Mad Men, Season 5
How do we know Pete's actually good at his job?
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Howard Dawes (Jeff Clarke)
I couldn’t agree more, John, that Pete’s dissatisfaction with success feels like a trope that’s a bit unearned. Come to think of it, I don’t know that Pete’s success feels especially earned either. The head of Head demanded that Pete personally handle his account, and Pete himself marvels at the idea that a client might make such a request without ever having met him. But has SCDP’s only junior partner really developed that kind of reputation? And if he has—what precisely is it based on?
One of Mad Men’s persistent weaknesses is a tendency to tell us that people thrive at their chosen vocation, rather than show us. I’m inclined to cut the writers some slack when it comes to the creative characters—it’s no mean feat to dream up brilliant pitches every week, and for me, anyway, nothing has ever come close to Don’s carousel pitch (which, I can’t lie, still sends me out of the room sobbing like Harry Crane). But accounts is a different matter. The show has always dramatized flattery and manipulation; witness the Heinz maneuver last week. Sure, Pete has moments of squinty charm, like his brief exchange with Megan’s dad. But I still don’t feel like we’ve seen him really excel at his job.
But maybe Roger is lying about the circumstances of the ski account, and telling the truth when he insists he’s happy to hand off clients. Roger is fine company over martinis and oysters, but he may be genuinely disinterested in the sober handholding of “some schmoe from Lutherville” that follows. I wouldn’t put it past Roger to play on Pete’s ambition and sense of self-importance and fob off on him some of the non-recreational aspects of the job. Wouldn’t that be a delightful reversal: Pete, the arch flatterer, disarmed by his own arsenal of tricks.
One other thing to mention, before I dash off to acting class: What is going on with Ginsberg? When he was introduced at the beginning of the season, I thought he would emerge as a first- or at least second-string character. The visitation of his father and the suggestion that he and Peggy might share a deeper connection someday both seemed to augur a more amplified presence for the plaid-clad, somewhat intemperate jokester. But Ginsberg increasingly feels like part of the furniture—not as boorishly predictable as Stan, to be sure, but a bit player who will deliver a few good quips to punctuate the storylines of others, then retreat into the background. Julia, what did you make of his violent reaction to the Beatles substitute, “September in the Rain” by the Wedgewoods? “Turn it off,” he says. “It’s stabbing me in the fucking heart!” That fucking is muted—this is basic cable, after all—and Don doesn’t express offense so much as confusion that Ginsberg would deploy an F-bomb. But it’s not the first time we’ve seen him spontaneously flip his top. Remember his reaction to the salacious interest that his colleagues showed for the Speck murders in “Mystery Date.” Is Ginsberg just hot blooded? Do these explosions say something more? Or am I struggling to read major-character nuance into a minor-character role?
Don’t worry, there’s a million bands that sound like that.
Patrick Radden Keefe is is a fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream.