So Season 5 of Mad Men is over which means I have a little bit of my life back where I'm not constantly obsessing, but there's still a lot to chew over. Especially with my boy, Campbell. Because I've read so many reviews that either ignored his story as concluded in the finale or dismissed it as confusing and meaningless. Which I do not get. Maybe the story could have been done better, given that any story with this character has to break through a wall of resistance with viewers. Far from breaking through that wall with those viewers, this story just made it thicker because unhappy!Pete is unlikeable Pete. This year Pete lost a lot of people who'd grown to tolerate him because he'd been faithful to his wife. But I think Pete's story would actually have been considered a lot more interesting if given to another character.

There were a lot of complaints about how we'd already seen the cheating husband angst in the suburbs plot with Don--and with Richard Yates, John Updike and John Cheever etc. I can respect people who just don't have any interest in suburban white males, but I don't think that's a very valid complaint for this show, given it's always been about white advertising executives in NYC in the 60s who mostly are white suburban males. I also couldn't agree that Pete was "the new Don" since you can't be Don unless you're Don. It would be like saying that Draco Malfoy moving from the dungeon to the tower made him the new Harry Potter. He's still Draco--err, Pete--and as such even when he's doing things Don's done, he's doing them with a whole different motivation and result.

Other complaints I heard about the Beth story were that people didn't care what happened with Pete, that they didn't understand the point of it, and that ECT doesn't work that way. Okay, that last complaint is quite valid--though it didn't bother me in the story at all. The first one's obviously subjective. But the one in the middle surprises me, because it seemed like the show was pretty unsubtle about what was ultimately going on with the story. In plot terms: Pete's unhappy, he has a brief affair with the confusing wife of his commuter buddy Howard. In their second and final encounter Beth asks Pete to sleep with her before she undergoes electroshock therapy for her depression. When Pete visits her in the hospital she's forgotten who he is. Speaking to her as a stranger Pete shares the insights about himself the affair with Beth has given him. Encountering Howard on the train home, he accuses him of abusing his wife with ECT. The two get into a fight and Pete gets his face punched first by Howard, then by the conductor to whom Pete gets nasty when he insists he apologize to Howard. Arriving home bruised and dejected for the second time that season (both times apparently claiming he'd gotten into a car accident because he was tired), Pete promises Trudy he'll always come home, only to have her suggest that he, like Howard, get an apartment in the city for those late nights.

Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't have helped to go a bit more surreal with it to signal it being about mental states. But still, it seemed like it was laying out something pretty interesting--even if that the reviews didn't mention it: It wasn't the story of an affair. That was a fake-out. Pete wanted to see it as an affair because that was the standard male narrative. He even tried to make it a success narrative by fantasizing about "winning" Beth by having his name in the NYTimes in between their two encounters. That fantasy is more interesting in retrospect. Pete could have imagined Beth confessing she'd been kept away by her husband or whatever. Instead he has Beth admit that she'd forgotten his existance until she saw his name in the Times. Iow, it points up Pete's fear that she has erased him from her mind--which is what will literally happen.

Pete tries to force Beth into the role of true love, but Beth herself coreminds him she's not that. And while he tries to deny it, Pete hears what she's saying. In their first post-sex conversation Beth claims that men never listen to her, they just watch her lips move. Pete claims he's listening to "every word" she says, and the next day actually proves he was telling the truth by not only repeating her words to Harry but seeming to puzzle over them. I broke their convo up and rearranged it once, changing Pete and Beth's back and forth exchanges into two monologues. When you do that you can see the two of them talking past each other:

Beth: I used to be like this. Just reckless. I’ve had men paying attention to me since before it was appropriate. They don’t care what I say. They just watch my lips move. Your irises are so blue and round. Have you seen those pictures of the earth from space? It didn’t bother you to see the earth tiny and unprotected, surrounded by darkness? This can never happen again. No, I mean it. You should get home. Why [don't you want to leave me here in my house]? I’m fine now. I’m going to have a snack and go to bed. Thank you for the ride home.

Pete: What do you mean? I can’t believe that happened. Say something. I’m listening to every word you say. I have [seen the pictures of the earth from space]. I’ll take that as a compliment. So you don’t like my eyes? What? No, of course. I– Okay. I don’t want to leave you here. I don’t want to leave you.


Pete's lines are all about trying to have a connection with her, bring it closer to romantic pillow talk. Beth's talking about her own emotional state. The next day he demands to know if Harry, too, finds pictures of the earth from space disturbing. Later, long after he thinks the affair is over, careful viewers noticed Pete has those very pictures of the earth from space hanging in his office now! Underneath, he really does get that what draws him to Beth isn't the promise of love that will solve his problems. She has something to tell him. She *is* him in important ways.

The Orange Couch episode reviews on Pandagon are always really interesting, and they started one of my big obsessions for this season, which was the importance of the montage at the end of Lady Lazarus, the ep where Pete and Beth meet and sleep together. Don tries to listen to the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" to understand what's going on musically in 1966. Don struggles with the song and turns it off before the end, but as he listens we see Peggy, Pete and Megan. The Orange Couch pointed out that these people we're seeing are trying to follow the advice of the song to "relax and float downstream" even if it seems like a death. To be their more authentic selves. Peggy smokes grass and works late on copy--the thing that's always made her feel best. Megan goes to acting class, having quit advertising. Pete...keeps trying to figure out Beth. The lines of the song that play as Pete looks at Beth are: "And you may find the meaning from within." Although Pete doesn't yet know it (consciously), that's exactly what Beth is offering him.

Ultimately he will know it, though. When Beth calls him in the finale they follow the same pattern again: pre-sex Pete states that he knows he's just getting jerked around, post-sex he takes refuge in romantic fantasies. Beth tells him they're not in love; they don't know each other, they just "have the same problem." Pete argues that they're "only sad because they're not together" and Beth says if that's true for him then they don't have the same problem. So the convo establishes that Beth sees the two of them as having the same problem, and even if Pete's clinging to his made-up love story making things better, he agrees that his problem is being “sad.”

When he visits Beth in the hospital, any illusions of love are erased by her post-treatment amnesia. It's not just that he knows they don't have a future. He's also let go of the idea that this would fix anything, or that it was ever true love at all:

He got involved with another man's wife. He needed to let off some steam, he needed adventure, he needed to feel handsome again. He needed to feel that he knew something, that all this aging was worth something because he knew things young people didn't know yet. He probably thought it would be like having a few tall drinks and feeling very very good and then he would go back to his life and say, "that was nice". When it went away, he was heartbroken, and then he realized everything he already had was not right either, and that was why it had happened at all. And that his life with his family was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound.


It’s funny that this last speech of Pete’s can be criticized for being too insightful and self-aware while this story is also described as incomprehensible.

Pete didn’t so much have an affair as meet a double of the opposite gender. He’s been trying to feel good about himself through things outside himself—ambition, success, affairs, but he's finally discovered the wound is inside himself.

Pete gets in to see Beth by claiming to be her brother. The nurse comments that she can tell he's her brother because they have “the same eyes.” I think the casting of Alex Bleidel as Beth was a very deliberate choice, not because she’s Rory Gilmore but because she and Vincent Kartheiser look so much alike. Back in LL people joked about how Beth saying Pete’s irises were “so round and blue” was funny given how round and blue hers were. That scene called attention to their similar eyes and linked the eyes to the vulnerable earth “surrounded by darkness” that obsessed both of them. Now here’s the nurse again calling attention to them appearing more like siblings than lovers—not just siblings, really, but twins—because of their eyes.

Their eyes, their sadness, their "blues," their depression. I’ve seen that, too, dismissed, with people saying Pete's got nothing to be depressed about (which isn’t how depression works) and that Pete's not depressed, since depression requires depth of character, he’s just a whiner. But I believe one of the definitions of “whiner” is “person I don’t like who has depression”. I don’t think a diagnosis of depression is the one word solution to Pete’s story. It’s more important how whatever he’s feeling shapes his thoughts and motivations etc. But I do think it was introduced into the storyline for a reason, and that there have been subtle and not-so-subtle references to it throughout the season, whether we call it clinical depression or not. “The Phantom” especially had that discussion between Pete and Trudy where he looked at her plans for a swimming pool and sadly warned that “Tammy could drown,” causing Trudy to snap “What’s WRONG with you? This gloom and doom! I’m sick of it!” That exchange not only, to me, showed Pete lost and confused by his own morbid thoughts (he even apologized for saying it) but confirmed that optimistic Trudy had been dealing with these exchanges for a while. It’s gone beyond complaints about suburbs vs. city, though that move contributed to it.

I have no idea where they might go with Pete next season. The show’s always had a policy of showing that big emotional moments can be followed by weeks of going to work and doing your job same as always, which is often what happens in real life. But Pete's always had a great streak of weirdness in him and the 60s were full of people searching. It’d be interesting to see if there’s a 60s thing MW thinks Pete could be drawn to (hopefully without breaking up Pete/Trudy!!!) —besides, you know, guys like Charles Whitman.
bookshop: illustrative art of a red-headed girl helming a steampunk airship, facing the wind, eyes closed. (Default)

From: [personal profile] bookshop



re: Pete's total self-awareness, this isn't the first time we've seen it. Pete's always shown flashes of total, thorough self-knowledge, which completely intensify all the time we see him spend building up lies about himself. For example, in I think the first ep of season 2?, we see him visiting a gynecologist with Trudy, and later when he goes back for his personal evaluation, he drops all kinds of truths on the gynecologist, who doesn't care: I have nothing, everyone hates me, I'm completely replaceable. And then he just goes right back to lying everywhere else. I feel like anyone who doesn't realize how deep Pete's depression is hasn't been paying attention, or, rather, has been more or less reading him the way he wants to be read: that is, as a product of his upbringing and his privileged background and the constant search to be a man. Just because he sees that search as meaningful while the rest of us constantly see it as futile and frustrating and the origin of everything we hate about Pete doesn't mean that beneath it he's not a man of constant sorrow.

And I'm with you in that I don't at all believe that Pete's glimmers of self-awareness seem poised to actually lead somewhere redemptive, because just as you said, Mad Men doesn't really play its emotional beats that way. But I do think that if more like it follow, it might lead somewhere, if not redemptive, than at ieast keenly interesting. Because oh my god, Pete, you are always so, so keenly interesting.
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