Pete Campbell – the man Mad Men fans love to hate.
He is a character played brilliantly by actor Vincent Kartheiser. He brings a powerful command of timing, physical humour and vulnerability to a role that, by a lesser actor, could have been played purely for the giddy thrill of villainy.
Pete is not a character who goes through a significant shift in his morality or ethics throughout the show; rather he continues to behave the same way until arguably the penultimate episode of the series. What is considered smarmy and weasel-like in the first season is later revealed to be beneficial to the company. His acceptance by Don and Roger and his loyalty to Sterling Cooper Draper Price is why we grow to like him, not because Pete does an ethical 180 to gain our respect.
But Pete lives in resentment of these ‘cool guys’. He has a veneer of sometimes creepy, forced self-confidence – confidence he is unable to achieve because his ideas and work are rarely validated to the degree he believes they should be. Pete, like the rest of us, does not have Don Draper’s spark, yet he tries to live his life as though he does.
As the show progresses, Pete settles more into himself, and as he does, the comedy of Pete Campbell becomes fully realized. One key difference, however, is that unlike Roger Sterling, we laugh at Pete Campbell, not with him.
One could argue that every scene Pete is in is a great scene, but here are seven times Pete was at his best.
1.The Unexpected Passing of Ms. Blankenship
S04E09: The Beautiful Girls
Pete’s a character we sometimes go episodes without seeing, and this is one of them. It’s a great feature of the show that different episodes can focus on individual characters and neglect others, without ever being uninteresting. (Of course, like Pete Campbell himself, I always feel that his “absence is felt.”)
In this episode, Pete Campbell has not yet made an appearance, but plenty has been happening without him. Ms. Blankenship has just dropped dead at her desk, as a client meeting is going on feet away in the boardroom. Not wanting to disrupt the meeting, Joan tells Megan to go “get a man” to help remove the body quietly. In the background, through the glass of the boardroom and behind the heads of the clients, we see that Pete Campbell is the man that Megan has been able to produce. (He is a “red-blooded American male” after all.) His dainty revulsion at what he is being asked to do is seen in the indignant gesture to himself — “Me?!”
This is his only appearance in the episode. The character’s comic potential is beginning to be realized in this darkly funny scene. With just his presence, Pete becomes the punch line of the situation.
2. What Pete Does Every Day
S05E07: At the Codfish Ball
Pete is asked, mockingly by Megan Draper’s communist father, what he does every day. Pete turns the question around and begins listening intently to her father’s reply, offering insightful compliments along the way. He continues this until he has visibly charmed the man. At this moment, Pete says, “And that is what I do every day.”
We often laugh at Pete Campbell’s expense, which is why this moment serves to ground us a bit – we can forget that Pete too is exemplary in his profession. Don Draper’s arrogance causes him to throw out prospective clients when they don’t understand his artistic vision, and the audience respects him for it because, well, he’s cool – and don’t we wish we had that confidence?
Pete is a different animal, one that we don’t immediately appreciate because his talents are subtle and not as romantic, or masculine as Don’s. Pete isn’t attracting people to SCDP with an image of himself, but with the picture of each prospective client that he is able to paint for them. He’s not Don Draper; rather he makes each client feel as though they are.
3. “And then you’ll walk away from me. And then you’ll take a nap.”
S06E01: The Doorway (Part One)
This is one of the few small victories Pete has over Don during the entire series. Pete’s rank has risen in SCDP, and a line that in seasons 1-3 would have been small and petulant is said here as a friendly jibe to a colleague. The line is coupled with a happily condescending pat on the shoulder:
“That’s because I spend my weekend waiting for work from you. And then you’ll walk away from me. And then you’ll take a nap.”
It no longer matters to him that Don is impressed. It’s Pete at his cocky best.
4. Pete smokes a joint
S06E10: A Tale of Two Cities
Pete has been left on the sidelines by Joan, who is attempting to secure a client by herself and keep him out of it. Pete, who no one would confuse with a hippie, sits down with the rest of SCDP’s underlings, and tokes. The company has been turned up on its head with the merger and now Joan is becoming an account man. Awash in a sea of confusion, Pete embraces the changing times.
Also, it’s just an awesome shot and music cue; one of the best conclusions ever to an episode.
5. “Not great, Bob!”
S06E13: In Care Of
Bob is well aware of Pete’s current situation, as well as his own implications in it. Pete’s mother is lost at sea, likely at the hands of the caretaker/con man Bob Benson set her up with, and yet he still asks Pete how he is when he enters the elevator, “How are you?”
“Not great, Bob!”
Pete’s incredulous response to Bob’s cheerful question hilariously sums up his horrible situation. It’s a great example of Pete Campbell’s often explosive yet chaste indignation and Vincent Kartheiser’s comic timing.
6. California Pete
S07E01: Time Zones
Pete enters season 7 with a beaming smile, gleaming forehead and a sweater casually tied about his shoulders. The man who has spent his life looking for more has found it in California. Leading with his gut, he has a discernible skip in his step as he walks in and wraps his arms around Don. Pete is an account man, after all; he’s able to adapt to the environment that he’s in and clearly California is much different than New York.
I include this because, in season 7, Pete has evolved to a point that all he needs to do is enter a room to make you laugh.
7. “The King ordered it!”
S07E11: Time & Life
Pete discovers the reason his daughter is not being permitted to attend a prestigious school is because the dean of admissions has a personal grudge against the Campbell’s over a historical event that took place hundreds of years before when Pete’s clan killed the dean’s.
Although he has just dismissed the man as being “obviously nuts,” Pete defends his ancestors with the same amount of familial pride as the dean. The man isn’t “nuts” because he’s barring a little girl from being admitted to a school due to a hundred-year-old grudge, but because Pete feels that the Campbell’s were obviously justified; after all, “The King ordered it!”
This exasperated outburst puts his long history of upper-class prep school feuding on hysterical display. It’s one of those moments that highlight the difference between Pete and Don; part of Don’s allure is his mystery – he hides where he came from. Pete wants everyone to know his high status in the world.
Vincent Kartheiser brings his talent for physical comedy and timing to a wonderfully written character – it makes for a magnificent combination. And as I said above, arguably every moment Pete is on screen is a great one, but these have left a lasting impression.
And what’s great about Mad Men is that you could pick out any member of the ensemble and write a piece just like this one. It’s one of the reasons I consider it to be among the best shows that has ever been on television, if not the best.