The fifth episode of Mad Men's fifth season, titled Signal 30, started off slowly, but eventually built to a crescendo, with much of its momentum coming from the downfall of Pete Campbell. Despite several characters' dissatisfaction with life, work and love, it is Campbell's dissatisfaction with his long commute from the suburbs, his inability to seduce young, impressionable women and the lack of respect that he receives from any of his peers at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce kept most people's attention.
While dissatisfaction is far from new to Mad Men, what's beginning to resonate with die-hard fans is the suicidal and horrific imagery scattered throughout episodes of the latest season. In Signal 30, more suicidal imagery was introduced and so were more large-scale tragedies. Not only were gloomily symbolic items or ideas highlighted once again, but Signal 30 made no mistake about depicting Pete Campbell in a drab and unhappy state of mind. As fans watching the show witnessed Campbell's life spiral out of control minute by minute, and compounded by the mounting inclusion of tragedies, it forced those watching to ask an unavoidable question: Would Pete Campbell ever commit suicide?
Whenever you have something good, you're scared of losing it. You do have anxiety, but if I'm going to die on a show, or if I'm going to get kicked off a show, this is the one I want to do it on. I trust Matt, said Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Campbell, in an interview with Slate. I'm happy to do whatever he needs me to do to tell the best story. And if that means me not being on it anymore, if that brings to a head a point that he's trying to make, then I'm happy to be the arrow that he has to fling away.
Whether Campbell will be the arrow that shoots such a wild plot twist remains to be seen, but what has been evident is the gruesome imagery that has been so deeply ingrained in each of episodes of this season -- none more prevelant than in Signal 30.
The episode's morbid imagery begins with Pete watching a 1959 driver's education movie featuring shattered cars and mangled bodies called Signal 30. This is not a Hollywood production, as can readily be seen, warns the introduction of the film. The quality is below their standards. However, most of these scenes were taken under adverse conditions. Nothing has been staged. These are actual scenes taken immediately after the accidents occurred. Also, unlike Hollywood, our actors are paid nothing. Most of the actors in these movies are bad actors and received top billing only on a tombstone. They paid a terrific price to be in these movies, they paid with their lives.
Campbell, bored by his daily life, finds tremendous joy in watching the film. His laughter during the movie attracts the attention of a young woman in his classroom, who smiles in his direction. As Campbell inspects the girl, his eyes surveying her from head to toe, his focus is eventually drawn to her feet. As the young girl taps her shoe, Campbell stares at them, completely mesmerized, lost in thought.
The toe-tapping segues into the sound of a dripping kitchen sink. Campbell, in bed, can't sleep with the sound of the drip. He gets out of bed, grabs his tools and begins adjusting knobs on the sink. Eventually the drip stops. Later in the episode, during a dinner party at his house, the sink begins spraying all over the kitchen because of Campbell's imprecise fix. Don steps in and fixes the sink quickly and correctly. He lightly scorns Campbell for fixing the sink incorrectly. The dripping sound becomes symbolic of Pete's running thoughts. More on that later.
During the dinner, Pete's rifle is briefly discussed. His wife, Trudy, is mad because he still owns the gun. She strictly prohibits Pete from bringing the gun into their home. The conversation lasts few just a few seconds, but it's clear that the gun is a dividing point between Pete and his wife. While the gun may not be a direct allusion to death, it is just another bit of foreshadowing.
Later in the episode, in a more obvious display of Campbell's personal struggles, Lane Pryce challenges Pete to a boxing match after getting into a heated argument. Campbell, being the prideful man we've known for five seasons, accepts Lane's challenge only to be out-dueled by his British counterpart.
Campbell, having been disgraced among his peers, feels unappreciated by the other partners. His loss to Lane only fuels hisdepressed state. To top off his loss, Campbell is rejected by the girl he has a crush on at the DMV. The show ends with Campbell watching another film at the DMV, the reel of film spinning close to his head as if to represent his thoughts turning. The sound of water dripping plays. As the credits roll, a dreary version of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 plays.
Other allusions to death and suicide were scattered throughout the episode, but were very brief. At one point during a board meeting, Don is drawing a noose in his notepad. Also, Don says that living in the country makes him want blow his brains out. Finally, another infamous American tragedy was highlighted when the characters mentioned the University of Texas sniper attack of 1966. The shooter of the attack shares the same last name as Don Draper's hidden identity, Dick Whitman.
While Pete Campbell may be one of the least stable characters in the show, and while allusions and symbols to death and destruction have plagued the few episodes of this season, it's tough to say definitively whether Campbell will actually commit suicide, or whether anyone will for that matter. However, with the hour of Signal 30, the gruesome imagery matched with Campbell's utter dissatisfaction appears to be growing into something big.
There are times in your life where you realize the distance between who you are and who you thought of yourself as, said Kartheiser in his interview with Slate. Everyone's inevitably going to face periods of their life when they feel hopeless and worthless. I think there are redeeming qualities to Pete. I don't think he's doomed.
We sure hope not.
Without Pete Campbell, who are Mad Men fans left to hate?