The theme that developed quickly in the first season of Mad Men, that all the world's a stage---particularly that part of the world that has its offices on Madison Avenue and split-level homes in Ossining, New York---and all the mad men and women merely unhappy and restless players trapped in soul-constricting roles of their own, society's, or someone else's devising was picked right up in the opening moments of the Season Two premiere.
Picked up, enlarged, underlined, circled, and emphatically marked with three exclamation points, in red felt tip.
The first shots of the episode, "For Those Who Think Young," are of three of the show's most successful chameleons standing before their mirrors as they dress and primp for work, judging and touching up their own images as coolly, objectively, and professionally as actors putting on their make-up and costumes in front of their dressing room mirror. It's showtime for Joan, Peggy, and Pete, but only Pete looks as though he's suffering any stage fright. Pete, in fact, looks miserable. Joan and Peggy smile with a somewhat detached approval at what they see in their mirrors. Pete appears to be fighting back tears or nausea.
That's because, while Joan and Peggy have written their own parts, Pete is stuck with a script that was handed him at birth, playing a character he despises---Pete Campbell.
Pete hates being Pete because Pete is a very limited character, a type not an original, the spoiled rich boy who gets by entirely on his charm and social connections and who's pretty much of no use in the world except to the degree that other people can put him to use for their own purposes and ends. His bosses at Sterling Cooper like him and keep him around for the clients his family connections bring through the door. His clients don't care about his ideas, only about his ability to get them into clubs and hook them up with pretty women. His wife seems to want only one thing from him, his well-bred genes for her children. And his own family has apparently never been able to see him as anything other than his older brother's less worthy little brother and his father's pale imitation, the chip off the old block, that will never get larger than a chip, who will never make any mark of his own and will get by simply by reminding people of his old man, and the old man was an old fraud, a fact only Pete seems aware of. In last week's episode, "Flight 1," when his brother reveals that their father has died broke he uses a euphemism, "insolvent," that conveniently doesn't carry any moral or ethical weight. Did their father lose the money in a bad investment, was he screwed by a business partner or robbed by his accountant, did he gamble, did he spend it all on fast cars and faster women, did he just fritter it all away? Doesn't matter. Insolvent is a more genteel word than bankrupt and so it better fits the image the family wants to maintain, that he was a gracious and admirable gentleman of the old school. Pete seems to know better, but no one wants to hear it, just as no one wants to hear that Pete isn't the person they think he is.
It wouldn't be any wonder that Pete Campbell would long to be anybody other than Pete Campbell.
But Pete doesn't want to be just anybody else. He wants to be one very specific somebody else. Don Draper.
When Pete gets the news that his father has been killed in a plane crash, the first thing he does is rush off to find Draper. He doesn't want Don's sympathy. He wants to be told what he should do next. To be precise: he wants to be told what Don himself would do if this had happened to him. He wants Don to instruct him on how to act like Don Draper.
Of course, Don can't tell him, because there is no Don Draper. Don Draper exists by acting like someone else. He does what he sees other people do. And that's what he tells Pete to do. "Go home and be with your family," he says, "It's what people do."
Pete leaves the office baffled and disappointed. He doesn't want to be like people. He wants to be Don.
Asked about it, and even if he isn't asked he will be glad to give you his answer anyway, Pete would tell you that what he wants is to be like Don Draper, recognized and rewarded for his talents and skills as an ad man, known as Sterling Cooper's resident genius, liked and admired by his bosses, feared but respected by the men who work under him, loved by...well...just loved.
The fact that Don Draper doesn't exist, that he's a work of fiction created by someone named Dick Whitman, and Pete knows it, doesn't bother Campbell a whit. If anything, it makes becoming Don Draper that much more desirable, because it's proof that a person can reinvent himself, that he can take on whatever role he chooses and force other people to play along.
But Pete is very much like Robert Ford as Casey Affleck plays him in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. His admiration for his hero has gone beyond a boyish over-identification into a vicarious assuming of the older man's identity. In his mind, Pete is already Draper and that explains his petulance and his impatience. He can't understand why he isn't already enjoying all the perks of being Don Draper.
Pete's problem has become the same as Robert Ford's. There can't be two Don Drapers just as there can't be two Jesse Jameses. One has to go. Actually, when Pete traded in a wedding gift for a rifle last season I got very worried for Don, if for no other reason than the Chekhov's Gun Principle. That gun still hasn't gone off, by the way, and I'm still worried, for Don or for Pete himself, who is a suicide waiting for an opportunity, although given Pete's general talent for screwing up his own plots, I wouldn't be surprised if when the opportunity arrives Pete, like Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, misses.
The irony is that Don would almost be happy to hand over the part of Don Draper to someone else. Don has grown sick and tired of being Don (although not quite to the suicidal extent as Brad Pitt's Jesse James has grown sick and tired of being Jesse James) and by the end of last season he was on the brink of "destroying" Draper himself. In fact, he tried to do it and it was Pete who gave him the means and opportunity.
Pete, having proof in hand that Don Draper is a fake and convinced that the only reason Dick Whitman decided to pretend to be Don Draper was to hide a criminal past, tries to blackmail Don into giving him a promotion. (Pete just can't bring himself to actually be like Draper and work to earn the rewards he thinks he deserves.) It's an idle threat. Pete is too much of a weakling and too much in awe of Don yet to bring himself to smash his idol. But Don seizes the moment and drags Pete to Bert Cooper's office and pretty much forces Pete to spill the beans. It's a shock to both of them that Cooper shrugs it off.
Both men had forgotten that Bert Cooper is a very pragmatic and selfish human being and that other people only matter to him for what they can do for him. Who they are is irrelevant. He values Pete for his social connections, Draper for his talents, for the same reason, they make him money. Who each man thinks he is or wants other people to think he is is completely besides the point.
At the end of that scene, after Pete has stormed out of the room, Cooper tries to warn Don that Pete is still a threat to him and he offers some useful, if cryptic, advice about how to defuse that threat by befriending Pete or at least making him an ally.
But Don hates Pete too much to listen to that advice. One of the reasons he can't stand Campbell, in fact, is Campbell's obvious desire to be liked by Don. For too long now anyone offering himself as a friend is a mortal threat to Don. The women in his life---Betty, Midge, and Rachel---are attractive to him precisely because they don't ask questions or expect real intimacy. Betty wants to play the part of Don Draper's wife, so she needs Don to play the part of himself. Midge just doesn't care who he is only how much fun he can be. And Rachel has somehow found her way to whatever there is of a real person inside Don and in falling in love with that has made the fake Don Draper invisible to herself, probably because that's what she wants for herself, for the Rachel Menken the world sees, the dutiful daughter of a boring and old-fashioned and Jewish, which is to say old-world, traditional, unglamorous, outsider father, to become invisible. Anyone else who comes near, though, forces Don to play the part he's gotten tired of playing with more conviction and concentration than he can muster anymore.
Having an adoring acolyte following him around all the time would be exhausting.
But Draper has another reason for disliking Pete and pushing him away.
Although he might not be consciously aware of it, Don sees Pete as already being too much like himself. Pete is a cracked mirror's image of Don, another fraud getting by on his ability to pretend to be what people think they see when they look at him.
The overt literary influences of Mad Men, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the novels and stories of John Cheever and John Updike, are, I think, cheerfully and respectfully acknowledged by the show's writers within the episodes. But the idea that America is a society of liars and frauds, of people living one life in public while longing for another or hiding another, that in fact there is something about America that requires people to be frauds, in private has been around for a long time. It's there in the works of Edith Wharton, particularly House of Mirth and Custom of the Country. It's a favorite of Mark Twain's given its best expression in Huckleberry Finn but having a whole novel devoted to it in Pudd'nhead Wilson. Charles Dickens spotted that taint in our national character and satirized it in Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens saw us as an entire country of bald-faced liars, braggarts and blowhards throwing temper tantrums whenever anyone showed signs of not buying our whoppers. As far as the author of A Christmas Carol was concerned, we're a people so taken with our own myths that we don't even see the point of having to live up to them. The most obvious knave and fool can call himself a king and then feel free to take violent offense when you point out the holes in his shoes. But here's the thing. We're generally willing to let each other get away a lie, as long as it's to our advantage to do so, just as Bert Cooper's willing to keep Draper and Campbell on his payroll, no matter that the former may be a criminal and the latter is a no-talent dope, because it's worth a lot of money for him to have them around. And the novel about this fact of American life is The Great Gatsby.
Don Draper is what Jimmy Gatz would have made of himself if he'd come of age in the buttoned-down 1950s instead of during the Roaring Twenties.
I wouldn't be surprised to find out that in his brother Adam's shoebox full of photographs and mementos there was a list made by the young Dick Whitman that included resolutions like "practice elocution" and "save ten dollars."
Don Draper is a Jay Gatsby with an honest job who kept his ambitions in check and got to marry his Daisy.
Pete Campbell is what the young Jimmy Gatz, and probably the young Dick Whitman, wished he'd been born, rich, privileged, secure, well-regarded by all the right people.
Ironically, Pete Campbell wishes he'd been born someone more like Jimmy Gatz or Dick Whitman, that is someone with the talents and intelligence to make himself into someone.
Pete is a prince who would rather have been a self-made man. He's the spoiled son of an elite that no longer commands real respect, just flattery and imitation, and he's set out to make himself into what he thinks these go-go times regards as a success even though like the young Jimmy Gatz he doesn't have a real, practical idea of how to work or how to win friends and influence people, and so, more like Gatsby than like Draper, he's tempted to take the easy way, which is to say he's willing to cheat and play dirty.
Which is why he's in the meeting with American Airlines using the fact of his father's recent death to drum up business. Duck Philips is Pete's Meyer Wolfsheim.
Programming note: No live-blogging of Mad Men tonight at newcritics. Tom Watson and M.A. Peel are both otherwise engaged. I'm cross-posting this over there, though, so feel free to use the comments there, or here, as an open thread on tonight's episode.
And while you're over at newcritics, make sure you read Bob Stein's account of his long-ago lunch with a very young and very shy Anne Bancroft.