Season One, Episode Four
[I’m a week late on this one, but forgive me: I’ll have a piece on tonight’s episode done sometime tonight, probably]
By the time Mad Men got to its fourth episode, it had filled in a lot of its gaps: we are thoroughly compelled by Don Draper, interested in seeing more of this world from Betty’s perspective, intrigued at the inner workings of Sterling Cooper, and curious as to how all of these people intersect in the historical mediation the show presents.
All except Pete Campbell, that is. To be honest, Pete Campbell was pretty much a snake before this point: a spineless, ungrateful punk at his worst, and certainly not the kind of character that any of us relate with. His insistence on rising the corporate ladder could be passed off as mere capitalist determinism, a selfish attempt to take for himself and to leave others in his wake.
What “New Amsterdam” provides is a new perspective, a glimpse into the fact that Pete Campbell’s life is just as complicated as everyone else’s in terms of the series’ primary characters. Over time, the show reveals the truth behind other characters as well (Joan and Roger Sterling are next up), but the familial and spousal pressures facing this character are some of the most eye-opening. No, it isn’t exactly surprising that he has some serious family issues, but it does explain at least some of his past behaviour while leaving plenty of qualities on the table that we as viewers will take issue with.
Pete Campbell has a complicated history: family is Old Money that’s reaching the final days of its wealth if not quite its reputation, and this has resulted in two of the traits we’ve seen. First is a sense of entitlement, that he deserves a better position than the basic “Entertain and Nothing Else” role he plays at Sterling Cooper. Second, though, is a constant desire to prove himself as to the expectations of family, and more importantly those who judge his family. He’s got a legacy to live up to, and it’s a reason (but not an excuse) for his desperation to survive on his own.
And really, although Don Draper wouldn’t be happy to hear about it, Pete is a younger version of Don Draper: he’s someone who has something to hide, who tends to use his history and his past as a reason for some of his more reckless behaviour. Just as we empathize with but don’t condone Draper’s infidelity, we can’t quite condemn Pete after seeing the rest of his life. Pressure to marry and improve his work position lead to his near firing, but he can only watch as patronage is the only thing keeping him alive and sheltered: his wife’s patronage provides money for an apartment, and his family name keeps his job after he goes behind Don’s back with a pitch.
Vincent Kartheiser gives a great performance in the episode, so it’s a pity that he is too much of an unknown to make it into Emmy contention. He gives Pete that hateful edge that makes him a villain to a character like Peggy, but also enough charm to see why Peggy would bed him and why he’s good at his job. I loved his speech about how, before coming to Sterling Cooper, no one had ever so quickly downgraded his talents to being “good with people.” He’s not ungrateful, per se, just concerned of his life remaining defined on someone else’s idea of success or talent. That’s a legitimate concern, in my books, even if Pete really needs to learn a better way to express it.
The episode’s only other real storyline, however, is hard to express: what is there to say, precisely, about little Glen Bishop’s creepy obsession with Betty Draper? The babysitting trip out of the Twilight Zone, complete with his urination spectation and his desire for a lock of her hair, is really abstract at the moment. We can presume that Betty is fairly crazy to give him that lock of hair, but we don’t really yet know why she would do that. If she was just doing it to get rid of him that’s one thing, but not giving it to him would have been just as easy – there’s something more at play here, and it will begin to pay off in later episodes (Although the boy himself won’t be back for a while).
The storyline also gave us a bit more insight into the Kennedy/Nixon battle currently ongoing, one that Sterling Cooper wants a part in and that Helen Bishop introduces to Betty. Really, the introduction is for us: Betty immediately concedes her vote to her husband’s will (such an obedient wife), so she won’t have any part when we get to “Kennedy v. Nixon” later in the season.
- That Trudy is the one who Pete gets to tell the story of his family history is one of my favourite moments in the episode, demonstrating how much Pete will never be able to escape his past now that his wife has both introduced a new connection and (more importantly) someone who believes in the hype so to speak. His quest to define himself is nowhere near over, and watching this episode again has put a lot of that into further perspective.
- Next on the docket: “5G,” where we learn more about Donald Draper and Pete Campbell, and where their desperation begins to show through the cracks.
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