“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.” That’s from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
That used to be me.
It was what I told myself to feel better about my desolation, anyway: that at least I wasn’t alone. I was among the mass of men who went to work and came home to my home in the suburbs and my wife and son, cut the grass and fixed the leaky faucets. I was young and strong and successful and miserable.
So I wrote. I never talk about it these days, but I used to get up at five every morning and write science fiction stories. I suppose I was creating playgrounds in my mind–worlds over which I had total control. I didn’t share my stories with my (now ex-)wife, even after I started to sell them to SF magazines. She wouldn’t have liked them.
There’s a lot of quiet desperation in “Signal 30,” Episode 5 of Season 5 of Mad Men. The show opens with Pete Campbell watching–and laughing at–a gory film (called Signal 30) in driver’s ed class. Pete grew up in Manhattan and never learned to drive; now that he lives in the ‘burbs, a driver’s license seems a necessity. But Pete’s more interested in Jenny, the high school girl sitting in front of him. He’s hypnotized by the tap-tap-tapping of her foot in her sandal.
Later that night, lying in bed with Trudy, Pete is bothered by the dripping of the kitchen faucet. He takes action–grabs the toolbox and fixes the leak. Or he thinks he’s fixed the leak. He’s stopped the dripping, anyway.
Meanwhile, Ken Cosgrove’s been writing science fiction stories. He’s trying to keep it a secret, too–not from his wife, but from everyone else in his life. And Lane Pryce is handling his own quiet desperation by attempting a bold move: a fellow Brit who’s an executive with Jaguar invites Lane to pitch the account, and Lane decides he’ll try to land it without help from the account guys.
Of course, everything falls apart. Pete and Trudy host a dinner party for Don and Megan and Ken and his wife Cynthia. The evening begins pleasantly enough, with Pete showing off his stereo that’s every bit as large as a coffin. But Cynthia mentions one of Ken’s stories at dinner and forces Ken to confess. The kitchen faucet becomes a spraying fountain, and Don saves the day while Pete is still looking for his tools.
And Lane’s dinner with Edwin Baker is fruitless. Lane takes Roger’s advice and tries to get under Baker’s skin, hope to gain some conspiratorial advantage. But Baker professes to be blissfully happy. There’s apparently no worm in Baker’s apple.
Except that this is Mad Men, and there’s always a worm. Roger, Don, and Pete convince Lane to leave the account work to them. They schedule another dinner with Baker and find out that Lane could not have been more wrong. Baker’s looking for action, and Roger knows just where to find it at a high-class house of ill repute right around the corner. Don is the only one who abstains from sampling the goods; remember, this is our kinder, gentler, happier Don Draper, who tells Pete in the cab on the way home that he shouldn’t throw away everything he has.
It all proves just another temporary fix. The next day, Lane’s wife informs him that Baker’s wife has discovered his infidelity. Lane’s outrage is met with laughter; Pete tells Lane that Baker thought he was ”a homo,” and that Lane had exhausted his value to the company long ago.
And Lane has had quite enough of that, thank you very much. He decides his desperation will no longer be so quiet and challenges Pete to fight, right there in the conference room. Pete’s already refused one offer for fisticuffs this season, and won’t do it again. Lane decks Pete, who slinks back to his office humiliated and defeated. “I have nothing,” Pete says to Don.
The episode closes with Pete back in driver’s ed class where another car wreck film plays, and Pete watches, bruised and beaten, as a high school boy slides his hand up Jenny’s skirt.
So what does Pete want? He does seem to have it all: a high-powered job, a pretty and adoring wife, a beautiful child, a great home, a miniature orchestra in a seven-foot coffin. Why is he so unhappy?
Why was I so unhappy? What does anybody want?
These days, I still get up early. My Beautiful Wife gets up at 4:30 to run, and I write, but not in secret. I haven’t written science fiction stories in ten years. This morning, I got up to watch Mad Men, but it was raining, so Becky went back to bed. I watched “Signal 30″ in the dark family room, then went upstairs to think about it before writing. I crawled back into bed with Becky. I lay in bed with my arm around her, our bodies pulled close, listening to the drip-drip-dripping of the rain. I didn’t want to go anywhere.