Mad Women: Horrors of Domesticity and the Return of Pete Campbell

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Sunday's Mad Men brought us a return of the Pete Campbell we all know and used to despise, before he grew up and got married and had a baby (a second baby, one with his wife) and moved to Cos Cob, Connecticut. He's still there: The letch. The man with loose morals. The bad husband, The guy who can't fix a leaky faucet. He's been in front of us the whole time, hiding in plain sight, trying to steal Roger Sterling's office. But on Sunday, he revealed himself again. And it was somewhat beauteous, in a horrors-of-domesticity sort of way. 

The episode starts in Driver's Ed. What do you know, Pete Campbell is learning to drive! But he's also re-learning to flirt, despite a wife and baby at home, and his eye is on a young girl in his class, her bare foot, only partially clad in a flip-flop, a symbol of everything he's lost to the domestic life. And then we flip to that life, a life in which Trudy seems perfectly at ease but Pete can't sleep, what with the dripping of a leaky faucet, a banal yet cursed reality in his banal yet cursed broader reality. He fixes it—or so he thinks. But it comes back to haunt him. A theme throughout the episode is women wanting men to do things, and men failing (unless they are Don Draper): At one point, Lane tells his unhappy wife, "How lovely your face becomes when you tell me you need something." (Lane, of course, has failed in another way already, by bringing his wife to America, perhaps by marrying her at all, and definitely by kissing Joan in the end, though she manages to ease that situation, as she does most.) But throughout the episode, most primarily, it's Pete who's failing.

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Trudy is planning a party. She wants Don and Megan to attend, along with the Cosgroves, and while Don has no desire to go to some party out in the wilderness from whence he came, Megan says, upon his request for her to call and cancel, "If you want to tell her, you call her." And so he does, but Trudy is convincing, so convincing that Don comments on how he wishes Pete could close a deal so well. One has to note that Megan's role as wrangler of Don continues in this episode: She tells him what to wear; she tells him they're going to the party; it is she, on the way home, who drives and also consents to stop when he asks her to, telling her he wants to make a baby—what, Don!? Throughout, Megan is in the driver's seat, an obvious metaphor in keeping with the learning to drive theme. Yet if Pete is living in a domestic horror, Megan and Don's domestic life is far closer to bliss. For now.

Back in Driver's Ed, Pete appears to be making headway with his young lady friend. She—clad in pink, rosy-cheeked, innocent—confesses that her parents are afraid to send her away to school, what with the sniper at the University of Texas and the recent nurse murders (from last episode) in Chicago. Pete, burgeoning womanizer, taking on the role that Don appears to have left behind in marrying Megan, of course, is a far greater danger to this girl than is any sniper in Texas. We can see it in his eyes, his smirk, his faux-understanding gaze; we've seen him like this before. "Time feels like it's speeding up," says the girl. "It does, doesn't it?" agrees Pete. But for him the problem is that it's slowed to the trickle of that leaky faucet, day after day the same, a wife and baby waiting at home, fights with Roger Sterling (and others) in the office. The mundane existence of adult life is killing him.

At Trudy's party, a fine domestic affair, the leaky faucet bursts, and while the girls giggle and hover in a corner of the kitchen, Don whips off his shirt while Pete runs to get his toolbox. And of course Don fixes the faucet before Pete can even return; of course Don is the winner, because that's the way their relationship works. And later in the episode, at the brothel where they take Lane's friend and potential Jaguar client, Pete is told by a hooker "You're my king"—too little, too late, because he knows he's nobody's king. Don sits this one out at the bar, and there's an amusing scene with the brothel's madam: She asks him if she should get a TV for the place; he says "No" with expected Don Draper stoicism.

Later, as Pete and Don share a car home, Pete is sullen, the baby-faced man in need of Don's approval, yet again, who isn't getting what he wants. He wanted Don to take part at the brothel, or, at the very least, not to appear to be judging him. But among the things Don most constantly does is judge Pete—you'd think Pete would know this by now. Pete uses Roger as an example to make his case, saying Roger does this sort of thing (meaning dalliances with women not his wife) all the time. Don retorts, "Roger is miserable. I didn't think you were." And then we see a bit of the heart of Don. Pete says, of all people, he'd think Don would understand. And Don says, of Megan, in the context of his former suburban life with Betty, in the context of Pete's apparently bucolic life with Trudy, "If I'd met her first, I would have known not to throw it away." 

Of course, Pete's motivation for marrying Trudy were never as pure-hearted as it appears Don's are with Megan, and the divide between who Pete wants to be and who he is seems only to be growing. When it turns out that the little side-trip with the client to the brothel has ended badly, ruining the chances for any potential deal—piquantly, the client was caught, by his wife, "with chewing gum on his pubis"—Lane is impelled to defend the (dubious) honor of his friend and country, or maybe just his own honor, by punching Pete in the face. And so a bloody fistfight at the agency ensues, Lane shouting at Pete, "You're a grimy little pimp!" (And how.)

In the end, Pete's the quadruple loser, the words of the prostitute all too ironic, his Driver's Ed crush moving on to a boy more her age, a guy called "Handsome," while Pete, bruised and battered, sits back in the corner and watches them neck and tries to learn to drive. He's not doing so well. Closing out the episode, instead of music, we get Ken Cosgrove's narration of his book, with the poignant lines: "It might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear." And then, again, the dripping of the leaky faucet. Metaphors, we have plenty.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.