(S P O I L E R S)
In which I wish I knew what you wanted Joanie.
“He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…” -Nick Carraway/The Great Gatsby
Rachel: Maybe. They taught us at Barnard about that word, 'utopia'. The Greeks had two meaning for it: 'eu-topos', meaning the good place, and 'u-topos' meaning the place that cannot be.”
(Before we start, press play on the video link embedded here, and let it play through.)
Hearken back with me now, former students (the rest of you...um…play along and use your imaginations), to the final day of classes in Sophomore year English. Not the exam period day, or project day, or whatever euphemism they’re using now. The actual final day of classes in that final week of the regular schedule. The spring weather has begun to shift into the tight, warm embrace of summer. A strange mix of anxiety and relief percolates in the air, as final exams and projects mix with the sweet final victory of the coveted finish line, the end of the school year. Act II of the epic, mercurial, oft obnoxious, sometimes fulfilling play that is your high school career is almost over.
And I’m playing Ferrante and Teicher’s plaintive, powerful cover of Ernest Gold’s main theme to the 1960 film Exodus over the classroom speakers. And I’m on the microphone.
(If you weren’t in my class, you should know that the day the school installed wireless microphones in the classrooms was the day that my life became complete. As any former student will tell you, I made liberal use of the mic during those four years. Mostly for purposes of self-ridicule. Several times throughout the year, I’d split each class period into groups and give each one a question to work on for ten minutes. I couched this assignment in the guise of a game show, with me as the smarmy host hamming it up on the mic. I loved to play the theme to Tic Tac Dough, which I often described as the sound of worms dying en masse, as accompaniment. After I retired from teaching, the student advisee groups had to draw posters for Halloween of 2014. The theme was ghosts. At least three groups drew me; two of those posters prominently featured a microphone.)
Yes, this is the day that I open class with this bombastic tune playing, while I offer a mock eulogy for our time together over the past year, the exodus from Sophomore English that we’re all about to embark upon. Hopefully, my faux serious voice makes the intended humor obvious. Most of you are either befuddled. Or surfing Facebook. Or making death threats to me on Yik Yak (which might not have even existed at this point….but hey, this is my memory.)
After my (ahem) heartfelt appreciation, I ask if the song has any resonance with any of you. None of you were born in 1965, so that’s strike one. I tell you that it’s the main theme to Exodus. Now does it make sense? Yeah, you’re still befuddled. So I make the connection, reminding you that Leon Uris’s Exodus was the book that Don Draper read in Episode 6 of Mad Men (which also featured a mention of the upcoming film adaptation, starring Paul Newman.) One or two of you now mildly remember. The rest of you return to assembling the Why is Joe Neff Still Talking? Tumblr.
I have fond memories of that final day of classes, if for no other reason than I wanted to get to summer vacation as badly as most of you did. But looking back now, that final final day of classes in the spring of 2014 takes on an added weight. Maybe it’s why “Babylon” is easily my favorite episode of Mad Men’s first season, and one of my favorites of the show’s run. Because on that day, much like the characters in this episode, I too felt like an outsider. Like someone who, for various reasons, had to enter a period of exile, leaving a group of people who were fairly dear to me for the final time.
Uris’s Exodus is, of course, the smash hit 1958 book (and 1960 film) which chronicles the genesis of the State of Israel. Up to this point in Season 1, Matt Weiner has toyed around with the concept of Judaism in the early ‘60s, mostly through tossed off anti-Semitic jokes and Sterling Cooper’s quest to rebrand the very Jewish Menken’s department store. But it’s with “Babylon” that Mad Men makes its most explicit connection with the Jewish experience, using it as a stirring, expansive metaphor for the show’s main preoccupations, and as a through line to connect the furtive, melancholic plight of the main players. As the title of the episode refers to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, so too does the episode depict the figurative exile in which these characters exist.
It’s telling that the two books Don reads in bed in “Babylon” are Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything and Exodus, two titles that encapsulate the simultaneous impulses behind his roiling inner turmoil and that of the characters surrounding him. For this episode is a heart-rending portrait of the unattainable desires that haunt so many of them. As Don and Betty romantically snuggle in bed at the story’s outset, she stops the foreplay to make an emotionally naked confession to him:
"I want you so much. I’ve thought about it all day…It’s all I think about, every day. Your car, coming down the drive way, I put the kids to bed early. I make a grocery list, I make butterscotch pudding; I never let my hands idol, brushing my hair, drinking my milk. And it’s still a fog because I can’t stop thinking about this. I want you, so badly."
The tears that January Jones chokes back when she utters those final words give you such a moving sense of how much Betty really loves Don, as well as how much of her self-worth is invested in him. Throughout the first five episodes, we’ve seen her suspicions of his double life, but the rigid expectations that come with being a housewife (and a woman) in this environment have kept their psychological toll submerged. Don reassures her that she has him, but we know that only applies to the moment.
A strong parallel is drawn between the Drapers and Joan and Roger, whose affair is first revealed in this episode. There has been some previous teasing about Don and Joan hooking up, and after all, they’re seemingly the ultimate genetic combo, two images of almost cartoonish sex appeal and power. But (especially in retrospect), Roger is Joan’s true soulmate. They’re both alpha figures at Sterling Cooper, but the reality is that their power is very limited (Joan by her secretarial and female roots, Roger by his junior status to Bert Cooper). And they’re both trapped in an image, Roger as the Dean Martin-esque boozy joker, Joan as the manipulative queen bee of the office floor. As we see first see in “Babylon” a dreamer’s heart beats within both of them, but the constraints they’re faced with mute that beating.
Both visually and thematically, Joan and Roger are a mirror image of Don and Betty, their unequal power dynamic expressed in the similar blocking of these bedroom scenes. When Betty makes her confession to Don, they’re facing the right side of the frame, with Don on top. Switch to the hotel room, and when Joan tries to convince Roger that their affair is temporary, the couple is facing the left side of the frame. Roger is on top, but he’s clearly playing Betty’s role here, the lovelorn romantic pining after his distant object of affection. Similarly, the beginning of Don’s seduction of Betty involves a right-moving tracking shot that follows his hand sliding up her leg, while the hotel room conversation ends with a left-tracking shot of Roger’s hand charting the same course. Betty and Roger: two people who seemingly have it all, but who yearn for a person that, deep inside, they know they can’t have. They each may have some authority in their respective worlds, but in the presence of their lovers, they’re helpless. Late in the episode, when Joan and Roger return to the hotel room for another tryst, he tells her that he’s been waiting for this all day, a direct callback to Betty’s line from before.
But the romantic exile doesn’t stop there. Because hey, this is Don Draper we’re talking about. We’ve seen enough of his relationship with Midge to know that he maintains a strong desire to keep her segmented in an easily controlled box, but she’s too much of a free spirit to ever agree to such terms. He’s previously shrugged off intimations of her other boyfriends, but it’s in “Babylon” that those ghosts become physically manifest in the form of Beat hipster Roy. Don sees Midge as an escape from convention (and heartache), but he also wants to believe that she’s cut from the same cloth that he is. Seeing her with rabidly anti-establishment Roy makes him realize that like him, she is indeed an amalgam of many different personas. But it also introduces him to a side of her that he can’t recognize. And that kills control freak Don, who wants to flirt with this feminist force without accepting everything that comes with her. Try as he might, Midge will never fit the model that he’s constructed.
And speaking of women being put into a box, amidst all the furtive romantic longing, “Babylon” also features a standout sequence that serves as an indictment of the ‘60s boys room office culture, a slyly humorous interlude, and an origin story/turning point for Peggy (herself a massive exile in the shark tank of the office floor.) As Joan carried out Freddie Rumsen’s research for the Belle Jolie lipstick account, the secretaries squeal in delight, the main male characters leer at them behind the one-way mirror…and Peggy looks at her fellow guinea pigs with a mixture of bemusement and disgust. We’ve seen Joan explicitly pressure her to exploit her sexuality in order to survive, but it’s here that Peggy begins to firmly reject that philosophy. And it’s where we get to see that the dowdy girl of the pilot episode is actually one of the only independently minded women in the office. It’s only in her accidental encounter with Freddie at the end of the session that she uncorks the “basket of kisses” line that will start her down the path to accomplished career woman. But this is still 1960, so her semi-promotion to write copy for the lipstick account only comes with a jealous browbeating by Joan (who, despite her clearly whip smart intellect, has never been given this opportunity.)
Don runs to Midge in “Babylon” because he’s once again been rebuffed by Rachel, albeit after receiving some of the most profound insights of the series. He wants to understand the Jewish experience in order to create an effective campaign for the Israeli Tourism Bureau, but her insights into the alienation of her people strike a much deeper chord with him. It’s notable that Don is the only main male character not to take part in the Belle Jolie leering session, a point that’s emphasized by the introductory shot of his lunch with Rachel (another recreation of the enigmatic Mad Men logo.) As we see in the episode’s opening flashback to the birth of his brother Adam, Dick Whitman was a scared, scrawny, easily intimidated young boy, clearly an outsider in his own home (in this case, the brothel that would so profoundly warp his view of love and sexuality.) And when Don locks eyes with his younger self, it’s clear that in many ways he’s still as much of an outsider as he was back then. He’s just learned how to hide it better. But, to paraphrase a much used quote, even though Don thinks he’s done with the past (specifically, in this case, Adam…it’s no coincidence that this flashback is the first scene after the traumatic events of “5G”) the past isn’t done with him.
It’s such high irony: Don Draper, the embodiment of the WASP ideal, finding more in common with the Jewish nation (still a much maligned ethnic group in 1960) than with his own family and associates. But sometimes high irony is necessary for moments of true self-revelation. And for Don, the otherness of the Jews is one of the only conscious connections that he can make with his own deep insecurities, with his own true self. It’s also why he becomes so enamored of Rachel, the one woman so far to resist his romantic entreaties. Midge may represent his adventurous, feminine side, but she’s also a white anglo woman with the flexibility to maneuver in and out of social circles with relative ease. Even though she claims to not be strongly Jewish, Rachel can still feel the pain of her background, and with the stigmatization that she experiences in her position, both as a woman and a Jew. That pain of the outsider is what drives Don, and what ultimately connects him to Ms. Menken. And she to him, as we finally see near the end of the episode that she has feelings for Don. But as she says to her sister on the phone “Sometimes good things come, but there’s no future to them.” Try as she might, Rachel Menken is another romantic exile. (Janie Bryant is such a meticulous costume designer that it can’t be coincidence that both Rachel and Joan are garbed in deep red in this episode.)
All of “Babylon”s melancholic angst comes to a head in the haunting montage that ends the episode (check it out here). It’s surely one of the great sequences in the show’s history. To this day, I get very emotional when I watch it. Having seen Midge’s connection to Roy, Don is unnerved and hurt. In one beautiful, dreamy progression, his forlorn face crossfades into a lonely Rachel laying out a Don-like tie, which crossfades into Betty applying lipstick to Sally (a callback to her earlier concerns about aging, and a continuation of the social conditioning of women that I discussed in the essay for “Ladies Room”), which crossfades back into Don’s face. Don, Rachel, and Betty: visually all so close, yet so far apart.
And then, the final cut back to Joan and Roger in the hotel room, mechanically getting dressed after their romantic rendezvous. I’ve always loved the blank look on John Slattery’s face as his eyes follow Christina Hendricks out of the room. We know that nothing fazes Roger, but this attempt at stoically plowing ahead carries with it the subtle hint of true pain. He loves her, but the only way this night can end is with them waiting for cab outside the hotel, separated by circumstance and physical space. All to the poignant strains of “By the Waters of Babylon”, that classic hymn/folk song/simple, yet devastating cry of pain from deep within the Babylonian captivity. All for a group of people who so desperately want that good place that cannot be.
A few small notes to end with:
*Midge and Roy’s friend Ian, who sings “By the Waters of Babylon” is played by none other than Mad Men music composer David Carbonara.
*This week’s moment of Jon Hamm comedy gold: the awkward and polite smile that he flashes at Margaret Sterling when she subtly comes on to him.
*”Anybody mind if I take off my pants?’ (Paul)
*”It was like watching a dog play the piano” (Freddie, referring to Peggy coming up with the “basket of kisses” tag.)