‘Mad Men’: Emily Nussbaum on Pete Campbell and His Poignant Crumminess

ben mathis-lilley
Photo: Courtesy of AMC

Pete Campbell is a creep. Pete Campbell is a dork. Pete Campbell is a schemer, a sadist, a weasel, a blackmailer. Worse, he's got no game. Pete Campbell — currently an account executive at Mad Men’s white-shoe advertising firm Sterling Cooper, but ambitious for so much more — is pompous to underlings, obsequious to bosses, grabby with women. The man manages to combine the worst qualities of frat boy and nerd.

And yet Pete Campbell is our hero. You can take your Don Draper, with his gleaming hammerhead and his existential dark secrets! To us, the true heroes of the already-in-backlash-before-the-season-has-even-started, Emmy-nominated series Mad Men are Pete and his opposite coin Peggy, Pete's ex-fling, the mother of his child, and his professional enemy. This pair of ambitious, resentful oddballs are more interesting than anyone else on the show, and both so terribly underestimated. If only they weren't natural foes, and he wasn't married, and she wasn't basically decent and he wasn't essentially evil, they could start their own firm.

Pete is played by Vincent Kartheiser, formerly best known as Angel's sulky jerk of a teenage son, an actor who has developed an intriguing expertise at what might be termed poignant crumminess. Even among his Über-masculine colleagues, Pete’s sexuality is downright weird, date-rapist with neurotic streaks of caveman. Early in season one, he manages to turn Peggy on with a fantasy involving, of all things, the gutting of animals. Then he cruelly shuts her down during her joyful performance of the Twist ("I don’t like you like this") — so desperate is he to keep someone, anyone, under his thumb, he yanks the faucet shut on a rare moment of sensual freedom. And yet he couldn't help punching his colleague for mocking Peggy's weight gain. Pete's a little conflicted.

And lonely! Very, very lonely. The child of chilly Wasp snobs, he's got no friends. His wife is a smug, shiny princess in league with his manipulative in-laws. (To us, one of the saddest moments on the show is when Pete came back from his honeymoon, excited by how much funnier his wife was than he'd imagined.) And dammit, he never wins. When Pete walks into Don's office with that box of stolen photos, certain he can blackmail himself into a promotion, Don just smiles and take one step forward, swelling like a cartoon cat as Pete practically jumps out of his shoes. The two scurry comically toward the boss' office. Pete spills the beans — and Cooper memorably replies, "So what?" For a man who likes to play with guns, Pete is amazingly unable to pull the trigger.

It’s all just so unfair! Because the weird thing is, when it comes to advertising, Pete Campbell is right about everything. Kennedy is the new Elvis, dammit. The future of advertising should take advantage of the Freudian "death wish." Nobody will listen to him, because the guy is a douche bag. Maybe that's understandable, but it's so very, very wrong. Because Don? Keep smiling like a handsome shark. You're the past, man. The future is coming fast, and his name is Campbell. —Emily Nussbaum

Check out Vulture's complete Mad Men coverage:
The SYSW Index: What Makes 'Mad Men' a Show You Should Watch?
Jon Hamm of ‘Mad Men’ on the Future of Don Draper
Don Draper’s ‘Mad Men’ Bookshelf
Emily Nussbaum on Pete Campbell and His Poignant Crumminess
Logan Hill on Don Draper, Granite Statue and Train Wreck