Hello all! Welcome to the slightly belated start of Mad Men recaps here at Portable—it is hard to believe we’re at episode 5 of season 5 already, isn’t it? But yet, here we are. And up until this point, while it would be wrong to say that this season so far has been bad, it certainly seems like nothing too substantial has happened until now. Sure, there were some parties, a divorce, and hey, the Rolling Stones were somewhere in the building that one time, but so far this season has mostly consisted of small stories and quiet moments (I’m not counting Don’s violent choking session from last week, because it was a dream). But in this episode, the stakes were raised. Shit went down.

The best episodes of Mad Men are the ones that allow for action to happen (a show can only sustain so much existential shoe-gazing before it starts to drag), without ever becoming to soap opera-esque (“ZOMG Joan is pregnant with Roger’s baby and she was gonna abort the baby but then she was like nope I’m gonna have the baby and I saw one of the babies and the baby looked at me!”) and episode 5, “Signal 30”, seemed to balance these two sides out pretty perfectly, with just a hint of surrealism, which seems to be showing up a bit more in this show as of late, a development I’m completely cool with, as long as it doesn’t take over the aesthetic.

We start off the 5th episode of season 5 with Pete, who is really the focus of this episode, making eyes at a teenage girl in what seems to be some sort of driving class. The tapping of her foot is juxtaposed with the sound of a dripping faucet, and we cut to Pete lying awake to the sound of that same faucet. Was it a dream? It turns out not to be, but the way those scenes in the classroom were cut hinted towards the idea that these scenes in the driving school were existing outside of the realm of Pete’s normal life. Even there, we see Pete suffer the same fate that he does in his professional life. Despite his best attempts to walk in and own the place (“place,” in this instance, meaning 16 year old girl, which, ew), he eventually gets shown up by someone more charming and (literally) more handsome.

Just like how in “Tea Leaves,” Pete tries as hard as he can to woo the executive from Mohawk airlines but still can’t match the breezy charm of Roger Sterling, here we find Pete being emasculated again by Don (although to be fair everyone is emasculated by Don Draper), at a dinner party that the Campbell’s host, fiddling with his toolbox while Don takes his shirt off and fixes the faucet using nothing but a wrench and handsomeness (you don’t need to be female for that to make you a little hot, just human). It may have been a little too on-the-nose thematically for Pete to only show interest in the hooker once she started her, “You’re my king” bit (which again, ew), but it makes sense. Here is a guy (not a man. Don and Roger, for all their flaws, are men. Pete is a guy) who has had almost everything in his life given to him, and because of it is perpetually coated in a desperate sheen. He has the aura of someone who knows he’s never worked for anything and lives in a constant state of fear of being discovered as a fraud, overcompensating for this every step of the way.

Lane Pryce is also suffering from an inability to fit in, both personally and professionally. After meeting an executive at Jaguar while watching England beat “The Gerrys” (which is apparently West Germany, for those without knowledge of British slang or access to Wikipedia) in the World Cup, Lane attempts to bring in the new business himself, with a few pointers from Roger Sterling. Despite Lane’s best efforts to connect with the Jaguar exec, Lane fails on all levels, being unable to either advance the business deal or even just make a new friend. Even though his name is on the door, Lane seems to have outlived his usefulness at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, and when Pete, Don, and Roger decide that it might be for the best to let the professionals do the work of closing the account, we find out what the Jaguar exec really wants: A visit to a brothel and some chewing gum-involved foreplay (which for the last time, EW).

Pete suggests to Lane that he has no real purpose at the company since he fired everyone at the end of season 3, but the real indignity comes when Pete informs Lane that the real reason that Lane couldn’t connect with the Jaguar exec is because he thinks that Lane is “a homo.” This will not stand! Lane pretty much challenges Pete to a duel (would anyone out there really have been surprised if Lane slapped him with a white glove?). Now, about the fight: HOLY SHIT. I had a hard time believing that the rest of the staff would actually let them come to blows, but they did, and it was glorious. As Joan so gracefully put it after Lane leaned in for the unwarranted post-fight make-out sesh (the post-sex cigarette’s depressed and ugly cousin), everyone in the office has wanted to punch Pete Campbell at some point, and watching Lane’s knock-out blow on Pete was particularly enjoyable, especially since the weasel factor in his character has been severely upped this season.

The episode ends on the same notes that it began, with some fantastic narration by Ken Cosgrove’s new nom de plume, Pete Campbell is back in driving school. Only this time, rather than flirting with a pretty girl, he is beat up and depressed, while the charming and handsome starts to finger his girl. Everything in Pete’s life has been given to him, and because of this he has nothing. Just the tapping of a foot and the sound of a leaky dripping faucet, slowly marking the time.

Postscript:

  • Yes, a major point of the show is that for all the nostalgic feelings we have towards the 60s; times were only “good” for a very small, very white, very male subset of the population, but I think that it would be pretty pleasant going back to a time where soccer didn’t exist in America and no one knew or cared about the World Cup. Soccer is boring to the point of being offensive and I just want it to go away.
  • Does anyone have any suggestions about how I can incorporate the phrase, “Grimy little pimp”, into my everyday life? Much appreciated.
  • If I were in charge of Mad Men, when Pete picks up his jacket and walks out of the office after the fight I totally would have started playing the Charlie Brown music (am I the only one who got flashes of George-Michael Bluth there?) but apparently Matt Weiner and I don’t share the same cultural sensibilities. For shame!)

Jon Eiseman is a corporate slave and sometimes writer. You can find his oft-neglected tumblr here, and can follow his oft-abused twitter @Jon_Eiseman. He’ll be recapping Man Men every Monday for Portable.tv.