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In praise of Mad Men’s Pete Campbell, world’s most honest man

Pete somehow convinces Trudy to take him back. He's a magic man.
Pete somehow convinces Trudy to take him back. He's a magic man.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and foreign policy writer Amanda Taub. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Todd VanDerWerff: What's interesting to me about the Betty plot is the way it returns to a motif Mad Men has turned to again and again: cancer. So far, the wife of Don's namesake and Don's first-season lover have both died of the disease, with his ex-wife about to as well. Something about this disease is significant to Matthew Weiner — beyond just the fact that it's a disease that kills so many of us.

The notable thing here, I think, is that the cancer seems somehow attached to Don. That, to me, is indicative, in some ways, of how Don worries he's perceived by the world — as an aggressive, invasive disease that doesn't belong in its host. Don has managed to fool everybody into thinking he's the man he projects himself to be, but deep down (as we saw in that dream sequence), he's sure he'll be found out and caught. He's a malignant cell that the upper-crust world he's made himself a part of needs to root out if it means to survive.

Of course, we know that's not true. We've talked a lot about Mad Men in terms of feminism over the course of this season (and series, honestly), but one of the things that doesn't get talked about nearly as much is the story as one about the American class system. To become part of the ruling class, Don had to assume the identity of a dead man. He had to become a new person — literally. The only way to climb the American class ladder, it would seem, is through murder, trickery, fraud, or dumb luck.

Mad Men openly presents the American class system as one primarily about presenting certain appearances to the world. That makes sense for a show about advertising, about people who sell the idea of looking like something you're not. But all of that falls apart when it comes up against somebody's core insecurities. Don's problem has always been that by trying to outrun his Dick Whitman–esque roots, he's been bringing that part of his life closer and closer to the surface. He will be found out, because he's still himself.

So maybe there's something to be gleaned here from the one plot line we haven't talked about — that reconciliation between Pete and Trudy. At first, I didn't buy this. Even if I liked Pete and Trudy together back in the day, it seemed unlikely she would ever forgive him. But she did, and it was because of something Don has in short supply: honesty.

When we first met Pete Campbell, he was a sniveling weasel of a man who wanted what he couldn't have. And he's still pretty much that, but he's gained these tiny kernels of wisdom along the way. When he tells his brother that cheating on his wife will be fun for a while until it's not, it's with the voice of somebody who knows.

Pete has always been a kind of shadow Don, a version of the man who doesn't really know how to project the cool confidence that carried Don so far. But maybe that's a good thing? Maybe Pete's naked ambition and occasionally horrifying ass-kissing are preferable precisely because they're weirdly authentic and sincere. Pete doesn't need to worry about where he came from, because the world he came from has its name emblazoned all over the city.

Don is all confidence, because he knows that, deep down, he doesn't belong. Pete is no confidence, because he's never needed it. We like Don more, because we're supposed to like Don more. But something about Pete's naked need to be loved and win others' approval manages to get him in doors that Don could never even open. Imagine Don trying to win back Betty a couple of years after they were divorced. Even setting aside her second husband, it would be hard to imagine. Too much water under that bridge.

Pete, however, is somehow able to nullify that water, because he's able, on some level, to be genuine. Don constructs the appearance of sincerity, and that's been enough to buy his way into the upper class. But it's not enough to completely obscure the fact that he's, ultimately, a cell endlessly attacking the host.

Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for more thoughts.

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