A Letter to Matt regarding Pete Campbell
We have to talk about Peter.
Now, I have always been of the opinion that Pete Campbell is a grimy little pimp. But I got into an extended discussion/argument this spring on Twitter, of all places, with a friend of mine who lives in Japan. (Modern times!) She had remarked that Peggy is a boring scold and that her favourite person on the show is Pete.
Her argument, distributed amongst several tweets, was roughly as follows: Pete’s only crime relative to his contemporaries is lacking style. The men of this show are almost uniformly scheming, alcoholic philanderers. But we love Don and Roger Sterling they make it look good. At the very least, we overlook some gratuitous fingerbanging: we’re taken in by them, which is only natural. It’s not that Don and Roger aren’t phonies: it’s that they’re successful phonies. They’re good at it.
Pete’s flaw is that he doesn’t have the wit or looks to manage a facade of potency. And without a facade of potency, your misfortunes get played for laffs. To the show’s credit, moments of Campbell schadenfreude rank among the best of this season: “Not great Bob!” is probably one of the most hilarious televised interactions in recent history. (ditto “She always loved the sea.”) But he is the object of a very specific kind of cruelty that the show spares its other protagonists: there is never anything noble about his suffering.
It is also to the show’s credit that it has, in this most recent season, deliberately drawn the viewer’s attention to the fact that Pete’s moral framework is more or less equivalent to that of Don and the others. When Pete offers Don the use to his the shabby pied-a-terre in the city, he gets a Draper-standard highground rebuke (“I live here, Pete.”); but we all know that this is pure hypocrisy: the moment he leaves Pete’s squalid quarters he’s slipping into another shabby spot to fuck someone who is not his wife. I think this deliberate contrasting of their lives in the early episodes works well as part of this season’s comprehensive strategy of breaking up America’s love affair with Don Draper. Under the square jaw he’s just another Pete, and nobody loves Pete.
Matt, I think this is a pretty fair argument. I don’t think it gets you all the way, but it gets you pretty far. The problem is that Pete never gets moments of true decency. Don, for example, is also a monster. But he has a grain of decency in him. Pete has moments of recognition, of properly felt disgust: disgust of his colleagues, of his fellow-commuters, and especially of himself. He’s an outsider, he knows things that other people do not. Hence his communion with Peggy. He even has moments of sympathy. But he doesn’t have moments of real kindness, episodes where he forgoes his own pleasure for the happiness of others. Through it all he has been more sinning than sinned against.