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Apr 16, 2012 3:46 pm

"Mad Men": The Decline and Fall of Peter Campbell

It's official: the Peter Campbell deathwatch has begun.

After four seasons of watching him go from a spoiled, entitled, philandering brat to an at least somewhat sympathetic husband and employee, it's been rather shocking to see him revert back to his old habits with a vengeance. In the first episode alone, he viciously outmaneuvered Roger at the client game (going out of his way to humiliate the older man in front of colleagues) and strong-armed his way into a new office. In "Signal 30," his behavior is so outrageous that he gets a lesson in marital fidelity from Don freakin' Draper and his ass kicked in an office brawl by the mild-mannered English accountant Lane Pryce.

At least he's finally learning to drive -- the show title, "Signal 30", is taken from a rather graphic highway safety film from the '60s (I took driver's ed. in the new millennium, but my instructor still screened "Signal 30" for us, since, in his words, some things can't be improved upon. "Signal 30" the instructional film certainly has a sort of gory perfection.)

Pete and his wife Trudy host a dinner party for Don, fellow accounts man Ken Cosgrove (who had his own wonderful moments this episode -- but more on that later), and their wives at the new Campbell "country" estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, which establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that Trudy Campbell is a loving wife and mother. The very next day, he joins Don and Roger for a client meeting with a vice president at Jaguar Cars, which turns into a drunken visit to a brothel. Amazingly, Don stays celibate for the evening, despite the ample attention of the employees ("Jesus, Don," Roger tells him, "even in this place you're doing better than us") but Pete ends up bedding a look-alike for his teenage driver's ed. classmate in one of the most transactional sexual encounters on a show no stranger to the cathouse. His sense of entitlement is so overwhelming that he only gets turned on after being throatily assured, "You're my king." He lashes out at Don afterward for his disapproving glances: "You of all people ... I can't believe I have to explain I was doing my job to a man who just pulled his pants up on the world."

It gets worse. The next morning, Lane -- who set up the meeting with Jaguar after failing to close the deal on his own -- furiously informs the other partners that Jaguar got caught with his pants down -- "He was caught with chewing gum on his pubics!", which draws guffaws from all except old-fashioned Burt Cooper (who appears to have become the token political signpost on the show -- before the angry Englishman bursts in, he's rubbing Roger's back and assuring him "Nixon's lying in wait"). After enduring more taunts from Pete, Lane goes ballistic and challenges him to fisticuffs ("You're a grimy little pimp," he says, perhaps the victim of selective memory regarding his own infidelities -- remember, this is a show where almost every character is a terrible person). In a scene that many fans have been waiting five years for, Lane proceeds to kick the crap out of him ("I know cooler heads should prevail," says Roger, "but am I the only who wants to see this?" -- a double irony, since John Slattery directed the episode). He goes home in a sulk, his face badly bruised.

All of this, along with a receding hairline and a bit extra paunch, paints the portrait of a deeply, deeply unhappy man sliding into middle age.

I remain a skeptic that the season will end in Pete's suicide -- that seemed to be the path Don was going down last season when he descended into full-blown alcoholism, but instead he ended up married to his secretary -- though it wouldn't come out of left field. Just as the Richard Speck murders provided the necessary moribundity for last week's episode, Charles Whitman's tower rampage at the University of Texas sets the tone for this one. Unlike the sexually depraved Speck, Whitman seemed to be an ordinary man who just snapped after domestic problems -- first he murdered his wife and mother, then he went to the university armed to the teeth and killed another thirteen people before the police took him down. Who knows? Maybe Pete is being set up for a rampage of some sort.

University of Texas Main Building, where most of Whitman's rampage occurred.

But again, I'm not convinced. Decline has been a dramatic necessity on this show throughout its entire run. "I'm living like there's no tomorrow," Don said back in the very first episode, "because there isn't one." The glimmers of New York we see outside the rarified world of big business have gotten steadily less glamorous, too, as the seasons have gone on -- the greasy spoons have gotten greasier (the best episode of Season 4, "The Suitcase," saw Don and Peggy fleeing a Greek restaurant because a roach found its way into a painting of the Parthenon), the streets have gotten dirtier (watch any street shot this season -- the odds are, the garbage cans will be overflowing). If we're going to use pop culture as a roadmap (and Mad Men is nothing if unaware that it exists in the realm of popular memory), then the romantic, if bittersweet, New York of The Apartment is rapidly fading in the distance -- and the grittier New York of Midnight Cowboy is arriving. "Time feels like it's speeding up," Pete's would-be belle amour from his driver's ed. class sighs.

The continuing sense of decline isn't helped by Lane's seemingly insurmountable Englishness, despite his best attempts to kick it. The whole reason SDCP had a shot at Jaguar in the first place is because Lane was at an English pub with him watching the '66 World Cup final -- (West) Germany vs. England (England won -- it's the British equivalent of "the shot heard 'round the world,") Watching that scene made me think back to all of the other Anglocentric moments on Mad Men, and how those types of English people simply do not exist anymore. Yes, there are still well-heeled, posh members of the aristocracy in Britain (David Cameron springs to mind), but there are no longer Englishmen (and women) who were born to empire and expected to rule the world, even during the decade of diminished imperial expectations that were the 1960s (by '66, a handful of British protectorates are all that remain of the once mighty British Empire, and they'll be independent within a decade). In my mind, there's never really been a good reason to justify the presence of so much Englishness (the narrative reason why Lane Pryce is there at all is because Sterling Cooper was purchased by a British firm in 1962) except to draw declinist parallels between imperial Britain, the world of privileged white New Yorkers in the '60s, and, yes, America today -- three worlds that have all been challenged by the deep currents of history.

Interestingly, Geoff Hurst's winning goal in the '66 World Cup probably didn't actually make it into the net:

I'll end with this -- could Ken Cosgrove, now revealed as a prodigious sci-fi writer, published in the Hugo Award-winning Galaxy, end up writing an episode of Star Trek? The sci-fi cult classic premiered in September 1966, and some of its best episodes were written by the leading sci-fi writers of the decade.

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