Mad Men: Season Five, Episode 5
Signal 30
There is no show on television like Mad Men. The way the show differs from most of television means that many people will never get on its wave-length. It is deliberate but ponderous, subtle when it chooses no to be obvious and always, always assured that it is compelling television (it doesn't hurt that it is usually right about this). All of this also makes the show one of the best on television, a reliably excellent series that comforts you with its confidence. Mad Men has always been a very good television show, and from season two on, it has been a great one. This week, with "Signal 30," the show turned in its first great episode of season five.

One of the pervasive themes of the series is the way that dreams often fail to live up to reality, and the ways that people confront their own disappointment and unhappiness in the face of outward success. Mad Men is a show about people who have everything, and yet, as Pete admits in the episode's closing moments, "I have nothing." Not a whole lot happens in "Signal 30," and yet we watch as three men grasp for something they have dreamed for, and as each is, in his own way, rebuffed.

Ken Cosgrove has always dreamed of being a writer. Earlier in the series, he was overjoyed to have a short story published in a magazine, and now we find he has been tinkering with some science fiction under the nom de plume Ben Hargrove (note, and enjoy, the way that the series utilizes alter egos as a way for its characters to find satisfaction, and for the way it needles them for the artificiality of that happiness). At a dinner party thrown with great guile by the always clever Trudy Campbell, we learn that Ken recently published a story. It's about as subtle as most mid-'60s sci-fi, a tale of a robot that tightens bolts on a bridge between two planets, until one day he loosens the bolts, letting the bridge collapse and killing everyone on it. "Why does he do it?" Don asks. Because he did what he was told.

Its no secret that Ken Cosgrove never wanted to be in advertising. He dreams of being a writer, and from what we hear, he is good enough to make that dream come true. And yet, when Roger hears of his "night job" (Ken thinks Pete let it slip, but I wonder if Peggy wasn't behind the reveal) he quickly tells Ken to stop playing around and to find satisfaction in his actual job. Roger toyed with writing himself, you'll recall, and his hilariously slim autobiography might be a cautionary tale for what Ken can look forward to if he heeds Roger's advice: a long life of stifled dreams, chasing happiness to the bottom of a bottle. On the face of it, Ken shuts down his dreams and agrees to be a company man again. Ben Hargrove is dead, he says. And yet that night, as he sits in his bed, a new story is born, a story about a man with a tiny orchestra.

The idea for this was clearly born at the dinner party that forms the episode's centerpiece, when Pete brags about his seven-foot-long entertainment center. There's something wonderfully painful about Pete's eagerness to impress Ken (who, only a few years ago, was his main competition) and, later, Don. Pete craves the respect of his colleagues more than anything else, and yet, that eagerness (and, let's be honest, general sliminess) is what keeps him from being on their level.

Earlier in the series, Pete Campbell wanted nothing more than to be Don Draper. And we see tonight that, in a lot of ways, he is; at least, he has become a close approximation of the man Don was at the beginning of the series. A life in the suburbs, a daughter and wife at home, late nights at work, blatant philandering--in many of the ways that count, Pete has become what he always wanted. And yet he has gained none of the happiness he hoped might come with it. Instead, he finds Don, newly nun-like in his refusal to cheat on Megan, seemingly still lording above him, fixing sinks and living a life he can only envy from the sidelines. Pete was born into the world feeling entitled, but his family squandered its money and his work ethic hasn't given him the universal respect he so desperately seeks. Instead, he's clawed his way to the top only to find himself feeling empty inside.

And then there is poor Lane Pryce, whose humiliations (in his own words) never seem to end. Lane watches the World Cup with the head of Jaguar and eagerly begins, ever so gingerly, to pursue landing the account. He swells with pride as he divulges this pursuit to the other partners, and he tries, desperately and ineffectually, to take Roger's advice about how to land a client. He is ill-suited to the task, however, and soon Roger, Don, and Pete take the man out for a...better night on the town, one that leads them to a high class whorehouse (and one that ultimately destroys their chances at landing the account when the man's wife finds chewing gum in a place it shouldn't be). When Pete insults Lane's pride once again, things devolve into the least effectual fist fight I have seen in some time. Lane is, nominally at least, the victor, but he clearly takes no solace in his triumph. Instead he is left wondering what it is he does, really. Joan tries to comfort him, and he kisses her, something we've all been waiting for from Lane for quite some time, I imagine. Ever the champ, Joan eases out of the situation as gracefully as possible, opening the door to make their private meeting slightly less so, and deciding to simply pretend it never happened.

"Signal 30" opens and closes with the sound of a dripping faucet. As Cosgrove's story points out, this is the sort of sound you can only hear when you've traded in the bustling city for a more settled life, and it signifies something you've given up along the way. More importantly, though, it reminds us, much as Pete's brief, faulty flirtation with the young girl at driving school, that there are certain things Pete Campbell will never be, no matter how hard he tries. Pete thinks he's fixed the sink in the episode's opening moments, but in fact he has found a temporary solution that only makes things worse in the long run. By plugging up the problem for the moment, he has primed himself for a flood at the least opportune of moments.

For this week, at least, Don Draper seems to have found a modicum of happiness in his new marriage. Yet that just makes it even more clear how desperate, how sad, and how empty all of the men around him are. Each of the three men in focus tonight are chasing something, but only Ken, who knows exactly what he wants, seems likely to get it. For Pete and Lane, who chase things far more ephemeral than Ken's dreams, they are unlikely to find what they are looking for, at least not until they know what it is they hope to find.

Grade: A


-"I once went on a five minute tear about how my mother loved my father more than me, and I can assure you that's not possible."

-"Things seem so random all of a sudden. And time seems like its speeding up."

-"Its seven feet long. Wilt Chamberlain could lie down in there!" "Why would he want to do that?"

-"Megan, you want to take Don's drink order?" "Big and brown."

-"A fridge in the garage? That's a good idea!" Pete will latch onto anything.

-"I'm gonna close my eyes, and when I open them, I want to see skyscrapers."

-"I grew up in a place like this." "There's no other place like this."

-"Believe me, Nixon is lying in wait." "Johnson will stop the war before the election." "You don't stop a war before an election." Bert Cooper is still a wise man.

-"I know cooler heads should prevail, but am I the only one who wants to see this?"
Tags: Mad Men
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