Last night’s episode of Mad Men was a roller coaster ride that in many ways defies description. There was a lot going on. What is clear, though, is that the main focus of the episode was one Pete Campbell. Pete’s been around since the series premiere, and has always been rather pathetic. Last night was no exception.
As Pete stood in his living room preening over his new stereo trying to convince himself how amazing it was, as he failed to fix a faucet that Don handled with aplomb, and as he cheated on his wife and betrayed the trust of his young family we the audience see how dismally empty his life has become. He sums it up best at the end of the episode when he simply says, “I have nothing, Don.”
Pete’s always been a sloppier and less self-aware version of Don. It is as if he sees Don as his model in life, yet cannot quite measure up to him. He has a classic inferiority complex complicated by the fact that he is actually inferior.
I’ve said before that the compelling tragedy of Don Draper is that he understands he is on a sinking ship, but doesn’t seem to be able to do anything to stop it. Pete, by contrast, is heading straight for an iceberg on purpose; he wants the life he thinks Don has. But he doesn’t really…not when he experiences it. The struggles and pain Don has often born with stoic calm Pete just cannot handle.
Worse of all for Pete is that Don seems finally to have righted his life (for the time being), even to the point where he looks at him with pity and disgust, telling him not to lose the good life he has on the infidelity he seems intent on flaunting.
There may be a larger metanarrative at work here: Pete’s life as a corrective, perhaps, to the television glamorization of the swinging lifestyle Don seems so regularly to have lived. To those who assume that someone else’s life is better just because it seems like they are having more fun, take a look at Pete’s attempt to live Don’s life. How’s that working out for you, Pete?