In defence of Pete Campbell.
Well, not him exactly. Rather, in defence of Vincent Kartheiser’s performance. Am I the only one who thinks this? It’s spine-tingling.
As we all count down to when we can dive in to the world of Mad Men again, I’d like to make a tribute to a guy who doesn’t seem to get many tributes.
There is nothing unsettling about Mad Men – the unbelievably good acting and writing, the bright colours and perfect skin, the crispy sound design – except for the show’s strong undercurrent of pure, privileged misery, which is best personified in Pete Campbell.
I’ve read descriptions of Pete as a “villain”, or a character you “love to hate”, but in the Mad Men universe nothing is that simple. Pete is an antagonist, for sure, but he’s far from shallow – in those blue eyes we see all the shades of hatred, but also of despair, and it’s amazing to watch.
It’s not just Campbell’s ridiculously pompous sense of entitlement, a consequence of a a life spent getting everything for free, being a descendant of a gilded New York governor. His sneering insults and tantrums, delivered in that slimy WASP voice under his slick hair, can make your skin crawl. It’s not even his crippling jealousy of Don Draper in Season 1, his inability to reconcile his own lack of manliness and gravitas while someone he sees as unworthy gets all the praise and the ladies. Later, in Season 5, Pete tries out expensive infidelity for himself, trying to emulate the masculinity he sees in Don. It doesn’t make him feel more like a man, and Don is indifferent. I couldn’t help but feel Pete’s shame along with him.
What really sets Pete/Vincent apart is the big void inside of him, that money, status, women and a family in the country can’t fill. He has everything he could ever want, but it means nothing. He comes to hate the world, and himself, and it’s illustrated so perfectly. Kartheiser even says in this video that he imagines Pete Campbell committing suicide before he reached old age. This video below must be one of the best examples of the whole point of Mad Men – the ultimate nothingness of materialism and the futility of the American Dream. And who better to demonstrate this, than Pete Campbell.
(P.S. If a better television sequence is ever made, I don’t want to know about it.)