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Mad Men Recap: The Thrilla of Vanilla

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) - Mad Men - Season 5, Episode 5 - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

Just call it the Thrilla of Vanilla: two pasty Madison Avenue executives duking it out while their co-workers gawked. There was no way Pete Campbell wasn’t going down. Lane Pryce, after all, was in the military once — a desk job, but still — and knew the gentleman’s version of proper pugilistic form. Pete didn’t do that badly, all things considered, but he still lost. In that climactic exchange between him and Don in the elevator — Pete’s pent-up domestic frustrations merging with the pain of losing and unleashing tears — his face looked like it was made of veal shank.

This was a heavy-hitting episode in more ways than one. Co-written by series creator Matthew Weiner and one of America’s finest living screenwriters, Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon), and directed by cast member John Slattery, it was deftly plotted and eventful. But it also held together at the level of signs, most of which, in Mad Men style, were Freudian and Lacanian: a thicket of thwarted ambitions, repressed desires, and symbolic castrations. It was all that and funny, too; I haven’t laughed this hard at a TV episode since that Civil War parody on Community. I guess I could nitpick Slattery’s direction as a tad busy — the crane-up from Don and Megan snogging by the side of the road to a secretary, um, banging away on a typewriter was unusually showy for Mad Men — but given that the whole thing was pitched more broadly than the show’s norm, the ostentatious touches seemed all of a piece. Any episode that starts out with Pete Campbell ogling a high-school girl in a driver’s ed class while watching a scare-tactics educational film (1959’s notorious “Signal 30,” which you can download here) has no obligation to err on the side of subtlety.

The episode’s spine was a workplace story revolving around Lane Pryce, a.k.a. the Englishman in New York. Thrilled by a chance pub encounter with an English Jaguar executive who said his company was looking for a new ad agency, Lane playacted the role of accounts man, with disastrous results, leading the baby-faced swine Pete to smugly swoop in and try to save the day, which in turn led to an even bigger (though to be fair, unforeseen) disaster, the loss of the account. But there were satisfying subplots and character sketches nestled within that story, and each was rich enough to have merited its own installment.

Pete’s mounting unhappiness with suburban life — and perhaps marriage and fatherhood as well — manifested itself in his shameless courtship of a high-school student that he met in his driver’s education class. (The sight of Pete, easily a decade older than the other students, sitting there in his crisp suit was a marvelous sight gag in itself; it was inevitable that he’d be mistaken for a teacher, and amusing because Pete is no more mature than any of the teens around him.) Pete’s wife Trudy threw a dinner party in the suburban house that Pete loathes so much and all but commanded Don to attend, warning him that she’d already anticipated every objection he might raise, so he might as well just come.

The party’s centerpiece was an awkward conversation about news and politics that included two meaningful, seemingly throwaway lines. One was “Cynthia!” the name of Ken Cosgrove’s wife, which both Megan and Don had failed to remember until then; it seems mere character embellishment until you think about how many of the show’s men and women keep getting ignored, diminished, or conveniently forgotten by their significant others. The other great touch was Don filling in another forgotten name, that of the University of Austin sniper who’d gone on a rampage that week. His last name was the same as Don’s birth name: Whitman.

Throughout the episode, Don, just two weeks removed from that horrifying nightmare about strangling a sexually voracious ex-lover (essentially a psychic attack on his own libido), displayed an almost monklike rectitude. In the aftermath of that long night, at the brothel Don sat at the bar and chatted with the Madam while his colleagues and their client got busy. Afterward, Pete was a hung-over brat, accusing Don of copping a holier-than-thou attitude for not joining him and the others in one of the brothel’s back rooms. Don’s response — a confession that if he’d been as happy in his first marriage as he is in his second, he’d never have cheated — was surprising and moving, even though I didn’t buy it for a second. We’ve all seen Don with Megan. He doesn’t exactly seem happy; more like vaguely guilty for not being happier. The first time we saw him in “Signal 30,” he was drawing a noose on a notepad, and later in the episode, he tried to get out of Pete and Trudy’s party by telling Megan, "Saturday night in the suburbs, that's when you really want to blow your brains out." That’s two suicide references in less than fifteen minutes.

But all of that fades from the mind in the immediate aftermath of the fight, which joins the lawnmower incident and Roger’s first heart attack in the annals of surreal and unexpected workplace incidents. Leave it to Roger to say what everyone in as thinking, both before and after. “I know cooler heads should prevail, but am I the only one who wants to see this?” he said as the combatants strutted and preened. Then later: “I don’t know about you, but I had Lane.” The younger man marinated in misery in his office — alone — then went home at lunchtime. Lane stuck around and ended up moving in for a punch-drunk kiss with Joan after she showed him a bit of (obviously platonic) sympathy. Joan’s response to Lane’s pass — silently standing up from his couch, opening Lane’s office door, then sitting back down again — was perfect, fusing proper circa-1966 boss-secretary protocol with empathy for the wringer that Lane had just passed through. “I’m sorry,” Lane told Joan. “About what?” she replied blankly, adding, “Everyone in the office has wanted to do that to Pete Campbell.” That second Joan line was a beauty because (1) it made it seem as if Lane’s “I’m sorry” referred to the beating rather than the kiss, reemphasizing that as far as Joan was concerned, the kiss never happened, and (2) it tied in with the earlier scene between Lane and Roger (on that very same couch!).

“Somewhere in the middle of the entrée, they’ll throw out something revealing,” Roger told Lane, prepping him for the client dinner that he’d ultimately botch, “and you’ll want to wait until dessert to pounce on it, whatever it is. And then … you’re in a conspiracy. The basis of a quote, ‘friendship.’”

Roger, the self-proclaimed “Professor Emeritus of Accounts,” was talking about adman-client relations. But he was talking about work friendships, too, and maybe about all relationships. (“We’re supposed to be friends,” Pete said of Lane in that final elevator conversation with Don.) Roger is a cynical bastard, and in that scene with Lane he was speaking mainly about sales tactics, but his words illuminated Mad Men’s detached and skeptical approach to characterization. For the most part, the show just hangs back and watches its characters say and do things. Except for the occasional too-on-the-nose line, the series tends to editorialize with camera angles and cuts rather than in dialogue, unless it’s indulging in a dream sequence or rare narrated scene (such as the one that ended this episode: secret sci-fi master Ken Cosgrove starting a new, “realistic” story that seemed inspired by Pete’s suburban despair).

The point of this is to encourage us not just to watch the show but scrutinize it, as one might scrutinize opponents in a poker game or participants in a trial. We’re always on the lookout for deceptions and self-deceptions, and we’re always aware of the gap between how characters see themselves (or wish that others would see them) and who they really are. The Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce ad campaigns aren’t the only illusions being created within Mad Men’s narrative in order to sell something. All of the show’s major characters are engaged in active or passive conspiracies with themselves or others. Think of Don’s secret identity as Dick Whitman and his latest identity as a monogamous, sober, responsible citizen (which I expect to crack soon); Peggy and Pete’s secret love child, which hovers over every interaction that either has with children; Joan’s identity as a humble wife, homemaker, and mother, which she recently sloughed off so that she could return to her first love, the office; etc. As Deborah Lipp writes of “Signal 30”:

“The point of the episode, though, isn't Dick Whitman and Don's secret past, but the second identity we all have — walking through life as Clark Kent and imagining we're Superman. Over various meals, everyone has a chance to discuss their fantasy selves — writer, actress . . . even hog farmer.

Lane imagines he's an account man. Ken has an established "secret identity" as Ben Hargrove; when outed, he goes back into hiding as Dave Algonquin (no wonder Salvatore had a crush on him, Ken is all about being adeptly in the closet). Roger had an identity as a master account man, and Pete has, bit by bit, taken that away from him.”

While these personal dramas play out, mostly unseen social forces struggle to control the official narrative of the postwar U.S.A. And time passes, and passes. “Mad Men is a series about the passage of time, and I liked the way this episode suggested the way that time passes, so that it almost seems as if you’ve lost yourself in the mists of your own life,” writes Todd VanDerWerff, in a faintly Cosgrovian image. This aspect of Mad Men reminds me one of writer-producer David Milch’s favorite quotes, and the title of a two-part episode of his great drama Deadwood, paraphrased from Napoleon: History is a lie agreed upon. That goes for personal history, too.

But when parties disagree, things get complicated. Which brings us back, yet again, to the Pete-Lane dustup.

After Lane muffed the first dinner by failing to read the client’s signals, Pete usurped Lane’s authority (recruiting Roger as official backup and Don as reluctant co-conspirator), took the client to a second dinner, then brought him to a high-end brothel at which everyone but Don got serviced. (Don’s reticence was partly a biographical response — his mom was a prostitute, and he grew up in a whorehouse — and partly an expression of his love for his second wife, Megan, whom he didn’t want to lose by reverting to his old ways.) The whorehouse maneuver inadvertently ended the firm’s courtship of Jaguar. The whole thing unraveled, Lane explained angrily, when the client returned home to his wife and was forced to reveal where he’d been that night. Why? “Because he was caught with chewing gum on his pubis!” Lane bellowed.

Ostensibly, the Pete-Lane fight was about the Jaguar account, which Lane wanted to play hero for and personally land. But the Jaguar catastrophe was really just a pretext for that confrontation. The real cause was two sets of illusions — Lane’s and Pete’s — crashing into each other. And this is ironic, because if the men could have somehow been neutralized and locked in solitary confinement for a couple of hours, they might have realized that they have lots in common.

Both Pete and Lane want to be seen as essential to the firm, not by doing what they’re actually good at but by faking mastery of other skills: to be precise, the skills of a Don or a Roger, someone rakishly confident and stereotypically manly. Problem is, both Lane and Pete are sitting on major inferiority complexes, each of which hinges on denial of what they truly want. Lane wants to be an American, or at the very least something other than the stuffed-shirt Englishman represented by his horrible father, who bludgeoned him with a cane in season four. Lane has a Mets pennant and a tiny Lady Liberty statue in his office, and initially resisted his wife’s invitation to watch the England versus Germany World Cup championships in a Manhattan pub, because "I hate this business of bringing over England in pieces." He probably doesn’t want to be married, either, as evidenced by the number of times that he tells his wife Rebecca that she and Lane have radically different ideas of how to be happy. ("How lovely your face becomes when you tell me you need something," he tells her near the start of “Signal 30.”)

Intriguingly, Pete’s distress doesn’t seem hugely different from Lane’s once you factor out the cultural differences. Pete hates the suburbs and wants to be back in Manhattan. (Both Lane and Pete’s unhappiness have indistinct echoes of Don’s past traumas; Don trashed his previous identity and totally reinvented himself, just like Lane fantasizes about doing, and he recently achieved Pete’s dream of moving from a stifling suburban house to a high-rise Manhattan apartment.)

Another Pete-Don parallel is Mad Men likening the characters’ carnal appetites to inner beasts that must be subdued for the sake of “normalcy.” Last week, Don strangled a dream image that clearly represented his womanizing “past.” The opening of “Signal 30” felt like a stylistic continuation of that episode, which was steeped in film noir and horror-film imagery and dotted with references to random, horrifying violence (both urban riots and shadowy mass murderers). Talk of Charles Whitman’s bell tower rampage dominates “Signal 30,” which opens with Pete in driver’s ed class watching the titular short film while ogling the teen that he’ll later lose to a guy named Hanson (nicknamed “Handsome,” for Christ's sake).

Between the cheesy-alarmist soundtrack blaring from the crash film and the literally dark visuals, the first few minutes of this episode had a horror-movie feel. A slumbering beast has awakened! it seemed to say, as if Pete’s libido were the Creature from the Black Lagoon rising up from the ooze. The wittiest touch was the slow pan (from Pete’s P.O.V.) down the student’s body as the horror score trilled. This scene and the subsequent scene with Pete and Trudy unable to sleep owing to a leaky faucet felt like continuations of last week's extended sex-nightmare sequence. The wandering male mind is constantly imagining what it would be like to have sex with unfamiliar women, and there's a long tradition of defining this kind of urge as women's fault (the idea of the "temptress"). But it's really a biological urge, one that might or might not be controllable depending on which man is grappling with it. When Slattery cuts from Pete in driver’s ed to Pete lying awake in bed next to Trudy, the dripping of the faucet is so loud that it almost sounds like a metallic heartbeat. Shades of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Telltale Heart," or perhaps one of the science-fiction stories that Ken Cosgrove has been secretly (and successfully) writing on the side all this time.

Speaking of Ken, that closing montage was perfection, and not just because Ken is clearly a much better writer than all the other secret scribblers at the firm. So many of the ongoing character arcs on Mad Men are about people (many of whom write for a living) attempting to control and even totally reinvent the narratives of their lives; in light of this, I’m surprised that the show has managed to heroically abstain (like Don at the brothel) from dipping into this well every single week. It just makes so much sense.

I’m starting to think that Ken might be the secret, unseen, unheard narrator of this series. He has imagination, empathy, and taste, plus a winning modesty. I’d like to read the rest of whatever he was writing in that final scene, right before Beethoven’s Ninth kicked in. Linking Beethoven to a protagonist who might very well be Pete, he wrote, “He imagined Beethoven, deaf and soul-sick, his heart broken, scribbling furiously while death stood in the doorway, clipping his nails. Still, Coe thought, it might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.”

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC