Pete Campbell’s chronic inability to have one single, unsullied good thing happen to him basically functions as a Mad Men running joke. A freak hunting accident drops the Chevy account in Pete’s lap, but he’s forced to share it with the mysterious gay man who knee-nuzzled him an episode earlier. He doesn’t get fired when the company downsizes, but he’s forced to share his new promotion with the supercilious Ken Cosgrove. He met a nice, sexy lady, but ohbytheway, she’s craaaaazy and doesn’t remember him after her electroshock therapy. Pete might not get all the good things all the time because he has a chip on his shoulder, or he might have a chip on his shoulder because all the good things elude him, but it’d be doing Pete a disservice to think of him only as a bitter, grimacing man with a hairline receding faster than a treeline during a forest fire. That’s because Pete Campbell is also something of a civil rights pioneer.
One the eve of the Mad Men season finale, Pete Campbell’s alter-ego Vincent Kartheiser spoke about the deep, psychic complexities of Pete Campbell. In case you weren’t aware, Pete Campbell isn’t just a smarmy corporate dick with an outsized sense of entitlement who can’t manage his affairs properly — he also has a strong sense of social justice. See, the show’s other white characters don’t give a shit about black people, but Pete Campbell is different, insists Kartheiser, because Pete Campbell, as a New York blue blood, was raised by black people.
When asked about Pete’s surprisingly emotional response to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Kartheiser told the Wall Street Journal:
Well, for me that wasn’t about Martin Luther King. Pete Campbell was raised mostly by black people and this is common of most of the blue bloods of that time because their parents had social engagements, work, constant travel, and basically these kids were raised by their nannies, who were traditionally black. In Pete’s case, they were black. This has always been shown on the show, that he actually has quite a lot of empathy and sympathy for the situation that black people are in, in the country. He views them as equal. He wants them to have equal rights. That particular scene for me, in playing it, and I’m glad that people can take what they will from it, but for me it was about going through that kind of a tragedy without anyone by his side. That’s where the anger was coming from.
The inscrutable Pete Campbell may yet prove himself Sterling Cooper & Partners’ unlikeliest hero.
Image via Getty, Kevin Winter