I think Pete Campbell is in us all. He’s the guy who works extremely hard to prove himself. He’s the guy who tries too hard to be impressive. He’s the guy who has everything, but feels nothing. I watch Mad Men a ton, and every time I re-watch it, I pick up something new.
Pete has an inferiority complex, brought on by his family, his job, and the expectations of his time. When he first comes to Sterling Cooper, he’s a newly-married 26 year old with high expectations, and he thinks he’s got the world by the balls. He’s done everything that is expected of him, and expects to be given the world in return. In reality, he was only hired to provide the agency access to the blue-blooded clients they couldn’t get without his family name. Pete hears so many things about Don Draper, and when he finally meets him, he’s enamoured, like everyone is, by his talent and charm. Don Draper is everything Pete Campbell thinks he wants, without knowing the cost. Don is handsome, talented, good with women, rich, and “happily” married, all of the things Pete so desperately wants. The longer he knows Don, the more the facade fades away. By the 7th season, Pete is dealing with Don in the middle of a downward spiral of alcoholism, and while he still supports him, he is vocally upset with him. To me, this is the moment where Pete realizes he has made the wrong choices in life and wants to change.
“Ambitious men are never happy with what they have!” Pete’s wife Trudy is dead-on with this quote: Pete is the embodiment of ambition, and suffers greatly for it. By the end of the show, he has everything he thought he wanted: power, money, a beautiful girlfriend, the respect of his peers, but he still wasn’t happy. He realizes that he doesn’t want to be by himself forever, he wants his family back. Pete’s arc ends with him taking a position at Learjet in Wichita, far away from the temptations of New York. Before he leaves, Pete goes home to Trudy for one last sales pitch, the only one that truly matters: for them to be a family again.
I see a little bit of myself in Pete, and I’m sure you do too. I’ve always demanded more from myself, comparing myself to others without considering that they might not be happy where they are. I think this is natural, we put so much pressure on ourselves to be great, that when we’re not, it kills us inside. I also come from a decently-comfortable family, nothing like the Campbells, but enough that I feel the pressure to succeed and make something of myself without using their help.
Everyone wants to be Don when they start watching Mad Men, but the more they see his life unravel, the more the facade he builds fades away. The opposite is true with Pete: the more you see that he works so hard to be valuable and respected, the more you like him. Pete Campbell is one of the only happy endings in Mad Men, and the only one that isn’t temporary. You might have been a Pete when you were younger, you may be a Pete now, the important thing is to learn from his mistakes and grow from them.