“There’s a Pete Campbell at every agency out there”—Bert Cooper
With “New Amsterdam,” Mad Men enters the realm of bona fide tragedy via the most unlikely of avenues—a story about Pete Cooper, who heretofore came across as a superficial asshole with more ambition than brains. Well, he’s still a superficial asshole with more ambition than brains, but now we know why.
When Pete tries to ditch his wife, Trudy (Alison Brie), when she arrives at Sterling Cooper for a lunch date, the scene stands in marked contrast to his apparently sincere confession of an almost mystic transformation that swept over him while exchanging marriage vows. He’s got good reasons for his moderately less enthusiastic view of married life: The woman who last week asked what meal he wanted waiting for him at home is a spoiled daddy’s girl who sees no value in the importance Pete places on work, and who promptly sends him on a demeaning mission to beg his father for money to purchase the Park Avenue apartment she covets.
The scene with Pete’s parents reveals where Pete’s work ethic comes from. He was born rich, to be sure, but not as rich as he might have been had his grandfather played his hand differently. His parents still run with a wealthy society crowd, but they’re obviously bitter about being merely very rich instead of having the gobsmacking Sultan of Brunei-level fortune that Pete’s dad clearly expected to enjoy upon marrying into the Dyckman dynasty. And Pete, who has a job his father either doesn’t understand or, more likely, is wildly envious of , is the person upon whom his father vents all of his frustrations. The full impact of Pete’s dad’s devastating closing line—“We gave you everything. We gave you your name. What have you done with it?”—takes awhile to become apparent: As surnames go, “Campbell” doesn’t seem to carry any more baggage than a moniker like Murphy, Jones or Davis. The weight of the name that was actually being referred to is something I’ll address below in a sec.
In Mad Men’s first three episodes, Pete’s aggressive tactics seemed to stem simply from wanting Don’s job. As the scenes with his parents and in-laws reveal, though, Sterling Cooper is the only place in Pete’s life where he can really be a man—or so he thinks. He’s desperate to be respected for his intrinsic qualities; he certainly fancies himself a smart and creative guy. But he is doomed to always and forever be seen as a Dykman, and to be prized only for the connections his name brings. When Pete and his “cousins” take the Bethlehem Steel client out for a night on the town, we realize that Pete literally is a pimp and procurer—and, awful as it seems, that his father was actually right about what Pete does (notwithstanding his overly harsh “no job for a white man” crack). Pete realizes why Sterling Cooper has hired him. “You people tell me that I’m good with people,” he says, “which is strange because I’ve never heard that before. But he obviously has no sense of his true importance to the agency, otherwise he wouldn’t act as if getting fired is basically the end of the world (these scenes are a tremendous testament to Vincent Kartheiser’s acting chops—by reading his face, you can visualize the scenarios running through Pete’s mind about what will happen when he gets home.)
The last act of “New Amsterdam” contains what are probably my favorite Mad Men scenes to date—Don and Roger’s meeting with Bert Cooper, whose casual display of power is as deeply chilling as it is entertaining to watch, and Don’s subsequent conversation with Roger over cocktails. The former includes one of the episodes’ two most brilliant lines, “Some people have no confidence in this country”—though it means little without context or the benefit of Robert Morse’s delivery. The other immortal line, Don’s quip about Sterling Cooper having more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich, speaks for itself. It’s not like Don’s given nothing to do in this episode, but these scenes—in which Don displays surprising candor by first voicing his discomfort with the notion that Pete is more important to Sterling Cooper than he is, and then by proving he has Roger Sterling’s number with his withering “maybe I’m not as comfortable being powerless as you are” quip—are definitely his most proactive. Like the scene when Betty returns home to find him sleeping, with a rough sketch of the revised Bethlehem Steel campaign on the nightstand, they serve as welcome and believable reminders that Don is incredibly smart and incredibly good at his job. Pete doesn’t envy Don’s power or paycheck; it’s the respect that Don commands because of his intelligence and skills which Pete covets, and which he’ll never have. The look on Pete’s face in the final scene proves that he has just enough self-awareness to realize that he’ll forever be a prisoner of his relatively feeble intellect and (as the woman on the co-op board proves yet again) his formerly gilded name.
A few random notes:
I really, really hope that the use of The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart is not an anachronism. I haven’t been able to find an exact release date for it—some online sources say 1/1/60, but I suspect that’s a generic placeholder 1960 date. The album reached #1 on Billboard’s pop chart on 5/16/60, but it didn’t debut at number one—otherwise, the reference books would probably say so. In a forthcoming episode, a reference is made to Adolf Eichmann having been captured by Mossad agents “last week”. Eichmann was apprehended on 5/11/60, so unless the Newhart album really did debut at #1, it would presumably have been out for awhile in late April/early May, which is when “New Amsterdam” apparently takes place (this lines up nicely with Pete’s parents having just put their boat in the water after a winter in drydock, as well as the tarps on the furniture—presumably they’re returning to a residence they left vacant over the winter, or are packing up a residence they intend to leave vacant for the summer).
The scene in which Pete and his wife tour the apartment and she says it’s listed at $32,000 but could be had for $30,000 may seem like a groaner, but it’s actually incredibly accurate. In the late 1950s, several dozen enormous white-brick apartment buildings (just like the one in the exterior shot) went up in Manhattan, just as the migration of Manhattanites to the suburbs was kicking into high gear. As a result, for awhile real estate was, as unbelievable as it seems now, a buyer’s market in Manhattan; as a New Yorker article on the subject revealed several years ago, the developers of the white-brick behemoths were forced to compete for occupants with incentives such as free cars or two years’ free rent on a five-year lease. Pete’s comment about making just $75 a week might also seem like a rib-nudger, but anyone who’s read The Operator, Tom King’s biography of David Geffen, knows that 1960s salaries were typically expressed in dollars per week (I’m not sure when the paradigm shift to per anum took place), and that junior executives in media-related fields really did make that little back then.
It’s impossible for me to say enough good things about John Slattery’s performance as Roger Sterling. Slattery, in my opinion, is far and away the most gifted actor on the series, and Sterling the most interesting character (yes, even moreso than Don). While it’s clear that Don has never seen Roger deploy the particular management gimmick he uses to scare Pete into line, it’s equally evident that this is by no means the first time he’s used it. The tactic also provides us with our first glimpse of how Roger’s military experience influenced him; the only way he could have learned how to dress Pete down that way would have been by close observation of a drill instructor. There’s also a hint of his military in the tremendous scene with Don where he waxes philosophical about his love affair with alcohol. “My generation, We drink because it’s good, because we deserve it. We drink because it’s what men do,” he says. “You’re all so busy licking an imaginary wound.” Don, showing his hand ever so slightly, replies that “some of them aren’t so imaginary.” The stuff that Roger went through in order to feel deserving of the bottle—as well as Don’s wounds—are topics that will naturally be addressed in the weeks to come.
Finally, I can’t remember the last time I saw a woman peeing on television. The scene where she’s interrupted by Glen Bishop (apparently played by Matthew Weiner’s son!) is pretty jarring, not only because Betty is shown doing something that usually only men are shown doing on TV, but also because of her perfect housewife exterior that she labors so hard to keep up. The sight of June Cleaver or Laura Petrie taking a leak would be only slightly more shocking.
And is Glen gonna grow up to be one seriously fucked-up teenager or what?
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.