Pete and Lane come to blows, Ken reveals a surprising talent, and Don wears a stupendous new sports coat

By Adam B. Vary
Updated April 16, 2012 at 01:13 PM EDT
Jordin Althaus/AMC
S5 E4
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Last week on AMC’s The Wide World of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Matthew Weiner and Co. took a head-first dive into the morbid and macabre, and the sudden, atypical shift in tone unsettled many viewers (to say the least). Last night’s episode opened with dire footage of real-life car wrecks, and yet another true American horror story — the infamous University of Texas tower sniper — served as the hour’s official historical signpost. Instead of yet another grim tale, however, we were treated to some of the best laugh-out-loud comedy the show’s ever provided. As a bright-eyed teenage girl said last night, “Things seem so random all of a sudden.” She was talking about the times, an early symptom of a culture starting to careen into the tumult of the next three years. But she could’ve been speaking about Mad Men itself, which so far has zig-zagged from mod French musical to poignant domestic melodrama, from gothic accounts of spine-chilling mass murder to the giddily satisfying sight of Lane Pryce thumping Pete Campbell to the floor. More than ever, I have no idea what to expect when I tune in. I don’t know about you, but I’m digging the fizzy uncertainty.

This isn’t to say “Signal 30” — the pulpy, sci-fi-y title of the driver’s educational film Pete had to watch to (finally) get his license — didn’t dwell on some dark issues. Both Lane and Pete confronted feelings of purposelessness and alienation, of hidden vulnerabilities and the deficit between their starry-eyed ambitions and the ledger of their actual lives. And it was hilarious.

Let’s start with Lane. It was July 30, the day of the 1966 World Cup finals between England and West Germany. But Lane wasn’t exactly leaping at the chance to head out to a local English ex-pat pub to watch the game with his wife Rebecca (Embeth Davidtz). “You don’t even know what’s good for you!” she said, exasperated. Lane, though, was firm: These were her friends they were to meet up with, not his. He’s never liked football — that’s his father’s game. And, besides, “I hate this business of bringing England over in pieces,” he said. “It’s strictly for the homesick.” Rebecca tried a different approach. The pub was “for immigrants, like us!”

The argument worked, but it also underlined how much Lane is a man without a country. He yearns to make a clean break from the oppression of his fatherland, beguiled by his adopted home, what with its kept women who flirt with strangers on the phone and its exotic mistresses who wear bunny costumes to work. But he still cannot help but feel a mad rush of national pride after England’s 4-2 World Cup victory. (It remains England’s only World Cup championship, due in part to a controversial goal that many believe should not have been counted.) Better yet, Lane’s heritage also provided him with the chance to feel truly useful at the office; Edwin Baker (David Hunt), the husband of Rebecca’s new friend, was the PR chief at Jaguar, and the company was looking to break into the U.S. market in a big way. SCDP was to be the one and only potential suitor for the gig.

It was a big get: A car campaign, the firm’s first, a chance to burnish their rep as a serious place of business. The rest of Lane’s fellow partners saw the potential immediately. Well, except for Pete, who was reflexively jealous that he hadn’t landed it. “We’d probably have to hire 10 people who will be on the payroll for months!” he sneered before attempting a comically awful British accent: “My lordy! New business! Not here, sir!”

Naturally, everyone ignored him. But he wasn’t the only one whose judgement was hobbled by a fragile ego. When Lane was offered help to close the deal, he waved it off, confident he and Edwin could relate to each other, “Englishman to Englishman.”

NEXT PAGE: Roger shares some trade secrets with Lane

Wisely, Roger still offered Lane some unsolicited advice on how to navigate Jaguar’s “R.F.P.” (or “request for proposal”), a questionnaire riddled with land mines like “have you ever been fired off of an account?” Noting ruefully that he was “professor emeritus of accounts,” Roger explained how he handles clients with such finesse, delivering a perfect lesson in how to get anyone to tell you want you want to know, and they don’t want to tell you. (Big kudos to John Slattery, who also directed the episode, for this revealing peek inside Roger’s kimono.) First, don’t drink too much: Order a scotch with ice and water, let it dilute, and sip it — the client’s the one who should be three sheets to the wind. Second, let the client do the talking while you “smile and sit there like you’ve got no place to go.” And most importantly, when they let something revealing slip during the entrée, wait to pounce on this vulnerability until dessert, when you confide that you share the same problem, whether really you do or not. Then you’re together in the conspiracy, and the friendship is sealed. Do it all right, and they’ll be giving you the right answers to the R.F.P. in no time.

Alas, Lane did none of it right. His hamfisted attempts to provoke Edwin into some kind of juicy revelation — “I’ve heard men talk with dark permanence about those years,” he intoned after learning Edwin was in North Africa during WWII — just kept backfiring. “I’ll be honest with you Lane,” said Edwin, “I haven’t a complaint in the world.”

Lane tried to put a good face on his failure to Roger and Pete, but Pete bigfooted the deal, telling Lane he, Roger, and Don would take Edwin for a business dinner, which would allow Lane to remain the pure friend who can then bring the deal home. I’ll get to what happened at that dinner in a bit, but suffice it to say Lane’s plan to relate “Englishman to Englishman” with Edwin had one major flaw: Edwin actually had left the old world behind. He was already prepared to give SCDP the Jaguar account; he was just looking for someone to provide him with some fun.

Edwin told Pete, Don, and Roger that he didn’t think he and Lane “have the same taste in this area.” Pete interpreted that to mean Edwin thought Lane was “a homo” — which Pete was all too happy to throw back in Lane’s face, the first volley in their eventual fisticuffs. (More on that in a bit, too.) But I think Edwin just meant that Lane was a prude, too stuffy and odd, too British. After his fight with Pete, Lane nursed his injuries, and his pride, in his office — the door locked, the world shut out. The only person he would even consider letting in: Joan, with a bucket of ice, and a sympathetic ear.

“What do I do here?” Lane asked her, laying himself bare. “I mean, truly.”

Joan, as always, seemed to know exactly the right thing to say, at exactly the right moment: “If they’ve tried to make you feel different than them, you are,” she told the man who believed he belonged nowhere. “That’s a good way to be.” Moved beyond words, Lane planted one on her, arguably the most American thing he’s ever done. I highly doubt Joan has revealed to anyone in the office that she’d kicked out her husband two weeks prior. All the same, this kiss, as great as it was, made me nervous she and Lane were about to start an affair. But then Joan walked over to the door, opened it, and sat back down at Lane’s side, pretty much the classiest possible way to handle the situation. Lane sheepishly apologized. “About what?” she asked. “Everyone in this office has wanted to do that to Pete Campbell.” God, I love Joan so much.

NEXT PAGE: Pete Campbell, the human drip

While Pete was facing down a similar personal crisis — Am I master of my own destiny? Does anyone else value who I am and what I do? — his felt far more pathetic, and disquieting. When we first see Pete, he was at driving school, laughing, literally, at death. Well, he was probably just as amused as I was by the so-bad-it’s-brilliant opening crawl to the film: “This is not a Hollywood production as can readily be seen. The quality is below their standards. However, most of these scenes were taken under adverse conditions, nothing has been staged.” But he was also the only one laughing. It caught the attention of fellow classmate and high school senior Jenny Gunther (Amanda Bauer). She in turn caught Pete’s eye, which keenly surveyed her body, resting on her flower-tipped flip-flops, tapping against her heel.

That tapping segued into the drip-drip-dripping of his kitchen sink, a potent (if on the nose) manifestation of the gnawing dissatisfaction Pete felt about his life, and his need to be master of his castle, his kingdom. Fed up, Pete grabbed his tool box, crawled under the sink, twisted a random valve, and the drip was gone. The problem seemed solved. Pete was in control.

Back at driving class, Pete chatted up Jenny, as the two of them stood in front of a high school trophy case, a shrine to the forgotten glories of youth. When she mentioned the botanical gardens in the Bronx, Pete bragged that his family had been a benefactor for it long ago. “We should go some Sunday soon,” he said with alarming ease. “We’d be V.I.P.’s.” Jenny was aware enough to be unnerved by the sudden violence of the world she was about to graduate into, but I was struck by just how young she was, with her blonde ponytail and bubblegum pink sleeveless shirt and pants. She was still too innocent to be unnerved by this older man, making a pass at her for the very reason that she was so innocent.

Enter: Don Draper. Pete and Trudy were having a dinner party, and thanks to Trudy and Megan’s machinations, they finally got Don to drive out to the Campbell’s home in the tony Greenwich, Conn. neighborhood of Cos Cob. There would be no talk of work, or babies. It would just be an evening of good food and copious drinks. Pete eagerly showed off his new seven-foot-long music cabinet to Don and Ken Cosgrove — “I’ve never lived on the ground floor before, and we don’t share any walls, so I can make it as loud as I want” — and Don, wearing a spectacular white, red, and blue plaid sport coat, took it all in with a bemused benevolence. The evening wasn’t as awful as he’d feared. Pete was actually being decent. The dinner table conversation was lively, even when it turned to talk of the University of Texas sniper, and the rifle Pete’s still has in his office. And Megan was finally able to figure out the name of Ken’s wife, Cynthia (Larisa Oleynik), the climax to a great running gag.

BOOM! The kitchen sink blew. Pete ran off to get his tool box, but Don pulled off his dress shirt and took charge. “Look, it’s Superman,” said Cynthia, as all three women swooned. By the time Pete returned, Don had already shut off the water, and while he rummaged through his tool box, Don grabbed a screwdriver and had the sink working again in a jiff. Everyone, including Pete, applauded. Turns out Pete’s quick fix had turned the supply of water all the way up, forcing too much water into the valve until it just burst. He wasn’t in command — he’d just made the problem worse, and he wasn’t even the alpha male in his own home. Trudy appeared with their baby daughter, crying due to the commotion, and they all stopped to admire the infant. Pete shrugged. “I take no credit for her at all,” he said with a weary smile.

At his next driving class, Jenny confided in Pete that she’d gotten drunk on vanilla extract. She’d transgressed, and Pete was her confessor. He pounced. So what about going to the gardens on Sunday? But before she could answer, in walked Handsome, literally. The strapping, tanned jock was a classmate of Jenny’s — his real name was Hanson, but everyone called him Handsome, because Matthew Weiner just could not help himself. The kid mistook Pete for the instructor, and the spell was broken. Jenny and Handsome hit it off, and Pete receded into the background, as his eyes surveyed the effortless beauty of the young buck, beauty that Pete himself had never had in his life.

NEXT PAGE: The beginning of the end of Pete Campbell?

Cut to: Roger, Pete, and Don in a high class brothel — i.e. the “fun” that Edwin Baker was looking for. Another blonde worked over Pete’s wounded pride — “you’re one of those guys who’s stronger than he looks” — and pulled him into her room. As he left, Pete looked over at Don, hoping he and Don would be together in the conspiracy, sealing their friendship. But Don, who always liked Trudy so much better than her husband, couldn’t even look at Pete. In the hooker’s room, Pete, steaming from Don’s disapproval, was in a sour mood: “You any good at this or not?” So she played the sympathetic girlfriend. “Nope.” She tried the virginal high schooler — like Jenny. “Nope.” Finally, she leaned forward on all fours, and cooed, “You’re my king.” Bingo.

In the cab home with Don, Pete sulked, incredulous that Don Draper of all people was judging him for sleeping around. Why no reproving looks for Roger? “Roger is miserable. I didn’t think you were,” Don said with a scowl. “I have it all,” Pete scoffed bitterly.

The next morning, Lane was furious. The account had been lost. Edwin had been caught by his wife “with chewing gum on his pubis!” Don, Roger, and Pete burst out laughing, and Pete, suddenly back at the cool kids table, lashed out at Lane. “You have no idea what you’re doing!” screamed the man who had no idea how to fix his kitchen sink. “In fact, as far as I can tell, our need for you disappeared the day after you fired us.” It was one snotty insult too far. Lane wanted satisfaction, calling Pete “a grimy little pimp!” (The British are just so much better at insults, aren’t they?) As the two removed their jackets, Bert, Roger, and Don looked on, incredulous. “I know cooler heads should prevail,” said Roger, “but am I the only one who wants to see this?” Not by a long shot, Roger.

Pete got in the first volley, but after Lane landed his first punches, it dawned on Pete as he shook off the birds circling his skull that he was going to lose. He would always be the beta wolf, always be struggling for scraps of respect and power and friendship. He kept on fighting — “You want some more, Mr. Toad?!” — but after two hard punches to the face, Pete went down, taking the coffee service with him. Don tried to reassure him, but his words rang hollow. Pete retreated to his office, passing Joan and Peggy, who’d been eavesdropping on the brawl. “I don’t know about you two, but I had Lane,” quipped Roger.

You know, I was rolling with laughter throughout this entire sequence, but writing about it now makes me oddly sad. It’s a real tribute to Vincent Kartheiser’s performance that I still somehow care about this weasel. The man is so un-self-aware, that even after his one-time mentor beats the stuffing out of him, he’s still a black hole of entitled self-pity. “Why were we even having a fight at work?” he said as he rode the elevator down with Don, his eyes welling with tears. “This is an office. We’re supposed to be friends.” I swear Don almost imperceptibly shook his head here, as amazed as I was that Pete can say the things he’s said to Lane (and everyone else) and still expect friendship in return. But at least Pete cannot delude himself anymore on that score: “I have nothing, Don.”

Between all the pointed talk about Pete’s rifle, and Don’s comment that going to the suburbs is “when you really want to blow your brains out,” I really wonder if we’re being set up to expect Pete to do just that. Matthew Weiner knows that you cannot show a gun in Act 1 and not have it go off in Act 3. The question I’m left with now: Whether Pete’s so selfish that he’d actually go through with it.

NEXT PAGE: Don and Ken make contentment interesting

There was a fleeting moment when Don also appeared to be flirting with the notion of suicide, when we caught him doodling a noose during the first partner’s meeting. In hindsight, it was an peculiar aberration, since otherwise Don appeared as contented as he’s been in years, maybe ever. He let Megan curb his drinking before the dinner party, and acquiesced to her demand that he put on that outstanding summer sports coat. (How much you wanna bet those things make a fashion come back?) And he hung out in that brothel with nary a flicker of temptation to partake of its pleasures — although that could be because it was so familiar to him. (Side note: My very favorite moment of the episode may be when the brothel’s madam discretely suggested that if Don wasn’t interested in any of the women at her establishment, “a friend of mine has an apartment — may be more what you’re looking for. And he’s walking distance.” Don’s perfect reaction: “Best I’ve ever seen that done.”)

Driving home from the Campbell’s, a hot and bothered and very drunk Don even sidled up to Megan and suggested they “make a baby.” Megan’s reaction was a curious one: “No. That’s impossible.” Did she mean that literally? Or did she mean the same thing a sober Don told Pete that night in the cab? “Look,” said Don, “I’m just trying to tell you that because I am who I am and I’ve been where I’ve been that you don’t get another chance at what you have.”

“Brave words for a man on his second time ’round,” sniffed Pete.

“Yeah. And if I’d met her first, I would’ve known not to throw it away.”

Don’s maturity, his desire to live up to the promise he made to himself last season that he doesn’t “want to be that man anymore,” was really heartening to see. But I was even more impressed with Ken Cosgrove. Throughout Mad Men‘s run, Ken has been the good-natured yin to Pete’s high strung yang — the JFK to Pete’s Nixon — and last night we saw how Ken has dealt with dissatisfaction at the office. Rather than stew and plot, or spiral into self destruction, he buckled down and pursued his true passion, writing fiction, and found real success publishing them in sci-fi/fantasy magazines. His wife’s uncle from Farrar Straus was even interested in publishing his 20 best stories in an anthology. (Certainly one of them would be “The Punishment of X4,” which already has at least one high profile fanfic author.)

Ken was writing under a not-so-veiled pen name — Ben Hargrove — partly out of an innate sense of modesty, but mostly because he knew his bosses would not think so well of his moonlighting. And indeed, when Pete ratted Ken out, Roger dressed him down: “As a fellow unappreciated author and a friend, let me tell you, when this job is good, it satisfies every need. Believe me. I remember.” But rather than give up, Ken dug in even deeper, killing off Ben Hargrove and forsaking genre fiction for straightforward short stories under the new name Dave Algonquin. And what better way to get back at Pete than to have his first story be about him: “The Man with the Miniature Orchestra,” about a fellow named Coe — i.e. the namesake of founders of the community of Cos Cob — who still cries while listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony — i.e. the same music that was playing on Pete’s music system during their party. “It might have been living in the country that was making him cry,” wrote Ken, as we watched Pete back in driving school, impotently witnessing Handsome’s hand reach up Jenny’s skirt. “It was killing him with it’s silence, and loneliness. Making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.”

What did you make of “Signal 30”? Funniest episode ever? Do you feel sorry for Pete? And what did you make of Ken’s pact with Peggy — if he jumps ship to another firm, she’s going with him?

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Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama
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