What if I told you that you would get everything you want, but you would still be unhappy? For five seasons we have watched Pete Campbell claw his way to the top. Professionally, he first tried to usurp Don (way back in Season 1, Pete's goal was not head of accounts, but creative director), then tried to blackmail him. He ingratiated himself to Duck, only to cut him off at the knees when he realized Don was the true power player in the firm. He was pitted against Ken in a competition to see who would earn the title head of accounts and lost, but was scooped up for the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Last season, he came into his own, standing as the solid core of the firm, working hard to ensure its survival, even turning down an offer to leave for another agency as a name partner.
Meanwhile, Pete, who bedded Peggy days before his wedding, had a predator's view of women. His liaisons were either clumsy and awkward (in his office or in the apartment of a model living with her grandmother) or forced, as when he assaulted a nanny in his apartment building as a "thank you" for having replaced a soiled cocktail dress for her without her host family being the wiser. That incident seemed to have been a turning point for Pete, as his eye no longer wandered, his wife Trudy became pregnant and the idea of fatherhood appeared to ground him. He had even come to grips with the fact that Peggy had given birth to his child and put the baby up for adoption.
As it turns out, and as we discover in Signal 30, all of that effort has been for naught. The Pete Campbell who we see in this episode is every bit the petulant, venal and self-centered asswipe we were first introduced to six "years" ago when the show started. Suburban ennui is hardly a new topic, but Pete's dislocation is particularly acute. Having grown up in New York City, he is ill suited to the suburban life, with its leaky faucets, varmints and commuter trains. His dissatisfaction with his wife is more inchoate. While he alluded to what we would now call postpartum depression at the beginning of this season, there does not seem to be anything wrong with Trudy per se, or at least nothing that her being a blonde teenager with saucer blue eyes or a high class hooker who calling him "king" would not fix.
In an interesting bit of role reversal, it is Don who tries to remind Pete of all he stands to lose by carousing. Don's paternal instinct toward Pete played out beautifully in two of the climactic scenes of this episode - first, in the cab ride from the whorehouse they patronized with a potential client, and then, in the elevator, after Pete has mouthed off to Lane and received an ass kicking to show for it. Pete has misinterpreted Don's own infelicitous past as an excuse for his own boorishness, but Don tells Pete that those things he has - the house in the suburbs, the doting wife and the young child - are precisely the things he (Don) wanted, just, as it turned out, not with Betty, but Megan (Don even makes a drunken suggestion to Megan that they have a baby). When Pete tries to process why no one stepped in to stop the fight between the two, Don essentially says "grow up," at which point Pete crumbles, weeping at how he has nothing. Having worked hard to achieve the things he thought he wanted, Pete looks in the mirror, to the person sleeping next to him, to the house he lives in, the office he inhabits, and fails to see all that he has.
Wanderlust, ruing, and the disappearance of youth, hope and opportunity, all of these feelings that something has been missed or lost were also expressed through Lane and Ken, the former's ambivalence about his own marriage and lot in life was well known, while the latter has been an under the radar screen account man uninterested in making waves. For Lane, his opportunity to seize some semblance of the life he wanted is reflected in the solicitation of a fellow Englishman who works for Jaguar. When his attempts at landing the man as a client fail, Peter, Don and Roger swoop in to close the deal, only to have it unravel when it is discovered they took the man to a house of prostitution. A dressing down by Pete and a rejected pass at Joan further emasculate Lane, who only recovers some modicum of his dignity by knocking Pete out during a partner's meeting. Lane never had the adventurous life of war or the suave glibness of an account man, he has been a bean counter his whole life, an indispensable man based solely on his ability to make the trains run on time, but, like many men who achieve a certain station in life, questioning what could have been. Unable to break away from a wife he does not love, he is now resigned to his fate.
Ken, on the other hand, has quietly pursued his real passion of being a writer to such a degree and level of success that a book of his short stories may be published under his nom de plume. He writes of the future, no more gold violins, and is encouraged by his wife, a quiet woman who seems to fit his personality well. Even when Roger chews him out for his hobby, suggesting that by having enough time to write he is not working hard enough, Ken is non-plussed. He continues to write, just under a different alias. Perhaps it is that Ken does not live for his job like the others do (he famously passed on trying to hit his father-in-law, a senior level official at Corning, for work in the wake of the Lucky Strike fiasco) and does not see the corner office as the end all/be all of his existence that allows him to blithely ignore Roger's directive or that he appreciates that he is still young and can make a life the life he wants for himself that keeps him writing. Either way, he refuses to be like the robots in his stories, blankly doing what they are told.
In this way, the episode nicely shows the men of Mad Men along an articulable continuum. Kenny, still young and vibrant, and unwilling to bend. Pete, sliding quickly into the morass of drinking, infidelity and moral compromises that defined Don's prior life, Don, wizened by the destruction of his own first marriage and yearning for the simpler life he ruined, and Lane, reaching for that last vestige of dignity a man sliding into middle age clings to. As Roger notes in a bracing moment of self-awareness, he is now Emeritus Head of Accounts, put out on that iceberg referenced way back in Season 3 who can still woo a client and get him laid at a whore house, but otherwise, waiting for the final curtain to fall.