Make no mistake: awards shows are stupid, organized by those with the most to gain from the continued perception that they’re worth paying attention to, or that their opinions are legitimized in any objective way. And yet we do pay attention because they’re kind of fun, and talking about the Emmy nominations, which dropped today, is a victimless task in which we can derive vicarious joy from the acknowledgement of the actors, actresses, writers, directors and shows we enjoyed—validation that our eye for high-brow television is also the one shared by the plutocrat gatekeepers.
Which is why it’s a shame that Vincent Kartheiser, who’s spent six seasons toiling away as unfuckable antihero Pete Campbell on Mad Men, saw another snub in the Outstanding Supporting Actor group, where he’s never been nominated despite the sheer difficulty of making us care about an unfuckable antihero. When Mad Men began, Pete was a sniveling, manipulative careerist blue blood who seemed purposefully created as a foil for Don Draper, the effortlessly cool con man we’re supposed to love in spite of his obvious flaws. Thusly, Pete’s bad behavior—his adultery, his sexism, his callousness in the work place—never got the benefit of the doubt compared to Draper or literally any of Mad Men‘s male characters, most of whom are the objective worst. Pete’s always been the gag—the one who falls down the stairs, the one who gets fat and loses his hair, the one whose accomplishments are ignored in spite of all he’s done for the agency.
And yet… we care, kind of. Because the writers have been good enough to create scenes that explain Pete’s dourness, which Kartheiser’s portrayed with a mix of pouty entitlement and raw nerve vulnerability—this haughty, unfulfilled sadness that Pete feels. Which, sure, he’s another privileged white dude in an era full of them, but he’s just another lost soul on the show looking for something he doesn’t have. He’s not an alcoholic, like Don; he’s not a racist, like Roger (through the show, he’s constantly been one of the few characters with a progressive view on race); he’s just a malcontent little boy, with those piercing blue eyes and baby face, unable to say exactly what he wants without looking like a bitch.
There’s a scene at the end of season five when Pete is visiting a woman he had an affair with who’s been sent to the psychiatric hospital for shock treatment. She no longer remembers who he is, but rather than try to get it in, he sits down and tries to relay the source of his sadness in a veiled way, alluding to a “friend” who felt a need to act out—to have an affair, to risk his perfect family life—in order to make himself feel good again, even as he realized it was “a temporary bandage on a permanent wound.” It’s a devastating moment, one that makes us empathize with the closest thing Mad Men‘s ever had to a black hat… and yet Kartheiser remained unacknowledged for it, as has happened year in and year out. (Indeed, he’s one of Mad Men‘s few mainstay characters who’s never been given a nomination—Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery have all gotten their attention.)
The Emmys aren’t above giving nominations that sort of serve as a cumulative recognition for all the work that an actor’s done on a show over the years, which is why I’m hoping he’ll get his shot next year as Mad Men is wrapping up its long run. If they can’t even make this obvious choice, then what’s the point of paying attention?