The Carousel: Revisiting Mad Men: “Signal 30” (S5E5)

Apologies for the delay (not posting this on the usual Tuesday or Wednesday), there was chewing gum on my pubis.

Hi! It’s “Signal 30”! Our first-place winner in the Season 5 poll, though since we’re doing the season chronologically this time, we’re not reviewing it last. (We’re actually reviewing three episodes in a row – Episode 4 “Mystery Date”, Episode 5 “Signal 30”, Episode 6 “Far Away Places”. That streak hasn’t happened since Season 1 with Red in the Face / Hobo Code / Shoot.)

Unlike “Mystery Date”, “Signal 30” is an episode with its themes and messages right there on the surface, by “Mad Men” standards – which is not a bad thing.

Pete’s hangups about masculinity, likability, and self-sabotage are the opposite of well-hidden. He may not know what’s wrong with him, but everyone around him sees it right away, to paraphrase Stephanie. So an episode all about those obvious, obvious failings gets to be a little more bombastic and aggressive in how it presents its ideas.

This episode’s opening scene reminds us of a easily-forgotten emasculating fact about Pete: he can’t drive. The fact he can’t drive reflects his heritage – growing up in Manhattan, always having drivers or cab money – and we all know that WASPy over-enunciated way of being emasculates him in his personality as much as it affords him certain things. So even before we’ve heard a word of dialogue, gotten an explanation about that tapping foot / dripping faucet sound effect, or guessed the theme of this episode, we’re primed to think of Pete as an embarrassment.

That embarrassment continues as Don shows up to a dinner everyone cheerfully and openly admits he had to be dragged to, where Ken will use Pete’s boasting about his new stereo system to later write a story about a sad tiny man with a tiny orchestra.

Don (wearing a tie with a crown embossed on it – subtle, Janie Bryant) is the center of worship at a party for the second time this season, again to an extent he finds a little embarrassing. Don letting slip that he grew up using an outhouse, and immediately remembering the guy’s name was “Whitman” and not “Whitmore”, are both fun moments. Especially since his former blackmailer is right there at the head of the table.

But Don doesn’t have to be careful what he says with these people. They’re his subjects tonight. He’s certainly under no obligation to ruin his shirt and fix their sink, but he does it anyway (and it’s hot, and I’m not even into Don or macho guys in general).

Meanwhile, Lane got an in with Jaguar’s PR guy, and he’s determined to be The Account Man for the day. So Roger has some subtle advice (though, ironically, after Roger making the grimy account services job seem challenging and cerebral, it all comes down to who the guy wants to hang out with at a brothel after all).

Mad Men is a show with a lot of interest in its characters who work in Accounts, and in their machinations competing with each other, but very little interest in what accounts guys actually do. Which is what makes it straight-up fascinating to hear Roger give his 10 tips of the trade how to sign a client during dinner and get your RFP info.

Not that Lane is any good at applying tips naturally in conversation. “I’ve heard men speak with dark permanence of those years.” “It must give you a sense of melancholy.” “Any chance you’ve got a shoplifting problem or something?” (One of those may be made up.)

So Roger, Don, and Pete take over. Roger told Lane of the “friendship formed through conspiracy” when you and a client reveal some shameful part of yourselves to each other. Lane failed to find it with Mr. No Complaints, and Pete now fails to find it with Don.

Pete reveals his infidelity to Don – a boundary they’ve technically never crossed with each other – and gets silent judgment where he had assumed he’d get commiseration. And that’s a fair assumption! Half the reason Pete cheats is because it must be cool if Draper does it! He learned it from you, Dad!

So that brings us back to the crown on Don’s tie earlier. The prostitute offers Pete the chance to sleep with three women: Trudy Campbell (Honey, you had a hard day), Jenny from driver’s ed (Um… it’s my first time), and a third woman he’s never encountered, who doesn’t exist: one who sees Pete Campbell as a king. Unsurprisingly, he goes for the imaginary option.

From there, the humiliations pile up: the incredible fight with Lane, the temporary loss of Jaguar, the crying in the elevator, the losing out to a teenage boy named Hanson.

People who thought this season would end with Pete snapping and killing other people and/or himself can perhaps be forgiven – on top of the noose Don draws, Pete’s Chekhov’s gun is discussed at length, and comparisons are drawn between Pete, Charles Whitman the school sniper, and the mass-murdering powerless drone of Ken’s story. But Pete is never gonna snap in that sort of way. It’s not the exploding faucet blasting everywhere that represents his state of mind. It’s just a quiet, unending little drip.

Many modern viewers would probably say Ken escapes the least scathed because his look is the least loud, but this is incorrect. Ken’s denim-colored big plaid is grungy and timid.

Pete goes for it with the pastel yellows and blues, his tie choice saves it, and most importantly, he’s naturally preppy and colorful enough to pull it off. Don cannot, but by God if he didn’t try.

1. Pete
2. Don
3. Ken


Stray Observations:
* I took a screenshot of Lane’s SPORTS face, which is the face I aspire to when pretending to care about sports


* The only time I can remember seeing Don’s boredom doodles before the noose this episode is in season 3, when he drew an American flag during the meeting Guy MacNofoot explained the restructuring. That time I assume it was just meant as an expression of his frustration in that moment (though you could argue that one also foreshadowed the end of the season, with a declaration of independence). This time, though… 🙁

* My memory did not nearly do justice to Vincent Kartheiser’s delivery during “MY LORDY! NEW BUSINESS!”

* Ken and Peggy’s color coordination during the scene in her office is subtly done, but I like it. I get too much weird joy out of any hint they’re a team.

* Pete mentions he’s been trying to get Don over for dinner since he was first married. I remember the Season 1 scene they’re referencing, mainly because Don said no and then told Pete he was raised not to wear jewelry like a woman. Before Mad Men I never realized how recently men started wearing rings.

* It doesn’t matter how many times I watch it – as a non-handy person who was raised by a home renovator, I cringe so hard for Pete every time I watch him stall while Don fixes the sink. I know this feeling intimately.