LOS ANGELES – Car crashes. A beating in the boardroom. Talk of serial killers. Random imagery of a noose, of blowing one’s brains out, and of falling silhouettes. It’s enough to make you wonder: Is somebody about to die on "Mad Men"?
It’s not just obsessed fans and conspiracy theorists who are asking. The Internet is abuzz this week with TV and entertainment columnists passing on the rumour that the hit AMC series is heavily foreshadowing the impending doom of a major character – most likely Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Kartheiser.
Not that many people (both fictional and real) would mourn the demise of the young account executive at 1960s New York ad firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, who's known for his self-centred, weasel-like behavior. But as he’s a major role on Mad Men, his loss would affect the series profoundly.
The reports of Pete’s possible death skyrocketed following Sunday night’s episode, Signal 30, which sees a depressed, alienated Pete suffering numerous humiliations, in and out of the office. His self-image as a man takes two blows – first when colleague Don Draper (Jon Hamm) fixes a leaky faucet that Pete had failed to fix earlier, and then when a young woman whom he was hoping to seduce opts for a younger, better-built man instead. The most dramatic knockdown he faces is a literal one, after firm partner Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) challenges Pete to a fistfight in the office boardroom after Pete inadvertently loses Lane’s new client. “I have nothing,” Pete sobs to Don in the elevator near the end of the episode, lamenting his dissatisfaction with his life.
But the death knells for Pete didn’t start ringing on Sunday. Salon’s Robin Sayers began publicly predicting his upcoming death in a March 30 column, attributing her belief in part to supposed “Paul Is Dead”-style clues on the show, but mostly to a psychic premonition she claims to have had. Sayers, who also claims to have successfully predicted Walter Matthau's death in 2000, foretold: “Pete Campbell will take a header out a Time & Life Building window, probably around Thanksgiving on the show. (I’m iffy on the when but feeling solid on the who, what and where.)”
To her credit, Sayers quotes a friend of hers as calling her celebrity-death predictions “the most pointless use of supernatural powers ever”.
On a slightly more credible note, Michael Nunez of the International Business Times pointed out “the suicidal and horrific imagery scattered throughout episodes of the latest season” on Monday. The past few episodes have included references to 1960s serial killers Richard Speck and Charles Whitman, as well as a shocking dream sequence in which an enraged Don murders one of his old flings. Signal 30 seems to associate death imagery with Pete frequently, from his amusement at the infamous 1959 driving-safety film referenced in the episode's title, to his conflict with wife Trudy (Alison Brie) over whether he can keep his gun in the house. “While the gun may not be a direct allusion to death,” Nunez wrote, “it is just another bit of foreshadowing.”
Ludwig von Beethoven expert Greg Mitchell wrote in Monday's Huffington Post about the abundant references to the composer in Sunday's episode: “The episode ends with a voice-over of Ken reading from a story that he has apparently written under a new pseudonym relating to Beethoven's struggles... Finally, the opening of the Ninth's 'Ode to Joy' section – in ironic counterpoint to the sad fade-out with Pete – played over the credits.” The passage, Mitchell said, “made me recall Beethoven's famous 'suicide note' – his Heiligenstadt Testament, written after he realized that his deafness was unstoppable... He filed the lengthy note away in a drawer, where it was only discovered after his death.”
And what does Kartheiser himself have to say about all this offbeat speculation?
“Whenever you have something good, you’re scared of losing it,” the 32-year-old actor said on Monday in an interview with Slate. “You do have anxiety, but if I’m going to die on a show, or if I’m going to get kicked off a show, this is the one I want to do it on. I trust Matt [Weiner, the series' creator]. I’m happy to do whatever he needs me to do to tell the best story. And if that means me not being on it anymore – if that brings to a head a point that he’s trying to make – then I’m happy to be the arrow that he has to fling away.”