It was always going to be tough following up the brilliance of “Mystery Date”, however the teleplay produced for this episode is probably of even higher quality. Although more explicit in its messages and use of symbolism, “Signal 30” seems to proffer that punishment will follow one’s refusal to conform.
This week there is a strong focus on Pete, who encapsulates this idea most powerfully, though not solely. Mad Men often delivers wonderfully textured episodes with such density to them and great complexity to its layers, and there is no aberration this time, as the message of heeding to conformity is explored across the multiple characters’ stories.
“Signal 30” opens on Pete in the midst of viewing the driver safety film, Signal 30. Unwittingly, the film forewarns Pete to conform to safety, the straight and narrow, lest he face the consequences. As his eyes set upon the pretty girl, Jenny, attending the same seminar, writers Weiner and Pierson hint that Pete is not entirely mindful of the advice the film is lending.
Meanwhile, everyone else around him seems to be abiding by its message. Lane Pryce falls in line with Rebecca’s wishes to attend a pub with her and the Bakers. There, they cheer England to victory in the 1966 Soccer World Cup Final. Later, Lane continues to play it safe, as he dines with Edwin Baker on business. Baker represents the Jaguar car company, which could symbolize speed, danger, and recklessness.
Surprisingly, Don too is playing things safe, obeying his wife’s expectations that they attend Trudy’s dinner party. However, Don’s compliance is not without reluctance. In the meantime, even though he holds strong to his marital vows, we do find Don drawing a noose in the Partner’s meeting. This seems to illustrate at least some suffocation and desire for control.
Perhaps the most significant subplot is the resurfacing of Kenny Cosgrove’s writing career. His wife Cynthia tells the dinner guests about one of her husband’s literary works, “The Punishment of X4”. It recounts the experiences of a robot that performs maintenance on a bridge between two worlds, whose removal of a bolt causes the bridge to collapse and kill everyone.
In essence this wonderfully metaphorical story epitomizes the predicament of not just Kenny, but of every single character. It highlights the importance of the individual, a theme that has been a constant accomplice to insecurity this season. As Lane Pryce, like Roger the week before him, notes, “What do I do here?”. The hunger that these characters harbor to fill a function within their specific community is intensely palpable, and enables us as an audience to identify with them strongly.
Furthermore, Kenny explains that the reason the robot takes the bolt out is “because he’s a robot. Those people tell him what to do and he doesn’t have the power to make any decisions, except he can decide whether that bolt’s on or off”. In other words, the writer is referring to himself, more precisely, his position at SCDP and his ability or inability to pursue two careers if he so wished. Even drop advertising altogether and concentrate on his writing. The messages in his works would appear to indicate he is clearly stifled by the lack of say he has in his own life.
This idea then flows very nicely into the consequence of the shootings at the University of Texas, which has just occurred in the lead up to the fifth episode. The man who committed the murders, Charles Whitman, provides crucial symbolism to our characters stories. Unknowingly describing his own situation, Pete notes Whitman as “a frustrated ex-marine”, a metaphoric robot, who as a marine had very little power to make any decisions of his own, and as a result found himself dissatisfied with his lack of power. In fact, this sums up Pete perfectly. So much so that the only way Pete’s call girl gets him into bed is by referring to him as her king. He still yearns for power and, as Don became with Betty, he’s restless living the comfortable life in the suburbs.
Another instance of symbolism employed in this episode is the dripping tap in the Campbell household. Having returned from viewing Signal 30, Pete cannot sleep. He lies awake, restless. Eventually, he gets the toolbox out and fixes the perpetual dripping. During Trudy’s dinner party, the tap bursts and water sprays into the kitchen. As well as cleverly paralleling the robot’s loosening of the bridge’s bolt, this figuratively triggers a string of miserable events for Pete, including a hilarious altercation (and indeed outrageous fight scene) between he and Lane, during which Lane labels Pete “a grimy little pimp”. It is a pity, however, that the producers didn’t spend slightly more of the episode’s budget to pay Hank Amos (the Stunt Coordinator) and Lin Oeding (Stunt Choreographer) to perform the fight sequence in a more convincing fashion.
The episode ends on Pete watching another safety film, with the dripping tap muffled in the soundscape. In the course of this scene, Tom Wilson’s editing plays a large part in heightening the sublime nature of this finale. While Kenny pens his latest piece of fiction (his protagonist’s situation paralleling Pete’s), we hear his voiceover, as Pete watches Jenny getting with Jim Hanson, also known as “Handsome”. The voiceover accentuates Pete’s plight, as Kenny declares, “it might have been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence…and loneliness…making everything ordinary, too beautiful to bear”.
Finally, “Signal 30” is John Slattery’s third episode in the director’s seat. He already seems to have a very accomplished and distinctive style. His strongest moments in this episode are Pete-focused. The shot making lends a tension and thoughtfulness to Pete’s scenes that elevate them above the surrounding scenes. Slattery’s direction is excellent at showing, rather than telling Pete’s yearnings. The best example of this is the shot of Pete watching Jim and Jenny, when they first meet. He starts with a mid-shot on Pete and then cuts to a mid, side profile shot of Jenny, then pans across to Handsome’s muscles. Wonderful.
Then, as with Slattery’s visual flair, editor Tom Wilson bestows the episode its own unique style, which includes at least three visual matches and multiple jump cuts. This on its own takes a little bit of getting used to and on first viewing is a little jarring.
Despite this season often focusing on a string of awkward situations and interactions between its characters (see Trudy’s dinner party and Lane’s dinner meet), Mad Men is still without doubt one of the most enjoyable shows on television. With such a strong focus and message running through episode five, it’s difficult to recall a more layered and tightly constructed episode. There probably hasn’t been one.