Has there ever been a Mad Men character more hateful than Pete Campbell?
Don is a terrible human being, but that’s part of what makes his character so attractive. (I haven’t read Adam’s work on the related subject, but the assumption in the book’s title rings true to me — Don may be a sociopath, but we love him for it.) He’s charming, urbane, and utterly ruthless. He’s a winner, and we love to watch him win.
Pete, by contrast, is a loser. He never gets what he wants, that is, until he does get it — and then it immediately loses its value. This is at least partly because the thing Pete wants most is whatever Don has. (This has always been true, but perhaps never so pointedly as in this episode. I especially liked how Pete pervs after a ponytailed blonde high school girl, and then the next day Don’s wife shows up for work dressed in what basically looks like a cheerleading outfit.)
If Don is a sociopath, Pete represents an infinitely less attractive and more creepy strain of social oddity — the lonely, bitter misfit who strikes out at the world from a sense of thwarted entitlement and a position of weakness. This episode is overshadowed by the news story of a Texas gunman, who shoots his mother, his wife, and a bunch of students from a clock tower at the University of Texas, and who is unsubtly connected here to Pete, who bought his own rifle after trading in his wedding present.
Pete’s weakness and angry entitlement set him apart from the other inhabitants of SCDP. At the end of the episode, he pleads to Don, “why are we even having a fight at work? This is an office. We’re supposed to be friends.” That he thinks that these people are his “friends” is ridiculous, considering how he treats them. He has blackmailed Don (or at least tried to), he has undermined Roger, and in this episode he tattles on Ken. His way of engaging in interpersonal conflict is totally different from his co-workers — he stabs people in the back, whereas the other men stab people full in the face. When Roger hit on Don’s wife, Don retaliated by pranking him, in a way that sent a clear message. There wasn’t any sneakiness about it, and afterwards, Roger and Don remained friends, more or less. When Pete insults Lane in this episode, Lane is totally forthright — he simply challenges Pete to a fight. Pete’s comment about not fighting friends misses the point — partly because these people really aren’t his friends, but even more because it is Pete’s unwillingness to fight, or engage in open conflict, that makes it so unlikely that these people will ever be his friends.
I’m still on the fence about Don’s marriage. Megan’s very good at handling Don — she’s sweet, but firm, and she knows how to get what she wants from him. It’s clear that Don likes being “handled” — for example, he genuinely seems to like Trudy, who is also very good at making Don do what she wants. Don even goes so far as to compare Trudy to Megan, telling Pete that he wouldn’t have fooled around during his first marriage if he had been married to Megan or Trudy. But I doubt Don is right. Surely Betty was once smart and audacious and good at getting what she wanted, before her life (and, in no small part, Don) embittered her and caused her to lose her confidence. In other words, Don could never have met Megan first. He had to have the first marriage — with the kids, the suburban house, the extramarital affairs, and the wife whom he trapped in a cocoon of deceit, belittlement and stultifying domesticity — before he could have the second marriage. In this, at least, Pete knows better than Don. There’s nothing wrong with Trudy — she’s smart, lovely, sweet, and a great partner — but she’s the first wife. Pete already wants to skip ahead to the second.