Premature Nostalgia for the Old Pete Campbell

[spoilers for Mad Men seasons 1-3 abound]

Last Sunday’s Mad Men found most of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce staff away for the holidays. The episode ignored an unusually large segment of the ensemble to focus strictly on Don Draper, Joan Holloway, and Lane Pryce, those of dead or dying marriages. Pete Campbell (of a kinda fucked-up but apparently stable marriage) was nearly absent, appearing only for a few seconds before the end credits. Roger Sterling was in the episode for the same amount of time, Peggy Olson for not much longer, and Betty (Draper? Francis?) not at all, but Pete’s unique in that one struggles to imagine what storyline he could have advanced by sticking around longer.

For the entirety of Mad Men season one, Pete Campbell possessed everything a great villain needs: motive (high ambitions + professional jealousy), conviction (in the form of an old-wealth sense of entitlement), and means (enough information about Don’s past to blackmail him). Or at least the appearance of means. Don ultimately refused to meet Pete’s demands, leading to an inspired bit of structural bait-and-switch: Both men run to Bert Cooper’s office, Pete exposes Don as a deserter and a fraud, and Cooper hastily replies that he doesn’t care. Expecting the total rupture of Don Draper’s world, we get something like a punchline instead.

This is not the last time Pete gets cut off at the knees—the verbal takedown Peggy hits him with at the end of season two is more severe than anything Cooper says during the first season’s finale. But Cooper’s “I don’t care” does mark the end of Pete as a character who can convincingly affect things. He continues to do damage, of course—Pete’s forcing of himself on a German au pair during season three is without a doubt his most monstrous act to date—but the damage he does is largely confined to the residents of his apartment complex. Pete’s function in the series’ new status quo, meanwhile, isn’t apparent. (Non-Mad Men viewers who’ve made it this far: imagine a Goneril or Regan reduced to the status of a Rosencrantz or Guildenstern.)

Following season one, the show rolled out new plotlines for Pete Campbell with wavering degrees of commitment. Over the course of one episode, Pete attempted to understand the inner lives of black Americans before learning his client disdained the notion of taking more of the African American market. That Pete’s experiment in empathy lasted only days was the point, but Pete efforts to identify with any sort of underclass seems rich with storytelling potential, as he’s less qualified for the endeavor than any other character (save maybe for Blackface Roger Sterling). Pete’s marriage is presumably still a house of cards, but Alison Brie’s modest ascent (she plays Annie on Community in addition to playing Trudy Campbell) might preclude any real development there. (She’s made, what, one cameo so far this season?)

In any case, there will be cause for optimism as long as the show’s still on air, but particularly so this coming week. Next Sunday’s episode is apparently Pete-centric, quote AMC

In an all-new episode of Mad Men, airing this Sunday, August 15 at 10PM ET/9C, Emmy-nominated John Slattery, who portrays series character Roger Sterling, will make his directorial debut with “The Rejected,” where an edict from Roger and Lane puts Pete in a personal dilemma.

–And while the description doesn’t promise anything like another epic Pete-Don confrontation, it does sound like Pete’s getting a reason to seethe, and a resentful Pete is a Pete of consequence.

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