I’m through with all that fantasy stuff.
In Signal 30, everyone is struggling with their identity, with fantasies about who they are and how that might conflict with reality. People are pathetic or they are Superman, they are heroes or failures in their own minds, and they struggle mightily when the world disproves their theories about themselves.
This wasn’t a great episode, but it’s a breather after the intensity of Mystery Date, and there’s plenty of symbolic material to dig into. I’m a little disappointed because fifth episodes are generally among each season’s best, and I don’t think Signal 30 can really stand up to 5G, The New Girl, or Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.* Nonetheless, let’s dive into the juicy bits: There are plenty.
We all know “Don Draper” is a false identity for Dick Whitman. This season we’ve seen Don’s growing disinterest in hiding himself. He is willing to share with the Campbells and Cosgroves that he grew up on a farm—something he wouldn’t have dreamed of doing back in 1960. Yet, his dual identity is alluded to twice in Signal 30, first, when he winces at the shared last name of Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower killer whose August 1, 1966 shooting spree took eighteen lives. The second time is when the sink explodes: Don whips off his shirt and starts fixing the sink as one of the women says “Look, it’s Superman!”
The point of the episode, though, isn’t Dick Whitman and Don’s secret past, but the second identity we all have—walking through life as Clark Kent and imagining we’re Superman. Over various meals, everyone has a chance to discuss their fantasy selves—writer, actress . . . even hog farmer.
Lane imagines he’s an account man. Ken has an established “secret identity” as Ben Hargrove; when outed, he goes back into hiding as Dave Algonquin (no wonder Salvatore had a crush on him, Ken is all about being adeptly in the closet). Roger had an identity as a master account man, and Pete has, bit by bit, taken that away from him.
Ah, Pete. We really have to talk about Pete, but allow me to dwell on Roger for a moment. In Season 4’s Waldorf Stories, Roger, in a “morose” mood, complains that there are no Clio awards for what he does, and Joan asks what that is exactly (well, she doesn’t so much ask as slap him across the face with the question). We’ve built an understanding of Roger as spoiled and incompetent for five seasons now, but it turns out he does do something, and he does it well: He knows how to turn clients into friends, how to get them to be allies in the cause of winning their own account. In a way, “account man” is the ultimate secret identity: Roger has the gift of turning himself into whatever the client needs him to be in that moment.
I’ve had it up to here with Roger’s whining and self-pity, but this week was different: He not only showed competence, but wistfulness. When he calls himself “Professor Emeritus of Accounts,” and when he tells Ken he “remembers” that the account job can be satisfying, he is being realistic about the pasture to which he’s been relegated, even while he longs for more. This week, I kind of don’t blame him for poaching Pete’s meetings in A Little Kiss, especially since Pete has been such a shit.
Okay, let’s get to it. Pete is a shit.
Wait, you wanted more?
Fine. To my eyes, Pete was the villain of Season 1, but he gradually redeemed himself, being on the right side of a lot of issues, becoming a much better husband to Trudy, developing tenderness towards fatherhood, and being exactly the right kind of prick in negotiations with his father-in-law. (That last instance may not seem exactly heroic, but he was right, dammit, and Tom Vogel needed putting in his place.) Now, he’s back to being a thorn in everyone’s side.
This week’s Pete debacle has been foreshadowed out the whazoo. Let’s start with the very first episode, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, when Don tells Pete in the cruelest possible terms that he’ll never get very far in business because no one likes him. Then there was Pete punching himself in the nose in A Little Kiss, walking straight into his pillar, and then Roger offering to “take it outside” with Pete in the same episode. So, yes, the bizarre and strangely awesome fight was set up well in advance.
Pete is just a boiling pool of dissatisfaction. His wife wears curlers to bed! And she’s not a teenage girl! And the faucet drips! And he hates the suburbs! It all seems really petty when laid out like that, because it is petty. What we’ve seen, over and over this season, is that nothing can make Pete happy. He’s even nasty when a car account comes in the door (and remember, Ken told him quite recently that a car was the prize they were all hoping for). He’s just spewing misery everywhere.
In A Little Kiss, Trudy told Pete, “Dissatisfaction is a symptom of ambition,” but Pete is happy when he’s ambitious. It’s now, that he has what he thought he wanted, that he’s miserable. In the past, we’ve seen Pete longing for Peggy while married to Trudy, we’ve seen him vying for recognition, competing with Ken, fighting with his father-in-law, and he just got happier and more pleasant to be around. But now that he’s a partner in a growing company, with a nice house and a gorgeous daughter, he’s a sour, frowning, pimple of a guy who is determined to belittle everyone within earshot. He’s nasty to Roger, rude to Lane, and deserved the punch in the face.
How galling it must be to be the Pete Campbell version of Clark Kent and have Don Draper put on the cape, fix the sink, and get the women hot. How galling to have Don Draper, of all people, throw your adultery in your face by abstaining. How absolutely humiliating to be unable to successfully land a teenage girl because you’re not “Handsome” enough (and the casting of that teenage boy was no coincidence: He’s a young Don Draper in every particular). Finally, Pete’s only pleasure—insulting his supposed “friends”—backfires on him when Lane fights back.
In the cab, Pete bitterly says to Don, “I have everything,” and Don agrees. But after the fight, Pete is near tears as he says to Don, “I have nothing.” I don’t believe there’s anything that Pete can have that will make him feel good, because what he wants is to be Superman, to be “king.” What he imagines he wants is to be Don Draper. Let’s keep going with that: What Lane imagines he wants is Joan, or to be an account man, or both. What Roger imagines he wants is to be Roger about five years ago. What Ken imagines he wants is to be Ben Hargrove or Dave Algonquin, and since he is, Ken (as usual) is the only one who ends up happy.
What Don imagines he wants is exactly what he has. It makes the entire audience sit on the edge of our seats, though, because we all know how good he is at screwing things up for himself. Placing him in the context of this episode practically demands that we wonder when the other shoe will drop.
Some additional thoughts:
- Notice we didn’t see Harry this episode? He’d be redundant: Like Pete, he just wants youth. Notice also that Trudy is wearing a very old-fashioned dress for the party—that poofy skirt is so over in 1966; she’s no longer fashionable.
- Ken and Peggy have a pact—if either leaves, they take the other. Interesting. I’ve always loved their friendship, but I’m surprised Peggy has an ear to the ground.
- Signal 30 is the name of the gruesome driver’s ed film that Pete is watching as the episode opens. This episode is filled with wrecks, from Pete’s bloody nose to Roger’s career.
- Quote of the week: “He was caught with chewing gum on his pubis.” Ha!
- Megan exercises a lot of control over Don, and we see more and more of that each week. This week, she refuses to do the dirty work of turning down Trudy’s invitation, then she makes him change into a sport coat that she bought him (and WOW, what a sport coat it is).
*Oops, that was episode 3.06. The fifth episode of Season 3 was The Fog.
Originally published at Indiewire Press Play.