Big Man on Campus

 Posted by on October 31, 2012 at 9:09 am  Season 5
Oct 312012

A few times while watching “Signal 30,” I thought about high school.

I was confused at first about if Pete was really in class or not. I wasn’t paying enough attention at the beginning of the episode and didn’t realize he was in a driver’s ed class. (I know, I know, the film should have been a dead giveaway.) I kept thinking maybe the whole thing was a dream—why would he be in school? Maybe he just wished he was back in high school, with easy (and non-creepy) access to young girls.

At Pete’s house later on, he and Ken stand around looking at the stereo and talking about appropriate party topics (Pete says he told Trudy she can’t talk about the baby). Pete looks like the nervous kid at the high school party waiting for the cool senior to finally show up. Sure enough, when he hears a knock at the door [Don and Megan], he says to Ken, “Terrific—that’s them!” He practically bubbles with excitement as he opens the door and greets Don and Megan. He has a drink ready for Don, asks Don if he likes the music that’s playing, and Ken tells Don that he gets “the big steak.” When Don looks confused, Pete tells him what a big deal it is to him that Don came to his home. Even Don and Megan’s drive home from the dinner party is reminiscent of two teenagers, pulling over to the side of the road to make out (or more likely, “go all the way”).

Back in driver’s ed class, Pete saves a seat for Jenny (aka young Scarlett Johansson crossed with Peggy), and they almost plan a date to the gardens, but Handsome Hanson (aka young Don) swoops in and steals his thunder.  Later  that week, Pete finds consolation with a beautiful young call girl who has a repertoire of interesting lines. He settles on the line, “You’re my king,” though I don’t think he ever quite believes that someone could mean it.

At the partners’ meeting, Pete is sitting across from Don & Roger. Those two are the Big Men on Campus. The frat-boy humor they all share (to Lane’s disgust) is similar to the old days of Pete/Paul/Ken/Harry, but in this case, Don & Roger are not Pete’s equals, they’re the ones that he wants to impress. Lane is the nerdy kid in school, and Cooper is the teacher who tries unsuccessfully to calm the waters.  Pete’s faux-cool kid bravado fades quickly when Lane physically threatens him. He tries to act like he’s fine with it, but you can see him visibly pale when he realizes he has to fight.

After the fight is over, Roger and Don turn back into adults, father-figures that try to help Pete out. Pete, the shamefaced kid, leaves the room in embarrassment. He doesn’t like them seeing how badly he failed.

Peggy and Ken are momentarily high school kids, too. Peggy runs in like an eager-beaver student (“Did you hear? Lane kicked the crap out of Pete!”). Ken doesn’t really care about all that, but he confides in her that he plans to stop with all the “fantasy stuff.” It’s not totally true, of course, he’s still going to keep writing, but momentarily we see the boy trying to grow up and be a man.

In the last scene—a dream sequence involving Pete, Jenny, and Hanson—Pete is the man (watching the boy and girl), but he feels helpless and trapped by his loneliness.


  35 Responses to “Big Man on Campus”

  1. This really brings the episode into focus for me, and it explains Pete’s mindset throughout the whole season. I definitely cringed as Pete gushed over Don’s arrival at his house. Pete is still the dude who tries too hard. I also felt sad for Ken–a reminder of those things we always have to hide in order to “fit in.”

  2. This really is a great comparison, and as Paisley says, brings the whole episode into focus. Even bringing in the peripheral characters of this episode, Ken and Peggy, talking like schoolyard children witnessing a fight out in the yard, is so spot on. Don’t they say Hollywood is just high school with money? Perhaps every work environment is really that as well.

    • *nods* I hink it was Kurt Vonnegut who said that high school is the one experience shared by all Americans, and that you can tell everything about a person if you know who he was in high school.

      • Amazing how 3 years of life seem to define us for the next 30-60 years. I also caught that Pete and his behaviors scream prep school, while Don is somewhat out of sinc because he didn’t go to high school, or at least he did not graduate. And the 3 wives in the kitchen laughing and screaming in the kitchen were girls locker room actions I have seen a million times. I too had not thought of this episode in this context, but it is so obvious once explained. Even the grownup behaviors are almost seen as a trial run of “how to act like a grownup”. My question: does anyone ever really get away from this or do we all pretend to grow up, when do you become a “real” adult?

        • It’s funny, I remember having a conversation with two professors. Both of these professors were married, and both had young children. One professor had recently been tenured. Neither professor thought of himself as a real adult. I’m convinced that maturity, to some extent, is an illusion. It’s a mask that is put on or taken off.

          • I’m glad you say this, because as I enter “real” adulthood, I still feel like everyone else has it all figured out and I’m the “kid” trying to accumulate these adult things – and wondering how everyone figured it out so easily.

            I always think of a Matt Weiner DVD commentary where he said this show addresses two questions: “What’s wrong with me?” and “Is this all there is?”

          • My firstborn came when I was 36. Her impending birth made me feel I’d better get my act together and grow up. I have the talent and temperament to be an academic – but circumstances steered me into the private professional world.

            I’m going to guess that these profs were in their twenties when they became parents. Combine that with the sheltered life that tenured academia offers and it somewhat explains why their self-images did not admit “real adulthood”.

            As for the mask – I’ll go along. I remember driving the desert on vacation with my then 13-yr-old son – goofing, telling juvenile jokes. It was fun to be 13 again.

    • Thank you so much, I’m really glad that you liked it. I enjoyed writing this one.

      • Mad Chick, whoa! Beautiful, spot on, just…….delicious. This recap of an all-time episode like this, more than does it justice. Makes me sad that I spent all my high school years at Aqueduct racetrack, Belmont racetrack, name the racetrack with guys whose stern looks would make Stalin piss in his pants.
        Pete is the loser, the not good enough guy, so he partakes in activities that confirm his mental status as wanting. Don is the QB of the football team. Glittering, but not as good as the image. Drip, drip, drip.
        When MM ends, this will be the episode that I will most remember Pete by. For a very long time I felt just like him. I sympathize with his character, however unsympathetic he may be.
        When did I first feel like an adult? I was 22 amd visiting my high school softball field. I picked up a ball that webt astray and a cute senior said “Over here, sir”. SIR?!?!? I was shocked by being called that. Its funny……
        Pete’s Sir moment was watching ScarJo lite letting Andy Hardy get to third base during the movie.
        In reality adulthood sets in when you move out, and it dawns on you that you are no longer under mommy’s protective wing, and ya gotta ANSWER to the rent, your own food, and the rest of the muck. Caan’t count on the ponies anymore.

        • Thanks so much, Tilden!

          Pete is the loser, the not good enough guy, so he partakes in activities that confirm his mental status as wanting. Don is the QB of the football team. Glittering, but not as good as the image. Drip, drip, drip.

          When MM ends, this will be the episode that I will most remember Pete by. For a very long time I felt just like him. I sympathize with his character, however unsympathetic he may be.

          I never really thought before about which would be his signature episode. It’s interesting to think about. This was definitely a great episode for Vincent Kartheiser. As you mentioned, and as Paisley and some others mentioned, Pete really makes the viewer wince and cringe sometimes, and it’s quite a credit to the actor that he can pull this off so effectively.

  3. Peggy, who for years had been out of the loop (I don’t see her as being popular in high school. She would have been the last person to hear everything.) knows something before someone else, and can’t wait to pass on the gossip.

    • This is so true about Peggy. The only person I have a hard time imagining in high school would be Joan, who seems like she came out of the womb aged 35, with wits, gravitas, and a sly streak of manipulation. I could see Joan being all things to all people to be popular but not really relishing any of it. Seductive with the boys, gossipy with the girls, intelligent with the teachers, but always a step a ahead and playing them like fiddles.

  4. That’s Joanie! It’s hard to play a fiddle.

  5. Interesting take. I’ll disagree about the final scene being a dream sequence (unless they said that on the commentary). I’m pretty sure it’s just Pete watching the cool kid with the girl.

    • I originally thought so too, but then the sound of dripping water is heard as he wakes up. Possibly Weiner wanted that scene to have a certain ambiguity to it. The dripping water (Pete tries to get it fixed, but it keeps dripping) makes his life seem very Sisyphean.

      Also, I remember when we all discussed this episode at the time it aired. If the water is still dripping, then Don is not such a “Superman” after all and didn’t fix it. Interesting to ponder!

      • That episode, and really the entirety of season 5, is incredibly Sisyphean. Pete’s continuous dissatisfaction and ennui, no matter what he gets. Don seemingly going in the direction of becoming distant and disenchanted with his wife and their perfect marriage, again. Roger needing that LSD high, again and again, and leaving ANOTHER wife. Even Paul is back to being the butt end of a joke, still not valued or really liked whatever social or work circle he moves in. Joan is back to the beginning, relationship wise, having to yet again find a man who can respect and value her. Peggy, who we thought was going to form this amazing friendship and alliance with Don, was back to being his battered underling, being there for him to “kick her when he fails”.

        That said, Joan and Peggy do seem to be the only two gaining real, forward momentum.

        I can only wonder if seasons 6 and 7 will move in a forward direction, or does the nature of the show’s core, people don’t change – only situations do, bring us back to these characters just bending their lives into another circle, just going around another well worn loop they’ve already traveled before. While I will watch the show go anywhere b/c it is my favorite of all time, I wonder sometimes if seven seasons is a lot of story to do when maybe their essential stories were all told by season 4.

        • MyPeopleAreNordic–wow, you said it. Lives of quiet desperation, indeed. And so many people repeating the same patterns and mistakes. I hope to see some of them find more happiness and success.

          While I will watch the show go anywhere b/c it is my favorite of all time, I wonder sometimes if seven seasons is a lot of story to do when maybe their essential stories were all told by season 4.

          I think there are still stories left to tell–the seasons go so quickly with just 13 episodes each, and so far I’m still riveted.

        • MPAN, I agree with the S4 analogy. Sadly, Tomorrowland, will be the demarcation point between the MM we will recall with misty eyed fondness, and the MM that traded on its good name, afterwards. S5 was still better than anything else on TV, last year. It just wasn’t MAD MEN.
          Still, it was a beautiful 4 years. And, how!

          • Tilden and Nordic – but isn’t this the point? Mad Men doesn’t feel like Mad Men because so many of the characters have trouble catching on. They don’t change, and their world does – a world they were originally in synch with, but not now. (Except for Peggy. She started out completely out of synch with everything, but she suddenly is the only one who *does* fit.) The glamour is peeling away and showing what lies underneath, beautiful or ugly. No, it doesn’t feel like Mad Men. Nor should it.

          • Well said, FB.

          • FB, I do think it is incredible the passage of time conveyed on this show. Many shows just sort of hang in a suspended period of time – take Friends for instance. It was on for a decade or so, but when I think of it, it just feels like they were living within the same year or two. I started re-watching MM from episode 1 about a few months ago, and those early episodes feel like they were on another planet. To so viscerally make us feel we are living the entire forward progression of people’s lives, is a feat.

            I remember reading some critics who said the toughest part of Mad Men would be having people fall in love with a distinct time period, style of dress, talk, manner – and essentially have to blow it apart if Mad Men wanted to continue on into the late 60’s.

            I am re-watching with my father now, and he loves Don Draper as the man who is in absolute control at work, a creative genius, and someone who lays the smackdown. We are approaching season 4, and I’m wondering how he’s going to react the Don Draper of season 5!

          • I’m excited about seeing what will happen next as Mad Men goes into the late ’60s. There is great potential here. TK you should be glad to proven wrong when it’s all over. MW knows how to avoid shark jumping.

          • Mad Men Season 1-3 and 4-7 are two different shows, which will be totally different but equally great. Re watching season 5 I do appreciate it a lot more. We go from a underexposed time (early 60’s Camelot) to an overexposed time (60’s baby boomers congratulating themselves for being baby boomers) so things will be a bit on the nose. It’s all about the changing of the guard.

          • Mike S there is no phrase that makes me boil more than the overwrought, overbearing jumping the jaws, or whatever the hell it is. MW is too good to let this show turn into the Alan Alda led MASH of later wretched seasons.
            The great text seems to be faltering. Where are the dozen bon-mots of every episode? If Bartlett had been alive today his collection of quotes would have been 25% MM, at least. Now, the scripts have a last days of Rome quality. Can’t put my finger on it. Someone smarter than me can explain the certain something that defies explanation.

        • There is untapped potential in Don’s story. We haven’t really seen him interact much with Bobby at all in years. He’s getting to be 10, 11 years old, the same age Dick was when his daddy died. There’s also some potential friction to be explored in his relationship with Michael — the fact that he needs Michael, because he’s not coming up with the whizbang campaigns on his own anymore, and he doesn’t want to need Michael because he doesn’t want to need anyone. Also, there’s got to be some trouble brewing in his marriage — Megan is not only much younger than him, but much more extroverted also, and they have very different interests.

          Last year he did seem like a much more passive character, unusually so, with the exception of Dark Shadows, where he won his little hand-to-hand battle with Michael solely because he’s the boss. More like that, please.

  6. @Kevin Halloway-There was no way to respond directly to your post, so I’m doing it here. What differentiates “Mad Men” from other shows about the 1960s (early or late), is that the focus is on the adults, not on the boomers. Sally has storylines, and she’s an important character, but the show is very much the adult perspective on the era, unlike “Wonder Years,” “American Dreams,” or the later seasons of “Happy Days,” where the focus is very much on the younger generation, and while the adult characters get storylines, they are not the main focus. The changing of the guard on the show isn’t boomers taking over from the Greatest Generation. Pete, Peggy, and Michael are the ones taking power, and there is no way you can describe them as baby boomers. I think the official term for them is Silent Generation.

    • That’s a good point Retro Girl. I don’t know how dumb a question is, but who belongs to what generation on the show? Is Roger of “The Greatest Generation” and is he considered a different generation than Don? What is Don’s generation called, and what is the silent generation known for?

      • Your question about who belongs to which generation isn’t dumb at all. Here is information on The Silent Generation.

        Roger is part of “The Greatest Generation.” I’m not sure which generation Don belongs to. Trying to figure out his birth year makes my head hurt. Joan, Pete, Peggy, and Ken are part of the Silent Generation. Sally and Bobby are Baby Boomers. Depending on who you talk to, Gene is either a Baby Boomer or Generation X. I’ve seen a range of dates (1960-1964) for when the Baby Boom ends and Gex X begins. This is not an exact science.

        • The supposedly sullen Gen-X, of which I am a proud member, is 64-74. Scowl.

          The last year of the baby boom was 63. Birth rates went down markedly after that year. Most obnoxious generation by far.

          • I was born in 69 to parents born in 34. This one of the reasons the show fascinates me so, I have no memory of parents being younger than 40. I see alot of Don, Peggy and the rest of the gang in my Parents, and Uncles and Aunts.

  7. I had the Campbell’s Springmaid curtains….as sheets!

    • On viewing the DVDs I became aware that my family home (built in 1953 and designed by my father, who was somewhat ahead of his time; and I can’t recall if the following was due to a later re-do in the 60s but I think so) had the same “wallpaper” on one wall and corner in our living room as on one wall and corner of Don and Megan’s apartment. It’s not exactly wallpaper, or in any case it’s textured: it’s covered with horizontally aligned light-brown hemp- or rope-like strands, pressed flat. It’s really special. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it other than these two homes, certainly not not this exact formulation. It’s exactly the same as what we had.

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