Mad Men Season 6: Hate Pete Campbell, Love Vincent Kartheiser

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

It absolutely drives me nuts when people hate actors due to the roles they play. Back in the day, Michael Douglas was convincing as an asshole in the role of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. 25 years later, the sight of a blue dress shirt with a white collar still makes my mother cringe. Because of that performance, she concluded he must be a jerk in real life. Is he an asshole? Who knows? With TMZ stalking celebs like superfans do Gosling, how can we even tell nowadays?

Furthermore, who cares? These actors aren’t family, friends or even neighbors. They aren’t even teachers, community leaders or politicians. Actors are artists whose sole purpose is to perform for their audience. They aren’t role models — they are role players. They aren’t starving artists — they are over-stuffed artists. Stars will be rich whether you like them or dislike them, whether you watch them or don’t. Why deprive yourself quality entertainment?

I think it’s nuts, but a lot of people do the same thing with Mad Men heel Pete Campbell and his real-life counterpart, the criminally underrated Vincent Kartheiser. They actively dislike Kartheiser because of this portrayal. Think about how we even discuss him. When we say Don Draper, we pronounce his name like we would, say, Rolls Royce. There’s some prestige in there. Then think about how people say Pete Campbell.

Pete Campbell. Root Canal. Scott Peterson. Same tone. (I’m going to keep using his full name so you read it like that in your heads. Can’t help myself.)

Don’t hate the actor, hate the character.

Despite its period-piece setting, some Mad Men fans and even pundits can’t seem to separate Kartheiser from the despicable colleagues and coworkers in their own lives. Seeing Pete Campbell get punched in the face is as close as they’ll ever get to seeing that asshole they work with get clocked. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a beautiful thing. Back up the DVR. Pull it up on YouTube. Lose five minutes soaking in the GIF. Watch it over. And over. And over. Afterward, can we please agree to push real life to the side just long enough to admire the nuances of great storytelling?

If you hate a character, that likely means they are essential to the plot. You hate them because they make life miserable for the characters you identify with. Every great story needs a worthy villain. Every great protagonist needs antagonists that are their equals, or damn close. It’s why the best Batman movies include the Joker. It’s why sports fans need the Lakers and Yankees.

Kartheiser doesn’t get the respect he deserves for delivering Mad Men’s delightful little weasel. Is it because he has a punchable grill?  Is it because we can’t stand his smarmy “bitchface?”Is it because we don’t understand storytelling? Is it because we are so smitten with Don Draper, Joan Harris and Peggy Olsen that we naturally hate Pete Campbell’s guts? Is it because he doesn’t possess Jon Hamm’s looks? Or Christina Hendrick’s alleged 38DDDs? Or the relatable homliness of Elizabeth Moss? So what?

Don’t hate the actor, hate the character.

Here’s a little secret: the reason we love Don, Joan and Peggy so much is because of Pete Campbell. He’s arguably the most essential character in the Mad Men universe. What!?!? You heard me. Mad Men’s holy triumvirate ain’t exactly all that holy. Without someone far more despicable providing contrast, Don, Joan and Peggy would appear to be much more flawed. Pete Campbell’s presence humanizes them. Matthew Weiner even gave us goody-goody goons like Harry Crane and Ken Cosgrove to make Pete Campbell seem more repulsive. He’s the kind of monster the Madison Avenue machine creates. Meanwhile, Don and Co. are fighting not to become monsters themselves, and, for the most part, succeeding.

Pete Campbell is also the biggest wild card of the bunch. That’s saying something. Beyond that, with Don playing a reluctantly sympathetic big brother figure, can the younger adman avoid the pitfalls that plagued Mr. Draper? We know Cosgrove is no Campbell, but, for better or worse, is Campbell the next Draper? Isn’t that the most intriguing storyline we have left? If Don is forever doomed to be Dick Whitman, is Pete Campbell forever doomed to be Pete Campbell? Is that what you’re telling us, Weiner? That humanity doesn’t learn from its mistakes and all of mankind is truly mad?

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Here’s another secret: Kartheiser deserves way more credit for this role. Sure, he’s won a couple Screen Actors Guild Award for his ensemble work. That’s not enough acclaim for the work he’s doing. He deserves some Jesse Pinkman love when it comes to shiny hardware — give this man a Best Supporting Actor Emmy already.

He also deserves more roles. No, Andrew Niccol’s desperate cry for help, In Time, doesn’t count. That guy is now adapting Stephenie Meyer novels for chrissakes. I think John Hamm is fantastic, but let’s be honest here. It’s harder to play the Joker than it is Bruce Wayne/Batman, even if the latter requires a certain duality. That’s why Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his turn as the Joker despite appearing in just one Batman flick, while Christian “Where’s Rachel?” Bale wasn’t nominated despite appearing in all three. Pete Campbell is one of the greatest small-screen antagonists of all time. Hopefully, that will eventually translate into silver-screen success for Kartheiser.

On a more personal note, Kartheiser is a pretty likeable dude. He’s got this old school vibe to him.  He doesn’t tweet (even calling Twitter “Twizzler”). He owns a modest $20,000 Volkswagen and still takes public transit. He met his fiance, the adorable  Alexis Bledel, on set and wooed her afterward. What’s not to like? Besides, even if you don’t dig an actor or actress as a person, can’t you still enjoy them as a performer?

Like unprincipled press agent Sidney Falco in the historic Sweet Smell of Success (the perfect pre-Mad Men Season 6 aperitif), Mad Men’s loveable lowlife has “the stomach to see how the sausage is made.” With Falco, we understood that was the way the game was played. We didn’t punish him for not needing to hold his nose while swimming in the sewer. Tony Curtis was brilliant in that role, similar to Cristoph Waltz as the blissfully vile Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. And, yes, similar to Kartheiser as Pete Cambpell. There’s something magnificent about an unapologetically crooked bad guy, not to mention one who beats you with brains instead of brawn.

We don’t celebrate Pete Campbell the way we should (although this hip-hop inspired Tumblr comes close), even though many of the biggest Mad Men moments — Lane’s sucker punch, Joan getting pimped out, Peggy getting pregnant, Don getting blackmailed, etc. — revolved around him. Guess we can’t hold our noses and swim at the same time.

Tags: Mad Men

comments powered by Disqus