In Defense of Pete Campbell

Photo: Frank Ockenfels/Courtesy of AMC

The slimiest, most manipulative and self-pitying member of the Sterling Cooper crew is Pete Campbell. In two short seasons, Pete has tried to blackmail his boss, Don Draper (Jon Hamm); ruthlessly seduced then discarded secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss); and thrown his wife’s roast chicken out a window. He’s joked about killing his mother. He lies, cheats, and steals ideas. He’s a brown-noser with smarmy choirboy looks. And I root for him. As does, perhaps not surprisingly, his creator, Matt Weiner. “I love him,” says Weiner. “I went to an all-boys school, and Pete’s like the kids I went to school with. He could have been Holden Caulfield’s roommate, who borrowed his coat and didn’t bring it back.”

Pete is liberating because he says and does all of the evil things that I, being a socialized human being, cannot. (Though I might make an exception for tossing a roast chicken out the window.) “He was constructed as a villain,” says Weiner, “but I hope people see that he’s more complex than that. He has vision and is ahead of the curve. And he’s probably the most honest guy on the show. He just can’t keep his mouth shut.”

Well, he’s honest until he’s lying. “We all do things like that—maybe not blackmail,” says Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Pete. “I know I lie, too, but it’s hard for me to see it when it’s related to my survival. We don’t always see ourselves like we are.” Kartheiser is admittedly biased. “I’m protective of Pete. It’s still me, you know? That guy is in me. I couldn’t do him if he wasn’t.” Indeed, the actor admits to adopting Pete’s sinister, super-Waspy voice “to weird people out. A few guys have asked me to leave messages for their girlfriends as Pete Campbell. I like that.”

At the end of last season, Pete began to seem if not sympathetic, then vulnerable. There was his desperate need for Don Draper’s approval (which Draper, an egotist of a different sort, refused to bestow). “Pete’s looking for a father figure,” says Weiner. “Like Don, a lot of his compulsiveness comes from self-hatred and insecurity.” And of course, there was the heartbreaking scene with Peggy, when Pete tells her he loves her and she confesses to having had his child and giving it away. His face, an unbearable mixture of sadness and confusion, won over some Pete-haters.

Not me, though. The Pete I love carries a gun around the office, purring to Peggy about the violent joys of hunting. “Then I’d take my big hunting knife and I’d cut this loin right out of the side,” he memorably tells her. Kartheiser laughs. “How many of us even think these things? He actually believes he can pull his [most devious] notions off.” It’s the combination of delusion and certitude, of insecurity and grandiosity, that makes him an irresistible TV villain. I fear a likable Pete! “There is no danger of that,” says Weiner. “Pete’s indomitable in a way. He’ll keep striving, but he’s still his own worst enemy.”

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An Abridged Guide to the First Two Seasons

In Defense of Pete Campbell