SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this, put some slipcovers on your couch and watch Mad Men.
So: Pete–not a total unsympathetic worm? Who knew? Four episodes in, Mad Men is showing an intriguing ability to change itself up from week to week. The first two episodes handled the plot in the usual serial style, bouncing among the various running threads to get them established. Episode 3 started that way, then halfway through, shifted scenes and pace to give us Don Draper in depth and at home. And last night the show took an almost anthology approach, getting up close and personal with Sterling Cooper’s oiliest junior staffer. (Giving some service, to be fair, to the Helen and Rachel Menken storylines.)
Last night’s episode explained Pete rather than rationalizing him, and it did so by going into another area I can’t recall being handled by series TV: the hoary and bizarre world of Manhattan WASP old money. Seeing Pete casually denigrated by his Bermuda-shorted father (“We gave you everything. We gave you your name. And what have you done with it?”) and Don (“Sterling Cooper has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich”) explained how he both resents and lives up to his world’s expectations of him. He loathes the idea of being the unctuous glad-hander useful for his contacts, and yet–when it comes to deviously making the Bethlehem Steel sale–he’ll be that guy, because that’s the only guy who’s ever gotten anything done for Pete.
To me, it’s less important what the episode said about Pete than the fact that it said it, and managed to suddenly flesh out what could have been a stock character. It says a lot for the show’s potential. In my TV worldview, anyway, a show that has one or two strong characters who are much better developed than everyone else is doomed to be at best good, not great. (This is my concern this summer, for instance, with Damages and Saving Grace.) A great TV show has a whole world of characters it knows down to the core; that goes for obvious greats like The Simpsons or The Sopranos or The Wire and for less-obvious greats like Roseanne or King of the Hill. (I’m sure there are exceptions–say anthology shows like The Twilight Zone–but they’re just that, exceptions.)
I’m not declaring Mad Men great after four episodes, but it has the potential, and I’ll take that for now.