In only its fourth episode, Mad Men shows that it’s not afraid to devote the bulk of the hour to a character other than Don. While this Pete-centric episode is no “Signal 30,” it’s still an excellent signpost on the way to the show finding its footing. While my Reddit post reproduced below focuses on the Pete aspects of the story, we shouldn’t forget that a major event in Mad Men history happens here also: Betty babysits Glen Bishop. Creepy Glen arrives fully-formed, walking in on Betty while she’s taking a leak, and later asking for a lock of her hair as a keepsake. This odd pairing of a woman with the mind of a child, and a child with the mind of a budding serial killer, begins a subplot that will play out in bits and pieces for the rest of the show’s run.
“New Amsterdam” is a Pete Campbell-focused episode of Mad Men. It’s notable as being the first episode in which the show makes someone else other than Don the central figure for an hour, something the show would do often with its deep bench of an ensemble cast. I imagine viewers new to the show, who may already be struggling with how Mad Men is more like a novel than a TV drama, wondering why Don is mostly sidelined in this episode, and asking “Where is this all headed? Anywhere?” It’s actually quite daring, especially as the previous episode left off at a point where we’d expect to see some of the fallout from Don’s actions at Sally’s birthday party.
On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that Mad Men would have better Pete-centric episodes later on. One in particular, Season 5’s “Signal 30,” is one of the show’s greatest episodes. But that’s not to say there’s not a lot to love here.
If nothing else, “New Amsterdam” puts to rest Pete’s ambitions of one day being a creative director. For those of us who’ve seen the whole show, it’s always jarring going back to the beginning and hearing Pete say in the pilot to Don, “I’m not going to pretend I don’t want your job.” The Pete we come to know is a salesman, not a creative type, and he grows into his job really well. Pete’s primary competition in the sales department, Ken Cosgrove, is no slouch himself (and the show would later make a lot good use of the Pete vs. Ken dynamic), but he approaches the job a lot differently than Pete does. Ken’s easy-going, friendly, and comes across as a sales guy who would be a pleasure to work with. Pete, on the other hand, is a master of the hard sell, using flattery, negotiations, or any other tool in his shed to close a deal. It’s hard to imagine that he would even want to be in creative at all, much less be the boss of creative types, who can be difficult to manage.
But, as it turns out, Pete has ideas, and he wants Don and Roger to know that. When he tries to undermine Don in a pitch meeting with Bethlehem Steel, Don’s annoyed and tells Pete as much, and expects it to end there. Persistent Pete isn’t ready to give up though. During dinner (with drinks and prostitutes) he pitches his idea, which Bethlehem Steel happens to like more than anything they heard in the earlier pitch meeting. That’s enough to send Don over the edge. Pete violated a couple of fundamental rules of the business–pitching copy in a bar and, as a salesman, pitching copy at all. Don tells Pete to get a cardboard box and pack his things, as he’s fired.
But sage Bert Cooper sees a bigger picture of the advertising business, and Sterling Cooper’s place both within the industry and in New York. He makes an analogy to a luxury watch: in the intricate mesh of levers and gears, a Pete Campbell is needed. Sure, Pete’s made a mistake, but he’s young and mistakes are good learning material. And Sterling Cooper needs what Pete can provide–a foot in the door to certain parts of the Big Apple’s upper-crust society. Bert tells Don that no, this isn’t Pete’s last day.
Roger helps Don save face by barging into Pete’s office and saying that the young salesman gets to stay, despite everybody wanting him gone, but that Don reconsidered, and thinks Pete’s worth a second chance. This is a happy ending for Pete, but he’s still been dressed down. He won’t forget the rules he’s learned. (He’ll even throw a fit over Joan breaking the “fundamental rules” in Season 6 when it comes to Avon.)
But Pete would probably would prefer that dressing-down to what’s going on in his personal life. His new bride, Trudy, wants an apartment that would cost 10 years worth of Pete’s salary; the down payment is one whole year’s worth of salary. He tries to leave it at that, but Trudy’s not giving up that easy. She’ll ask her parents for the money if need be. For a man like Pete in 1960, the thought is utterly emasculating. So he feels out his parents for a loan on the down payment, but there’s no love here. Pete’s mom and dad don’t even try to cover up the fact that they’d gladly help out his brother, Bud, before they gave him any money. His dad trashes the profession of advertising, while his mother generally makes him feel unloved.
In the end, Trudy does ask her parents for the money, above Pete’s objections. The episode closes with Pete and Trudy in their new apartment, which her parents probably bought for them outright, and Pete staring out the window, while Trudy tells stories of Pete’s impressive New York family lineage. The Dyckmans (his mother’s side of the family) and the Campbells together owned a huge chunk of Manhattan at one time, back when it was known as New Amsterdam, but things are different now. Pete’s family doesn’t really have any money now–Bert had earlier related how they had given up their wealth for pennies on the dollar during the stock market crash of 1929, rather than riding it out. Pete certainly didn’t have the money to even put up a down payment for this apartment. Despite outward appearances, he doesn’t have a great job; he’s not respected for his talents or ambition. He’s being kept around for the familial connections that Trudy tells their new neighbors about. And, considering his pre-wedding tryst with Peggy, does he even really love his wife? Pete’s life may look good on paper, or to outsiders, but it’s all a facade.