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Mad Men: series 5, episode 5

Oh, what a fight.

Vincent Kartheiser as Pete in Mad Men
Vincent Kartheiser as Pete in Mad Men

Ah, the Pete episode. It’s the one we’ve been waiting for, and what twisted joy was on offer as Matthew Weiner steered us from the Campbells’ suburban hell of a dinner party, to a Manhattan brothel, to a fist fight in the boardroom. Pete, as Lane Pryce observes just before he challenges the young pretender to a scrap, has become a monster of late, drunk on power. Roger and Lane, the ageing partners, feel it most acutely and they've both perfected that look: the one that says, with a twinge of sadness, who the hell does this punk think he is, and when did I get so old? Pete’s scorn has become his trademark, but it’s fuelled by desperation. He’s hungry for recognition, for success, for the sexual attention of a teenage girl he meets at a driving safety lecture – but more than anything he’s desperate for Don, for his friendship and approval. Pete’s tears in the lift, spilling out of his quickly blackening eyes, are the tears of a child exhausted by humiliation.

Friendship threads through the episode – Don’s lack (Megan points out that she was forced to invite his accountant to his birthday party); the revelation of a pact between Ken and Peggy, that if one leaves the firm the other goes with them; Joan carrying a bucket of ice into Lane’s office post-fight (only for him to ruin their moment of solidarity by lunging like a fool). All these little alliances and kindnesses fill in the sad picture of Pete’s isolation. He is lost in the suburbs, his wife enamoured by a new baby, and he is friendless at work, where everyone who he’d call a friend loathes him. He consoles himself by role-playing with a prostitute (she gets it right when she calls him a king), and trying to seduce a teenager – all ways of pretending to be the alpha male he wishes he was. But neither works: he is furious with drunken shame after the brothel visit (where Don abstained) and watches helpless and humiliated as the teen falls for a kid her own age (called Handsome).

Poor Pete. That Weiner can retain our sympathy for a character so slippery and loathsome is testament to his writing, and the skill of the actor, Vincent Cartheiser. In the first series, I remember finding the performance absurd, false and posturing. But Pete’s unravelling, in the hands of Cartheiser, has been slower and subtler than most, and his scenes of true revelation – the agonising meeting with his father, or when Peggy tells him about their baby – show the tenderness beneath all that tortured swagger.

And oh, what a fight. There have been a few punches, or near-punches, in Mad Men – Don thumping Jimmy Barrett, Don trying and failing to thump Duck – but I don’t think there has been a fight quite as agonisingly prolonged and hilarious as that between Lane and Pete: two skinny men with their fists raised, making sure their ties are out of the way, rocking on their feet in their smart office shoes. It’s undignified, and a great comic skewering of macho business culture (listened to, disbelievingly, by Joan and Peggy through a wall). You watch Mad Men for scenes like this: high drama, an element of farce, a sense of something fundamentally shifting beneath the surface. Saying that, there are still scenes which seem a little overstated – did Don really have to rip off his shirt to tackle Pete’s broken kitchen sink in a Superman frenzy of manliness as Pete rifled forlornly through his toolbox? We get it: Don’s still got it, and Pete, poor Pete, is a shadow of a man, grasping at a life.

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