Mad Men - Signal 30

Mad Men Commentary: Episode 505 Signal 30

This week’s episode of Mad Men opens with Pete Campbell in driving school, watching one of those gruesome crash scene movies with real-life footage of the busted-up cars and broken people.  It’s Pete, a housewife, some pimply-faced boys, and a young girl who turns and smiles at Mr. Campbell.

Signal 30 is both the title of the episode and the driver’s ed film Pete and his class watch.  Not much of the old film is shown, so I found it on YouTube.  The narrator, sounding like Jack Webb from Dragnet, describes Signal 30 as “the code that has morbid meaning to the men of the Ohio State Patrol.  Signal 30 is the phrase that means another violent death on the highway.”  We don’t hear this quote in the episode, but it could have clues as to whose death Signal 30 refers.

As Pete ogles the young girl in front of him, his eyes go from head to toe, stopping at her crossed legs, with a sandal bouncing against the sole of her foot like the second hand on a clock.  Cut to Pete lying in bed, later that night, a dripping faucet keeping the same time as the sandal in a slick dissolve.

The dripping – like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart – keeps him awake, so he gets his toolbox, and after some time under the sink, fixes the leak and is able to sleep.

The next day, Lane and his wife Rebecca prepare for a day out with fellow expats and friends to watch England play West Germany in the 1966 World Cup finals (England won).  Lane’s heart belongs to his new country, but his wife clings to their English past, appalled at the social changes that are taking root, seemingly convinced “the sixties” are purely an American phenomenon.

Lane gives in to Rebecca’s prodding, and puts on a good show of whooping it up at some Manhattan pub, filled to capacity with rowdy Brits ecstatic over their team’s victory.  Afterwards, they share a meal with a couple – the Bakers, fellow expats.  Edwin, the husband, is Senior VP of Public Relations at Jaguar, and as they eat, he tells Lane that he is looking for a new ad agency to help Jaguar break into the US market.  Lane, a little drunk and full of himself, offers to handle the business himself.

A third storyline develops the following Monday when Peggy, eating alone at a diner, is brushed-off by Ken Cosgrove, who shows up with a man she doesn’t recognize.  She gets her feelings hurt, assuming it’s a client.  If so, this is a breach of a pact the two have made, promising to help one another whenever possible.  Ken hasn’t broken their pact.  Rather, the meeting was with an editor interested in buying some of Ken’s science fiction stories.  It turns out he’s still writing, but keeping it a secret.

Back at the office, Joan officiates a partner’s meeting in which each of the revenue producing partners – Pete, Roger, Don & Bert – quickly say no when asked if they have any new business.  As Joan is about to dismiss them, Lane stuns them all with his good news about Jaguar.  They are equally stunned when he declines multiple offers to help close the deal.  After Lane is allowed to leave first, the others enlist Roger’s help in averting disaster.  With nothing else to do, Roger is happy to help.

Somewhere along the line, Megan and Trudy Campbell became BFF’s, determined to get their husbands together for some after work socializing.  Don had no problem avoiding Pete’s invitations when Betty was safely hidden away out in the burbs, but young Megan presents some interesting problems for the Garboesque Draper.  She and Trudy refuse to take Don’s repeated no’s for an answer, Trudy going so far as to tell Don that the whole dinner party is being designed around him.  It turns out that Peggy was right when she told him, last season, that they all wanted to please him.

In the middle of Don’s maneuvering with Megan, he gets one good line in that could end up prophetic.  “Saturday night in the suburbs is when you really want to blow your brains out,” he says.

Roger insinuates himself into Lane’s preparations for the meeting with Edwin Baker, giving the Englishman tips on how to ferret out the information needed to successfully win the upcoming RFP.  Roger loves feeling like he’s needed, referring to himself as the Professor Emeritus of Accounts at SCDP.  At this point he’s resigned to the fact that the game has passed him by.  Roger’s advice has less to do with the finer points of advertising than with the subtle nuances of a seduction – both of which Lane hasn’t a clue.

After Roger’s lesson on seduction, we get to see a clumsy application of the said principles as Pete hits on his young female classmate.  During their exchange we get some interesting information.  The girl is spooked because earlier that day, Charles Whitman went on a killing rampage at the University of Texas, killing his wife, mother-in-law, and fourteen other people (and wounding nearly three-dozen others) before being shot and killed by the police.  This, on the heels of the Richard Speck rape and murder of eight nursing students in Chicago, has the girl feeling uneasy about going away to college in the fall.  Her destination?  Ohio State University.

The Signal 30 film they’ve been watching was made by the Ohio State Patrol.  Is this merely a coincidence?  Impossible.  So, what does it mean?  Is this girl to be the victim of a violent death?  If so, will it be at the hands of Pete?  Let’s press on.

Later, we find Pete and Ken in Pete’s suburban living room, admiring Pete’s new console stereo, long enough for Wilt Chamberlain to crawl in, with the sound of a miniature orchestra.  Pete is in his element, playing the big shot.

Don and Megan arrive late, creating a Brangelina kind of buzz with the Campbells, who are giddy at the arrival of the guests of honor.  It’s as if they feel validated by Don’s agreeing to come.  Luckily, there’s Ken to even things out with his aw shucks humility.  The girls disappear to the kitchen to devil some eggs, leaving the men alone to drink and compare gaudy sport coats.

Just as the Campbells are about to serve dinner, we get to peek in on Lane and his ham fisted attempts at working Roger’s system on Edwin Baker.  The dinner conversation is like a parody of something on Masterpiece Theatre – My Dinner With A Boring Englishman.

Fortunately, things are saucier out in Cos Cob, which Pete jokes is Algonquian for briefcase.  After a few rounds of drinks, Don appears to have loosened up a bit and may even be having some fun.

They make the usual small talk about neighborhoods, kids, and grown-up stuff.  When Pete complains about the “varmints” out in the burbs, Ken jokes that he should bring his rifle (remember season one’s returned Chip and Dip?) home and shoot them.  This gets Trudy going, and she forbids the gun from her home.  Pete calms her down explaining that, “one rifle for shooting gophers is not the same as a frustrated ex-Marine shooting at pregnant ladies.”

With the conversation turned to the Whitman murders, it’s funny when someone mispronounces the name of the killer and it’s Don – Dick Whitman – who corrects the blunder.  Ken’s wife Cynthia brags that her husband predicted this type of thing in one of his stories.  This slip worries Ken and gets the attention of the guests, who prod for details.  Cynthia tells them the basic plot as Ken squirms uncomfortably.

The story – The Punishment of X4 – is about a robot that does repairs on a bridge connecting two planets. One day, the robot removes the bolt and the bridge collapses, killing thousands of people.

Everyone looks around, confused, but Don is engaged and asks why.  Ken jumps in and explains.  “He’s a robot.  He doesn’t have any power to make decisions, except he can decide whether the bolt is on or off.”

“Or else he hates commuters,” Pete says, adding his own button to the story.

It’s a buzz-kill kind of moment, as far as the party goes, but in terms of the night’s episode and ratcheting-up of the tension on the season, it seemed very significant, especially the way Pete attached himself at the end, and on the heels of the talk of the rifle.  There’s a Chekhovian sense of Pete’s rifle about to go off hanging in the air at this point.

The women head to the kitchen, and just as they disappear, there’s a shriek accompanied by the sound of spraying water.

The guys run into the kitchen to find the girls huddled and laughing at the geyser shooting out of the faucet Pete fixed just a few nights earlier.  Pete runs off to get his toolbox as Don springs into action.  He grabs a pan and puts it over the spray, getting Ken to hold it as he pulls off his tie, removes his white dress shirt, and dives under the sink.  Someone calls him Superman.  He gets the problem fixed as Pete fumbles with the tools just like Fredo in The Godfather when Marlon Brando is shot at the fruit stand.

Pete and Don are very similar in their faults, very nearly mirrors of one another, except that Pete is a cruder, uglier version of the two.  When you lay out Pete’s weaknesses: he’s a liar, selfish, immoral, no identity, unfaithful, etc., you could be describing Don Draper/Dick Whitman.  But there is a difference.  As similar as they are, we see Pete as fundamentally bad and Don as fundamentally good – they’re like opposite sides of the same coin.

On the way home, with Megan driving, I was afraid of a car wreck.  Instead, Don convinces her to pull over so they can fool around, causing her to confess that she found it incredibly sexy when he saved the day with the sink.  It’s not the usual Don Draper picture.  In the past, it’s been Don doing all the driving, forever in control.  Now, he’s content to give up his stranglehold on control, content to share power with Megan.

The next day, Pete and Roger check in with Lane and find out that he couldn’t close the deal with Edwin.  They take the account away from him, promising to safely land the plane for him.

Between work and home, Pete attends his drivers ed class, but he’s lost the high school girl to a new student called Handsome.  He’s a clean-cut, well-muscled kid named Hanson, but the nickname is apt, and the girl goes for him immediately, making Pete a third wheel.

That night, Pete, Roger, and Don take Edwin out for dinner.  The scene opens with them talking with silly lobster bibs tied around their necks.  Edwin recognizes what’s going on, and tells them that the deal is nearly theirs.  All he wants is a night of fun – something his countryman can’t deliver.  After Pete fumbles the first suggestion of a good time, he turns things over to Roger.

They head to a nearby brothel where everyone finds companionships except for Don, who strikes up a conversation with the madam – two old whores talking.

Later, in the cab, Pete and Don drop Edwin off at his place.  It was a huge success for SCDP, but alone in the cab, Pete is feeling judged by Don’s abstinence, and calls Don out on it.  “I can’t believe I have to explain that I was doing my job to a man who just pulled his pants up on the world,” Pete says.  Don tries to blow off Pete’s guilt-ridden rant.  “There were no stern looks for Roger,” Pete says.  “Roger’s miserable,” Don says.  “I didn’t think you were.”

But Pete won’t let it go.  “I have it all,” he says sarcastically.  “Wait until the honeymoon’s over.”  Don’s had enough.  “Because I am what I am and I’ve been where I’ve been, I know that you don’t get another chance at what you have.”  He goes on to tell Pete that if he’d of met Megan first, he would’ve known enough not to throw it away.

It’s a moment that flirts with being a little too on-the-nose, but it’s what we do when we’re cornered the way Pete has cornered Don.  Perhaps Don sees himself in what Pete is doing with his marriage.  Don leaves Pete to his whining and his long cab ride back to Cos Cob.

The next day, Roger calls Ken into his office and reads him the riot act for distracting himself with his writing, warning him to knock it off.  “When this job is good, it satisfies every need,” Roger tells him.  “Believe me.  I remember.”  It’s another admission of Roger’s new position as has-been, but rather than feeling sorry for himself, like Pete, Roger has taken to his new role as office sage.  It’s also a bit ironic, given Roger’s admittedly failed attempts at being a writer himself.

Roger is called away to a partner’s meeting, where the boys have planned to pat themselves on the back for a job well done with Edwin Baker and Jaguar, but it’s not to be.

Lane gets a call from his wife just as he’s about to leave for the meeting, and he interrupts their premature celebrating to let them know that the deal is off.  Edwin’s wife called Rebecca, complaining of his night of debauchery with the SCDP boys.  It turns out she found chewing gum in her husband’s pubes.  Lane is beside himself with anger, but the Americans can only laugh at the black humor.  This infuriates Lane even more, causing Pete to lash out at him, telling Lane that they stopped needing him the day after he fired them from the old Sterling Cooper.

This is too much for Lane to bear.  Having his honor called into action by Pete Campbell of all people sends him into what passes for a blind rage.  He challenges Pete to a fistfight.

Roger, always the man with the best lines says, “I know cooler heads should prevail, but am I the only one who wants to see this?”  Don answers by pulling the conference room drapes.

The fight is comical, and after they trade a few blows, Lane bloodies Pete’s nose and knocks him down, ending the fight.  It’s yet another humiliation for Pete.

Though he’s won the fight, Lane retreats to his office feeling like a loser.  Joan shows up with a bucket of ice to console him.  With his bloody hand soaking in ice, Lane kisses Joan, who is slow to pull away.  She rises and opens the office door, but returns.  When he apologizes, wallowing in self-pity, she cuts him off saying that everyone in the office has dreamed of doing what he just did to Pete.  Is her encouragement more than a collegial boost to a comrade’s bruised ego?  I doubt it.

Finally, Pete slinks out of the office, tail between his legs, only to find Don holding an elevator for him.  They share some small talk before Pete does what Pete always does. He goes to self-pity.  “I’m not as virtuous as you,” he tells Don.  “So you just cut me loose.”  Don shrugs off the comment.  “What were we doing fighting at work?” Pete asks.  “This is an office.  We’re supposed to be friends.”  It’s an odd thing to say, and there’s an uncomfortable pause.  Finally, “I have nothing, Don.”  He tears up, but Don has no capacity to help this man.  Pete has come to him on numerous occasions, and each time, Don has been completely unable to help him.  Instead, they finish their ride in awkward silence, Pete choking back tears as we hear the narration of a new story by Ken.  There’s a cut to him sitting up in bed, writing compulsively as his wife sleeps…

The Man With The Miniature Orchestra, by Dave Algonquian.  There were phrases of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that still made Coe cry.  He always thought it had to do with the circumstances of the composition itself.  He imagined Beethoven, deaf and soul sick, his heart broken, scribbling furiously while death stood in the doorway, clipping his nails.  Still, Coe thought, it might’ve been living in the country that was making him cry.  It was killing him with its silence and loneliness.  Making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.”

The episode ends on Pete, in the darkened room, watching drivers ed films and watching Handsome feel-up the young girl as Ken’s narration ends.  Finally, we are left with Pete staring at the screen.  The sound of dripping water returns as the image fades to black, leaving a beat of silence before Ode to Joy plays softly.

How disturbing.

Does Pete come completely unhinged?  Does he bring the rifle home from work, only to use it on the girl and maybe Handsome?  Or was this more of an psychological bottoming out, a death to some part of Pete’s spirit?

What bolt will Pete remove?