Pete Campbell is the Future Whether You Like It Or Not
In five years we'll all either be working for him ... or be dead by his hand. -Jack Donaghy
No one is reliable, no one is sacred and everything changes. This is what Mad Men is on a mission to tell you. Nothing is the same for long. Consistently since season one, Mad Men has presented us with characters who are neither hero nor villain.
They are slightly inflated caricatures of the human condition who we simultaneously, revere, adore, hate, distrust and sympathesize with.
Every character we follow on the show hears the ticking of the clock, both of times a changin’ and of their own times slowly being erased. No one is who we think they are.
Then there is Pete.
Pete Campbell, of all the characters, is the hardest to get behind. He represents the need to follow orders and rise within a system (although, not afraid to throw elbows within that system) until he is the man at the top. He is mostly despicable with a few moments of redemption, but he remains unsure of who he is or what his place is in the agency. He is close to the top and unable to find a way to the top.
Pete knows how the system should work.
However, these days, we see Pete as a man in transition, slowly coming to terms with who he is and the world he now lives in. While he has often been the character I overlooked, the past few episodes of Mad Men has brought Pete out of the shadows. Pete went from knowing the world of yesterday like the back of his hand to embracing the present in one hit. That’s notable.
Indeed, I am not the only one to overlook him, in the Guardian's recap of episode ten, "A Tale of Two Cities," they do not even mention Pete’s moment of epiphany grabbing a joint from creative and sitting back as the opening riff of Janis Joplin’s "Piece of My Heart" kicks in.
This was the moment Pete stepped into his skin.
Mad Men is a show very aware of the fact that time is not slowing down for its characters. So, they will never be who we want them to be. Time is too fast for that. The characters that make it learn to adapt and survive. This is Pete’s moment. He realizes that the rule-book by which he learned to be an ad-man is gone. With Joan on an accountant that was promised to him, where does that leave him?
On the coach, smoking with creative.
He finds himself in the wilderness and for once he sees what it means to be liberated (even if it is only a glimpse). He is in a position where he alone will decide how he will get to the top and that is why the image of him sitting on the coach smoking is so important.
He is no longer a relic of what Sterling Cooper used to be, along with Roger, Bert and Don, he is part of forward movement now.
Despite his (partial) embrace of the counter-culture, Pete remains largely a man of mystery and his hand is still very well hidden. With all the attention being paid to who Bob Benson is, it is important to remember that Pete is putting him in the “IOU” pile (a pile he once held Don Draper in). He is like a man amassing power without a real reason yet. While some people have a clear goal in mind, Pete seems to be focused on power without really knowing its use. At the end of the day, he is still very much a character that is growing. He’s not there yet (no one ever is) and he never will be.
That's what's so important about Mad Men, like life, there is no real end-point or "top." The characters will grow, change and the show is working to make them change, not deliver them to a neatly wrapped, comfortable conclusion. We will never see Pete kicking back happily-ever after. He can only endure.
For now it seems like he will just take Kenny Cosgrove’s Chevy account, deal with Benson and see what happens.
To say he is transformed would be an overstatement. We still have moments where he drunkenly asks Peggy if she pities him, to which she cryptically responds, “I know everything about you.” Pete is still “Pete the unlovable” in the present, even if Peggy alludes to knowing what his trajectory will be.
As we move into the final episode of season six, I think that "The Tale of Two Cities" will be looked at as the beginning of Pete Campbell’s rise. Between the DD’s and BB’s he is holding secrets for, we would be wise to begin to notice Pete.
Love him or hate him (that can easily change), he is the future and his rifle is already shined.