Stop barging in here and infecting me with your anxiety: Pete, Peggy, and Passing
Peggy: Well, one day you’re there and then all of a sudden there’s less of you. And you wonder where that part went, if it’s living somewhere outside of you, and you keep thinking maybe you’ll get it back. And then you realize, it’s just gone.
Pete: Why would you tell me that?
--Mad Men 2x13, "Meditations in an Emergency"
I read this really beautiful post on Basket of Kisses that basically discusses the idea that Pete Campbell is (or is supposed to be) an s/m switch. And he lives in a world where there’s no room for being that kind of weird, so it comes out of him in messy, negative ways; he can’t learn control. The reason this was such a beautiful post is because it didn’t look at the show through the lens of period. Or, maybe, because it didn’t have this idea that certain things that are innate in some people, like s/m, are just a trend or a fad and therefore couldn’t really have existed in the 60s--because it realized that all kinds of minority experiences can be period, even if they weren’t recognized at the time. I would like to talk about something else that is innate in some people--Asperger’s Syndrome. I don’t like to use that term because it’s a bit reductive and calls up a lot of stereotypes; I would rather just say, I’m talking about verbal people with autism spectrum disorder.
Because Asperger’s has been portrayed in recent high-profile movies and books, it is popular to say that it is new or made up, but really autism spectrum disorders have always been around, just not identified. At the time the show takes place, a nonverbal ASD person would have been diagnosed with a mental disability and probably put in an institution, just like Arthur Miller’s son with Down’s Syndrome was in 1966. A verbal ASD person would have just been thought of as odd or annoying. But that doesn’t mean that, inherently, objectively, that’s all they were. Not having a name for what you are doesn’t make what you are go away, as Sal Romano unfortunately learned.
I read Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell as people with ASD. Because they live in a time when they can’t know what they are, each of them is a type of ASD person that should never exist:
1. Peggy forces herself to do what’s normal, and usually her perseverance pays off and she gets what she wants, but it also means that she is constantly acting. And also, although she may do all right in the short run, the people who see her every day know she is different and she doesn’t really have any true friends (except maybe Don--big surprise that he would feel connected to someone like her).
2. Instead of fighting his difference like Peggy does, Pete ignores it; because he doesn’t try to be normal, he gets to be more carefree, but he is hobbled by the fact that most people can’t stand his raw guilelessness, which affects him both personally and professionally.
Guileless may seem like a weird word because Pete is so manipulative--but he isn’t actually good at it, is he? Really, setting the two up as opposites is not correct, because Pete tries to do what’s normal too, but with a lot less awareness and determination than Peggy. People say that Pete is like a robot but I don’t see it at all--his boundless confusion is written all over his face. That’s why he’s always throwing things and punching people, it’s why he doesn’t really understand sex, because he is so full of a feeling of powerlessness, and he doesn’t know why.
Let’s talk about hunting. Obviously this is about s/m, whatever you want to call it; Pete gives Peggy a lingering description of killing a deer, carving it up, and taking it to a woman who cooks it for him and watches him eat it, while Peggy listens shivering with delight. But I don’t think it’s just about s/m. Pete doesn’t understand how to do things, he doesn’t understand his life, so he bought a gun to make himself feel better; but he doesn’t live in prehistoric times where he can just prove himself by killing something. He has to do things right, he has to be likable. This seems like a huge mountain to scale for a person like Pete, and he can’t take it, so he thinks about something else instead: a world where all he has to do to be loved is to accomplish a physical act. Where he has a very specific role. And Peggy, who is screwing up all over the place too, is also thrilled by Pete’s fantasy. She doesn’t have to lie, she doesn’t have to dress a certain way; she has a very clear, uncomplicated submissive role as the deer/cook.
This can also be seen when they have sex in the next episode. They’re just two people early at work, and then they create this space between them where it is okay to fuck up, to want too much--Pete hisses creepily, “Do you know how hard it is to see you walking around?” as if he owns her, just as obsessive and needy as taking two trains to drunkenly lean on her door. Pete has gone too far with girls before and he will again, but here, when he pulls Peggy’s hair and tears her shirt, he gets a positive reaction instead of a negative one. Because he doesn’t feel inadequate like he usually does, he’s much sweeter in this scene than he is with other people. He thinks about her feelings about her writing that he was supposed to read; she grumpily says “I know what you’re going to say” and he says “no, you don’t; you haven’t been right once” with a lot of affection. Pete never knows what people are going to say either. Peggy, who is always so tense and ineffective, is very serious and brutal when they have sex, and then afterwards when she does that incredibly cute incredibly awkward thing where she touches his hair--ohhh man. Okay this is not an essay anymore it is just a geekout.
The s/m essay interprets Pete’s rejection of Peggy at the end of that episode as showing that he is threatened by her power and assertiveness, because he is kind of turned on by it and doesn’t know what to make of it. I’m not sure I would say that; it seems to be taking that scene out of the context of the episode. Pete feels powerless and he doesn’t exactly understand why, but the truth is, it’s because he’s weird/off/whatever you want to call it, and everyone thinks he is slimy, and he doesn’t understand how to get what he wants. And he feels like Trudy is trying to control him (I love Trudy, more on this later, but I’m just saying that’s how he feels). I think that when Pete is overwhelmed by how much he can’t seem to do things right, he takes it out on people less powerful than he is. And also, I think there may be a bit of a betrayal, because when they had the hunting talk, and then when they slept together, those were both very weird outsider bonding sessions. Now Peggy has succeeded at something and is cheerfully doing the Twist; she seems normal and is asking Pete to do something normal with her. The way Pete sits in this scene is striking; I’ve experienced this myself, that when I am made very conscious of my difference, or when I am overwhelmed, I try to calm myself with these very stiff postures, things like wrists out, or ankles turned out. Pete is very prone to these tense little gestures and he is doing it here. He says “I don’t like you like this” partly because he wants to make someone, anyone, feel bad. But it’s also true; he liked Peggy because she was his home, a person he could make this tiny strange-person world with. Of course, Peggy still did want to make that world with him, he just couldn’t see it.
One of the most upsetting things about the way Pete treats Peggy is that he seems to forget they have the same problem. When he freaks out about her promotion, or snits, “Everything is so easy for you,” there’s the obvious dramatic irony that he got her pregnant and she had to deal with that while he remained blissfully ignorant. But there’s also the fact that Pete knows firsthand that it is hard to get anything if you’re the kind of person that other people just don’t like. Peggy works so hard; she is always changing, always moving forward. She takes Joan’s advice about changing the way she dresses and she lets Kurt cut her hair. When she feels her coworkers are leaving her out of things, she tries to figure out how to fix the problem, unlike Pete, who just complains and bullies women when he feels left out. Whether or not she has said it in words, Peggy knows she has trouble (and this isn’t just about being a woman in a man’s world, because she had trouble even when she was a secretary) and she tries to improve herself. Pete isn’t self-aware enough to try to fix his impairments, except very occasionally, like when he goes to Don after his father dies.
The thing is, Peggy is a person to root for but I’m not sure I want to be her. Her accomplishments are always about winning, getting some particular thing. I think an ASD person who is incredibly focused on looking normal as a means to an end sometimes ends up with a life that is fairly empty. Of course I love the two recent episodes that involve Peggy learning a social script, experimenting with it, and getting what she aims for--first a one-night stand, and then a roommate. When Peggy dourly intoned, “I’m...fun...and I like to have...fun,” and Libby Dreifuss actually bought that Peggy was a normal girl, I felt the same rush I have felt in real life, when I’m incredibly conscious that I’m faking, but I somehow slide under the radar and am not perceived as odd. But the rush of putting one over on people can’t be your whole life. And Peggy ends up not really being friends with the guys at work, sleeping with a guy she can’t face the next morning, and living with someone she has nothing in common with. This is success?
More and more, I’m finding I want to be Pete. Not early Pete, of course; he’s horrible. But at some point between seasons two and three, Pete realized how incredibly smart and cool Trudy is and started opening up to her the way he’d previously only opened up to Peggy and sometimes Don. When Pete talks to Peggy after they have sex, in 1x08, he says “Trudy and I are supposed to be one person, but she’s just another stranger,” and when he’s confessing his love to Peggy, in 2x13, he says that Trudy would care if he died, but it doesn’t matter, because she doesn’t know him. But it’s Pete’s fault that Trudy doesn’t know him, of course, and after Peggy lets him down, he must grow up a little, because in season three the Campbells are more and more partners in crime.
Pete presumably reeled Trudy in with his smarmy anachronistic scripting (and what better evidence do you need of ASD than Pete’s endless supply of exclamations and terms of endearment that are just slightly off for a person of his time, age, and gender?). Then, he exploded a bunch of times, with the turkey, and the trying to whore her out to publish his bear story (oh Pete how I love you), and “WHY ARE YOU COMING TO MY OFFICE? WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK??” so Trudy figured out pretty early on that Pete was a really strange and really immature person--but okay, I’ll allow that this doesn’t mean she knows him. Usually the worst part of someone is the part you find out last, but it doesn’t have to be that way, and Trudy obviously doesn’t understand in season one and two the relationship that Pete has with his parents, and she hasn’t really connected with the good parts of his immaturity, the sometimes uncontainable energy and excitement. But in the first episode of season three, we get “Oh Peter, don’t go to the well; there’s no water there,” when Pete wants to call his mother, and a few episodes later we see the two of them pooling their manic energy into the BEST DANCING EVER.
I think it would be disingenuous to say that Pete didn’t rape Gudrun midway through season three. I mean, he does have trouble reading people, but I think his issue is sometimes that he knows people don’t like him and want him to go away, and he doesn’t want to think about it, so he doesn’t put in the effort to read them better; so maybe he didn’t want to think about what he was doing, but the fact that he didn’t think about it is not an excuse. I think it’s important to acknowledge what he did. But what’s notable for my purposes is what he does afterward, when he tells Trudy he doesn’t want her to go away without him anymore. Some feminist bloggers read that as Pete blaming Trudy for what he did, but I think that’s an overly harsh characterization of a really important and positive decision. Throughout this essay, I have emphasized how Pete isn’t aware of his impairments like Peggy is and how this both gets in his way professionally and leads to him hurting other people. When Pete said that Trudy shouldn’t go away from him anymore, I think he was saying that he knows he isn’t capable of making good decisions at this point, and he wants her to be his moral compass, at least for a while. And it is doing a disservice to Trudy to say that her pleased reaction was delusional, like she thought Pete was declaring his undying need to be around her at all times. Trudy is a practical person and, because she does know Pete much better than she used to, she understood why it was a big step forward for him to a)feel guilty, b)want to be better, and c)ask for her help.
Throughout season three we see Trudy giving Pete advice and talking about his decisions with him. This is one of the few really equal and honest relationships we see on the show and it makes me happy that Pete, despite all the issues he still has, has grown enough that he can have this relationship. Because of his relationship with Trudy, I’ve started to see Pete as more successful than Peggy, even though Peggy tries to be normal a lot more. The thing about Pete is that, now that he has finally started to change, he’s not changing in the direction of being normal, but of being good.
When you are ASD it’s all very nice to say that you just want to understand people and be more sensitive to them, but when you really start trying to manage your ASD, it usually just becomes about not wanting people to bully you, and being able to have a normal time making friends, and just fit in. But Pete’s recent spate of self-correcting (apologizing to Hildy about the hot cocoa, keeping himself under control when Kenny and his haircut triumphed once again, and of course the thing with Trudy) has been more about being kind, not yelling at people or exploiting the fact that they’re weaker than he is. That means that, while Pete’s self-awareness has been a long time coming, it looks to be an awareness that will make him more whole. While Peggy’s self-awareness, the awareness of a person who is trying to pass at all costs, is tearing her apart.