Pete Campbell reminds me of a boy I knew in high school. He was the richest kid in our class. He lived in a large white house on a hill and it was rumoured that the house had two tanning beds and an indoor pool. I was always suspect of these claims because sometimes, on weekends, I would see the boy mowing the expansive front lawn. “They can afford an indoor pool but not a gardener?” I scoffed, before speeding by and returning home to watch horror videos with my Mom. I could never understand why the boy was popular. He was cruel, unattractive, and not especially smart. I liked being relatively unpopular and obscure. Observing my beautiful blessed classmates was exciting, and I resented his face getting in the way of all the pretty girls who looked like Seventeen models and attractive boys who were so endowed with good looks and smarts that they left us perimeter kids alone.
Pete is like that boy, but because we’re not in high school anymore, we’re allowed to dig inside Pete and discover his motivations. Why is Pete the way he is? Why is he so awkward, so sharp tongued, so eager to please and equally eager to upset?
The easiest answer to these questions is that Pete made choices he felt he was supposed to make, instead of those he wanted. Pete found a pretty girl, put a baby inside her, worked his way up at a well-paying prestigious job in Manhattan, bought some land and a home in Connecticut; he’s barely 30 and he has it all. This is what Pete is supposed to want, this is what Pete sometimes thinks he wants, yet he still longs for the busy noisy landscape of Manhattan. The sound of a quietly dripping drain in his country home is deafening. Pete is supposed to be happy though, so he puffs out his chest and pretends.
Pete feels trapped and sad, but his lovely wife feels the opposite. Trudy has everything that she dreamed and expected, and she’s content to pretend Pete is as pleased as she is with their life. Why should Pete be discontent? If he is, he’s wrong. When a person cannot admit their unhappiness and find ways to reach contentment, they will search for whatever small pleasure they can. Pete makes a ham-fisted attempt at seduction with a teenager in his driver’s education course that only succeeds in making Pete look and ultimately feel like even more of an awkward loser. So Pete pays for the quick fix he needs to feel like a powerful man. He lives for a short spell in a fantasy where a woman says everything he wants her to say, where Pete is in charge. But this is all just diversion. Pete needs to figure out why he’s unhappy at his core, but he won’t, because there is no part of him that will admit that he feels weak and broken down, and even if he does, no one will believe him. Everyone will see it as another of Pete’s weaknesses.
Pete’s anger makes him weak. He will always be bested: physically, emotionally. He’s frightened, he’s unsure, and he sees his unhappiness as a fault, something he must either disguise or blame.
“I have nothing,” Pete admits to Don while fighting back tears. Pete is a man who has recently suffered all the rejections of high school: he’s lost a girl; he’s lost a fight; he managed to get the Prom King into his home only to see everyone swoon for his easy swagger. Don’s quiet look in the elevator contains so many emotions. He feels frustrated with Pete, who has health, fortune, and a kind wife that Don likes. He feels annoyed, because Don is blessed with beauty, intelligence and grace; Pete’s blundering makes Don uncomfortable. Don sees a part of himself in Pete though; the man who had a large home with a pretty wife and healthy children, but an overwhelming feeling of discontent. Ultimately Don sees a smart boy who is drowning inside his unhappiness, who will likely allow his anger to consume him, and I think it breaks Don’s heart; mine as well. Pete breaks my heart.