My man, Pete Campbell

Vincent Karthesier as Pete Campbell in 'Mad Men.'

During Black Friday weekend, I bought season four of Mad Men at Target for $8. Who am I to pass up $29 in savings? Yes, that rhetorical question was necessary.

When I went on break, pity and boredom accumulated, so I naturally marathoned the entire season in two days, though, considering it’s only 13 episodes, there isn’t much to brag about.

So I don’t want to review the entire television season, other than to boldly proclaim that it is probably the best season of Mad Men in the history of Mad Men.

Well, I have a few show-related comments, before I dive into the character on my subject line.

What makes season four work so well is that everything is being torn down and being built from the ground floor. The agency, the characters. Things are actually at stake. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce needs to find clients and keep them. It’s not a cake walk anymore. The characters’ vulnerabilities are showing–even the normally cool, collected Don Draper has his breakdown.

Season four explores its characters and dare I say, gets a little sentimental. These characters are human beings, after all. Sure, they are still complex and they can still be assholes, but life is catching up to them–so perhaps, it’s time to entertain the conscience.

Which brings me to Pete Campbell, the man with the strong conscience. Well, he’s also a douchebag extraordinaire and amateur slimeball, but he has always been the one who seems to have the most, well, feelings. And instead of repressing them, he’s willing to acknowledge them.

Pete is a polarizing character. But love him or hate him, he’s just as complex as the other characters.

Just so we’re clear on where I stand: I love Pete.

Pete has grown from being a kid with sycophantic tendencies, trying to scrape by with his family connections, to someone who is actually kind of a valuable asset to an advertising agency. And, knowing that he chose advertising over his father’s objections, makes him a bit of a rebel who is willing to take some risks and ignore the haters, basically.

After Pete cheats on his wife, Trudy, he comes home and sweats with guilt. He looks in the mirror. He can’t believe what he has just done. That’s the moment I fell in love with the character. Here’s a guy who fell into temptation, but instead of treating sex as sport, he actually feels the deep emotional consequences of his actions, making him quite different from the likes of Don Draper or Roger Sterling.  Doesn’t mean he isn’t destined to make the same mistake again, but what matters in this show packed with morally ambiguous characters is that he realizes. And after the next tryst, the lesson sticks. He knows where his loyalties stand.

So in season four, Pete is a partner in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. He continues to look ahead, in a way that Roger Sterling seems almost incapable of doing. He pretty much protects Don Draper from the government. He drops Clearasil and gets Vicks Chemical in return. He becomes a loyal husband (really hopes this continues into season five) and proud new father.

In the season four finale, Don, Roger, and Pete get Ken Cosgrove in a room to discuss Ken wooing his future father-in-law for an account. In response, Ken says, “I’m not Pete. Sorry about that.” Pete says, “You’re obviously not.” Burned, Cosgrove.

While one can argue that Ken has enough integrity to separate family from business, Pete, on the other hand, doesn’t half-ass dedication. Ken comes off as apathetic and doesn’t care about saving the supposedly dying agency, while Pete is willing to do anything to save it (even sacrificing his own finances, post-baby), not just because he’s a partner, but because he cares about the people he claims to be loyal to.

Season four makes Pete Campbell the son of a bitch to root for. Almost can’t imagine television without him. And seriously, where’s the acclaim for Vincent Kartheiser? Please recognize the brilliance, everyone.

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3 Comments

  1. SPOT ON. I adore Pete Campbell. One minor nit, I think Pete was kinda happy about his tryst w/ the actress. You are right, of course, he totally freaked out over the au pair business.

    But I agree. Pete is committed. Like Peggy and Don. There’s a reason why the three top billing spots are Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Moss and Vincent Kartheiser. I really believe Mad Men is their story. It can get lost sometime with the other characters but we always come back to these three. And I think Pete has had the best character arc of anyone on the show.

    I also agree, Vincent Kartheiser needs to get some awards recognition. If the actress who played Ida Blankenship gets an Emmy nomination but VK does not, that makes no sense to me. It’s been 4 years so I’m worried it’ll never happen. Perhaps S5 will give him some material that can’t continue to be ignored.

    Reply

    1. I’m glad we’re in agreement about Pete Campbell.

      I’d say Pete was happy in the moment when he was with the actress, but after it was over, he looked horrified because of what he had done.

      Pete is someone who holds on to traditional values, as far as family and business go, but is tolerant of the ever-changing social atmosphere of the ’60s. (In contrast to Peggy, who is all about the new.) Those are qualities that makes him a valuable asset to the agency and I would like to see the show continue to explore that.

      In terms of season four, Vincent Kartheiser probably had the best chance for a nomination with the Honda episode or the episode he found out that he was going to be a father, but he didn’t, so that was a shame. Hopefully, season five will give him better material.

      Reply

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