Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Signal 30" (season 5, episode 5)

Mad Men - "Signal 30" (season 5, episode 5)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 15, 2012/written by Frank Pierson and Matthew Weiner; directed by John Slattery): Three stories - Pete's, Lane's, and Ken's - carry "Signal 30," although each branches off into several intersecting threads. Pete is settling into comfortable "country" or "suburban" life (depending who you ask) in the Cos Cob neighborhood of Greenwich, Connecticut. He's consumed by the satisfaction of fixing leaky faucets, the joviality of inviting friends from the city over for dinner, and the disorientation of sitting in on high school driver's education classes as a thirtysomething. Pete's very adult professional and familial motivations for taking the course don't stop him from admiring Jenny Gunther (Amanda Bauer), a wistful, slightly gawky senior preparing to go off to college if her parents will let her. After "joking," during one breaktime hallway conversation, about taking her on a Sunday excursion to the city, Pete is eventually sidelined by a more age-appropriate interloper, Jim Hanson (Parker Young). The classmate's nickname "Handsome" only furthers Pete's humiliation, as does the young man's mistaking Pete for the class instructor. These scenes, neither referenced by nor with reference to the rest of the episode, punctuate one of the most Pete-centric narratives the show has offered in a while, bookended by Pete's and Jenny's first encounter and final rejection (not that she ever considered him enough to bother with that formality).

Pete's dinner party provides both camaraderie and tension with guests Don, Megan, Ken, and Ken's wife - what's her name? - oh yes, Cynthia, as they discuss the recent mass murder on a college campus (what a bloody summer!), and Ken's sci-fi writing (more on that in a moment). Pete seems genuinely happy with this life, charming even Don - the two have been through much together at this point, and the younger man seems genuinely eager for the big guy's approval. Later, however, after a visit to a New York bordello with Don, Roger, and a boisterous client, Don's quiet judgement (hypocritical? wise?) forces Pete into a defensive crouch. "Roger's miserable," Don asserts. "I didn't think you were." That night gets more than one of the participants into trouble. The SCDP elite have agreed to take Edwin Baker (David Hunt), one of Lane's expat friends, out on the town after Edwin expresses interest in bringing Jaguar to the agency. Lane attempts to seal the deal himself but the nervous accountant has no nose for business relationships and can't cultivate an "in" to hook the fellow Brit. As it turns out, Edwin is only playing hard-to-get so that the more buttoned-down Americans can show him a good time (he also suspects Lane is gay). Despite them doing just that - indeed because of their nocturnal excursion - the deals fall through. Edwin's wife found "chewing gum on his pubis" as Lane bluntly screams at the three men the next day, having just received this bad news from the woman herself (who is, incidentally, uncredited...IMDb lists one "Nan Baker" who was a crew member of Hard Eight, but I suspect that's a mistake based on the character's name).

Insulted not just by the ruin of "his" client but by Pete's dismissal, Lane's rising temper leads to fisticuffs with each participant settling into a classic national boxer's pose. Down goes Campbell! (Joan, who sympathetically ices Lane's hand, and gently deflects his spontaneous kiss, tells him, "Everyone in this office has wanted to do that to Pete Campbell.") Lane, we learn, will not be the last person provoked into vengeance by Pete's catty arrogance. Ken has been pseudonymously writing short stories for years - the one that his wife forces him to acknowledge at the dinner party involves a robot who destroys a bridge just to defy its own drudgery - and a publisher has expressed interest in assembling them into an anthology. Peggy is the first to discover this fact when she spots Ken and the publisher at lunch; she and others are supportive, but Roger is not. Informing the budding author that he does not want his attention divided, the boss effectively kills Ben Hargrove (Ken's pen name)...only to give birth to Dave Algonquin. Ken immediately begins writing a new, more realistic work - a novel, we suspect - clearly modeled on Pete, who gave away the secret Ken spilled at dinner. The portrait is not particularly flattering, but neither is it entirely withering. Inspired by Pete's goofy enthusiasm for his new stereo system, the author mocks yet also humanizes the petty, insecure colleague, a backstabber jealously grasping at others' personas only to find that none of them fit him. While Ken is the one who literally takes on different names, it's Pete's identity which is secretly in shambles. In Ken's (or Dave's) telling this restlessness may be, rather than mere shallowness, a sign of painful sensitivity.

My Response:
"Things seem so random all of a sudden," Jenny marvels to Pete during their hallway exchange. "And time feels like it's speeding up." This has been a common theme in Mad Men's portrait of 1966, the year of Revolver and Blonde and Blonde, Persona and Blow Up...or the Chicago nurse killer and, as this episode reminds us, the Texas tower sniper. No wonder "Signal 30" opens with garish color footage of a car accident, taken from the educational film of the episode's title. Almost all of the kindling that will erupt in '67 - '69 has been packed tight and everyone can sense the explosion to come. I noted this feeling in the cinema of the time when I assembled a sequence of '66-era clips for my "32 Days of Movies" series, writing, "It's an exciting moment but, colored by the expression of disappointment which comes just before, also sad. Nothing would ever be the same again, and if a sense of infinite possibility and limitless range filled the air, that poignant, almost naive sense of longing - for the 'total film,' the film that could encompass everything - died with the explosion of cinema into something which could not be contained. But for now, there is only the giddy, uncanny sensation of that explosion into outer space. Is the world becoming a dream, or the dream becoming the world?"

Appropriately, I found myself wondering at the episode's outset if we were witnessing a dream sequence or fantasized flashback through Pete's eyes, given how out-of-place he looks in his gray suit amidst the high schoolers in this classroom. (As the following scene opens with him lying in bed, for a moment I considered my suspicion confirmed.) In fact, I was still unsure of this storyline's reality when the episode ended - were these glimpses of Ken's novel cleverly sprinkled throughout? Ultimately, I don't think so; Pete really is getting his driver's license in an environment he's both too old for and probably never quite experienced "the right way" when he was young. The scenario has the air of those "back in school again/never actually finished your studies" dreams that people in their twenties and even thirties often have. There is an additional level of surrealism for Pete, who is only now getting a belated glimpse into all-American middle class rituals after growing up a rich boy in the city. Hitting on blushing teens and inviting his fortysomething co-worker over for dinner with wife and baby, Pete is pulled in both directions at once - no wonder he tells us he has everything and nothing in the same episode.

Thanks to the inclusion of Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon screenwriter Frank Pierson, "Signal 30" has a direct creative link to the period it depicts. In this it resembles Mad Men's Kennedy assassination episode, directed by Barbet Schroeder - another sixties/seventies cinematic figure who could recall the events onscreen. Pierson, in fact, fifteen years Barbet Schroeder's senior, was the same age as Don Draper in the sixties. (Pierson's time on the show's staff would not be long-lasting, as he died at eighty-seven a few months after this episode aired). Meanwhile Slattery's third episode as director is perhaps his most audacious yet - never afraid to be formally bold, and often keen to emphasize the comical side of the industry life, "Signal 30" is saturated in absurdity without sacrificing a sincere, poignant compassion for the characters. The one stylistic tic which doesn't quite click is Flattery's obsession with matching transitions - the sharp cut between two characters opening a door from the same angle is distracting and the dissolves between identically composed character profiles come off as garish (like the cover of an Animorphs book from the nineties). Otherwise, however, the episode is a delight, one of the funniest hours of Mad Men. In fact I've been enjoying season five so much that I'd say it's one more fantastic episode away being pre-emptively declared my favorite Mad Men season thus far - and I am pretty sure at least one such episode is on its way, involving Slattery again, though I won't say more than that.

I was particularly taken with how Slattery handles the suburban dinner party. Despite all the talk of "country life" (Don and Ken note that the suburbs are hardly rural in the sense they grew up with), the director keeps us resolutely indoors, lacking even any establishing shots of the neighborhood or lawn. This strategy could emphasize the claustrophobia of domesticity, but the overall effect is one of coziness instead. The hilariously loud sport coats, dresses, and interior design (the art director really didn't hold back on this one) remind us how much suburban life has changed in the few years since the mellow, melancholy Draper homestead served as an anchoring location. This vision of life away from the city is surprisingly pleasant and nonthreatening, a place for Don and Megan to retreat for an evening's entertainment before returning to their exciting life in the city. Indeed, for all Pete's anxieties and frustrations, his new life is presented less as a trap in which the walls are closing in than a dangerously open space where the walls have fallen down. This sensation is expressed not only in Jenny's quote but in Ken's closing narration as he riffs on Pete's desperate, awkward yearning. Ken's final words unfold as Pete watches Jenny make out with the handsome Handsome, punctuated by the disembodied dripping of the pernicious faucet which Pete thought he fixed but didn't (only Don could battle it into submission when it burst during their dinner).
"The Man with the Miniature Orchestra, by Dave Algonquin. There were phrases of Beethoven's ninth symphony that still made Coe cry. He always thought it had to do with the circumstances of the composition itself. He imagined Beethoven, deaf and soul-sick, his heart broken, scribbling furiously while death stood in the doorway clipping his nails. Still, Coe thought, it might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness. Making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear."
Next: "Far Away Places"Previous: "Mystery Date"



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