“I’m sorry. I’m in the wrong room.”
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) closes out his arc in Season Five of Mad Men by conversing with a misplaced identity. His desperate affair with troubled housewife Beth Dawes (Alexis Bledel) ends with her hospitalization for electroconvulsive therapy. She warns him beforehand that the treatment, which she’s undergone before, will likely blot out her memories of him. So when he secretly visits her recovery room, they are strangers, and she, in the terms of the episode’s title, is a phantom.
Pete and Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) have been rivals, arguably, since that Season One fistfight in which Pete, in his craven and bitter way, defended Peggy Olsen’s honor. More deeply, Pete resents Ken’s success as a writer of fiction — as a storyteller. When Pete blabs about Ken’s continued sideline as a writer of science fiction stories, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) reacts badly, warning Ken to shut down his avocation lest it interfere with his rainmaking for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
The fiction of the period winds through Mad Men, from the show’s primary thematic influences — Sloan Wilson’s The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (1961), and basically the entire oeuvre of John Cheever (the literary lion of Don Draper’s Ossining, New York) — to the popular novels consumed by its characters.
A thread of this past season was science fiction — Ken’s yarns about bridges between planets, Paul Kinsey’s ridiculously on-the-nose Star Trek script. Percolating under the highbrow currents was a brew of new SF finding voice and respectability. In 1966, former PR man Kurt Vonnegut was three years past Cat’s Cradle and three years away from Slaughterhouse-Five. “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction,'” Vonnegut would later complain, “and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”
But SF remained a vehicle for story, however lightly or derisively that story might be treated once published. Its most compelling themes would veer — had veered already — from space exploration and conquest toward discovery of the inner self, surveys of humankind’s psychic landscape. Roger Sterling naked in a hotel window, contemplating the Manhattan lights with his mind winging free on acid, is a purer science-fictional image for this period of the literature than any phaser battle.
Not recognized until decades later, Philip K. Dick was doing some of the most daring SF of the ’60s, with memory and identity as his signal themes. He could turn a galactic intrigue story with the best of them, but many of his tales were set in suburbia and involved the dissolution or subversion of thought and recall. His best-known short story in this vein appeared in 1966 — and it’s not out of place in a PKD story to find two people who know each other, who perhaps even loved each other, meeting as strangers after their memories are altered.
So Pete’s final talk with Beth, in a clinical setting with her brain scrubbed brutally clean, is a chance for Pete to make up a character — an institutionalized friend — and graft his own story onto him.
“He needed to let off some steam, he needed adventure, he needed to feel handsome again. He needed to feel that he knew something, that all this aging was worth something, because he knew things young people didn’t know yet. He probably thought it would be like having a few tall drinks and feeling very, very good, and then he would go back to his life and say, ‘That was nice.’ …
“And then he realized everything he already had was not right either, and that was why it had happened at all, and that his life with his family was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound.”
The rhythms here are those of Cheever, of Yates. Pete is writing his own story, as well or better than Ken ever could. But the neuroscience that brought him here is surrealist and Dickian, and Beth, the good patient, the bright-eyed victim of modern brain tampering, finally replies: “Don’t worry. They’ll fix him up here. They’re very good.” They have remembered it for her wholesale.