Sunday, April 15, 2012

"Rock-Em, Sock-Em Robots"

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Five, "Signal 30"

Last week's episode was about violence against women and the damage that can come to women through accepting traditional myths of femininity like "Cinderella." This week's show focused on the psychic violence inflicted upon men who strive to conform to the constructs of traditional masculinity--and the physical violence to which they subject each other as they're struggling to hold onto the damaging story. (And of course, they also use women as part of the quest to prove themselves still "real men"). But this quest doesn't provide happiness and a secure sense of self. Roger Sterling, Lane Pryce, and Pete Campbell are all like the robot in Ken Cosgrove's short story. They're programmed by outside forces--cultural norms that direct them to adopt behaviors and attitudes that are supposed to give them the power of being men: they should get a prestigious New York job, make lots of money, marry the 'right' woman, prey upon and use any other women who seem desirable to them, fight with fellow men to maintain dominance and 'honor.' They do these things, but, these men are not happy. They're "miserable," as Don describes Roger. And the dissatisfaction of always being what an external force determines is wearing on them, like the constant drip of water from the faucet in the Campbells' kitchen. And so, like the sci-fi robot, they lash out and cause havoc in the lives of others around them. It is only Ken, who is able to author these stories--and with them his own self and life--and Don, of all people, who's managed to figure some things out (except how to wear a decent sport coat) who are actually the creative drivers of their own lives. And, it's not a coincidence that they are the two men married to women who have their own careers and interests while also providing emotional support to their husbands. Pete and Trudy weren't only sitting physically far from each other at the dinner table when the Cosgroves and Drapers were over to eat. They live in their separate realities and share no interests. Pete even claims that he can take no credit for the baby when she's brought out.

Tonight's story of the false promises of masculinity centered on Pete more than on the others. He's shown to be an empty shell. A man who 'has nothing,' as he tells Don, despite Don's assertions to the contrary. He stood in the elevator at the end, with his battered face and battered soul staring out of his eyes--in sharp contrast to Kenny, sitting up in bed, writing his next story that references Beethoven, about a man living unhappily in the country that "was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.” . As "Ode to Joy" played for Cosgrove with the drip drip of the water in the background for Pete, I knew I should feel sorry for him, but I don't really. Just like he's shown to be in need of driving lessons now that he lives 'out in the country,' he's shown to need 'driving lessons for life.' But, like the drivers in the "Signal 30" film the episode begins with, the film that graphically shows deadly car accidents to scare drivers into safe behavior, Pete has hurt so many people along his path--used and carelessly cast them aside as he acts on his incredible sense of entitlement: from Peggy, to the young au pair whom he raped, to his wife. He behaves disrespectfully to those around him in authority like he's a 1960s youth rebelling, except he has no cause and he's actually as repressive an authority figure as any of the older men in his firm. But, he's been nasty to Roger this season and tonight directs his rude energy to Lane: "He [Jaguar guy] didn't ask you because he thinks you're a homo. . . . Our need for you disappeared the day after you fired us." As ridiculous as I think these male boxing matches to defend the ego are, I was with Roger: "I know cooler heads should prevail, but am I the only one who wants to see this?" I did and could relate to Joan who told Lane, "Everyone in this office has wanted to do that to Pete Campbell." Pete's problem seems to be that he doesn't really have any core self or identity. Don's behavior in the first four seasons could be infuriating (and it's weird to see him now be the one to take the moral high ground), but Don's problem was that he had two identities with which he needed to contend and figure out how to resolve. This complexity has always made him interesting and a sympathetic character to me. But, who is Pete? I've never had a sense of who he really is or wants to be. He's always been a bad attitude walking around committing bad behavior. As the scene with the prostitute showed, he wants someone to see him as king, but he's really nothing. As he tells Don, "I have nothing." And, sadly for him, no one cares.


  1. I really liked this episode and your take on it, Cathy. The theme of masculinity contrasted with the Cinderella story of last week, as you point out, was fascinating.
    There was a lot of humor in this episode, which I'm not sure I've seen in others this season....Don's sport coat, the Brits in the bar, and the evening's best line, Joan's "Everyone in the office has always wanted to do Pete Campbell." I loved her comic timing, with that line coming, as it did, after Lane's kiss. Hasn't everyone in the office wanted to do Joan?
    In terms of Pete...scary stuff. Absolutely, he's an unsympathetic character, but I did feel some sympathy for him last night. I remember his own troubled family, a cold bunch who didn't nurture or emotionally nourish him, who showed their preference over the older son. I thought it was really interesting that he and Lane were slugging it out, two men who are both "upper crust" and have suffered from following expectations that were not their own. Remember Lane getting sucker punched by his father? Maybe Lane was seeing someone else's face when he punched Pete.
    And Ken and Pete standing over that record player, which looked like a creepy coffin, doesn't bode well...
    Speaking of Ken Cosgrove...John Cheever started as an ad man, didn't he?

    1. You're right, Mary, that we should have more empathy for Pete. He does cause much damage in other people's lives, but he has also been damaged by his family. That doesn't excuse his behavior, but it is another way that he's similar to Don, whom he so wants to emulate--and for now is doing so by following in the bad footsteps Don has left behind. I like your comparison of Pete and Lane as the two upper crust men who have been so let down by the system that promised to keep them top dogs. Interesting thought on the record player/coffin. I remember when my parents got a phonograph that was in a furniture case, but it was nowhere near as long as the Campbells'. There were a number of humorous elements. I wonder if some of that was John Slattery's direction. I remember the one he directed last season had some great visual humor in it. Did Cheever start as an ad man? That's interesting. Hopefully, Ken and Cynthia won't head to Connecticut to join him and the Campbells. They're non-conformity and living in Queens are part of what allows them to be so happy.