Mad Men: “Babylon”
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Mad Men: “Babylon”

“Babylon” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 8/23/2007)

In which everyone is in exile

(Available on Netflix.)

I have a friend who refuses to watch Mad Men. If you tell her it’s a great show, she gets very mad. See, she watched the pilot and didn’t glimpse the irony between the show’s presentation of sexism and its attitude toward that sexism. The female characters in the pilot weren’t exactly the most vivid, and she’s frequently described it to me as just another show about how cool it is to be a big, swingin’ dick, and how women should be submissive to said big swingin’ dicks. And just based on the pilot, I can see where one might get that from the show, even if the built-in critique of Don Draper and his lifestyle has always been obvious to me. Viewed through that prism, Mad Men is just another show about how hard it is to be one of the privileged, and because my friend can’t bridge the gap between that version of the show and what I believe it to actually be, it will never be for her. And it doesn’t matter how often critics praise the show; to her, that’s just another sign that critics wish they were a big, swingin’ dick like Don Draper (which, point to her).

The reason my friend feels this way and why it’s vaguely reasonable for her to feel this way is because Mad Men completely buries the lede. In its first five episodes, the show digs into the question of Don Draper’s identity and the myth of the self-made man and the hollowness of the American dream and the emptiness of happiness found through consumer products. It’s all about wanting and longing and desire, but it hasn’t yet settled on the theme that will define much of its run: the casual dominance of the patriarchy and what happens when women start to ask for just a smidgen of power within that system. Make no mistake: Mad Men is a deeply feminist show. It just takes forever to get to that point, because it wants to inure you to the way that men in its world treat women, so that when Freddy Rumsen says that Peggy trying her hand at writing copy is like a dog playing the piano, it shocks you out of just how casually it built up a world of unexamined, unchecked privilege.

For as much as Mad Men is driven by Don Draper’s journey and by Pete Campbell’s slimy intransigence, it’s perhaps the great cable drama with the most great female characters. (Only Deadwood really comes close.) Yeah, there are Carmela Sopranos and Skyler Whites out there, female figures who stand in male-dominated universes and either crumble in the face of them or try to fight back, but the cable dramas of the last 15 years have skewed very much toward the masculine, perhaps because the vast majority of them are greenlit, produced by, written by, and directed by men. Yet though Mad Men is ostensibly about a man, its second most important character is Peggy, a secretary who reveals in this episode a talent that very well may serve her well. And beyond even that are characters like Joan and Betty and Rachel and Midge (and others to come), women who slowly come to realize that if they’re going to be defined by anyone, it might as well be themselves.

“Babylon” doesn’t “introduce” this theme into Mad Men so much as uncover it. It was always there, just waiting for the scripts and camera to turn their eyes toward it. The episode includes the first major story for Joan, a triumph for Peggy, and a minor but hugely important story point for Rachel. It features Midge for a brief time, and it gives us a taste of both Betty’s view of the world (which seems haunted by her fear that her looks will fade) and the glimmerings of what relationship she has with Sally. It’s the first episode of the show that functions more or less as a guided tour of the women of Mad Men, and that’s a mode that the show would return to at least once per season for as long as it ran. (All you Mad Men experts see also the classic episodes “Maidenform,” “The Beautiful Girls,” and “The Other Woman.”) “Babylon” deliberately links the limitations these women live within—the gilded cage that Joan ends the episode holding—to the bondage the Israelites struggled in until they built a homeland. They’re all struggling toward Utopia, a good place yet also a place that cannot be.

In many ways, “Babylon” feels like a freeing episode for writers Andre Jacquemetton and Maria Jacquemetton (who would remain with the show throughout its run) and director Andrew Bernstein. It’s as if the show, now nearly halfway into the run of its first season, can start letting some of its secrets slip. Not only do we get our first real glimpse of this major theme of the whole series, but we also learn that Joan and Roger have been sleeping together (in a sequence that makes both instantly snap into focus) and a touch more about Don’s childhood via a flashback to the birth of his brother. Perhaps most importantly, we finally start to get a sense of what Peggy’s all about, outside of the very slight glimpses we’ve gotten of the character in previous episodes. At first, “Babylon” is a rather slow-moving episode, taking its time and indulging in things like Betty telling her husband about how good her mother looked, even in old age, but once it settles in, it really gets its hooks in you. Mad Men has one of the more confident first seasons I’ve ever seen, and when I say that, I’m talking about episodes like this, where it really does seem as if everyone involved knows exactly where to go next.

I alluded to this above, but the reveal of the affair Roger and Joan are having is a minor masterstroke for the series. Both characters felt a bit stranded at the edges of the action, mostly there to provide counsel or a sounding board for the two main characters, but by closing them up in a hotel room together, we get a quick picture of them and their relationship that sketches them both in with much greater detail than previous episodes had. Roger is a bit of a romantic, just spoiled enough his whole life to really believe that this whole thing with Joan is what saved his life and his marriage. Joan is much clearer-eyed about the whole thing. She knows that this is just, in some ways, a part of the job. By sleeping with Roger, she can get a few things she likes—like sleeping in a hotel room—but also someone worth sparring with. There’s real affection between the two, but she, alone, seems to know that this simply cannot last.

Mad Men tends to view romantic relationships between people both as emotional and/or sexual connections and as a kind of business transaction carried out so that both parties can get something. (Or, if we’re going to turn to the episode’s frequent references to war, they’re like a hard-fought ground battle where the best result is a bloody stalemate.) Mad Men often crassly and boldly wants us to ask ourselves “Who’s getting what here?” particularly since it’s a show that’s so often concerned with a philandering man who strays from his wife time and again. What does Don get from Midge that he doesn’t get from Betty? And what would he get from Rachel that he wouldn’t get from either? (In both cases, I would argue that Betty is the image, but Don rarely allows her to be a person—notice how he doesn’t want her feeling melancholy for her own mother on Mother’s Day.) This reaches a new peak in the Joan and Roger relationship. The reason Roger wants to sleep with Joan is fairly obvious—and Bernstein’s camera does an excellent job of highlighting it for us if we don’t already know—but the reason for Joan to sleep with Roger is less obvious. Is she doing it for the stuff? For the attention? For the proximity to power? For the witty banter?

No, what the episode seems to want us to conclude is that she’s doing it for the same reason Peggy subconsciously speaks up about the “basket of kisses”: She’s trying to get somewhere she needs to be. It’s almost certainly no accident the episode ends with Roger and Joan waiting at opposite ends of the same sidewalk, for different cars. Their lives have arrived at this sort of connection, but it can never last. (Joan knows this, and Joan is rarely wrong about these things.) Yet Joan is trading in on the one thing she’s been told is of value in her life to spend some extra time with her boss, a man who, maybe just perhaps, she finds intellectually stimulating and fun to be around. Because he’s married and won’t leave his wife for her, there’s something at once fleeting and fun about this dalliance. She’s using the tools available to her to build a life beyond the one already on offer to her, even if it’s a life she can only visit a couple of times per week.

Contrast this with Rachel, a woman who’s already gotten where she seemingly wants to be, and with Peggy, a woman who embarks on a new journey because her brain sparks with new connections in the brainstorming session. (She seems to be the only one who’s actually brainstorming.) That brainstorming scene is like the entire series in a nutshell, and it’s the one I wish I could get my friend to watch to understand what I think this show is up to. Joan teases the guys with her physical attractiveness, but we see her innate intelligence all the same. The guys are reduced to a bunch of lusty monkeys, howling and marking up the one-way mirror that lets them see into the session. (Amusingly enough, it’s Sal who does the marking, and he’s mostly critiquing fashion choices.) And then there’s Peggy, quietly sitting in a corner.

Mad Men is one of the better shows I can think of at showing how the creative process works, how one little glimpse of something can lead to another something and on down the line until a fully-fledged idea has tripped its way down into the consciousness. And, to be sure, the shot of Peggy watching as tissues covered in lipstick are deposited in trashcans works a little too hard to underline this particular point. But, man, when she unleashes both the “basket of kisses” bit and the little thing about how she doesn’t want to be just another color among hundreds in a box, it’s clear that the way the show held her at a bit of a remove, simply observing her—the same treatment it has reserved for Don up until this point—was completely intentional. The other workplace scenes this season have subtly played off of how there’s no obvious successor to Don Draper. (The show toys with having us think it might be Pete before just as quickly yanking that away.) Here, however, we realize that the person who might someday approach his talent was sitting outside his office door all along.

All of which brings us back to Rachel, whose plot seems emblematic of the series’ treatment of its characters. Like Don, she’s achieved immense success in her field, but she’s also yearning for something else, something that doesn’t just involve selling people on something. The episode’s centerpiece involves Don taking Rachel out for lunch, that he might pick her brain about how to get people interested in traveling to Israel. (She’s the only Jew he knows; also, he really just wants to see her.) Rachel describes Israel as a place that must exist, a place that will allow Jewish people to have a homeland, no matter how little that matters to a woman whose whole life is in New York City. And yet she brings up the twin meanings of Utopia, too: a good place and a place that cannot exist. Mad Men is full of people who are constantly pushing toward some other, better life they can’t quite understand, a place that seems too good to be true, probably because it is. What Rachel doesn’t understand when she says this to Don—what he can’t tell her—is that she’s sitting across from a true exile, though a self-made one, a man who kicked himself out of his own country in hopes of building a new and shining world atop the bones of what was.

Stray observations:

  • Man, I always forget how good this season gets right around this point. Don’t get me wrong. I love those first five episodes. But those of you who are watching for the first time are in for some treats.
  • Introducing…: We first meet Freddy Rumsen in this episode. He’s the guy who’s handling Belle Jolie lipstick and tells Don about Peggy’s great idea. He also gives Peggy her big break. Oh, and he’s kind of a drunk.
  • Sal’s gay alert: Don tells Betty about how red-blooded men will always love Joan Crawford. Sal, in particular, couldn’t stop talking about her. (I love how Don always seems pretty sure Sal’s one of the most masculine dudes he knows.)
  • What’s on Don’s reading list?: Don’s reading choices will have thematic resonance throughout the series, and in this episode, he checks out The Best Of Everything, a trashy soap novel by Rona Jaffe (who would later go on to write the Dungeons & Dragons disparaging novel Mazes And Monsters), and Exodus, the Leon Uris novel about the founding of Israel that really was as big of a hit at the time as the episode says it was. (You can probably skip the movie, which I found a bore. Then again, I watched it at 15, and 15-year-old me isn’t always the best judge of these things.)
  • I love how every story Betty tells ends in some way with her having her revenge. In this case, the story of the kids making fun of her for having her first kiss with a Jewish boy ends with all of them wanting to be blondes the next year. (She seems so pleased with this fact, too!)
  • Don going to the beatnik show is such a great sequence. I love his barely guarded disdain for all that’s going on around him, then how he seems at least somewhat moved by the performance of “Babylon.”
  • Hey, it’s the 1960s alert: Okay, this one isn’t a complaint. I love the little moment when Betty complains about how muggy it is and goes over to crack a window. As someone who has always lived in a world with air conditioning, this is horrifying to me.

Spoiling Cooper (If you haven’t seen the whole series, do not read):

  • That whole sequence where Freddy and Peggy talk about her ideas might as well have a giant subtitle at the bottom of the screen reading, “I’M COMING FOR YOU, RUMSEN!” huh?
  • The Don and Peggy friendship is so important to my enjoyment of the show going forward that I have a tendency to remember it occurring much, much earlier in the series than it actually did. So I will admit my heart skipped a beat when Don realized that Peggy had come up with such a great idea for Belle Jolie.
  • I’m honestly impressed with how much mileage the show has gotten out of Joan and Roger. When I saw this episode the first time, I thought it would never last, and now they have a kid together! Albeit a kid that some other man is telling himself he’s the father of, but still!

Next time: Well, a week from today is Christmas, so I won’t be around then, nor will I be here on New Year’s Day. And immediately after that is TCA, so I’m going to have to take a bit of a long break. I will next see you on January 29, when we will dig into “Red In The Face,” one of my favorite episodes of the whole series. 

Filed Under: TV, Mad Men

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