Of the core group of “Mad Men” actors that have been series regulars since the beginning, Jon Hamm and John Slattery have each received four Emmy nominations, while Elisabeth Moss has three, Christina Hendricks two and January Jones one.
In contrast, Vincent Kartheiser’s portrayal of Pete Campbell has been overlooked by the TV Academy, for reasons that are alternatively understandable and inexplicable.
Within the supporting actor category, Slattery’s Roger Sterling is practically the definition of a winning character – even when Roger loses, he’s almost too stylish ever to be a loser. That’s not easy to pull off, and there’s no doubt Slattery succeeds.
Pete, on the other hand, is far from the easiest guy to root for, which is why legions of “Mad Men” fans seemed to take delight when Pete got punched in the face midway through the recently completed season five. And then again when it happened once more in the season finale.
But if he’s sometimes unlikeable, Campbell is just as often vulnerable, occasionally admirable — and never uninteresting. In the past season, Kartheiser and Campbell have taken on questions of manhood, suburban alienation, marital infidelity and corporate upheaval, convincingly. While the Emmys are overflowing with supporting acting candidates, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that Kartheiser should be a world apart from his “Mad Men” mates.
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For a while, it looked like this season of “Mad Men” might become Kartheiser’s last chance for an Emmy as Pete. With characters from Sal (Bryan Batt) to Betty (Jones) having roles cut or significantly diminished, it seemed as if the only sacred character to showrunner Matthew Weiner would be Hamm’s Don Draper. As speculation through the grim fourth season grew that showrunner Matt Weiner would have a character commit suicide, Pete emerged as one of the “Most Likely To …”
“Well, whenever you’re part of something as amazing as this, somewhere in the back of your mind is the idea that they’re gonna wake up one day and realize you’re not as good as the rest of show and get rid of you,” Kartheiser acknowledged, “or just have a path for your character that leads to suicide … or a murder spree.
“At the same time, every part that comes in has so much meat to it, you kind of don’t have too much time to hypothesize about the worst-case scenario," he added. "You get the script and there’s a lot of work to be done. But every once in a while in the back of my head, I’m thinking, ‘Man, Pete’s pretty sad.’ And then the prop guy would run in and make sure the gun (that Pete bought in season one) was in the back of the shot."
Kartheiser would joke, "I haven’t sold that yet?”
As it turned out, Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) offed himself in fashion most memorable, while Peggy Olson (Moss) moved on to a rival agency and, in the “Mad Men” world, a mysterious future. But Pete survived. Indeed, one of his final scenes of the season was unusually cathartic for him, an overt acknowledgement of the darkness that has been building up inside him for so long (via a conversation with the woman he had been having an affair with, Alexis Bledel’s Beth).
Then came the train ride home and, from Beth’s detestable husband, the latest knockdown blow. The final moments of season four showed an emotionally exhausted Pete isolated between a pair of stereo headphones.
“He just lost a 12-round fight,” Kartheiser said. “It wasn’t even a split decision. He got knocked out. Now it’s like the calm after that storm. The despair is there, definitely — he can’t rid of it. … And now he’s just laying wasted and hollow, and he needs to find a way to start living life again or not.
“That whole conversation with Beth in the hospital is him having a real awareness of himself for maybe the first time on this show. He says a real truth about himself, and maybe it’s the first time he’s truly articulated it to himself as well."
In the conversation, Pete articulates that his family life is a "temporary bandange on a permanent wound."
Said Kartheiser: “If he can recognize that, you would have to hope that there would be a chance he could act upon it. I don’t know if that wound is healable — just because you have revelations about yourself doesn’t mean they’re going to lead to change. I’ve been having the same revelations about myself every six months for the past 20 years. So will his patterns change? I don’t know, but I’m sure that his actions will change. Every season, as much as they stay the same, the character has changed.”
As much as anyone, Pete came to understand the line that Don uttered late in the season: “Happiness is a moment before you need more happiness.” Yet he lives on …
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Kartheiser understandably became serious during this part of the conversation, and particularly so when he was asked about the schadenfreude from the "Mad Men" viewers regarding his multiple beatdowns. Pete has done loathsome things, but so has Don Draper, yet when Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) took down Don in a season-four scuffle, the Internet didn’t erupt in glee.
“I can’t speak for (fans of the show), but I will say that Don is a very charismatic character,” Kartheiser said. “He’s very mysterious. I think a lot of people wish they were him, so they put themselves into those situations, and they root for him even when he’s done those things. And that’s the role of protagonist. I think even Pete (roots for Don), and other people in the show do that. It’s a character who not only does that for the audience but does that for the other characters.
“I think that just is the sign that we’re doing our job. … I think there’s moments where the audience has really disliked (Don) for the way he treats Betty, Megan, Peggy — whomever. I think Matt does a very good job keeping the audience with Don, and allowing them to watch through his eyes and be sympathetic.
“We’re trying to show that men sometimes do despicable things — women too. Human beings do despicable things. Sometimes that’s allowed, just because of our status in the world. Sometimes it’s crucified for our status in the world.”
Pete’s confusion about his place in that world, a world where the reactions he gets don't mesh with what he expects, is rooted in the pilot episode of “Mad Men.” Schadenfreude or not, Kartheiser believes more people might have issues in common with Pete than actually realize it.
“I’m not someone who connects to a lot of work, (but) I’m kind of a tormented bastard just like Pete Campbell,” Kartheiser said. “I yearn to play roles that express deep emotions and ideas and thoughts that aren’t simple and aren’t obvious and aren’t usual. And so when I read (the pilot) and I read Pete Campbell, I just had a voice for him right away. I kind of understood him, and I wanted to play this man who felt so inferior — and yet wanted to feel so superior. That’s a real human experience, and I think a lot of men and women deny that that’s them, because that’s maybe not the prettiest way to look at life. I think a lot of people do feel that way.”
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As far as the Emmys go, Kartheiser didn't betray much about his level of desire. But regardless of recognition, he appreciates the opportunity the Emmy campaign season provides to celebrate “Mad Men,” with little apparent Pete-like inner conflict.
“I’ve done projects before that I didn’t love talking about as much," he said. "I really love talking about this show. … People watch and rewatch and ask these really interesting questions that oftentimes are really important to the material. I really like talking about it, and I love hearing feedback.
“When it comes to the Emmys, I love seeing my friends, I love everyone on this set — they are my buddies and in some cases my mentors — so yeah, when I get to see Jon Hamm’s face or Elisabeth Moss’ face on the bigscreen at the Emmys, I’m filled with joy. They are worthy of being up there, and I’m really proud to be a part.”
Even so, even amid all the other incredible supporting actor performances of 2011-12, perhaps Vincent Kartheiser at the Emmys, like Pete Campbell in the ad game, has a case for being made a partner.