More than even Don Draper, Pete Campbell represents the worst of the Mad Men universe, the part we as an audience are happiest to see dead and gone. Dick Whitman, at least, had to claw his way into privilege, and lives with the burden of maintaining it. Pete, on the other hand, was born with all the WASPy entitlement in the world and without the charm to pull it off. He is purely, nakedly awful, the man with the figurative and literal most punchable face of all Sterling Cooper’s employees. Oddly, he’s also one of the easiest to identify with.
Glamor might not be all there is to Mad Men, or even its true spirit; as often as the show gets touted as eye candy, it’s obvious even to the casual recap reader that the whole point of the stunning outfits and quippy one-liners is the alcoholic, emotionally unfulfilled messes they hide. But it’d be disingenuous to pretend the slickness doesn’t help the extremely bleak medicine go down, or that the suave factor doesn’t give viewers, however sophisticated, as much of a kick as all the commentary on the American dream. For proof, just Google “Mad Men drinking supercut.”
Pete, on the other hand, is the most prominent of Mad Men‘s definitively unglamorous characters. Paul Kinsey and Harry Crane are buffoons equally unable to hide their awfulness beneath a veneer of cool, but they never quite rise above the level of comic relief. (Kinsey’s awful Star Trek spec script and Harry’s liaison with a Hare Krishna seductress earn “Christmas Waltz” my vote for the show’s funniest single episode.) Pete is exponentially better fleshed out: his marriage is second only to Peggy’s arrival as one of the central events of the pilot, and we frequently drop in on his home life, the ultimate signal of a character’s depth on a show that’s fundamentally a workplace drama.
And so Pete’s utter and total failure to live up to the Mad Men ideal rises above comedy and into something approaching sympathetic. Take his disastrous attempts at the serial adultery Don, Roger, and the like commit so effortlessly: his failed, creepy attempt at seducing a teenager in his driving class; his dalliance with a bored housewife played by real-life wife Alexis Bledel; his marriage-ending visit to a brothel also frequented by his father-in-law. And, worst of all, his cardinal sin as a character: the rape of his neighbors’ German au pair. More than his stabs at advertising’s creative side or inability to fix a kitchen sink, they’re the ultimate symbol of Pete’s pathetic attempts at the dominant masculinity he sees as his birthright.
Some of Pete’s behavior is undeniably loathsome. Yet unlike the absentee fathers, cheaters, and liars who populate the ranks of advertising’s alpha men, Pete can’t help but make his loathsomeness visible. Don managed to last fifteen years as a father before Sally saw him for what he is; Tammy isn’t conscious yet, but I doubt she’ll have any illusions about the kind of man she didn’t grow up with—once she learns to recognize him. It’s no wonder that Pete’s so attracted to California: like so many before him, he’s looking for a fresh start where nobody knows who he is.
And yet it’s this sheer awfulness, coupled with his inability to hide it, that makes Pete compelling (or at least as compelling as a guy like Pete can be). Were any of us air-dropped into the 1960s, it’s far more likely we’d be a Pete than a Don or a Bob, the person gawking at the sidelines as someone else gets away with it. That’s a role most of us have found ourselves in already, at some time or another. And over seven seasons, I’ve found that as much as I want to relate to Peggy — and frequently do! — I’m often more drawn to Pete, who wears the all-too-human qualities of pettiness, resentment, and envy on his sleeve.
Even if most aren’t willing to go that far, Pete is at the very least a refreshing, if unwitting, example of honesty in an office where (most) people manage to keep their flaws (mostly) suppressed. And on a show headlined by the antihero’s antihero, it feels good to have a character who we love to hate rather than hate to love.