Standing alongside the likes of Mad Men‘s Don Draper is never an easy undertaking, but one that Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) manages to accomplish in a very unique way. Not only is he the most complex man among his business cohorts, but he’s also the most infuriating. Just when you’ve written him off as the most manipulative slime-ball Sterling Cooper has ever seen, he finds a way to redeem himself. And while it’s downright Maddening at times, it’s Pete’s complexity that makes his character.
Take a look at this guy’s track record. Pete has joked about killing his mother, thrown his wife’s roast chicken out a window, and perfected his habit of perpetual brown-nosing. And then there are his sporadic bouts of infidelity. On the surface, his character is unlikable; he’s almost a villain. However, as the seasons progress, we see there’s more to him than his first impression. And while he’s definitely flawed, there are times he appears sympathetic and, dare we say, vulnerable.
His relationship with Don, for instance, has profoundly evolved over time. During the show’s first season, Pete didn’t hesitate to blackmail Don in order to achieve personal gain, threatening to reveal Don’s true identity as Dick Whitman if his demands weren’t met. Of course, Pete’s plan inevitably failed after Don called his bluff. Still, it showed just how malicious Pete was willing to be for the sake of his career.
However, as time went on, a transformation occurred in Pete and he started looking out for Don’s well-being. In Season Four, Pete actually did Don a huge favor by purposefully losing a major account after learning the government would need to perform a background check on everyone—including Don “that’s not really my name” Draper. If he hadn’t pulled out of the deal, Don would’ve been exposed as deserter, which would ruin not only his career, but his entire life. Pete let the biggest account of his career go just to save his colleague. Talk about a massive change of heart.
But just when you think he’s one of the good guys, he pulls a stunt that negates it all. His controversial dalliance with the neighbor’s nanny definitely put him back a few spaces, especially given the tryst’s borderline forceful nature. Of course, infidelity is a common trait among the Mad Men, but Pete’s issue is that he remains inconsistent with the husband he strives to be. One minute he’s overwhelmingly faithful, while the next minute he’s staring longingly at Peggy from across the office. This guy just can’t pick a side, making him a hard character to crack.
For all Pete’s faults and many, many blunders (these examples were mere drops in the bucket), he’s a pivotal member of the cast. Whether we want to admit it or not, Pete brings a lot to the table. Granted, we might not always like what we see, but Mad Men just wouldn’t be the same without him and his Maddening ways.