The early going of Mad Men’s fourth season has given us a whole lot of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his nonstop cycle of disintegration and reinvention. Which is largely expected, of course, but it’s nonetheless refreshing that this week’s episode, “The Rejected” (written by Keith Huff and Matthew Weiner, and directed by John Slattery) finally gives us a chance to catch up with Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss).
While the primary focus of the series has always been about plunging into the depths of Don Draper’s character, Pete and Peggy have given us a glimpse into characters who began the series young and undefined, largely unaware of who they were themselves. The two have changed more than anyone, and after “The Rejected” it has become increasingly difficult to remember Peggy as the non-descript, largely repressed Catholic girl working Don’s desk, or Pete as the entry-level accounts man hired for his family name, and who could barely open his mouth in a meeting with the big boys without making a fool of himself.
They have both progressed, as Peggy has developed into Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s resident creative genius and Pete’s uncanny ability to sniff out opportunity has outstripped his rival account men. And yet somehow they’ve managed to move forward in entirely opposite directions, highlighted this week by the tour de force scene, near the episode’s conclusion, that separates the two characters by the glass walls of SCDP, Peggy with her new hipster, counter-cultural friends and Pete schmoozing with the money men who run the company.
Peggy’s personal development and her rise through the ranks of the advertising world have always been the heart of Mad Men. That she went from being one of Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) “girls” to not only breaking into the copywriting team, but also to modernizing it with her vision and her talent makes her by far the easiest character to cheer for. From “basket of kisses” to her casual observations eclipsing Kinsey’s (Michael Gladis) search for divine inspiration, we’ve applauded her every success.
Of course Peggy’s success hasn’t come without a personal toll, as her career and her move to Manhattan have required her to estrange herself from her traditional Catholic family, and she’s largely had to sacrifice a stable domestic life. Her refusal to acknowledge the baby produced by her one-night stand with Pete will likely follow her for the rest of her life. But her rejection of familial obligations has allowed her to be someone who can provide a bridge between the avant-garde and corporate advertising, and, as she does in “The Rejected,” waltz between the offices of SCDP and hipster parties where she smokes pot and runs from the police.
It’s not that Peggy’s swept up by every new fad and social group that comes along. The counter-culture will never define her any more than Don Draper does (those expecting Peggy to become a feminist activist are likely in for a long wait.) She’s clearly not entirely at home with pretentious artists blathering about Andy Warhol. Peggy strikes an incredibly fine balance between holding her own and remaining open to new experiences in an incredibly natural way (as opposed to maddeningly self-conscious Kinsey). When her new friend Joyce (Zoisa Mamet), who works in her building, comes on to her, Peggy awkwardly manages to make herself only more charming in turning her down, responding to “[your boyfriend] doesn’t own your vagina” with “no, but he’s renting it.”
It’s this openness to newness that makes Peggy indispensible to the firm, even as it draws her outside of it. For as much as Don talks about innovative advertising being that which anticipates and creates new ideas rather than simply following the market, it’s clearly Peggy that SCDP will rely on to create those ideas.
For Pete Campbell there’s no success quite like failure. He doesn’t always have the best of luck, and he says and does a lot of terrible things himself. Yet no one else on Mad Men seems as capable of rolling with the punches and, as he says, “turn[ing] chicken shit into chicken salad.”
There wasn’t much to like about Pete back when we first met him. He was a weasel who had fallen into an adult life that he was too insecure, childish and petulant to properly handle, and he was marrying a girl he didn’t really know or care about. Now he’s a competent weasel and more-or-less the only person on Mad Men we’ve ever seen treat his significant other like a partner. He’s still an incredibility flawed person, and sort of an obnoxious dick, but he’s nonetheless grown.
Take the time Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) passed Pete over and gave the head of accounts promotion to Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), instead. Pete began gathering his accounts for a potential move to a new agency, and when Don and Roger (John Slattery) came to him wanting to start a new agency, Pete was ready to leverage his accounts into not only the head of accounts position, but a partnership in the new firm as well, alongside Lane Pryce.
His personal low moments came when he forced himself on a neighboring nanny, and when he discovered that he had fathered a child with Peggy. Yet somehow both of these calamities pushed him toward a more stable relationship with his wife Trudy (Alison Brie). Even the JFK assassination seemed to create a sort of solidarity between Pete and Trudy as they realized their stake in the world.
This week Pete gets hit with the double-whammy of finding out that he has to drop his father-in-law as a client after Clearasil is conflicted out by the Pond’s account brought in by Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray), and his father-in-law’s own revelation that Trudy is pregnant, completely unbeknownst to Pete.
Season one Pete probably wouldn’t have handled these events very well, I’d imagine, but season four Pete finds confidence and strength in the idea of becoming a father, and he responds to Trudy like a surprisingly decent husband. He then uses his family as leverage against his father-in-law and manages to replace his Clearasil account with the entirety of parent-company Vicks Chemicals, constituting exactly the sort of maneuver Pete’s rival Cosgrove admitted to being unable to deliver. When called out on his underhanded gambit, Pete just shrugs, finally comfortable enough with himself to let his actions speak for themselves.
I enjoyed the moment when Trudy makes casual reference to it being her who talked her father into joining SCDP. Rather than reacting out of hurt pride, like we’d expect from someone known to be obsessed with acknowledgment, Pete happily acknowledges Trudy’s contribution and continues on with the conversation. It reminded me of the time Pete lashed out at Trudy for not prostituting herself in order to get his talking bear story published. Pete clearly has no issue with using his family as leverage, only now a few years of maturity allow for him to find more productive outlets for that tendency, which capable Trudy has no issue going along with.
I’ve often said that Pete and Trudy are the Don and Betty Draper story in reverse. Rather than the identities of the spouses falling apart and leading toward a disastrous marriage, Pete and Trudy entered into a pretty terrible, or at least uninspired, marriage before figuring who they were individually. As they’ve come into their own, they have (perhaps shockingly) discovered that the marriage sort of works for them.
And so “The Rejected” leaves off with both Peggy and Pete in good, yet entirely different places. Peggy creates newness and unabashedly seeks it out, while Pete finds opportunity in the face of change and crisis. The coming-of-age bohemians and the aging businessmen, separated by an invisible wall, provide the backdrop for Pete and Peggy’s final scene. Yet despite their separation, the barrier is permeated by their fundamental connection, and the secret they share. They lock eyes and share an incredibly poignant moment that reflects back on when their disparate paths converged. They see in each other a reflection of some aspect of themselves they’ve had to repress. They’re not unhappy, but they’ve chosen who to be, and this has necessitated that they leave something behind.
Part of me feels that the less said about Don this episode, the better. He starts it off almost sweetly, proudly displaying the picture of him with Anna (Melinda Page Hamilton), and referring to her as his “dear friend.” He unabashedly and uncritically reaches out to Peggy for her ideas for an innovative new campaign. This is a Don Draper who no longer has any particular requirement to lead a double life or put on airs.
This makes it all the more damning that he’s still a rather massive asshole. The scene in which he tells a distraught Allison (Alexa Alemanni) to type up her own reference letter to sign is physically painful to watch. It is unlikely Don meant it as a malicious gesture, but that he lacks the wherewithal to recognize that Allison needed some form of genuine recognition is egregious. It’s a good thing that Allison hurls a large object at him, otherwise I fear I would have.
In the episode’s final, brilliantly enigmatic scene, Don witnesses an old woman in his hallway refusing to discuss with her husband whether she bought pears until they are in private. It expresses a basic need for some sort of interiority to return to that Don now altogether lacks. The interior/exterior dichotomy of Dick Whitman/Don Draper has exploded, and instead of producing some self-actualized, complete person, it has left him a lost, lonely, alcoholic mess, and more than that a decidedly bad person.
Without the crutch of hidden identities and the continual promise of new layers to his personality, Don is left with only his actions to speak for himself, something he’s now far less comfortable with than Pete is. Don is unable to finish his apology letter to Allison, because he can’t bring himself to complete the sentence, “Right now my life is very…” It’s left ambiguous as to how he would finish the sentence, but I doubt he’s even able to. Right now, his life is expressing exactly who he is.
• John Slattery’s superb direction of this episode has been mentioned by pretty much everyone reviewing Mad Men, and I’m all too happy to join in. The episode’s breeziness betrays its meticulous framing. The opening multi-way phone conversation could have easily turned into a mess, but Slattery expertly employs a restrained composition to convey something incredibly fun.
• A lot has also been said about the laugh-out-loud hilarious shot of Peggy poking her head over Don’s partition, spying in on him after his confrontation with Allison, so I’ll just add that I love the contrast between her reaction and Joan’s, who rushes right in to take care of the aftermath. In a way it reminds me of the seminal tractor scene in “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” in which Peggy faints and Joan rushes right in to stop the bleeding. Peggy may be the creative genius, but she certainly doesn’t have Joan’s balls.
• Building on his radical theories about “negroes” wanting to buy stuff, too, Pete again demonstrates the asshole capitalist’s preferred path toward racial equality with this insight: “Puerto Rican girls buy brassieres!”
• What exactly is a Caesar salad with no dressing, Harry Crane?
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