March is a month for brackets, so this week on The Ringer, we’re hosting The Best TV Characters of the Century—an expansive, obsessive, and unexpectedly fraught competition to determine the best fictional TV personality of the past 20 years. Check back throughout the week for more essays and interviews, and be sure to vote for The Best TV Characters of the Century here.
You might think Don Draper is the most important character on Mad Men, but you’d be wrong. Yes, Don is the sun—or rather, the black hole—around which the entire story revolves, a suave and sexy cipher whose metaphorical downfall is made literal in the show’s iconic credits. Still, he’s not as integral to the show’s sticking power. Nor is Peggy Olson, the ambitious empath whose career trajectory unwittingly reflects a generation of women on the rise. The costars of “The Suitcase” are key; they’re just not the keystone.
The most important and best Mad Men character is Pete Campbell, the sniveling, entitled WASP who is also, not coincidentally, the worst.
Don is, of course, a recognizable riff on the antihero, the new millennium’s most seminal, and infamous, archetype. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner came out of The Sopranos, and Don is a character distinct from but clearly influenced by Tony, from the Freudian backstory to the poisonous charisma. Peggy fits a mold independent of the antihero trope, but shaped by her proximity to it—the brilliant, independent woman whose only viable route to success involves navigating the toxic men who saturate her surroundings. Don sees himself in her, and that’s not entirely a compliment.
Pete, on the other hand, could never be mistaken for an antihero. Don, Tony, Walter White, Al Swearengen, Vic Mackey: All depend on an intricate blend of attraction and repulsion, a balance many fans failed to grasp and many imitators failed to strike. With Pete, it’s all repulsion. There’s no seductive glamour to distract us from the truth of who he really is; in fact, the inability to mask his naked aspiration is part of the appeal. Pete Campbell is pure anti, no hero, and he represents a kind of character that’s arguably proved more influential in the long run. This species shares plenty of demographic traits with the antihero—white, male, wealthy, generally privileged—but none of the panache. The antihero is a fantasy of masculine bravado. Pete and his peers are the reality. They’re the Failsons, not just of their domineering parents (though also that) but of patriarchy itself.
In The Ringer’s Best TV Character Bracket alone there’s Gob Bluth, the loudmouthed showboat who inherited his family’s craven values, though not their respect; Kendall Roy, whose family has vastly more power than Gob’s but an eerily similar dynamic; and Michael Scott, a middle manager who wants his employees’ affection more than their respect and gets neither. Working with the same set of ingredients as the antihero, these flailing men yield an end result that’s pathetic, not aspirational. And in terms of insight into the human condition, they might prove even more enduring than the antihero thanks to a dysfunction that feels much more reflective of and resonant in this day and age. The cruel confidence of a man who’s learned through experience he can get away with anything feels much less contemporary than the sputtering impotence of a man who’s learned the hard way he can’t.
Of Mad Men’s many brilliant moves, perhaps the shrewdest was surrounding characters who look—and are treated—like the kind of people who would star in a TV show, or maybe an advertisement, with characters who don’t. Don Draper, né Dick Whitman, isn’t just handsome and mysterious—people are constantly observing as much, his extraordinary behavior given context by others’ normalcy. And Pete is Don’s most important foil. It’s Pete who rats Don out to their boss as an impostor, only to be told that his skill buys him leeway. It’s Pete whom Don ditches on a business trip to California, leaving his colleague to clean up his mess. It’s Pete whom Don humiliates by stripping down to an undershirt and fixing the Campbells’ busted sink. Pete is living proof that not everyone—nay, almost no one—can be Don Draper, however much they want to.
There’s a hard truth to watching Mad Men, and the sooner you accept it the better: We all have more in common with Pete than we’d like to admit. Don, obviously, is a rare breed, a fact true of all eccentric-genius types but made unusually clear by Mad Men’s particular choices. But Peggy is a ready-made point of identification, embodying virtues we’d like to think we share—work ethic, underdog status, perceptiveness—and positioned from day one as an audience surrogate. The key phrase there, regrettably, is “like to think.” Peggy may be more relatable and recognizable than Don, but she’s still someone we want to be. Pete, her secret coparent, is who we actually are.
Who we are, deep down, is someone who desperately wants what he can’t have—a fundamental ease of living that must be described, frustratingly and elusively, as “it.” That yearning is what Pete shares with almost everyone, but especially his TV brethren. Pete wishes he could sail through pitch meetings and extramarital affairs like Don. Michael Scott wishes he had an ounce of the jaded remove that makes Jim Halpert a better office jokester than he’ll ever be. Gob Bluth wishes he could pull off a magic trick literally just once. Kendall Roy wishes he had the bone-deep sociopathy that allows his father to dominate everyone around him.
That bald-face yearning is what makes us root for the Failson in spite of ourselves. We cheer when Kendall finally sticks it to Logan in the Oedipal knife twist heard round the world. We cheer when Michael ends up with Holly from HR, or at least breathe a sigh of relief when Gob makes it through a scene without a full-body cringe. Pete, especially, is someone we learn to root for over Mad Men’s seven seasons. In his own intangible way, Pete is operating at a disadvantage, and he works hard to overcome it. (For a glimpse of how Pete might’ve turned out with some social graces to go with his birthright, look to his colleague Roger Sterling.) Against the odds, he channels his desperate need for approval into an indefatigable drive to succeed, growing into a legitimately great accounts man. When it’s time to start a new firm, it’s Pete whom the founding partners go to over the sunnier Ken Cosgrove. He may be an asshole, but he’s a hungry asshole, and we’re thrilled to see that acknowledged. It’s nice to know effort can be enough to overcome a terminal case of bad personality.
TV’s greatest advantage over other forms of storytelling is time. That’s what makes the Failson a creature uniquely suited to the medium—it takes time for us to warm to his counterintuitive charms, and time for him to become worthy of our respect. It took time for the American Office creators to retool Michael Scott and make him tolerable, even enjoyable, to viewers unused to British cynicism. It took time for audiences to adjust to the Succession cast, Kendall included, as a pack of oligarchs whose manifest misery was worth our time. It took time for Gob’s more vulnerable side to shine through.
For Pete, it takes time to reveal the complexity of his full personhood. Make no mistake: Pete is a piece of shit who at best has coerced multiple women into sex and at worst committed assault. But he’s also a man capable of surprisingly forward thinking: forging a mutually supportive partnership with his wife Trudy, recognizing the economic upside of welcoming all customers regardless of race, even steering clear of cigarettes. The offputting first impression makes the ensuing respect all the more hard-won. My favorite Pete Campbell scene of the whole series comes when his father-in-law, having been all but forced to give Pete’s firm extra business, calls him a son of a bitch. Pete just shrugs. You do, unfortunately, have to hand it to him.