Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you Season 5’s The Suitcase. During the last season of Mad Men we got the show’s finest episode ever, The Suitcase. It played out as a two hander between Peggy and Don on the night of Sonny Liston and Mohammad Ali ‘Phantom Punch’ fight. It was terrific, featuring brilliant dialogue, acting, direction, the lot. It was the pinnacle of the show thus far. Thinking nothing would ever top that, Season 5’s fifth episode, directed by Roger Sterling himself, John Slattery, goes a long way to be on a par with that very episode.
Signal 30 is poignant, savage and brilliantly hilarious. It is perhaps the funniest episode of the entire series and it is not surprising given that it’s directed by the master wit behind the character of Roger Sterling. The episode gave us some great lines and one of the most satisfying scenes in television since watching Gus Fring have his face blown off at the end of the last season of Breaking Bad.
The episode also gives a lot more attention to the character of Ken Cosgrove who has been largely ignored I think for the past two seasons, mainly because his character was quite dull. This episode reinvigorates the character and Matt Weiner gives him the attention he’s been needing for the past two years.
Sadly, January Jones is again noticeably absent from the show but for the purpose of this story I’m so sure how necessary she would have been. We know Jones’ pregnancy affected her availability on the show but to turn up for one episode and then be kind of swept under the rug may have accounted for some more thoughtful scheduling. That aside, last night’s episode was terrific.
It starts with Lane and his wife going to an ex-pat British pub to watch the 1966 World Cup Football Final where England beat Germany. In a spring of patriotism over dinner, Lane’s friend, who happens to work for the car company Jaguar, offers up a potential business proposition for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. This brings Lane some much needed importance in the company, outside of just being a simple financial advisor. He now has an account under his belt. The other partners are thrilled, only Pete shows some disdain for the idea.
Nervous with how to deal with potential business partners, Lane seeks advice from Roger with how to smooth talk a client in order to seal a deal, with a few pointers he goes out to dinner but doesn’t make that much of an impression. Knowing that he can’t do much more, he sends Roger, Don and Pete out to make sure that SCDP get the deal.
In other office affairs, Don is trying to get out of a dinner date at the Campbell household with the Cosgroves. Don never did much like to fraternise with any other associate of the company other than Roger, but Trudy and Megan’s insistence make sure that he attends despite his best efforts. While there, Ken’s passion for writing and the fact he has a dual career under a pseudonym is revealed to the dinner guests as well as unfortunate mishap in the kitchen with Don running to the rescue.
The dinner is one of the show’s calmer moments and as usual it is about Don. Pete has grown up and he has a happy life at home with his baby and his wife. Is this something Don wants to recreate with Megan? Perhaps, but as usual, not all is happy in suburbia. Pete is attending night classes to learn how to drive where he falls in lust with a younger classmate, nothing comes of it but Pete for some reason feels the need to dip his toes in the water and “experiment”.
This all comes to a head in the final scenes, where a dinner with the Jaguar VP, Edwin Baker goes slightly awry when they head off to an upmarket whore house. Pete, Roger and Baker have their fun while Don remains sober and turns down advances, sticking fiercely loyal to his marriage. Pete, however, at the end deeply regrets it, receiving the cold shoulder from Don who sees his advances on women to be stupid. He has everything he wants but is willing to blow it all for nothing.
For an audience, this is great because Pete has always been a deeply loathsome character, a point that all the writers concede and love writing for him. But nothing could prepare my delight for the scene that takes place the morning after the party. Unfortunately, Baker’s wife upon his return home found, as Jared Harris so beautifully puts it, “chewing gum in his pubis” and thus they have lost the account. He solely blames Pete for them cavorting to the whore house and challenges him to a good, old fashioned, fisticuffs fight. Pete roundly gets his arse kicked by the British gent and it is just so brutally satisfying.
For Lane, it is a true realization of the monster he has created, he mentored Pete to a point of the mentor becoming the mentored. Lane’s position in the company has been bested by Pete Campbell and jealousy overcomes him.
This episode brilliantly has the outpouring of tension that had been built up over previous seasons and this gives us one of Mad Men‘s finest episodes, up there with The Suitcase. Slattery is not just a terrific actor but proves himself a great director of timing and comedy.
Signal 30 is an exquisite piece of television.