As a small reminder: I’m making my way through all of Mad Men before the last episodes premiere next spring. The plan is to do two episodes a week, with reviews going up Mondays and Wednesdays, but the schedule might vary a little bit.
After three episodes that serve very clear introductory purposes, I am eager to say that “New Amsterdam” is the first episode of Mad Men that actually feels like a typical episode of Mad Men. For the most part, this is true, since the episode features basically two story-lines that focus on different characters, but are connected through some kind of theme or subtext. The problem with making that statement, though, is that “New Amsterdam” is very different from almost every other episode of Mad Men in that Don Draper isn’t the protagonist of either of the episode’s two stories. In this episode, Don more or less plays a supporting role to both Pete and Betty. But while Don sitting on the sidelines is an uncommon development on this show, the fact that creator Matthew Weiner was willing to cool down on Don (coming off an episode that was all about him) in favor of other people’s stories is representative of one of Mad Men’s biggest strengths, which is the show’s recognition of how important it is deepen and explore the lives of its supporting characters.
The interesting thing about “New Amsterdam” is that is focuses on the two characters that have, for a long time, been the most divisive among Mad Men fans. In the case of Betty, at this point in the show’s run she is still one of the most interesting and intriguing characters (this episode was yet another reminder of how great her arc is in this first season). It was only in latter seasons that the writing of the character started getting broader and people turned on her. On the other hand, though, Pete Campbell was a very unlikable character right from the start. I mean, we’re only three episodes into the series and we’ve already seen him sexually harass a woman (in the bachelor party scene in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes), go behind Don’s back in search of some glory (the Lucky Strike pitch), and have sex with Peggy right before going on his honeymoon. However, even if he is a weasel, he has always been one of the most interesting characters in the show. Well, at least in my opinion.
The most interesting facts about Pete Campbell are still to come, so it is worth it to remember that I probably hated Pete at this point when I first watched the show. So far he has been nothing but a jerk, but things started to change in this episode. In this episode we learn that not only does it suck to be Pete Campbell, but Pete Campbell might actually be aware that it sucks to be him. We learn a lot about Pete’s background and family life in this episode. Starting by the first on-screen appearance of his wife Trudy (played by Community’s Allison Brie). Trudy wants to buy an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The young couple doesn’t have that kind of money, so Pete visits his parents hoping to get some financial aid. Pete’s parents, however, are not only incredibly stuffy, they come from old money. They’re so old money that Pete’s dad doesn’t really consider advertising to be an actual job, and refuses to give Pete any money saying that they already gave them everything he has: “We gave you your name”.
But that’s just the start of the episode, what happens next is that Trudy actually gets her parents, who are very excited about the newlywed couple, to give them the money they need to buy the apartment. All these developments make Pete feel like he is worthless, and so, he does something stupid at the office. He gets his “cousin” to entertain a client, and uses the moment to pitch an idea behind Don’s back. You’d think Pete would have learned to not go behind Don’s back after the tough talk he gave him in the Pilot. Anyway, the worst part is that the client loves Pete’s pitch, which infuriates Don, who fires Pete on the spot. Suddenly, Pete’s world is crumbling. Thankfully for him, though, Bert Cooper comes in to tell Don and Roger that they can’t fire Pete, because they don’t want his wealthy parents going around New York’s society circle saying how badly Sterling Cooper treated their son.
Pete lives another day, but his father’s words now sound truer that ever. All he really has is his name. That, however, doesn’t seem to be a good thing. Pete’s ego and personality don’t let him be another member of a powerful family, he has to establish a dynasty of his own, one that is founded on his own merits and talents. For all his terrible qualities, you have to give to Pete for trying to become a successful man on his own. He may not be taking the best possible route, but that is what makes him such an interesting character. He wants to be the apparently self-made man that is Don Draper. He wants to be a living legend, but the truth is he never will be. He is a tragic character because he doesn’t know what lies behind the legend, and he doesn’t know what the future has in store for him.
Also in this Episode:
The episode’s other main plot-line centers on Betty, who like Pete, has a very privileged background. Like I said when I wrote about Ladies Room, Betty seems to have been raised to be the perfect housewife. She, however, isn’t entirely happy being one. That’s why, instead of being immediately dismissive of Helen Bishop like the other women from Ossining, she is actually fascinated with the idea of a divorced woman. Most of her still thinks Helen’s life is basically a tragedy (her house is messy, she doesn’t have time to cook), but a part of her is flirting with the idea of a woman living on her own. The main development of this storyline, though, is that Betty goes to Helen’s house to babysit, and in a truly creepy turn of events gifts a lock of her hair to Helen’s son Glen (who is played by Matthew Weiner’s son). Oh, and all of this happens after Glen walks in on Betty while she’s using the bathroom. Sure, Glen asked her to do it, but she should know how creepy the whole thing really is. That is, however, just the start of Glen Bishop’s creepiness.
- Let’s start by saying how amazing Trudy is, and how amazing Allison Brie is at playing her. Pete really doesn’t deserve such a loving wife as her. That being said, let me also give a shout-out to Vincent Kartheiser’s fantastic job playing Pete. It’s a huge shame that the show will probably end without him ever getting an Emmy nomination for this role.
- Pete has ideas: “Direct marketing? I thought of that. Turns out it already existed, but still”
- I guess couples tend to vote for the same candidate, but Betty’s “I’m not sure who we’re voting for” line sounds a lot like she will vote for whoever Don decides they should vote for (although, as Don pointed out in a previous episode, he doesn’t vote)
- Winking at the fact that it’s not the sixties anymore: This time it’s Trudy, when she says: “The armory? When will they tear that dinosaur down?”
- This episode shows Betty reading a book about Italy, which is the first sign of the character’s long history with that European country.
- It’s funny how Don kind of can’t stop talking as if he’s pitching while he’s at work. In this case, he comes up with some pretty clever slogans while talking to Roger.
- “You picked the wrong time to buy an apartment”. Sal can be so sassy.
- Hunter College Watch: This might only be funny to me because I actually go to Hunter College, but the show has a tradition of having young female characters point out that they’re “taking classes at Hunter”. Said tradition begins in this episode, when Pete’s “cousin” says that exact line when she is asked what she does for a living besides, you know, being an escort.