On ‘Mad Men,’ as the women’s options open up, the men feel theirs growing slimmer

Pete Campbell. ()
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Starlee Kine

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This season, it feels as though "Mad Men" is especially determined not to let a historical reference or poetic metaphor get past us.

When Ken’s pen name Ben Hargrove was brought up last night, it was hard to hear the rest of the scene over the sound of the audience (including myself) furiously typing it into Google. This thing, though, where every line has two meanings at once, is starting to feel a bit like having your parents build your science project.

While I enjoyed last night’s episode immensely, I still would at least occasionally like to earn my interpretations of moments like the cab driver telling Pete he has to pay both ways, instead of their being handed to me so fully assembled.

Ken’s voiceover at the end, where the story he was writing also described the state of Pete Campbell’s soul, felt particularly blunt. Then again, it did help to think about the episode as a whole in a literary way.

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I read Revolutionary Road between seasons one and two of "Mad Men" and it wasn’t Leo DiCaprio who I pictured as Frank Wheeler but Vincent Kartheiser. Like Frank, Pete has that same jumpy unease with his lack of his creative abilities, that same naked envy but also blind worship of his peers.

It may have been Don who did the subconscious strangling of his desires last week, but this week it’s Pete’s turn to be represented in the form of Charles Whitman (who Ken’s wife mistakenly refers to as Whitmore at first, which was a rather playful nod to "Lost" followed quickly by Dick Whitman himself rushing in to correct her.)

Whitman was a frustrated Marine who gunned down ten people at the University of Austin after shooting his wife and mother. His parent’s divorce has been cited as a key component in why he snapped. His father owned a plumbing contract business and Pete’s pipes, in all their varied forms (you think that Wilt Chamberlain line was an accident?) are a source of anguish for him in this episode. He thinks that if he just keeps a close eye on the leak, tightening it at the first sign of a drip, it’ll be okay. When it bursts, as all things under pressure eventually do, he stands there gaping while Don jumps to action.

I found it interesting that it took going to Pete’s house in order for Don to return to form for the first time this season. He fought so hard to not go at all, as though the moment he stepped back into the suburbs the lights would flicker and the floor would shake and he’d suddenly be back in his old life, as though no time had passed at all. The alien working on the bridge that spans two worlds would bring Don’s new life collapsing down with one twist of his wrench.

But Trudy and Megan get the jump on him.

“You’re driving,” says Megan, “Now change.”

Instead of sapping him of his strength, though, Pete’s home life seems to empower Don. Suddenly he’s a superhero again while the women, giddy on cocktails, freely swoon. There was a moment when Jon Hamm bent down under the sink where his white t-shirt lifts up just a touch, at the bottom and you catch a glimpse of his lower back. And it felt so un-choreographed and messy in a different way from how the show normally does; lighter, like everyone, characters and "Mad Men" writers alike, were sighing in relief over not, for just a moment, having to keep trying so hard. Later, in the car, Megan’s in the driver's seat, but she continues to be the most modern, in a way, of all the women characters by once again so openly expressing her indecision over whether she even wants to be. When Don tells her to pull over she does because of how much she loved watching him fix that sink.

While the women are being presented with more options all the time, the men are feeling like theirs are becoming slimmer. Nothing drives the men on this show crazier than the idea of one of their colleagues still having a shot at their dreams. When Roger hears that Ken is still writing and not even necessarily for career advancement purposes, he threatens to fire him unless he stops. Lane spends his business dinner trying not to relieve his client of his everyday burdens—which is Roger’s forte—but to force him to admit that he is just as unhappy as he is. At the thought of Don’s marriage to Megan actually being the real deal, Pete grows defensive and mean. Even when Pete is hitting on the girl in his driver’s ed class—who looks so much like a young Trudy that I found it more touching than outright lecherous, he’s looking more for a return to innocence than an escape—his main priority seems to be to ensure himself that she will end up just like him, marrying young and then moving to the suburbs.

What Pete Campbell has never been able to handle is the idea of there being choices available to others but not him, due to his not being brave or charismatic or special enough. The boldest attempt at a new life that he ever made was when he told Peggy he loved her, and her rejection was severe enough to guarantee he’d never do that again.

And so instead he’s become like his plumbing, letting the pressure build up and then releasing it on whoever’s around: the neighbor’s nanny, his colleagues.

“I just seem to find no end to my humiliation today,” says Lane to Joanie, but with Pete the humiliation stretches out far past that afternoon’s boxing match. It’s funny what works on this show and what doesn’t and how they’re often in the same explicit ballpark. Don doodling a noose made me roll my eyes but when he pulled the curtains and Roger lit a cigarette in preparation for the literal battle of manhood that was about to go down, I loved it and rewound the scene three times.

The flip side of humiliation is dignity and Joanie was the only one doling it out last night. Her body posture when Lane kissed her was full of compassion. She neither leaned forward nor shrank back, just let him get what he needed to out of his system. Her opening of the door echoed Don’s shutting of it in the third season episode of the same name, the one that signaled a future so bright everyone could barely wait to start living it.

Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She writes The Girl, a weekly look at "Mad Men," every Monday this season. Previously: Joanie, Peggy and Sally grapple with the interplay of horror and control; and, later, so does Don