Who's got whose back in "Mad Men" season five? It's becoming clearer with each new episode. For the first time, we see important alliances and intense rivalries emerge. This week's episode, "Signal 30," takes us inside the troubled head of straight-laced Peter Campbell, where we discover a young man repeatedly tempting fate.
Peter clearly could benefit from the advice of a trusted mentor, but who might fill that role? Not consummate account guy, Roger Sterling. Peter doesn't take Roger seriously -- and lets him know it -- and Roger deeply resents Peter. He already has painted a bull's-eye on his ungrateful, younger rival's back.
Enter Don Draper. Just a year ago, who would have pegged debauched Don for the role of trusted mentor... to a younger man? Yet, in his gut, Peter realizes Don has seen it all and understands how best to maneuver. Nevertheless, this past Sunday night, Peter ignores everything but his own, inner adolescent voice.
In every plot turn of "Signal 30," we find Peter Campbell "acting out" and looking for trouble. First, Peter tries to pickup a high school girl in his driving class, where he is learning to drive after migrating to the suburbs. Next, we see him in the brothel, after the firm's new Jaguar prospect initiates a night on the town. Peter, the outwardly happily married man, indulges in the "wonders of the night" right alongside the overtly unhappily married Roger Sterling. Don sits it out like the good, loyal husband he has become. In response, Peter calls him a "nun."
But for much of the show, at the appropriate points where Peter leads himself astray, Don steps in, offering sage advice. After Peter's antics with the hooker, Don warns, "Don't throw it away." Not only can Don relate, having spent many a night navigating the same precarious slopes, but he also has heart for this guy. He works hard to save Peter from himself. His message: Stay focused on building your family and your career at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Price. What has gotten into this guy? Is 'Dapper Don' suddenly channeling Jimmy Stuart?
As I watched, I realized how much the iconic "mentoring relationship" would change by the time the "boomer generation" entered the world of business... circa 1987. By then, Oliver Stone's hit "Wall Street" would depict an exploitive, new twist to this age-old paradigm, as young and ambitious Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), an '80s analog for Peter Campbell, asks the successful, sinister and sleazy Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) to show him the way.
Sunday night, I found myself dumbfounded to realize that Draper had willingly re-caste himself as Peter Campbell's savior, in striking contrast to his formerly sinful self. Season Four's Don Draper had been far more akin to the '80s Gordon Gekko. But now, Matthew Weiner had once more stirred the pot, turning bad guys good ... and good guys bad.
Draper's moral ascent counters Pete Campbell's sudden, and seemingly complete, moral decline. We watch, with fascination, as Campbell prepares to sleep with a prostitute, who asks him when getting under way, "What role would you like me to play?" She quickly runs through several unappealing scenarios (the seductress, the innocent ingénue) before hitting a nerve with the supplicant. As she bows before Campbell on the bed, she appeals to his ego, "You're my King?" she offers, as Campbell's devilish smile suddenly fills the screen.
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