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MAD MEN RECAP 4: SIGNAL 30

Television
by Deborah Lipp
April 16, 2012 1:37 AM
30 Comments
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“I’m through with all that fantasy stuff.”

In Signal 30, everyone is struggling with their identity, with fantasies about who they are and how that might conflict with reality. People are pathetic or they are Superman, they are heroes or failures in their own minds, and they struggle mightily when the world disproves their theories about themselves.

This wasn't a great episode, but it's a breather after the intensity of Mystery Date, and there's plenty of symbolic material to dig into. I'm a little disappointed because the fifth episodes are generally among each season's best, and I don't think Signal 30 can really stand up to 5G, The New Girl, or Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.* Nonetheless, let's dive into the juicy bits: There are plenty.

We all know "Don Draper" is a false identity for Dick Whitman. This season we've seen Don's growing disinterest in hiding himself. He is willing to share with the Campbells and Cosgroves the fact that he grew up on a farm—something he wouldn't have dreamed of doing back in 1960. Yet, his dual identity is alluded to twice in Signal 30, first, when he winces at the shared last name of Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower killer whose August 1, 1966 shooting spree took eighteen lives. The second time is when the sink explodes: Don whips off his shirt and starts fixing the sink as one of the women says, "Look, it's Superman!" 

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.

Ah, Pete. We really have to talk about Pete, but allow me to dwell on Roger for a moment. Check out this video of Roger explaining to Lane how to schmooze a client. This is literally the first time this season, maybe the first time in two seasons, when we've seen that Roger actually has skill and value:

In Season 4's Waldorf Stories, Roger, in a "morose" mood, complains that there are no Clio awards for what he does, and Joan asks what that is exactly (well, she doesn't so much ask as slap him across the face with the question). We've built an understanding of Roger as spoiled and incompetent for five seasons now, but it turns out he does do something, and he does it well: He knows how to turn clients into friends, how to get them to be allies in the cause of winning their own account. In a way, "account man" is the ultimate secret identity: Roger has the gift of turning himself into whatever the client needs him to be in that moment.

I've had it up to here with Roger's whining and self-pity, but this week was different: He not only showed competence, but wistfulness. When he calls himself "Professor Emeritus of Accounts," and when he tells Ken he "remembers" that the account job can be satisfying, he is being realistic about the pasture to which he's been relegated, even while he longs for more. This week, I kind of don't blame him for poaching Pete's meetings in A Little Kiss, especially since Pete has been such a shit.

Okay, let's get to it. Pete is a shit.

Wait, you wanted more?

Fine. To my eyes, Pete was the villain of Season 1, but he gradually redeemed himself, being on the right side of a lot of issues, becoming a much better husband to Trudy, developing tenderness towards fatherhood, and being exactly the right kind of prick in negotiations with his father-in-law. (That last instance may not seem exactly heroic, but he was right, dammit, and Tom Vogel needed putting in his place.)  Now, he's back to being a thorn in everyone's side.

This week's Pete debacle has been foreshadowed out the whazoo. Let's start with the very first episode, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, when Don tells Pete in the cruelest possible terms that he'll never get very far in business because no one likes him. Then there was Pete punching himself in the nose in A Little Kiss, walking straight into his pillar, and then Roger offering to "take it outside" with Pete in the same episode. So, yes, the bizarre and strangely awesome fight (check out the video if you can't get enough) was set up well in advance.

Pete is just a boiling pool of dissatisfaction. His wife wears curlers to bed! And she's not a teenage girl! And the faucet drips! And he hates the suburbs!  It all seems really petty when laid out like that, because it is petty. What we've seen, over and over this season, is that nothing can make Pete happy. He's even nasty when a car account comes in the door (and remember, Ken told him quite recently that a car was the prize they were all hoping for). He's just spewing misery everywhere.

In A Little Kiss, Trudy told Pete, "Dissatisfaction is a symptom of ambition," but Pete is happy when he's ambitious. It's now, that he has what he thought he wanted, that he's miserable. In the past, we've seen Pete longing for Peggy while married to Trudy, we've seen him vying for recognition, competing with Ken, fighting with his father-in-law, and he just got happier and more pleasant to be around. But now that he's a partner in a growing company, with a nice house and a gorgeous daughter, he's a sour, frowning, pimple of a guy who is determined to belittle everyone within earshot. He's nasty to Roger, rude to Lane, and deserved the punch in the face.

How galling it must be to be the Pete Campbell version of Clark Kent and have Don Draper put on the cape, fix the sink, and get the women hot. How galling to have Don Draper, of all people, throw your adultery in your face by abstaining. How absolutely humiliating to be unable to successfully land a teenage girl because you're not "Handsome" enough (and the casting of that teenage boy was no coincidence: He's a young Don Draper in every particular). Finally, Pete's only pleasure—insulting his supposed "friends"—backfires on him when Lane fights back.

In the cab, Pete bitterly says to Don, "I have everything," and Don agrees. But after the fight, Pete is near tears as he says to Don, "I have nothing." I don't believe there's anything that Pete can have that will make him feel good, because what he wants is to be Superman, to be "king." What he imagines he wants is to be Don Draper. Let's keep going with that: What Lane imagines he wants is Joan, or to be an account man, or both. What Roger imagines he wants is to be Roger about five years ago. What Ken imagines he wants is to be Ben Hargrove or Dave Algonquin, and since he is, Ken (as usual) is the only one who ends up happy.

What Don imagines he wants is exactly what he has. It makes the entire audience sit on the edge of our seats, though, because we all know how good he is at screwing things up for himself. Placing him in the context of this episode practically demands that we wonder when the other shoe will drop.

Some additional thoughts:

  • Notice we didn't see Harry this episode? He'd be redundant: Like Pete, he just wants youth. Notice also that Trudy is wearing a very old-fashioned dress for the party—that poofy skirt is so over in 1966; she's no longer fashionable.
  • Ken and Peggy have a pact—if either leaves, they take the other. Interesting. I've always loved their friendship, but I'm surprised Peggy has an ear to the ground.
  • Signal 30 is the name of the gruesome driver's ed film that Pete is watching as the episode opens. This episode is filled with wrecks, from Pete's bloody nose to Roger's career.
  • Quote of the week: “He was caught with chewing gum on his pubis.” Ha!
  • Megan exercises a lot of control over Don, and we see more and more of that each week. This week, she refuses to do the dirty work of turning down Trudy's invitation, then she makes him change into a sport coat that she bought him (and WOW, what a sport coat it is).

* Oops, that was episode 3.06. The fifth episode of Season 3 was The Fog.

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."

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30 Comments

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  • Ender | April 18, 2012 2:53 PMReply

    Love your articles, love your blog and love your thoughts on every episode of MM but as someone said earlier, I have to disagree with you: For me, "signal 30" stands among the best episodes of all seasons. It embodies all the things I love about this show, great acting, great storytelling and sharp quotes. Poor Pete. There, I said it!

  • ryan | April 17, 2012 4:45 PMReply

    don is NOT* more well behaved with Megan due to age

  • Ryan | April 17, 2012 4:44 PMReply

    With regards to Don and Megan, i think its key to note that people and thus thier relationships are not concrete or absolute, Don is more well behaved with megan due to age, its becuse she brings more respect to herself then most of Dons other women, and thus recieves it from him. There are many directions the power of any relationship can go, and I think its becoming quite obvious that Don is most comfortable with someone who revers his masculinity and subsequent power, but doesnt make him use it. Megan does the "dirty work" of the every day relationship operations, arranging dinners, choosing clothing, so Don can relax and be the king she thinks he is. Many people might mistake this as emasculation, but I personally think it is respect. When they had the floor sex scene, it was Megan who was crying out for the opportunity to let go of her power, and she knew exactly how to make the exchange take place.

  • Ryan | April 17, 2012 4:38 PMReply

    Mad Men is as much about advertising as Cheers is about running a bar. SCDP could be an dogfood company, it wouldnt change the purpose of the show at all. people who reference anything to do with the advertising industry are drastically missing the mark.

  • rl1856 | April 16, 2012 7:26 PMReply

    John Slattery directs like Roger Sterling delivers a punchline.

    Several thoughts:

    Several main characters are isolated and have either tried to build bridges to other places or have outright rejected them. Don does not want a connection between professional and private, Pete craves acceptance by Don and desires a workplace family to counterbalance a lack of fulfillment at home, Lane wants to be taken seriously by all around him- and has failed.

    4 Characters have metaphorically died

    Don Draper has been emasculated by Megan
    Pete the erstwhile Account King done in by his own arrogance and hubris
    Lane rejected by both his client/friend and told in the open what he has feared in private
    Ken Cosgrove nome de plume extinguished when Ken admitted that his day job is just a job

    Don told Megan he wants to make a baby. She replied "That's impossible" or similar. Why ???

    This episode will require close re-watching because so much happened that I don't think I picked up everything.

  • TheVodkaParty | April 16, 2012 5:04 PMReply

    I missed the original Mad Men era, but my second job in advertising (in the mid-80s)was at an agency where the rusting hulks of some original Mad Men ended up. I can speak firsthand that fisticuffs occasionally broke out. I remember a particular incident where one of these Mad Men was apoplectic over the cost of a project. He confronted the head of production, who was 20 years younger, taller and fit. There was some headed back and forth until the angry exec punched the production guy right in the month. What followed was a seemingly endless pause as the production guy stared in disbelief before drawing back his fist as if winding up to strike back. But rather than punch, he pointed at the door and firmly said, “Get out of my office,” which seemed to hit with more power than a fist right in the kisser. The Mad Man turned and sheepishly slunk from the office. Oddly, there weren’t any manifest ramifications from the incident. No warnings, firings…nothing. In tribute to those old guys, I’ve been archiving original 60s party recipes on my blog and love the real Mad Men-era flare of the swinging vintage hors d'oeuvres and cocktail recipes. While I’d recommend avoiding the conference room boxing matches, you can party in authentic Mad Men-style. Here’s my guide to throwing the perfect 60s vintage cocktail party: http://thevodkaparty.com/how-to-throw-an-authentic-mad-men-era-cocktail-party-the-inside-skinny/

  • Virginia | April 16, 2012 3:24 PMReply

    I meant to add that I am a huge fan of John Slattery's and the way he plays Roger, so I was glad to see him with a bit more to do in this episode.

  • Virginia | April 16, 2012 3:21 PMReply

    As one who is not captivated by Megan, after Signal 30, I have to admit she may be the great love of Don's life -- so far he is being faithful to her -- this does seem like a new and different Don. Maybe it's just a factor of age? Is our Don settling down? I've always been uneasy with the notion of the suburbs -- I've never lived in one -- and I'm not defending Pete, but he seems really unhappy with Cos Cob, the commute, the lifestyle. I am remembering the episode of Sally's birthday party and how horrifying it seemed with the neighbors gathered and Don's escape. Don seems a lot more at home in the Manhattan penthouse. Pete seems to have everything and is still miserable. I keep wondering if any of his discontent has to do with Peggy or has he totally put that out of his mind? Also I love Joan and like Lane, but I really don't want to see them together.

  • Deborah Lipp | April 16, 2012 4:04 PM

    Honestly, I think Pete's complaint about the suburbs is perhaps the only specific complaint he has that isn't petty on close examination. He's homesick and he doesn't feel a part of the place he lives. That's an aching feeling for anyone.

  • ROB | April 16, 2012 2:49 PMReply

    I thought Lane said "pubics" rather than "pubis"?

  • Another Guest | April 16, 2012 10:52 AMReply

    Mileage always varies, but for me, this was the first episode of S5 that really felt like Mad Men. I think it will hold up well on repeated re-viewing.

  • Bananas | April 16, 2012 10:43 AMReply

    Don also did mention his past another time, his childhood growing up in a whorehouse to the madame, but maybe that wouldn't count since it was to a stranger. It is a different thing to say I grew up on a farm vs a whorehouse to dinner companions. Both comments were true but Don knows what's safe to say where.

  • Joanne | April 17, 2012 1:15 AM

    I was a little surprised at Don's comment about growing up in a whorehouse. I know his mother was a prostitute but in all the flash-backs I don't remember any whorehouse he was growing up in.
    John Hamm in a recent interview I read (can't remember where) he said something like we'll learn more about Don's past this season. So I'm crossing my fingers that we'll see that whorehouse yet.

  • Kathy | April 16, 2012 10:43 AMReply

    On Trudy's dress: it occurred to me that not only does it symbolize her choice of the traditional wife & mother roles, but it probably also indicates that, as a stay-at-home mother of a toddler, she has fewer opportunities to shop and update her wardrobe. Buying groceries with a child is one thing; buying clothes (or, come to think of it, making them yourself) is another.

    Cynthia and Megan are young, urbane, childfree women. I'm not surprised that their outfits were different.

  • Brandon | April 16, 2012 10:30 AMReply

    Great recap! You're right, you can follow a trail of bread crumbs from episode one to Pete getting punched out in "Signal 30." You weren’t the only one looking back into the past. Pete himself recalls when he first invited Don and his wife (then Betty) over for dinner. It is just after he returns from his honeymoon in Niagara Falls—which he crassly describes as "The wettest place on earth." Well, six years later and Trudy’s all wet again, but this time from a broken sink. "Wait until the honeymoon is over," Pete warns Don on their taxi ride home. It's clear that the sink isn't the only thing in the Campbell household that needs fixing. I'd say Pete needs an attitude adjustment—which is just what Lane tries to give him. Will we see a reformed Pete in the next episode? I doubt it. Then again it was Don's fight with Duck which put him back on track. Maybe Pete's fight with Lane will have the same effect.

  • Brandon | April 16, 2012 10:27 AMReply

    Great recap! You're right, you can follow a trail of bread crumbs from episode one to Pete getting punched out in "Signal 30." You weren’t the only one looking back into the past. Pete himself recalls when he first invited Don and his wife (then Betty) over for dinner. It is just after he returns from his honeymoon in Niagara Falls—which he crassly describes as “The wettest place on earth.” Well, six years later and Trudy’s all wet again, but this time from a broken sink. “Wait until the honeymoon is over,” Pete warns Don on their taxi ride home. It’s clear that the sink isn’t the only thing in the Campbell household that needs fixing. I’d say Pete needs an attitude adjustment—which is just what Lane tries to give him. Will we see a reformed Pete in the next episode? I doubt it. Then again it was Don’s fight with Duck which put him back on track. Maybe Pete’s fight with Lane will have the same effect.

  • Talie | April 16, 2012 8:58 AMReply

    I'm pretty sure "handsome" also plays the dumb jock on Suburgatory. I love when MM casts actors from other shows like when they had Captain Awesome have an affair with Betty. It's so fun.

  • TJ | April 16, 2012 10:08 AM

    And according to my wife, a ton of the supporting cast (Roger, Duck, Bobby #4, Joan's mom, Teddy Chaughughugh) have been on Desperate Housewives.

  • SueB | April 16, 2012 8:47 AMReply

    "Okay, let's get to it. Pete is a shit."
    and

    "he's a sour, frowning, pimple of a guy who is determined to belittle everyone within earshot"

    With these perspective, it's no wonder you didn't think it was a great episode.

    Personally I saw it as far superior to 5G and really puts a focus on how isolated each of the characters are. Pete being the extreme.

    There is no "office spirit". They are happy taking bets to see Lane punch Pete. SCDP is not going to survive with the everyman for himself attitude it's got going on. And it got so bad this week that the two most insecure people came to blows.

    It's a very low point for SCDP IMO. It wasn't just about Pete, it was about the office too.

    Of course if you have no empathy for Pete and he's just a shit in your mind, then I can see how the episode is not as entertaining.

  • Tilden Katz | April 16, 2012 7:56 AMReply

    As always, great recap. My own thoughts are here:

    http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2012/04/mad-men-season-5-boulevard-of-broken.html

  • Meowser | April 16, 2012 5:59 AMReply

    Guy Walks In was an episode 6, not 5. The Fog was S3's episode 5. I'd put it up there with that one and Chrysanthemum/Sword, the last two episode 5's, maybe a notch under New Girl. But 5G is always going to be a tough act to follow.

    Unlike Mystery Date, which had me tied in knots on first viewing, I'm finding I like this one more with successive viewings and with thinking about it later, kind of like Shoot and Beautiful Girls and Blowing Smoke. It's really kind of funny how people can like and admire Pete and feel a little sorry for the guy, and also think he had a punchout coming to him at the same time. Also funny that his sparring partner was the other guy least likely to get into a fistfight, Lane. It wouldn't have been as funny if he'd had fisticuffs with Roger or Don. But it's also really sad, seeing him tell Don, "I have nothing," and meaning it. Also scary; a guy who feels like he has nothing, when millions of other men would kill for what he has, is a guy who will do just about anything.

  • Deborah Lipp | April 16, 2012 8:15 AM

    Damn, I'll have to fix that.

  • Judy | April 16, 2012 3:25 AMReply

    Enjoyed your analysis but I have to agree with TJ and disagree with you as I think this has been the best episode of the season so far. Brilliant.

  • TJ | April 16, 2012 2:34 AMReply

    I thought it was a typical great episode 5. In fact, I found it a masterpiece through and through. One, it was hilarious. But unlike some of the other comedy-heavy episodes (like episodes 1-2 of this season) the characters were so sharp, the dialog so crackling... just all the various of aspects of Mad Men all at their best.

  • Woodrow Nichols | April 17, 2012 10:34 AM

    Ok, now to the robot story that so predicts the Whitman sniper shootings....the only choice the robot has in his bridge maintenance role is the put in or pull out bolts and his choice is to destroy the bridge and kill everyone. How is that like Whitman's mental choices....he is reported to have a brain tumor?

  • Woodrow Nichols | April 17, 2012 12:03 AM

    Do you think Don may be dreaming this whole thing? He is so no himself this season.

  • SueB | April 16, 2012 8:54 AM

    This episode was hard to watch the first time but upon rewatch, the non-verbals are particularly astounding IMO.

    I look forward to seeing this episode again in context of the rest of the season when it's over. I suspect it'll be a nadir moment.

  • Deborah Lipp | April 16, 2012 3:15 AM

    Sometimes I change my mind on second viewing.

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