"Signal 30" was perhaps the most thematically tight Mad Men episode to date. It was an example of a television show operating at the highest level possible. It's thematic unity wasn't magnified because it came right after "Mystery Date," which was one of the more difficult and scattered episodes of the series, but because it was simply exemplary. "Signal 30" was an episode about work and friendship-it was concise and timeless.
On my blog, Puddles of Myself, I have written about friendship time and time again. The reason I have written about friendship so much is because it is one of the most important themes in literature and in life. Novels like The Great Gatsby or even the work of Jack Kerouac show us the impossibility of friendship time and time again and how it may more difficult to understand than even love. When seen the Mad Men lens of the workplace, it becomes even more poignant.
Pete and Trudy Campbell's dinner party showed how much Pete and Ken and their loved ones have wanted to know and be friends with Don throughout their professional lives. Don has continually kept his co-workers, like the rest of the world, at arm's length. Obviously, his secretive past played a huge part in that stance, but "The Suitcase" showed his breakthrough with Peggy and his new, open, relationship with Meghan has shown that that past no longer haunts him quite as much as it once did. Don is treated like a king at Pete's home and Don begrudgingly allows himself to open up and have a good time on a Saturday night in the suburbs.
That truly touching scene is countered by two interactions the SCDP partners have with the PR rep from Jaguar. Lane's initial dinner is awkward; he tries to play ex-pat with the Jaguar man but it ends up being an unsuccessful attempt at camaraderie-Lane is simply too polite. Then, when Don, Roger and Pete take the Jaguar rep out and he insists on having "fun," they end up at a high-class whorehouse, where everyone except Don finds themselves attached. When all is said and done, the trip ends up potentially ruining the Jaguar rep's marriage as well as SCDP's chances at adding a car company to their stable of accounts.
Meanwhile, as there always is with Mad Men, there are smaller moments. Peggy and Ken's reference to their "pact" and Peggy's insistence on reading Ken's stories show that a true, workplace friendship has developed between them since they landed the Topaz account at the end of Season 4. Also, there is the already slowly forming friendship between Trudy Campbell and Meghan Draper that has been alluded to several times so far this season. And, of course, there is the business friendship between Lane and Joan that is so prominently on display after Lane's fight with Pete. Lane oversteps his boundary by confusing their friendship and his adrenaline with love, but Joan is sensible enough to look the other way-she in many ways fits the role in Lane's life that Peggy fits for Don.
Then, of course, there was the fight between Lane and Pete. It was a jaw-dropping experience. Mad Men has always done a great job of showing the day-to-day nuances and relationships and then accurately representing how the accumulation of all of those days and relationships leads to profound moments that stand out. Lane and Pete's fight is without a doubt the crowning achievement in that category thus far. The mild-mannered Lane was able to articulate with his fists that anger that nearly everyone at SCDP felt towards Pete Campbell and his ever-growing ego. The devastating part of the fight was that Lane genuinely liked Pete and if you were to take an inventory of who at SCDP were actually "friends" any viewer would have most certainly put Lane and Pete in the same corner. Lane always appreciated Pete's hunger and business savvy, but now that has gone out the window, because Lane Pryce carries with him an understanding of a role, of "Britain at its best," but Pete Campbell and his ambition know no bounds.
"Signal 30" was most certainly all about friendship and where one's co-workers stand in the scheme one's life. Ultimately, though it was meditation on the state of Pete Campbell's life. As Don and Pete ride in their cab after the visit to the whorehouse, Don gives Pete some advice about valuing what he has. It is a rare moment of Don opening up in what could be called an "intimate" way towards a co-worker. Pete, in classic style, shuns the gesture by simultaneously echoing and mocking the Don of seasons past by saying, "I have everything." That phrase later comes back around at the end of the episode when Don and Pete are riding the elevator and Pete, in tears after his fight with Lane, whimpers, "I have nothing." Pete needs the office perhaps more than Don ever did. He has a friendly and impressive wife (even Don is amused when she forces him into coming to dinner), he has a beautiful daughter, he has a "rustic" home in Connecticut, yet he still wants more; he wants more at work; he wants the young girl at the driver's ed course; he wants to prove that he is better morally than Don.
At the end of "Signal 30," Pete is left saying that he has nothing because he doesn't know where he fits in with his own life. His misguided flirtation with the high school student shows that he wants to return to his prep school days of trying to schmooze co-eds, but that is clearly not longer the place for him. His recklessly cutthroat attitude at work shows that he is also not ready to successfully navigate the adult, business world. He is a childish man who wants for more, not realizing that more doesn't necessarily make for anything tangible or fulfilling.
Pete and Don have much in common-there is something insatiable in them both and they are both very good at what they do. However, what Don has learned and what Don has tried to impart to Pete as a friend is that you don't fix the faucet with force; you fix it with patience and some sense of understanding-even if that means learning how to accept a co-worker as a friend from time to time.