As we enter into the very first episode of Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," it becomes clear that the initial moments that the audience spends with each of the characters are some of the most defining. For example, the first time the audience is introduced to Peter Campbell, we are able to better understand his character through his actions during and after a conversation with his fiancée, Trudy, on the phone. While seemingly menial, the exchange reveals that Campbell has somewhat of a disregard for the truth and that he and his future wife are not the picture of marital bliss that we later see in other couples on the show. These traits are exposed in this scene through a combination of his physical distance from Trudy, their discussion, and the entrance of his coworkers. The product is an accurate portrayal of the young Peter Campbell who continues to be a prominent character in the series.
At times some of the more important characters in a scene are those who we don’t see. In this scene, Trudy is part of the off-screen space, making her only presence her voice which is barely heard over the phone. Her lack of physical presence in the scene is significant in that it separates Campbell’s work life from his home life in the most obvious way, which in future episodes allows him to lead a sort of double life. This theme of keeping one’s wife and home outside of the city permeates the entire male population of the Sterling Cooper offices and thus allows the audience to infer that perhaps Peter Campbell is simply following in the footsteps of those who have come before him. Nonetheless, it is clear that Campbell’s relationship with Trudy will not be one of full-disclosure, as is highlighted in this scene.
In the scenes before Campbell’s entrance it is introduced that he is having a bachelor party that evening. As is hardly a surprise, the conversation between Campbell and Trudy touches upon Trudy’s wariness that this party will be lewd and wild. Campbell chooses to deal with his fiancée’s insecurities by lying to her, telling her that he and his friends will most likely end up watching My Fair Lady, knowing full well that their intention is to go to a strip joint. His lie to Trudy further accents the detachment that he feels physically from Trudy and now emotionally. The comments that he continues to make about his mother-in-law – “Your mother can check under my fingernails” – play up his flippant attitude about an evening that would be sure to offend Trudy. This allows the viewers to see a side of Campbell that continues to appear all through the series, making this scene a proper introduction.
One of the most interesting dynamics witnessed in this episode, and this scene specifically, is that between the Junior Executives at Sterling Cooper. In the scene preceding Campbell’s introduction, we witness the young men cajoling one another and Peggy in the elevator, joking about the night’s party and how to treat women. Upon entering Campbell’s office, the men continue the same “frat house” behavior, throwing a flyer for a strip club at Campbell. Additionally, one of the Junior Executives, Dick, comments after Campbell compliments Trudy, that “her old man's loaded," which Campbell doesn’t refute. Dick’s joke about Trudy’s father being wealthy not only adds to the office’s asinine atmosphere, but also adds to Campbell’s character. It would appear that the audience is meant to question whether Campbell really thinks of Trudy as a “great gal," or a sizable dowry.
While the entire transcript of this scene takes up no more than three inches on a page, the foundation that it gives the viewer on one of the more integral characters in the series is invaluable. His relationships with his fiancée and his closest coworkers are established, as well as his penchant for shirking responsibility and weakness before money. Knowing the basic elements of Peter Campbell’s character allows for a greater understanding of his motivation and portrayal throughout this first season and the subsequent seasons.