On last Sunday’s “Mad Men” episode “Signal 30,” Ken Cosgrove’s narrative was given more depth than viewers have seen in the past four seasons. As the affable account executive for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, he’s been effortlessly good at building and keeping clients, something that chagrins Pete Campbell, whose own personal charms don’t come easy. Ken’s ease at work flummoxes Harry Crane as to why Ken would be paid more than him in season two’s “The Benefactor” (Harry’s wife Jennifer even likens Ken to a mannequin). But Ken’s work is still a strength to the firm: as Lane Pryce says of golden boy Ken in season three’s “The Grown Ups”: He “has the rare gift of making [clients] feel as if they haven’t any needs.”
But as season four shows, Ken, having been poached to revive the startup firm with his hefty saddlebag of accounts, draws the line at exploiting his personal relationships for career gains. He turns down the firm’s requests to use his fiancee’s family connections to get in good with a potential client. After pointing that he isn’t like Pete, who has used his wife Trudy’s parents for career gains, Ken tells the partners, “I’m going to service the 30 percent of this firm that are MY clients,” reminding them of his ad-man talents.
But this season’s “Signal 30″ seems to hint at Ken’s underlying unhappiness in his advertising career. The episode reveals that he’s made a pact with Peggy that if either of them jump ship from the firm, they’ll take the other along. He’s continuing his writing hobby (in previous seasons, he’s been published, getting a byline in The Atlantic), even gaining moderate success under his secret pen name “Ben Hargrove.” His wife Cynthia shares one of his short stories, “The Punishment of X4″ at the Campbells’ dinner party, much to Ken’s discomfort:
“There’s this bridge between these two planets and thousands of humans travel on it every day, and there’s this robot who does maintenance on the bridge. One day he removes a bolt, the bridge collapses, and everyone dies.”
When she finishes, the dinner partiers ask why the robot destroyed the bridge, and Ken offers this:
“Because he’s a robot. Those people tell him what to do and he doesn’t have the power to make any decisions, except he can decide whether that bolt’s on or off.”
While Ken’s short story “The Man with the Miniature Orchestra” most likely represents Pete and his midlife malaise with suburbia, what if the robot story were a metaphor for Ken’s own career frustrations? He’s always been great with clients, but what if he feels SCDP takes his work for granted? And perhaps rightly so — he’s the only account exec at SCDP who hasn’t been made a partner, most likely under Pete’s bidding to keep Ken in his place at the new firm. The narrative of “Signal 30″ suggests that Ken could be a bigger player at the firm — and perhaps a wild card if his creative needs remain unmet.
If the robot story were about Ken, what do the two planets represent? His two careers as an advertising account exec and a fantasy writer, and his attempts to bridge the two? Or perhaps two versions of SCDP — the present firm and its more successful future?
Whether the robot story represents his life or not, it’s clear that Ken doesn’t derive all his happiness from his advertising career, as Roger forces him to do when he tells Ken to abandon the writing. Will Ken walk away from advertising and take up a new career as a fantasy author?
Ken’s no mannequin or robot, but he’s feeling the weight of the bridge he’s building. Will he undo the bolt, take his 30 percent of the firm’s clients with him, and watch SCDP collapse without him?
Image via AMC