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I like TV. Probably more than any human should.

TV Diary | Mad Men – “Signal 30”

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TV Diary | Mad Men – Episode 5.05 – “Signal 30” – Original Airdate: 4/15/12

Episode Grade: A-

While it’s likely that coming off of one of the stranger episodes in Mad Men’s five seasons on the air almost any episode would have been like a breath of fresh air, “Signal 30” stands on its own merit as a superb episode of the show largely by virtue of the fact that I’m a sucker for character pieces. While season four’s “The Suitcase” took a deeper look at the relationship between Don and Peggy and is widely regarded as one of the series’ best-ever episodes, “Signal 30” examined one of audiences’ least-favorite characters in Pete Campbell and one of its more unknown ones in Lane Pryce. To this point of the season, Pete has been painted as one of the only higher-ups at SCDP who gives a damn. He’s the one busting his ass for his clients. He’s the one bringing in the business that’s keeping the entire shop afloat. He’s also a new father with a gorgeous wife and a house in the suburbs. He seems to have gotten everything that the snot-nosed, ambitious younger version of himself who we were introduced to in the show’s pilot ever wanted. So why, then, is Pete so obviously MISERABLE? Pete starts out “Signal 30” trying to fake domestic bliss, expressing joy at Don finally agreeing to socialize with him outside of work after Trudy invites the Drapers [1] to a dinner party at the Campbells’. However, during the party Pete is clearly portrayed as the child in this social dynamic while Don plays the cool older brother that everyone wants to be. To make matters worse, a leaky faucet [2] that Pete jerry-rigged blows in the middle of the dinner party, necessitating Don’s taking his shirt off in front of the ladies and demonstrating that his awesomeness extends to plumbing as well while Pete fumbles around in the hallway looking clueless with a toolbox. Watching this go down is to see Pete completely emasculated in his own home, in front of his wife and friends, in front of our eyes. His response? He’s hitting on high school girls at a traffic school class. He’s talking on the train to another patron on ways to avoid going home. He’s banging hookers at a whorehouse while gallivanting with a client. He’s essentially trying to be Don [3] before Don found religion (and Megan). Now, if I’m Pete, I’m recognizing that I’m married to ALISON FUCKING BRIE and thanking the gods that I somehow got that lucky instead of screwing whores. But hey… that’s just me. Simultaneous to Pete detonating his own life, Lane is struggling with his increasing irrelevance at SCDP despite his name being on the shingle. He sees how essential Joan is to completing his duties at the firm and is growing frustrated with having the play the role of bad guy every time that another executive comes to him with a request for more manpower. To this end, he tries his hand at being an accounts man by attempting to steer the business of a Jaguar executive – who’s a friend of his wife’s – to SCDP. Predictably everyone wants in on the lead – other than Pete who takes the opportunity to try to regain a little power by belittling Lane’s ability and the importance of Jaguar’s business – but Lane is bound and determined to hold onto it himself. After a bit of pre-client meeting coaching from Roger [4], Lane predictably fails miserably at trying to land the client, leading to Pete snatching it away and going out for a night on the town with the client, Roger, and Don where they find that the client’s intent was always to deliver his business to SCDP. However, he found Lane to be the proverbial stick in the mud and was only interested in making sure that he “likes the people he works with.” To that end, the SCDP troika take him to a whorehouse where, the next day Lane enters the conference room to inform his compatriots that the business is gone because the client’s wife discovered his indiscretions [5]. And like a perfect storm of testosterone and frustration, Pete begins laying into Lane [6] which sets off an actual fistfight (!) where Lane does what almost every employee of SCDP [7] has wanted to do over the show’s run and that’s pop Pete in the face and make him bloody. So he does that. And it’s as awesome as you’d imagine it to be. Lane, later punch-drunk, makes a romantic play for Joan only to be shut down but in the space of one cage-fight conference room brawl, Lane has reasserted his usefulness and pride while Pete has necessarily been taken down a peg or two. As I’d mentioned, I love character pieces and “Signal 30” definitely falls into that category. By virtue of the strength of the attention and material given to two often overlooked characters, “Signal 30” was season five’s best episode to date. By a lot.

[1] Along with Ken and… and… Cynthia!
[2] That’s used to great effect as a framing device signifying Pete’s sense of feeling closed in in his own life.
[3] And failing miserably, it must be noted.
[4] In a very nicely played scene between Jared Harris and John Slattery.
[5] In a line that’s an all-time great, Lane responds when asked why the deal is dead: “Because he was caught with chewing gum on his pubis!”
[6] Pete: “Our need for you disappeared the day you fired us.”
[7] And, I’d wager, almost every member of Mad Men’s viewing audience.

Miscellany:
*After having an enjoyable time at the dinner party (after being dragged essentially kicking and screaming by Megan), Don drunkenly tells Megan to pull over the car so that they can “make a baby.” I continue to feel like Happy Don is very unsettling. And sitting idly by at the whorehouse and not partaking of its… party favors? And then being wizened older guy on the car ride home with Pete? Not that I wish the guy ill or anything but jeez… this is getting weird.
*Also, that blazer that Don was wearing at the Campbells’. The fuck?
*I did like the way that Megan pitched going to the party in the first place. First, she made Don be the one to call Trudy to attempt to cancel, knowing that both Trudy’s tenacity and Don’s genuine affection for Trudy would put the kibosh on his squirming away, and then telling him that she wanted him to go because of his need for more friends. She points out that she had to fill out the guest list at his birthday party by inviting his accountant. His accountant!
*One of the smaller plot points in “Signal 30” was the re-emergence of Ken’s side hobby of writing science fiction novels under a penname. Roger puts the kibosh on it after Ken’s (seemingly) ratted out by Pete, putting one more person in the office in the position of wanting to see Pete get his ass kicked. By the end, however, Ken has found a new pseudonym and is defying Roger’s edict.
*Pete flirting with the high school girl at the traffic school class was appropriately skeevy. And yes, astute viewers, that was Parker Young (Suburgatory’s Ryan Shay) as the young girl’s more age appropriate suitor.
*Note to Matthew Weiner: More Alison Brie is always good. Always.
*Loved the bit where the hooker that Pete adjourns with goes through all kinds of roles to find what Pete wants her to play. He just tosses out two casual, “Nopes,” before finally settling on being treated like the king he thinks he is.
*Weiner is allowing the coming harshness of the 60s to creep in. First the Richard Speck massacre and now a disgruntled Marine who’s picking off innocent bystanders. Not that Mad Men hasn’t always been interesting – because it has – but when the full-on chaos of the late 60s hits, it’s going to add an intriguing new dynamic to the show.
*Roger Sterling Line Of The Week, in reference to the imminent Lane/Pete fistfight: “I know cooler heads should prevail, but am I the only one who wants to see this?”
*”I like her too but Saturday night in the suburbs? That’s when you really want to blow your brains out.”
*”You know I write stories.” “You’re still doing that?”
*”I was. Now I guess I’m professor emeritus of accounts.”
*”If only your husband knew how to close a deal like that.”
*”I turned it on and it just blew in my face.”
*”Let’s make a baby.”
*”Pull over. This brassiere is like Fort Knox.”
*”Come on. Lane couldn’t close a car door.”
*”I can’t believe I have to explain myself to a man who just pulled his pants up for the world.”
*”Well, my wife likes fur but you don’t see me growing a tail.”
*”Because he was caught with chewing gum on his pubis!”
*”Our need for you disappeared the day you fired us.”
*”I don’t know about you two, but I had Lane.”
*”I just seem to find no end to my humiliation today.”
*”I have nothing, Don.”

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