“New Amsterdam” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 8/9/2007)
In which Pete Campbell is laid low, over and over again
(Available on Netflix.)
For years, my standard answer to the “Which is better: Mad Men or Breaking Bad?” question was simple: whatever show is airing at the time. They were both clearly masterworks of television craft, and they were both doing new and exciting things off the form, feeding off of each other’s energy and innovation in a way that was thrilling to watch. Adding to all of this was the fact that both aired on AMC. It was The Sopranos vs. Deadwood vs. The Wire for a new generation, the kind of television discussion starter that was best handled over a bunch of beers with friends, so the opinions could get heated but never too heated. And in most ways, they were very different series, too, so following up the cool analytical nature of Mad Men with the visceral gut punch of a Breaking Bad chaser (or vice versa) made for good times for TV fans, particularly when both shows were at the height of their powers and airing titanic episodes and seasons in the same TV season. (I remember having to vote in one of those “Which was better?” critics’ polls for the 2009 Emmys, pitting the second seasons of both shows against each other. It was brutal.)
But if you’re going to ask me my personal preference, that answer has always been a little easier, and it’s an answer that dovetails nicely with this particular episode (and my desire to boost my pre-Thanksgiving pageviews): If I’m going to pick just one of these shows to watch—an episode, a season, or the whole run—I am almost always going to pick Mad Men. This is not meant to besmirch Breaking Bad, which is a terrific television program that I have only the most minor of quibbles with for the entirety of its run. (I have far more significant qualms with the bulk of Mad Men, actually.) What it is, I think, is that Breaking Bad is a series that is more or less about one thing, which is why it has such insanely controlled construction, storylines, and character arcs. Yes, it encompasses lots of other things in the course of telling its one story, but it always, always comes back to Walter White’s transformation, as laid out in the pilot. Mad Men, by contrast and as revealed brilliantly in “New Amsterdam,” wants to be about everything. That’s why it flails around every so often (but not as much as it probably should), but that’s why it, at least to me, is capable of such remarkable transcendence when it nails everything it wants to do.
I should probably stay here that I think the whole attempt to stick either show atop the pantheon of great TV shows at this early date is fairly nuts. I don’t think either has attained the depth of profundity any of the HBO series listed above managed (though I guess Mad Men still has 14 episodes to pull everything together, and so much of what made The Sopranos profound, in particular, was in its endgame). They are unquestionably great TV shows, but naming either as the best of all time, or even in the top 10 of all time, really, does a disservice to both TV history and ourselves as TV fans. I like ‘em both, but they’re very much reinventing wheels created for them by other writers. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m always going to be more interested in the glare of the new than in somebody finding new ways to make the same old cars go. (This is actually one of my critical faults, so I figured we may as well get it out of the way up top.)
I said above that Breaking Bad is about one thing, which is a little misleading. What I think it’s about is Walter White’s journey from basically okay guy to dark-hearted criminal, a journey that uncovers elements of himself that were always there. And I think there’s a lot of thematic material the show covers there, but all of the themes the show talks about are basically related—the nature of evil and angry white man syndrome and power dynamics and so on—and more or less organically arise from the story. By contrast, “New Amsterdam” is the episode that hooked me on Mad Men, and it hooked me precisely because it had nothing to do with anything that had come before. In “New Amsterdam,” Mad Men announces itself as a short story show, a type of TV structure that is murderously hard to pull off but so much more rewarding and interesting to me when it is than the more common novelistic structure. (Another short-story vs. novel comparison point: The Sopranos vs. The Wire. And I prefer the former there, too, because I am a monster.)
After spending its first three episodes establishing the identify of Don Draper and fleshing out the world of the series, Mad Men uses its fourth episode to essentially reduce Don to a supporting character and turn the narrative over to Pete Campbell, who spends most of the episode being literally reduced, both within the frame and by the people around him, who keep managing him into the sidelines of his own life. His father isn’t impressed by his job, no matter how great Pete thinks it is. Trudy makes more of the decisions than Pete is comfortable with, and her family is the one that ultimately helps the young couple put the down payment on their apartment. And at work, he’s dwarfed by the figure of Don Draper, the sort of casual genius who makes someone like Pete, who has to work so hard for every bit of cleverness he can scrape together, all the more envious. In the show’s first three episodes, Pete was the kind of irritating little toady it was easy to roll one’s eyes at. “New Amsterdam” reveals him to be something altogether more desperate and lonely and sad.
In particular, notice the only time that Peggy Olson appears in this episode. For a character who’s second-billed in the credits and spent much of the second episode being held up as a reflection of the series’ lead, Peggy slips a bit into the background in this episode and the episode immediately preceding it. That makes sense in the third episode, which is all about the split between Don’s work and home lives, but here, where we’re still waiting for the fallout of Peggy and Pete’s sexual encounter at the end of the pilot, it seems a more curious choice. And yet the fact that she only turns up the one time when Trudy’s dropped by the office to surprise Pete with a visit to an apartment she likes makes the point of that tryst all the more forcefully: Peggy was just a fling for Pete because she had to just be a fling. There is a way that people from his class and level of privilege operate, and that way doesn’t have room for a junior secretary.
Also, as I rewatched “New Amsterdam” for probably the sixth or seventh time, I paid close attention to the positioning of Pete within the frame. Throughout the episode, he’s dwarfed by other characters within the frame. Both of his parents—even his mother—stand out as far larger figures to the camera than he does. At work, pretty much everyone does, and even when he’s out with Trudy or with Walter from Bethlehem Steel (a character we’ve just met), director Tim Hunter takes great pains to position all of the other actors so they’re dominating the frame over Vincent Kartheiser. It’s a bit of an obvious trick to enhance the isolation Pete feels, the way that he can’t seem to overcome the way that he feels trapped by the circumstances of his life and the way he feels emasculated and powerless around almost everyone else in his life. In particular, that scene where his parents seem to push him into the very back corner of the frame gets more context when we learn that Pete’s mother is a Dykeman and that, to a real degree, Pete has gotten everything he has in his life because of his family connections, not because he’s a fantastically hard worker.
This sort of technique can be at its most devastating if the director finds a way to neatly reverse it, and Hunter does, just when you’d least expect it. In their meeting with Bert Cooper in which Don and Roger announce their plan to fire Pete for pitching his own hacky lines to Walter, the two senior men learn from Bert that Pete’s presence in the firm is assured simply because of what he represents: a door into the world of New York’s oldest money. Don and Roger go to Pete’s office, where Roger bullshits a story about how Pete is getting to keep his job because Don thought the kid deserved a second chance. But Pete dominates the frame here, particularly over Don. (The camera places Pete at only moderately more importance over Roger. They’re on the same plane within the frame, but we read left to right and subconsciously scan the person to the left of a frame as more important when both figures are roughly similar in size and height.) Don, whose past is so mysterious but obviously one without those old money connections, knows he’s subservient to this punk kid, even if the actual text of Lisa Albert’s script here is that of Pete unabashedly thinking the two men for getting to keep his job. The power dynamics have been reduced. We know it, and Don and Roger know it. But Pete doesn’t, and that keeps things interesting.
Also take a look at the character with the second-most important storyline in this episode, one Betty Draper, whose slow drift through suburban life in Ossining gets linked explicitly through several editing choices and camera moves to Pete back at the office. There’s plenty going on with Betty—about which more in the stray observations—but the overall impression we get is that of a woman who’s trapped in many ways by her own dependence on Don, by her own central childishness. She hasn’t given the upcoming election the slightest of thoughts, and there’s a strange mixture of pity and envy in her regarding of Helen Bishop, a woman she clearly both wishes she could be on some level, yet loathes for disrupting her carefully ordered universe. The fullest connection Betty seems to establish in this episode is with young Glen, who walks in on her using the bathroom and then seems to weirdly flatter her by asking for a lock of her hair. It’s all a very strange sequence, but it gains new relevance when viewed in the context of a woman who goes to a psychiatrist to talk about herself and instead spends all of that time talking about the divorcee down the street.
Yet “New Amsterdam” doesn’t really have much bearing on future events in the series, outside of the fact that the short story show is always more about the slow accumulation of character detail than it is any sort of overwhelming plot momentum. Story seems to just happen to Mad Men sometimes. A calamity arises from outside the characters, and then they respond to it. That’s a very typical method of storytelling in a short-story show, where mood, atmosphere, and slowly coming to understand a character better and better are more important than having the characters endlessly push the plot forward. The individual episodes, which usually tell more or less complete stories about circumstances the characters face, are the thing here, and sometimes, the season or series can seem almost beside the point in the face of, say, Pete Campbell looking out the window at the city that will always be some part of his history but will also never feel to him like the birthright it probably should.
And, ultimately, I just like that kind of storytelling more on TV than I do the more novelistic thing, where it’s all one story, endlessly hurtling forward. At a certain point in Breaking Bad—roughly after the third-season episode “Fly”—I just felt like I knew more or less what all of those people were going to do in most every situation, and the story became more and more about backing them into tighter and tighter corners to see how they’d escape. That was explosively fun to watch, and I’m never going to tell you you’re wrong for preferring that series to this one (or any series to any other series). But to me, Mad Men succeeds precisely because of the approach of “New Amsterdam” and its short-story style. It can bring forward supporting characters and make them the protagonists of their own stories on a more or less consistent basis, and it ends up building such an all-encompassing world that we can just see the very edges of taking form in “New Amsterdam” that it fits almost perfectly into my TV drama sweet spot, even if it means we eventually get stuff like Bobby Draper subplots. I can always appreciate the great stuff other shows offer me, but Mad Men is speaking my language.
- That whole monologue Pete offers about what he has to offer to the firm is complete gold. “Direct marketing. I thought of that. Turned out it already existed, but I arrived at it independently.” I’ll bet you did, Pete.
- Another nice little moment from Pete: Trudy asks him what’s causing his father’s health problems (the excuse Pete contrives for when he lies about not having asked them for the money for the apartment), and we half expect him to say, “It’s his heart,” because that’s what a lot of shows would do. Instead, he says, “Nobody knows.” Pete’s father is inscrutable to him.
- Mad Men is one of the best shows I can think of at coming up with these moments that come out of nowhere but feel perfectly in character, and Betty giving Glen the lock of her hair is one of those moments in its earliest form.
- Though he’s not the main part of this episode, Don gets some great moments as well. I particularly like that final scene he has with Roger in which the two men go over their very different forms of angst. It’s also a great example of how the show is figuring out how to write for Roger and John Slattery’s very particular brand of dry wit.
- Another nice moment of character detail: Don and Roger make sure to remove their shoes before entering Bert’s office. These characters never feel like the sum of their quirks like they might on a lesser series.
- Pete at least has good taste in comedy albums. The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart is some good stuff. And it’s such a Harry move to not get Lenny Bruce.
- Welcome to…: Alison Brie makes her first appearance as Trudy Campbell. And to think there was a time before she was the Internet’s favorite actress ever!
Spoiling Cooper (Do not read this section if you haven’t seen past this episode):
- I couldn’t help but think of Don’s latent class issues in the scene where it’s explained to him why Pete will be sticking with the firm. Though we don’t know it yet in the world of the show, knowing now that Don is actually hiding his Dick Whitman past makes that whole scene even more intriguing and complex.
- I found the fact that Betty has barely any interest in the John F. Kennedy campaign sort of amusing, considering the fact that she will become a political wife very much in the Jackie Kennedy mold later on.
- Bye Bye, Birdie will return in one of the show’s more famous opening sequences in season two.
Next time: I am taking next week off to celebrate my birthday, but we’ll be back on December 11 to discuss “5G,” which brings director Lesli Linka Glatter to the series for the first time, then close out the year with “Babylon” on December 18, before taking a short holiday break.