Tuesday, April 24, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "Signal 30"

Welcome to the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdate: April 15th, 2012

Jon: DING-DING-DING! Obviously the big moment of the week was the board room duel between two previously unlikely participants, but we'll have plenty on that in a bit. While last week's "Mystery Date" focused on many of the ladies on the show, "Signal 30" was all about the fellas, as many of them flirted with or completely wallowed in their unhappiness and dashed dreams.

The big exception to this was Don who continued to ride high, while also doing his best at being the ultimate party pooper this season. He's reluctantly dragged back to suburbia by Megan and cunning of Trudy (man, did she out-Don Don, or what?) for an evening at the Campbell's abode, home of a lovely piece of furniture also known as the seven-foot stereo. He assumes he's going to hate it, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't as bad as he expected it to be. However, when you literally get to take off your shirt and tie while turning into Superman and receiving an uproarious round of applause when the damsels are safe from disaster, that'll probably exceed some expectations. The kitchen sink Pete previous thought he had fixed exploding into a geyser was the highlight of the party (at least it was for everyone aside from Pete, who was left feeling completely inadequate - but more on that later). The Megan/Don pairing knows no bounds right now, with her constant pushes him to being more outgoing finding success and his deepening contentment with their marriage becoming more obvious. Unlike the rest of his coworkers, his unhappy past seems further behind him than ever, even addressing Pete's inquiries about his forming philandering ways with, "I wouldn't have, if I had what I have now." We've never seen him this emotionally stable before, and because of that, I'm now convinced their relationship will come crashing down by the end of the season (this is a show that opens each week with the image of a man in a suit falling from a skyscraper window after all). It still feels like Don's changed to me, so it may come with a betrayal of some kind on Megan's part, instead of his.

Anyway, back to the theme of the week -- emasculation.

This season has made Roger's presence at the firm less useful by the day completely obvious, but even when he's trying earnestly to coach up Lane for securing his first prospective big cat client, his tactics yet again fail and he has nothing to show for it. However, plenty of this blame falls to Lane, who despite being handed the Jaguar account on a silver platter via a chance social connection, can't close the deal. We've seen this sort of behavior time and time again from Lane. His ability to mishandle a simple situation knows no bounds -- he can't just return a misplaced wallet to the cabbie, he has to track down the owner himself and have lurid phone calls with his wife; he can't just have sex with a Playboy bunny, he's going to fall in love with her; he can't just go to dinner, he's gotta get blasted out of his mind and rub his steak on his nether region. He is who he is. Lane's new-found British friend senses this as well, and waits for the SCDP cavalry to come in and show him the good time he's looking for. And, boy, do they ever.

The foursome's subsequent trip to a nearby "classy" brothel gives some interesting insight into the current state of mind of Don but more so Pete. Don stays faithful to Megan as he sits on the sidelines (further supporting my "changed man" theory), essentially just coming along for the ride for the sake of closing the Jaguar deal. However, Pete thrusts himself into a hooker's bedroom, but does not consummate the transaction before ensuring she'll be able to deliver with a role-play suitable for his needs. The winner? "You're my King." Boom. Done. After dropping off the belligerently delighted client who has assured them his business is theirs, Pete's sulks with Don in the cab and it's clear his professional success and sexual dalliances still left him unfulfilled. The next day during a Partners' Meeting, Lane furiously barges into the board room to announce that deal was off after our Jaguar magnate's activities from the previous night were discovered rather hilariously by his wife. One smart-ass comment from Pete undercutting Lane's value to SCDP shortly thereafter, and Lane challenges him to a duel.

Sure, it's exciting for us as viewers, but how did the two most timid members of SCDP culminate to this extreme result?

Pete may be the star of company these days, but he's out of place among the other partners in their basic attitudes of the world, shaped by such trying life experiences as having fought in a war not to mention going through all that without the benefits of a silver spoon at birth (aside from Roger, of course). His attitude has always reeked of the upper-crust privilege his family squandered away decades ago, but his missteps in the office tended to keep that in check to a degree. Now that he's batting near 1.000 in every deal, those reservations are gone. He's lashed out impetuously at just about everyone recently, but he finally met his match in Lane. Of course, this wasn't the first time Mr. Campbell has been called out to defend his smarmy quips, as Roger proposed the two step outside a few episodes ago. It was, however, the first time he ran into a challenge he couldn't backtrack his way out of with a seething Lane Pryce staring him down, refusing any other course of action.

As much of a low blow as Pete's cruel statement was, it garnered Lane's reaction because he knew it to be true. He really can't provide any additional value to SCDP, and even he admits his current role is would be better administered by Joan. Lane's list of items to feel inadequate over has grown quite lengthy since we've come to know him, and they likely reached an all-time high at the outset of that meeting.

The convergence of these two frustrated men results in the Board Room Brawl, each awkward fighter dishing out and taking blows from the other. Ultimately, it resulted in a TKO by Lane, and utter embarrassment for Pete. I suspect the combination of Lane's rage with some training from Her Majesty's Armed Forces long ago gave him the edge over the clearly ill-prepared youngster.

Now, the boxing match and the sink incident weren't the only occurrences send Pete into his latest fit of self-loathing. He'd also been lusting after young Jenny who's taking the same driver's ed course at the local high school he is. He's buoyed by her initial signs of interest, but when another classmate of hers (a guy literally called Handsome) walks into the room one evening mistaking Pete for the instructor, it's yet another blow. For all his success and achievement, Pete's still just a dude watching the cool guy in class fingerbang the girl he's crushing on during a high school movie.

Essentially, he and Don have swapped places from the outset of the series. Pete has the beautiful wife, a cute little munchkin, a house in the suburbs and is absolutely thriving at his work, yet none of it is enough for him, as he claims to Don he has nothing as they descend down the elevator together. For the first time, I've begun to wonder if getting that office window a couple of weeks ago has pushed him one step closer to becoming that faceless man we've watched drop down to the street each week during the opening credits.

Okay, wow. I wrote a lot this week. I went on for so long on all the above, I didn't even mention Ken Cosgrove! (Who probably got more screentime this week than over the past three seasons combined.) I suspect the subtle notes of his story in "Signal 30" will lead to a big shake-up at SCDP in the coming weeks, possibly involving Peggy. And I'll also leave it to you boys to discuss Joan and Lane's moment. But this was a crazy-good episode! What else did I fail to mention?

Mike: Man, I tell you what -- I was over the moon for this episode. Going back years and years to when Jon first let me borrow all of his "Angel" DVDs, I have wanted to see Vincent Kartheiser get his ass handed to him onscreen, and this week's episode delivered in full. But it wasn't just that which really hit the spot this time. For me, this was the first week in the new "Mad Men" season where I felt the old Must See TV magic. Don't get me wrong, I've really enjoyed season five thus far, but with this one, the entire team was firing on all cylinders. The whole episode, I was alternately on the edge of my seat, not believing that they're actually going to go through with this, wondering at the character development, and pausing it to catch my breath and exchange bewildered glances with my wife. What a show! What an era of TV we live in!

(SIDE NOTE: It didn't hurt that we watched this as part of a double-bill with the penultimate episode of "Ringer." Which, if you haven't ever watched it, don't bother. But the second-to-last episode of that series, though not far from the exact opposite of the definition of "great TV," finally delivered on all the trashy, loopy, soapy promise of the series. Unfortunately, the finale went right back down to depressing underachievement. We'll always have episode 21! But I digress.)

Jon's done a great job above of outlining Pete Campbell's plight, and I'm totally on board with the idea that he and Don have, at least up to this point in the season, exchanged places in their lives. Will this last? Well, in my experience at least, "Mad Men" rarely goes to expected places and directions. Ever since the brazen, joyful season three finale, I've been wary of even trying to predict what might come next.

As regards Pete, here's a little secret about me: I'm a sucker for the "Mad Men" writers' room when it comes to character allegiances. I'm buying what they're selling. What I mean is to say is, my feelings towards pretty much all the characters more or less depend on what's going on in each episode. My wholesale suspension of disbelief with shows I trust is probably more of a fault than an asset, but I'm always in the moment and not thinking about what something might mean or its implications. This episode, though, I swung back and forth a few times.

Now, I think most people would generally say it's up for debate as to whether Pete Campbell is a flawed but sympathetic character, or an irredeemable jerk. You know, despite that extremely punchable mug, you've got to admit, ol' Pete has his moments. Maybe not good ones, though. Just ask Peggy, Trudy, or any of the various co-workers, relatives and in-laws he's let down over the years, in big ways and small. In this case, I felt for him a little bit as he sniffled his way down in the elevator with Don, but that doesn't excuse his years of privileged, loutish behavior. Nor do I imagine anyone really would stand up for Pete's side of things in this most recent bout of Lane vs. Pete.

(And I gotta say, I just love the looks on Peggy and Joan's faces when they get a glimpse of the post-duel carnage in the conference room.)

Speaking of allegiances, though, one character I've never wavered on at all is Lane. Despite the occasional straying from his wife, he seems like a solid enough chap. And even though what Pete said in his incident-sparking comment was partially correct -- probably Lane's most crucial contribution to SCDP thus far has been his complacence in their plot to get rid of their former British overlords -- it's Lane's day-to-day efforts that are keeping the lights on in the office, as it were, and which enable the other three elder partners to go about their business in the ways in which they are accustomed. Bert and Roger are used to their idiosyncratic methods, which are productive but certainly not cost-effective or particularly reliable in theirs or anyone else's hands, and even Don has in recent times moved much closer to their side of things than Pete's ethos of unsung toil and hard work. It takes someone like Lane to count the beans and make sure that everything is as it should be every Monday morning without fail. This kind of position doesn't come with a lot of glory, though, and that seems to have been weighing on Lane, especially with the loss of the Jaguar account which he had been counting on as one for the "win" column. After the fisticuffs at the partners' meeting, this is the state in which Joan finds Lane.

And then he makes the classic sad-sack's error, which is to mistake the kindness of another for a romantic approach. It is to Joan's credit that she opens the office door again, to erase any impropriety and make her intentions very clear, but then sticks around to finish their conversation. I don't see this as the beginning of any love affair. I really don't even see this as being a stumbling block for Lane and Joan's cordial, even warm, working relationship. In the twisted world of office politics at SCDP, Joan probably simply chalked this one up in her head to the cost of being a woman who appears as she does, and who holds the power and position that she does. Only time, and maybe next week's episode, will tell if I'm correct.

One final note before I have to go. I know there's still a lot left unsaid here about Ken Cosgrove and his secret literary career, but all I could think of when hearing about his various short stories was, "I'd love to read some of them!" Like Jon said, there are definitely some side elements here that will be boiling over into the larger SCDP picture, and sooner rather than later. It's just too bad that Ken's too-adoring wife was the cause of "Ben Hargrove"'s literary end. I hope he doesn't hold it against her too much, especially since he starts right over again that night under a new pen name. Go, Ken!

Any way you slice it, guys, I'm more on board after "Signal 30" than ever. If anything was missing in previous episodes (which I'm really not saying at all!), this one was a masterpiece. Can't wait for the next one.

Jon (again): I decided I really wanted to talk about Ken Cosgrove after all, so I'm back! I've already watched "Far Away Places," so I'll be mum on those details here, but Ken's character took a backseat in favor of others, so I'd like to spitball about him before I forget what I found so intriguing about him in "Signal 30."

Mike, I'm glad you agree with my speculations about Ken playing a part in the future drama at the firm. Apparently Ken and Peggy have an agreement to take the other with them if and when they depart SCDP (is this the first we heard about the pact? I don't recall it). It seems very plausible to me that he'll eventually find enough success with his writing career that he'll feel confident enough to leave his day job and focus on writing entirely, or at least find employment at another business that Peggy would also be a fit for.

But Peggy isn't the only one who learns of his writing career this week, as his wife spills the beans on it at casa de Campbell to the group. Ken's summary of his robot and the bridge story is a pretty clear indictment of his role as an account man, taking directions without choice devoid of any possible better judgement. (Btw, don't you think there should be a blog of Ken's short sci-fi stories on AMC's website for us curious fans?!) But Ken's clearly not a robot deep down, he just plays one at the office. If his comments to Megan are taken at face value, Lane may not be the only one Pete has to look out for after ratting Ken out to Roger.

By the close of the episode we see that Ken will continue to spend his free moments with pen and paper in hand, composing away under a presumably new pseudonym (although I think Peggy is the only one who knows what it is, so perhaps not). If he doesn't, he has firsthand knowledge of what turning into an unappreciated author looks like -- Roger. From the little we've seen of Cynthia, I gather she's a sweetheart and Ken appears to be a pretty genuine guy all-around as well. Right now, he looks like the only character on the show capable of finding happiness, and that won't come as long as he remains at SCDP.

Mark: Hey, guys. Sorry I’m late! I’m currently in the process of setting up my own little suburban (see: Greenpoint, Brooklyn) love shack, suitable for drunken dinner parties and sink-related heroics. Note to prospective DIY interior designers: everything is expensive, but you can’t put a price on a gigantic sectional couch. Ours will comfortably seat two Wilt Chamberlains end-to-end. You’re all invited to our housewarming party, and we won’t take no for an answer.

Hoo boy! I’m calling it: Best episode of the season so far. This was Mad Men at its absolutely best. A lot of people complain about its deliberate pace and relative lack of plot, but when this show is firing on all cylinders its like reading the best short story collection that has ever graced an English Lit syllabus. With amazing performances all around and assured direction from John “Roger Sterling” Slattery himself, “Signal 30” was a bonafide series classic. Maybe I just don’t recall offhand from past seasons, but it seems like this year the show is taking some new stylistic chances with scene transitions. I loved the match cut from the tapping foot of Pete’s high-school object of obsession to the dripping faucet as he lay in bed, the dripping water and the unattainable girl both taunting the poor, pathetic, angry little shithead. It’s funny. I was talking about Pete and Trudy a few entries ago as perhaps the only functional couple on the show, and this was already in light of Pete’s past infidelities. Maybe I spoke too soon. Jon and Mike, you guys are right, Pete’s dream of being Don Draper is finally coming true, he just didn’t realize what that life entailed.

Call me crazy, but I feel for Pete. He is a terrible guy in so many ways, from the huge (multiple infidelities, outright rape, denying his child with Peggy) to the mundane (did you see the way he strutted out of the office a couple weeks ago? What a dope!) . But I can’t help but “read” the character as a complete blank who is trying to approximate what he has been told or has observed as being the ideal adult life. How can you be mad at someone who is essentially a non-entity, even if he constantly behaves like a total creep? Okay, maybe my argument is flawed, but hear me out. Pete looks up to Don and seeks to emulate him, but the young Mr. Campbell has no soul. Don is no great shakes as a person, but he has a level of self-awareness that Pete will never possess. Whereas Pete’s blankness makes him ideal for his job, he can be an adaptable worker bee as he brings no prejudices, preconceived notions or any personality at all really to business in the way stubborn Roger does (accidental alliteration!), but it causes a profound loneliness and alienation in his personal life. The guy has seemingly got it all, the perfect wife, the perfect baby (look at that smile!), a high-paying job, and now with a window office, but there is an all-consuming black hole at his core. Sure, he blames the emptiness he feels on everybody but himself and acts out in the most petty, destructive way possible, but I still find it profoundly sad and relatable to watch Pete continually bang his head against the wall. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy seeing the little pipsqueak get his face rearranged by Lane, the brawling dandy. Don’t get me started on Lane. Fair enough, Mike, Lane is the unsung hero of SCDP. He keeps the lights on, which is an important but distinctly unsexy job. He doesn’t get the accolades or the wide berth that the cool kids get. He’s the whipping boy, who like Pete is trying to assume the secretly empty role of the swaggering All-American hero. Jared Harris has a way of smiling and laughing nervously as Lane that is incredibly heartbreaking. It’s the laugh of the world’s saddest nerd, who longs to be in anyone else’s skin.

With Pete and Lane, and Roger too, it’s becoming more clear that this season is paying off the threat of obsolescence that has been hanging over the world of Mad Men since the beginning. However, it’s starting to go deeper than just the wide-ranging social upheaval of the 1960s and manifest itself in a more personal way. Pete for instance is starting to realize that he is no longer as young as he thinks he is. He’s no longer a viable candidate for the affections of his nubile Driver’s Ed classmate, if he ever was, and as much as he tries to push against it he has a family that depends on him. He can’t handle this, and being the asshole he is he rushes off to indulge his gross, empty power fantasy at a high-class brothel. The life that Pete never understood how to live is closing in on him, and as he weeps in front of Don for the possibilities he never took advantage of that are increasingly lost to him now, I’m compelled simultaneously to give him another sock in the nose and weep right alongside him. I’ve known Pete Campbells, I’ve felt like a Pete Campbell at times in my life, and I want to wring his neck for saying “I have nothing” in the face of all the privilege and good fortune that has been handed to him. But I think sometimes in the back of all of our minds, there is a dripping faucet that we can’t fix.

I don’t know if I have much to add about Ken Cosgrove, other than he seems like a swell, well-adjusted guy. I’ll say this, as someone who labors over every sentence I’m able to sputter out, I’m a little jealous of Ken’s ability to let go and write so prolifically and with such ease, but I think he primarily exists in the show as sort of a control group. He is the one guy who will keep his head down and make it through unscathed by Mad Men’s special brand of personal torment. Sounds like fun! See ya next time!

Episodes 1&2 - "A Little Kiss"
Episode 3 - "Tea Leaves"
Episode 4 - "Mystery Date"