I love Pete Campbell. I’ve loved him since day one of Mad Men. I’ve loved him through his lies and his blackmail attempts, through his cheating and his slimy sense of entitlement. My steady love of Pete Campbell might just be my most unpopular television opinion yet, but I stand by it. I don’t stand by everything Pete’s done, but I stand by rooting for him. Let me channel my inner Pete and do my best to sell you on this opinion.
At his core, Pete has always been something of a boy, desperate for approval. Approval from Don, from his father, from himself… Pete lacks the cool confidence of Don, the intelligence and skill of Peggy, and the charisma of Joan, and somewhere deep down, he knows that. Everything that Pete does is because of two things: his blinding ambition to be better and his lack of confidence. This lack of confidence might make Pete the most human, relatable character on the show.
No one wants to acknowledge that they’re anything like Pete Campbell, but most of us probably are. I know I am. Like a lot of people, Pete feels like he doesn’t belong where he is, like he hasn’t truly earned any of the success that he has. He’s constantly afraid of being found out. In the back of his mind, he believes that anyone, at any time might unveil him as the man he truly is, a man who’s weak and scared and just trying to keep up with everyone else.
I can understand this feeling. I think most people can. It’s hard to feel like you deserve what you have. When I was young, I thought adults had it all figured out. I thought that one day — maybe when I turned 18, maybe when I turned 20 — a bolt of enlightenment would strike and suddenly I would know what I was doing. I’m 21 now, and that bolt has yet to come. I don’t think it ever will. We’re constantly learning and growing and just trying to figure it all out. Some people deal with that realization better than others, and Pete Campbell has been dealing with it for all his life.
So Pete throws himself into his work with everything he’s got, hoping that one day, if he works hard enough, maybe he’ll feel like he belongs. Like a character from an old Greek tragedy, Pete’s greatest asset has always been his greatest weakness. His ambition keeps him working and striving towards success, but it also holds him back from true happiness. He’s unable to settle, even when he gets what’s he’s been working for. He can’t stop, can’t slow down. This is why the conversation with Pete’s brother in Mad Men’s penultimate episode was so important. Finally Pete was able to recognize his insatiable, blinding ambition, and perhaps with that recognition comes a solution to Peter’s problem.
Pete was certainly far from perfect during his run on Mad Men, but he learned a lot along the way. He evolved and changed when he needed to, and the final moments of Sunday’s episode hinted at the fact that maybe he’s finally taking serious steps towards becoming a better person.
Is Pete Campbell’s redemption for real? Is he a changed man? Probably not. But I’m choosing to believe better of him, as I always have. I’m choosing to believe that Pete and Trudy will move to Wichita and raise a beautiful family. I’m choosing to believe that Pete will be faithful and honest and, more than anything, content with his life as it is.
Maybe he’ll never feel like he truly belongs, but maybe he’ll learn to be ok with it, just as we all have to.