Pete Campbell doesn’t seem comfortable anywhere: not on Sterling Cooper’s main floor, not in his own office, not at home with Trudy, not with his parents or hers. He is, so to speak, a man without a country. That’s funny, because Pete is a WASP whose people have owned the United States since the 1600s, but still he wants everything: women he’s told he can’t have; titles his bosses don’t think he deserves.
In a scene where Don jumps on Pete for failing to prepare the Bethlehem Steel rep to accept their campaign, Pete wants to be accepted as a creative person, not just a man who wines and dines clients. He keeps hearing his father’s voice telling him it’s not a job for a white man. Pete tells Don he used to carry a notebook full of ideas. He even came up with the concept of direct marketing: “Turns out it already existed, but I arrived at it independently!” He says that when he arrived at the agency, his bosses assigned him to wine and dine clients because he was “good with people.” Nobody had ever told him that before, and now he wonders if it’s true.
Trudy (Alison Brie) swings by to show Pete an apartment that she hopes will be their first home as a couple. They can’t afford it without the help of Pete’s father, Andrew (Christopher Allport), an embittered blowhard. We’re given to understand that while Andrew controls his household’s purse strings, the purse actually belongs to his wife’s family. The Campbells are upper-crust by name but not by tax bracket. Much later in “New Amsterdam,” when Don and Roger unsuccessfully try to get Pete fired for pitching an alternative campaign to Bethlehem Steel without permission, Bert Cooper fills in more details. The family used to be loaded, he says, but Pete’s “grandfather dropped it all in ’29.” The Campbells have, however, managed to hold on to their social connections. One of Pete’s ancestors was a farmer with Isaac Roosevelt. Losing Pete would mean losing access to places where the powerful congregate: Buckley, DKE, the Maidstone Club, the Century Club, Dartmouth, Gracie Mansion. His head would be on Sterling Cooper’s chopping block if it weren’t so hard to scrub blue blood from carpets.
Pete’s anxiety in his father’s presence is not about dollars and cents; it’s about the commitments implicit in obtaining family money, and the shame Pete feels at having to ask for help in the first place. When Pete implies to Trudy that he’d rather put off getting a bigger place until he’s earning a bigger paycheck, he seems to want to avoid asking his mother and father to assume a monetary stake in the new couple’s happiness. It’s as if Pete sees marriage as a Chinese finger trap: When you’re stuck, you’re stuck, and if you squirm, it’ll just get tighter. If his dad forked over the down payment, it would bind Trudy’s people more tightly to Pete’s, and make them even more invested (in every sense) in keeping Pete and Trudy together. Trudy’s dad, Tom Vogel (Joe O’Connor), who’s also loaded, steps in and says he’d be glad to help the happy couple. Trudy beams. Pete looks like he swallowed a wasp.
Like the Pete-Trudy scenes, the Don-Betty material is also about investment. Don isn’t as invested in the marriage as Betty, who gave her husband every emotional penny and is starting to wonder what kind of return she’s getting. While walking the dog that Don dumped in their home at the end of “Marriage of Figaro,” Betty encounters the shell of a union that went belly-up. Helen Bishop’s ex-husband is banging on Helen’s door. “I’m supposed to see my kids, and I know she’s in there,” he says. Helen drops by the Draper household to apologize (while insisting that her husband is “not a bad man”). She and Betty smoke and drink and talk. She tells Betty her husband is a Manhattan insurance agent who didn’t start to care about their kids until they weren’t underfoot anymore. She says he was always in Manhattan, spending time with other women. When Don comes home, he and Helen share a silent glance: a carryover from the birthday party in “Marriage of Figaro,” when they silently recognized each other as spiritual expatriates stuck in suburbia. “He works so hard,” Betty says after Don goes upstairs, unaware that many of Don’s own supposed business engagements are trysts and that he “works so hard” because home doesn’t really feel like home to him.
Don pitches a Bethlehem Steel campaign asserting that steel built the American city. Cities are homes for homes; the beams make the bridges and roads and skyscrapers and apartments and houses possible. The executive, Walter, doesn’t like the campaign, because it makes steel seem like “the middleman for another product.” “Would you prefer an I beam on a plate with a pat of butter on it?” Don asks. Then Walter allows that maybe he objects because “I’m not from a city. They just . . . bother me.” They make him want to go home.
Betty leaves her home for a few hours to babysit Helen’s son, Glen, while Helen works the Kennedy campaign. This is one of Mad Men’s more inexplicably touching interludes. Glen is young but preternaturally calm and has no sense of boundaries. He walks in on Betty in the bathroom, while she’s urinating, and refuses to leave. He asks for a lock of her hair, and she gives it to him. Why does she tolerate his creepiness? Maybe she wants to mother a child she thinks is being poorly mothered—an ironic impulse considering that, for all her good intentions, Betty sometimes treats her own children coldly and seems to have learned how to parent from watching TV commercials. Maybe she’s just projecting her loneliness onto a lonely boy. Or maybe there’s a strange but true chemistry between them, something that resists labels. She’s happy making him happy. When he goes upstairs for the night, lock of hair in hand, she smiles. Good deed done.
“She looked so exhausted,” Betty tells her psychiatrist, Dr. Arnold Wayne (Andy Umberger), describing Helen. “She tries to put on a brave face. . . . Happy families all around. . . . My real concern is the children. I mean, the baby won’t know the difference, but that poor little boy. The person taking care of him isn’t giving him what he needs.” This last statement could apply to what Betty gets from Don, what Don gets from Betty, what Betty gets from her kids and vice versa. She says, “It was hard to see her all alone like that, supporting herself with that sad little job at the jewelry store.” Cut that sentence right before the comma, and it’s Betty feeling sorry for Betty. Throughout, Betty’s talking about Helen but also about herself, a common tactic in Mad Men’s psychoanalytically sensitive dialogue. Betty’s not comfortable in her home, her family, or her skin.
Throughout this scene, the camera often assumes a slightly elevated vantage point: Betty looking down on Betty.
In the closing scene, Pete and Trudy close on their new apartment and are welcomed by the Lymans, neighbors who know both sides of Pete’s family. We learn that Pete’s mother’s family had orchards at 204th Street when it was all open space. Trudy asks Pete to tell Mrs. Lyman the story about his great-great-aunt getting in a fight with a Hessian. “You tell it, dear,” Pete says. “You tell it so much better than I do.” The closing shot finds Pete staring at the skyline from the balcony of the place that his wife’s parents bought. The closing-credits song kicks in: “Manhattan,” performed by Ella Fitzgerald. The skyline evokes Bert’s description of the city as “a marvelous machine filled with levers and gears and springs, like a fine watch wound tight, always ticking.”
Excerpted with permission from Mad Men: Carousel by Matt Zoller Seitz.