man is unhappy in his own way.
Let’s begin with Pete, whose transformation into the old Don Draper — with the wandering eye and suburban malaise that entails — is now more or less complete. As the episode begins, the city boy is finally learning to drive, which means he has to suffer the indignity of driver’s ed classes at a local school. Pete perhaps ought to feel emasculated by the experience, but instead he’s invigorated by the presence of Daphne, a pretty, rising Ohio State freshman. He sparks a flirtation with her, but a handsome young student named, um, “Handsome,” puts an abrupt end to Pete’s age-inappropriate fantasies. Pete may be feeling increasingly restless out there in Cos Cob, but, as we all know, his attraction to the young and vulnerable predates his move to suburbia — and even his marriage to Trudy. So perhaps what’s really bothering Pete isn’t the recent lifestyle change but rather the impossibility of glossing over his deeply rooted unhappiness with superficial cures.
The one major difference between Don and Pete is, of course, that Pete is married to the thoroughly likable Trudy, a plucky, indomitable woman who rivals Joan in terms of her sass and industriousness. (How about that incredible phone call with Don? Trudy’s able to beat Don at his own game and feed baby Tammy, without so much as mussing a hair. Trudy is a total gangster.)
Still, if anyone understands what Pete’s going through, it’s Don Draper, who warns Pete, “You don’t get another chance at what you have." For once in “Signal 30,” Don doesn’t appear to be wrestling with any of his own demons — or strangling them, as he did so memorably last week — but there are, as always, warning signs on the horizon. First, there’s everyone’s rather justified skepticism over newly monogamous Don — a.k.a. the “man who just pulled up his pants on the world.” Whatever Betty’s faults as a wife, she wasn’t entirely to blame for Don’s infidelity.
Another concern is what lies ahead for the new Mr. and Mrs. Draper. Megan is, after all, only 26. She’s going to want babies, and sooner or later she may want to trade in her semi-Bohemian lifestyle for suburban bliss too. Sure, she loves the swinging city life now, but she certainly did perk up at the sight of Don, stripped down to a white undershirt, fixing Pete’s sink. (But then again, can you blame her?) Don seems equally conflicted, claiming the idea of a Saturday night in the suburbs makes him suicidal, yet also getting all hot and bothered at the idea of making babies with Megan. We’ll see if Don is able to resolve these competing impulses, but I remain skeptical.
Then there’s Lane, who lacks the charm — and the shamelessness—– to close the deal with Jaguar. In a terrific scene, Roger gives him some pointers about wooing new clients. The key, according to Roger, is opening up just enough to create the illusion of closeness, all the while maintaining control — not to mention plying the potential client with lots of liquor. It’s a reminder that, as useless and lazy as he’s now become, Roger does have a very specialized skill set. Alas, even with Roger’s expert advice, Lane makes a lousy drinking buddy, failing to get Edwin to open up about the war, his marriage — indeed, any vulnerability whatsoever.
In the end, it’s left to Pete, Roger and Don to close the deal, and they take Edwin out for a night of carousing that feels like a throwback to the “Mad Men” of yesteryear. Just when it looks like Jaguar is in the bag, an errant wad of chewing gum ruins the entire deal. (Credit goes to Matthew Wiener and co-writer Frank Pierson for creating the perfect visual metaphor for self-sabotage.) Unlike his colleagues, Lane is not amused by the news. Pete, whose sexual politics are not quite as advanced as his views on race, suggests Lane’s effete manners are the problem. Lane decides to literally fight back against the “grimy little pimp,” even though these two probably have more in common than they'd like to think. What’s most astonishing about the whole thing is that neither Don, Bert nor Roger steps in to break up the fight. Indeed, they encourage it, drawing the curtains in the conference room like gamblers at an illegal dogfight. The men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce have been in a kind of freefall for at least the past two seasons, and this schoolyard fight surely represents their lowest point to date. How much worse will it get? We shall see.
Lane’s triumph over weasely Pete is short-lived and bittersweet. Ice bucket in hand, Joan sashays into his office to nurse his wounds. “If they’ve tried to make you feel different than them, you are. That’s a good way to be,” Joan says sweetly, at which point Lane proves just how like the rest of them he can be, kissing her unexpectedly. Joan’s handling of the situation — without saying a word, she walks over to Lane’s office door, opens it, then carries on as if nothing had happened — is pitch perfect.
At this point, she can’t even be bothered to get upset about Lane’s fumbling, misguided advances. “Everyone in this office has wanted to do that to Pete Campbell,” she tells Lane, and the subtext is pretty clear: It’s OK. You’re not the first guy in this place to make a pass at me. I just hope this awkward encounter doesn’t ruin the nice little bond these two have been forming this season.
Last but not least, there’s Ken Cosgrove, who by all indications appears to be the happiest man at the agency. To be honest, I’ve always found Ken a little boring, if only because he seems so well-adjusted, but in “Signal 30” we get our strongest indication yet that there’s more to him than meets the eye. Many fans have wondered whether Ken continued with his creative writing after his story, “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning,” was published in the Atlantic way back in Season 1, and now we know. He’s maintained a more modest version of a double life, working as an account exec by day and writing science fiction by night. Although Ken promises Roger he’ll retire “Ben Hargrove,” the closing minutes of the episode show he's nowhere through with all the fantasy stuff, like he claims. Maybe Ken has more in common with his colleagues then he’d like to admit?
—Harry is conspicuous by his absence this week. How strange to have an episode about the unhappy, misbehaving men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and not include Harry “Eat First” Crane. I wonder why Weiner left him out?
—In yet another gender role reversal, now it’s Joan and Peggy who spy on the men in the conference room.
—I’m a big fan of the alliance between Peggy and Ken. More of their scheming, please.
—Peggy to Ken: “I read that one in Galaxy about the girl who lays eggs. Wow.”
—I love how even Lane’s fighting stance is old-fashioned and unnatural.
—I’m not sure how to read Megan’s sudden recollection of Cynthia’s name over dinner. So far, Megan has proved to be quite accomplished at playing the role of wife to an important ad executive and is good at things like remembering people’s names. But maybe the façade is slipping?
—How fun would it have been to see Don and Roger zooming around in a vintage Jaguar? Too bad about that chewing gum...
—I wish AMC had provided a publicity shot of Ken, Don and Pete in their plaid country jackets but alas, no. Plaid really is the pattern of the season, isn’t it?
—Another “Mad Men” episode, another violent crime in the headlines. This time around, it’s Charles Whitman’s shooting rampage at the University of Texas. Notice how Don lingers on that last name at dinner.
—Speaking of which, isn’t it interesting how forthcoming Don is about his past this season? Twice in this episode, he reveals somewhat major details of his childhood, first at Pete’s house and later at the brothel. Is Don just so at ease and content that he might slip and tell the wrong person one of these days?
— Meredith Blake
Photo: Vincent Kartheiser, top, Larisa Oleynik, Jessica Paré and Alison Brie, bottom, in "Mad Men." Credit: Ron Jaffe/AMC (top) and Michael Yarish/AMC (bottom).