Mad Men, Season 5

Pete's the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Talking television.
April 17 2012 1:00 PM

Mad Men, Season 5

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Pete's now the man in the gray flannel suit.

Mad Men (Season 5).
The man in the cream-colored plaid suit

Michael Yarish/AMC.

That’s a great observation about how friendship works at SCDP, Julia. A couple more data points: During his pep talk to Lane, Roger describes “friendship”—scare quotes his—as a strategy for wooing a client. When Lane fails to set the hook during his dinner with Jaguar, Roger and Pete reassure him that it’s no big deal: Lane can still play the role of “pure friend,” the guy who swoops in after the suits have taken care of the business details. In both scenarios, friendship is just a means to an end, a way of closing the deal.

I read somewhere that the HBO series Girls premiered Sunday night at 10:30. Loyal Mad Men fans who resisted the urge to see for themselves what all the hype is about were treated to an episode that could easily have been called “Boys.” The men of SCDP have never been the most mature bunch—they’re given to sulking, pouting, and throwing tantrums when they don’t get their way. But even by Mad Men standards we saw a lot of men behaving like boys this week. The episode opened with the disorienting sight of Pete squeezed into a desk in a high-school classroom during his drivers’ ed class. The account SCDP hopes to land is Jaguar, a schoolboy’s dream car. (“I want one!” Roger calls out like a spoiled child when Lane announces the potential client.) We soon learn that Ken has switched from Frostian pastoral, as you aptly called it, Patrick, to science fiction—in those days, a boy’s genre.

Even the scenes at the brothel had a childish tinge to them: Pete doesn’t want to deflower a virgin, he wants to make-believe he’s a king. The chewing-gum-in-the-pubics scenario that befalls the Jaguar exec sounds like a tall tale passed between boys in a locker room, and though it costs the firm a big account, Don, Roger, and Pete burst out laughing like a pack of hormone-addled adolescents when they hear the story. Then, of course, there’s the fistfight, the classic schoolyard approach to resolving a conflict. Adults might have separated Pete and Lane before it came to blows, but SCDP’s senior partners drew the shades and gathered round like kids cheering on an after-school tussle.

Why do the men of SCDP seem to be regressing to their 12-year-old selves? The Jacquemettons might offer one answer in their description of “the concentration of evil” that America experienced in the summer of ’66. Perhaps the Speck murders and the Charles Whitman shootings have inspired a childlike terror in our heroes. Last week we saw the women of Mad Men jumping at every bump in the night. Maybe the men, too, are on edge, and would prefer to return to a more innocent time, when your deepest fear was asking a pretty girl out on a date, or squaring up to throw a punch in a sandlot scrum. Then again, maybe these guys have always been a bunch of man-children, and they just happened to be on their worst behavior this week.

Another theme running through this episode was city life versus life in the suburbs. It was only natural that the subject would come up at a dinner party where the three couples have all chosen different ways of living: Don and Megan in a Manhattan apartment; Ken and Cynthia in a working-class outer-borough neighborhood; Pete and Trudy in the Connecticut suburbs

Suburban life seems to be taking a special toll on Pete. In the season premiere, Trudy complained that she could hear the sounds of the streets from Don’s terrace, but those same street sounds were music to Pete’s Manhattan-reared ears. When the comely teenager in his drivers’ ed class mentions the Bronx botanical gardens, Pete’s eyes light up, and he proposes an outing. That’s Pete’s idea of the country: A bit of wilderness safely ensconced within the city limits, and the whole thing endowed by his storied if dissipated family, so he can strut around the place with the pride of a VIP. Pete’s become a self-loathing commuter, fighting off the haunting suburban silence with his coffin-sized stereo and longing for Jewish baked goods. (No Greenbergs in Cos Cob!) With Don a contented city-dweller, Pete’s officially our new man in the gray flannel suit—complete with unacknowledged child. 

“With success comes a level of sadness,” Vincent Kartheiser told Slate’s June Thomas Sunday night, describing his character’s predicament in a revealing interview. Pete’s achieved what he set out to achieve professionally, carrying the firm on his diminutive shoulders, but the trappings of his success—the house, the child, the doting wife—aren’t bringing him happiness. I’m still worried about the day he goes down to the DMV to get that license—or sneaks home that rifle.

The first half of a Mad Men season is just flirting,

John

John Swansburg is Slate's editorial director. Follow him on Twitter.