03/26/2012 06:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Rise of Pete Campbell

With season five of Mad Men on the horizon, I've been spending a lot of time watching old episodes and getting myself reacquainted with our friends at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (is the Cooper still happening, I wonder?). During this time, the evolution of Pete Campbell really stood out to me. It's easy to see Pete as an annoying, villainous little schmuck. After all, this is the guy who tried to blackmail our hero into giving him a promotion, seduced and tormented series golden girl Peggy Olson, and threw his wife's chicken out of a window during a tantrum.


Try looking at this without punching your screen.

But, ever the contrarian, I have to admit that Pete is one of my favorite characters on the show. Not because I like petty villains, but because he's grown and developed so much since the show began. Holding the Pete Campbell of season four up against that of season one is an insane exercise. In 1965, Pete's happily married to ever-adorable Trudy, and they welcome their soon-to-be-bratty daughter Tammy. He's thrilled to be partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, where he has become indispensible. And he has the extremely grudging respect of Don Draper. In 1960, Pete was a weird, belligerent child who was indifferent to his wife on his good days and desperately panted for Don's approval (ensuring that he wouldn't get it). And honestly, his evolution from season to season has been almost as delightful to watch as Peggy's.

I like to think that a big chunk of Mad Men's narrative is Pete's education in human behavior. He's the Pinocchio of Sterling Cooper -- he was born a wooden doll, and now is still trying to act like a real boy. He spends a large chunk of season one trying to keep up with the casual and sexually charged banter of his male co-workers (his sordid description of his honeymoon -- "She's laying there, right? She kept looking at these maps, talking about all the things we were going to do... but we never did. Did you know that 600k gallons of water go over the falls per second? Per second!"), and bungling social interactions with clients and superiors. He fails at getting a promotion, he fails at blackmailing, and he fails at currying favor.

In season two, he has hardly changed. His distant and disapproving father dies in a plane crash, the very one he and his co-workers were nastily joking about earlier in the day. He admits to Don that he couldn't bring himself to cry, and didn't know what he was supposed to do. Don gives him some stern advice:

"Go home and be with your family."
"Because that's what people do."

Poor wooden Pete is completely at loss when faced with a situation like this -- he knows that an emotional response is expected -- and almost required -- but can't replicate it; and he doesn't know how to even give the appearance of replicating it. Then, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he chooses to stay in New York rather than go to Rehoboth with Trudy and her parents. "If you really loved me," she pleas, "you would want to be with me." "You're right." Pete abandons his tearful muffin of a wife to declare his aspirational and misplaced love for Peggy, who kindly but firmly turns him down and lets him know about his given-up child. The last we see of him, he's sitting alone in his office, clinging to his absurd rifle and caring little about the impending nuclear disaster. Luckily for him, somewhere between seasons two and three he reconciled himself with who he and his wife are, and this is when Pete becomes really thrilling.

Take Roger Sterling's Derby Day party in "My Old Kentucky Home," where Roger is showing off his new 20-year-old wife/celebrating his wealth. Don and Betty Draper, Pete and Trudy Campbell, and Harry and Jennifer Crane are all in attendance, and their respective attempts to fit in are met with varying degrees of success. In the middle of the party, Pete and Trudy take to the dance floor to show off their impeccable Charleston. This scene completely nails how far Pete has come since his first weaselly appearance. It is absurd and over-the-top, yes, but also truly endearing to watch this couple enjoy each other and the spotlight. Pete still seeks approval from people -- note how he keeps scanning the crowd to gauge reactions -- but he's actually successful at it now. He and Trudy Charlestonned away with the whole party, while the Cranes bumbled sweatily and the Sterlings looked like spectacular fools.


Presented without comment.

With darling Trudy's help, Pete has mastered the art of social interaction as performance.

Still, it isn't until the season three finale that Pete gets any concrete recognition from the man whose opinion matters most. Out of pure necessity, Don acknowledges that Pete has been ahead of the curve on things like "negro marketing" and JFK's youthful appeal, and he has finally started working hard to back up his canny intuitions. That acknowledgement is the final push, and in season four we see the newly passionate and loyal Pete Campbell. When Don asks him to fall on his sword and give up a huge account that he's been working on for the past four years, because the account may compromise Don's secret past, he obliges rather than ratting Don out. When he gets the news of his wife's pregnancy, he manages to use it as a negotiation point for more of his father-in-law's business, more for SCDP's sake than for his own. He's still judgmental, snobby, and too prone to touting his own successes, but he's nowhere near as smarmy and alien as he was. He's a real man now, which is more than enough to go up against the decaying and increasingly decrepit Roger Sterling in season five. And I, for one, cannot wait.