Directed by Tim Hunter | Written by Lisa Albert | 45 min
Pete Campbell, Antihero?
By Colin Hart
8.4 / 10
As we wait with bated breath to see if Mad Men will pick up speed — action? Drama? Majestic, prestige TV? — we must first realize that episodes like “New Amsterdam” are to be expected. Matthew Wiener’s only goal at this early stage of season one is to enrich the backstory and strengthen characterization. If you’re still an impatient viewer after this latest slow-burn installment, then maybe the show just isn’t for you.
Mad Men isn’t like its prestige counterparts. Instead of relying on genre staples like gangsters, drug dealers or crystal meth kingpins, Mad Men concerns itself with the day-to-day lives of upper-class, NYC denizens. If you want action, look to the interaction. For drama, consider the outstanding character development. And if you’re looking for edge-of-your-seat excitement, look no further than the everyday beats of life itself, of which these characters perfectly exemplify.
But, still, all this praise of elegant nothingness can’t make up for the fact that “New Amsterdam” is mostly a bore.
The worst — and weirdest — plotline comes when divorcée, Helen Bishop, abruptly asks Betty to babysit her kids. Helen’s eldest son, the nine-year-old Glen, is a strange and sexually-stunted oddball. He purposely walks in on Betty peeing, and then later asks for a lock of her hair.
Should we be concerned? Should I care? Why exactly did Betty comply? This isn’t exactly what I meant when I said I wanted majestic, prestige TV.
The story of Glen Bishop, who is the son of series creator Matthew Weiner, will always be a low-point for the series. But, luckily, his sporadic appearances will be few and far between. “New Amsterdam” regrettably features one of the most inconsequential Mad Men plotlines ever.
The rest of “New Amsterdam” isn’t quite so paltry. Pete Campbell, who has been a brown-nosing baboon’s ass throughout the first three episodes, is finally humanized thanks to a humbling and empathetic performance from actor Vincent Kartheizer. By the end of “New Amsterdam,” he has gained a new sense of understanding — a sympathetic schmuck, a mere monkey’s butt.
Freshly married to the elegant Trudy (played by Alison Brie), Pete is beginning to realize that he isn’t as well-to-do as he seems. Lacking the finances to rent an expensive Manhattan apartment, he reluctantly turns to his father for help, only to be berated as an embarrassment to the Campbell family legacy. With nowhere else to turn, Pete shamefully accepts the gratuitous donation of his father-in-law.
He and Trudy finally get their dream apartment, but the New York City skyline has never looked emptier. And Pete Campbell has never been lower.
Meanwhile, Don’s attempts to fire Pete are overruled by Bertram Cooper, the true father of the firm. Played by the 76-year-old Robert Morse, he brings a captivating presence, the wise authority with the final say. His verdict that Pete’s last name outweighs his persistent undermining is the only good stroke of fortune to come Mr. Campbell’s way all episode.
Ironically, the family name is the one thing Pete has spent the entire episode trying to avoid. In a way, he is like Don Draper but on a smaller scale — a man who seemingly has it all but doesn’t know what he wants.
As a whole, “New Amsterdam” isn’t all that memorable in the Mad Men grand scheme of things but it still gets the job done all things considered. Betty and Glen are a low-grade guarantee, and the absence of Peggy is a mistake that these early episodes can’t afford to make. But there are still several items worth your while — for better or worse, the hour is completely carried by Pete Campbell, formerly the show’s most insufferable character.
Pete usually gets one spotlight per season and will eventually become one of the more likable characters on the show. His transformation takes time. It’s not until “Signal 30” (season five episode four) that the tide will completely turn, but “New Amsterdam” goes a long way in establishing him as an essential P.O.V.
Sadly, it doesn’t do the greatest job of much else. Except for, of course, the closing scene. “New Amsterdam” fading into Ella Fitzgerald’s “Manhattan” is a stroke of genius, plain and simple. Pete’s Dutch ancestors used to own everything north of 125th street. Now he’s a stranger in a strange land.
Mergers and Acquisitions
- Don berates Pete big time this episode, but the animosity from his father is even worse. Showcasing this side of Pete’s life really puts his office persona into perspective.
- Pete’s idea for the Bethlehem Steel campaign are far better than Don’s art-deco inspiration. Don’s inflated ego, coupled with the fact that Pete isn’t supposed to be pitching copy behind his boss’ back, is enough to warrant termination. However, old Bert Cooper still remembers the Dyckman’s, and so Campbell has excellent job security.
- To save face, Roger frames the situation as if Don saved Pete’s job. It’s a win-win, and the ever-gullible Campbell falls for it hook, line and sinker. Roger is another smarter-than-he-looks (or not-as-dumb-as-he-seems) character that will soon become a major player.
“Sterling Cooper has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich.”
“New York City is a marvelous machine filled with a mesh of levers and gears and springs like a fine watch, wound tight, always ticking.”
“Maybe every generation thinks the next one is the end of it all.”