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‘Mad Men’ Episode 5 Review and Recap: In ‘Signal 30,’ Pete and Lane Throw Feeble Punches at Despair

'Mad Men' Episode 5 Review and Recap: In 'Signal 30,' Pete and Lane Throw Feeble Punches at Despair

In Sunday’s all-new “Mad Men” episode, death and despair continue to seep into the big picture. But in the midst of sniper shootings, highway crashes and men who “have nothing,” is there a faint signal of hope? Spoilers ahead!

What happened:

Pete’s taking a course to get his driver’s license, and eyeing a high school girl from class. After flirting with her, Pete suggests a tentative date, but no luck: He gets, er, jock-blocked by a more age-appropriate male student with impressive biceps. This storyline cleverly continues the season’s recurring is-it-a-dream-or-not-a-dream trope. The opening sequence reveals Pete in a high school setting, and is then deceptively followed by a shot of him lying awake in bed. When we discover the class is real, it’s all the more poignant — he’s longing for a time when athletes and cheerleader types exchange lustful small-talk over desks, and when social kings and queens are clear-cut by cuteness and popularity. I get the feeling that Pete never had that golden time when he was younger, and he’s in sore need of it now.

Don is wrangled into a party at the Campbells’ in the suburbs. Loud jackets galore! Don fixes an exploding faucet (that Pete botched), and betrays some baby fever when Trudy walks in with little Tammy. On the car ride home, Megan is turned on by Don’s earlier show of Superman plumbing, and Don is turned on by the prospect of making babies. Episode’s best line: “This brassiere is like Fort Knox.”

Lane’s fellow Brit, Edwin, wants to bring luxury car company Jaguar to Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Don, Roger and Pete will be damned if Lane bungles the job, and Roger coaches him on dinner-and-deal etiquette. “It’s like a date,” says Roger, where at the end of the evening the two men should confess some mutual personal problems, and thus form a stronger bond. Unfortunately for Lane, Edwin had a terrific time in North Africa and hasn’t “a complaint in the world.”

The big boys strong-arm Lane away from the Jaguar account, and begin the serious wooing. This means prostitutes. At an upscale brothel, Edwin, Roger and Pete all pair off, while Don opts for drinks at the bar over women in lingerie. In a season marked by violence, death and crippling insecurities, this is a true moment of hope. Meanwhile, Pete’s prostitute wants to know his role-playing preference. “You’re my king” satisfies him — and says so much.

The following day, Lane is livid. Edwin’s wife found “chewing gum on his pubis,” and the Jaguar account is off. Pete snarks at Lane, and Lane challenges him to a fist fight. This is the fight that all “Mad Men” fans have been wanting to see without knowing it. Lane wins, but the competition is paltry.

“He’s a robot”:

Ken Cosgrove’s side-career as a writer is the beautiful lining of this episode. The short story described during the Campbell dinner party has particular resonance: A robot dismantles a bridge between planets. The male characters this season are struggling with their roles at work and at home. Lane asks Joan of SCDP, “What do I do here?” He feels like a cog at the mercy of a more powerful machine. By contrast, Pete has become intensely aggressive in his career as a way of trying to answer the same question. Roger is one lost account away from complete redundancy. These men feel like robots. They go through the motions, and hope they can find a purpose in the process. It’s telling that role-playing sex has come up more than once this season.

Pete’s role as a man is thrown into question, too: He can’t fix that damned leaky faucet. The drip-drip-drip haunts the episode.

Meanwhile, Ken has the opposite problem. He has a very fulfilling role — as an author — that he must keep hidden.

The title:

“Signal 30” is the title of a 1959 precautionary shock-documentary featuring mutilated cars and mutilated people that Pete watches in his driving class. The term refers to the police code for death. As in last week’s episode, violence and death are everywhere. Pete’s young crush mentions University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, and the terrible news story comes up again during the Campbell’s dinner party. (When Cynthia Cosgrove accidentally calls the sniper Charles Whitmore, Don uncomfortably corrects her: “Whitman.”)

After Roger tells Ken to keep his writing concealed at SCDP, Ken pronounces to Peggy that his pen name has expired: “Ben Hargrove is dead.” But, unlike many of the worn-down male characters from this episode, Ken is indefatigable. In a moving voice-over sequence, he reveals his new pseudonym, Dave Algonquin.

Any other interpretations or ideas? Thoughts about the episode?

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