Mad Men: Babylon (S01E06)

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A small reminder: I’m making my way through all of Mad Men before the last episodes premiere next spring. The plan is to do two episodes a week, with reviews going up Mondays and Wednesdays, but the schedule might vary a little bit. 

Now we’re talking.

“Babylon” has the honorable distinction of being the first episode of Mad Men that, in my estimation, looks and feels like a great episode of Mad Men. There are a number of reasons for that. Now that the show had used up its first five episodes to establish the main characters and the most important relationships and themes it was going to explore going forward, it can finally change gears, stop setting stuff up, and begin exploring what it was interested in exploring since the beginning.

This doesn’t mean that the show is done setting stuff up for the season, though. In a way, looking back at the first season of Mad Men, it seems like it was all built in order to set stuff up for the finale (a move that the show has repeated in the following seasons, although not to the same degree, in my opinion). Still, if “Babylon” is setting stuff up left and right, it is distinguishable because it is now building on the foundation that was created in those first five episodes, so I want to use this space to point out that if “Babylon” manages to be a great episode of television (undoubtedly the best the show had produced up to this point in my opinion), it’s because Matthew Weiner, the writers, cast, and crew of the show had done a terrific show of immersing themselves in the show’s vision and seeing it through to the point where the audience is ready to completely let themselves go in the world of the program. At least I know that was the point where I decided that I was watching something special.

It’s funny, because the episode begins with one of my least favorite developments in the show: the introduction of flashbacks to Don Draper’s childhood. Yes, this is the first, and not the last time we’ll be flashing back to when Don Draper was little Dick Whitman. In this case, Don falls down the stairs while trying to surprise Betty with breakfast on Mother’s Day, and has a vision of the moment in which he met his younger brother Adam for the first time. When I saw the episode for the first time, I was incredibly pissed off by this flashback, mostly because I am just not a huge fan of that narrative device. Now I know that some of the flashbacks to Don’s past will be clunky and some will be pretty good – this first one is actually not bad, especially because it’s so brief and does a pretty solid job of presenting us with what the emotional ramifications of what he did last episode are for Don.

Anyway, after that initial Don-centric opening, the rest of the episode seems to be more interested in its female characters. Betty, Rachel, Joan, and Peggy all get their moments to shine. It’s actually the story-lines of the first three ladies I listed that make up for the thematic through-line of the episode. I have mentioned before that one of Mad Men‘s points of interest is the role of women back in the nineteen-sixties, and it generally would go forward trying to have the most sympathetic and complex relationship possible with its female characters. It also tends to feature episodes that focus on the show’s female cast as a whole, and “Babylon” is the first of such episodes.

Let’s start by talking about Betty. The most important moment for her this episode comes early, when she and Don come back home late at night after spending Mother’s Day in family. The pleasantness of the moment makes them start fooling around. It is actually very refreshing, almost delightful, to see Don and Betty be so playful to each other in their pre-sex flirtations. All of this, however, is briefly interrupted when Betty makes a confession. “I want you so badly” she tells Don. However, this is not bed-talk, Betty can literally not think of anything else but of making love to her husband. “It’s all I think about. Every day”. This is not because she is suddenly experiencing some very horny days, we know how distant she feels from Don, and how her view of having a happy family takes a toll on her because she feels like she doesn’t really know her husband. To make matters worse, part of her ideal picture of family life is tarnished even further later in the episode, when she again tries to initiate sex and Don turns her down.

It’s not that Don doesn’t want to have sex, but more that he doesn’t want to have sex with his wife. At this point I’m not entirely sure what is it that is pulling Don away from his family life, all I know is that he is certainly unhappy with it, and that right now, his mind is set on Rachel Menken. He uses the fact that Sterling Cooper has the tourist board of Israel as a new client to call her up. She plays hard, telling Don that she will only see him in a strictly professional setting, and she is very strong and distant during their meeting. However, it is revealed on a phone call she has with her sister later on that she can’t stop thinking about him either. “I want him, and I want to ignore everything else about him”.

Are you starting to see a pattern? Good, because it all closes up with Joan. Just last week I was writing about how Joan’s personality would evolve as the series goes forward, and now we get our first major attempt at deepening her character (and a successful one at that, I think). It is revealed that Joan has been having an affair with Roger. The most interesting thing about this, though, is that Joan has a very clear understanding of what the relationship means and the restriction that won’t let it turn into something else. This is a good payoff to the first five episodes in which she acted very sassy and in-your-face about the role of a woman in the office. She has experience, and she is anything but an innocent woman. She knows how the cookie crumbles, and she is incredibly smart when it comes to personal relationships. Just think of the moment when she receives Roger’s wife and daughter at the beginning of the episode, and how she dismisses all of Roger’s cute talk about how much he loves her.

Joan’s very pragmatic look at her relationship with Roger contrasts with Betty’s hopeless attempts at saving her marriage by trying to connect with her husband anyway she can (she isn’t too far off in thinking that sex might do the trick), and with Rachel’s melancholic fantasy of being able to have a loving relationship with Don Draper. It all, of course, comes together in the moment where Rachel has dinner with Don and explains that the word “Utopia” had two meanings: “the good place” and “the place that cannot be”. These ladies, and almost every single character in Mad Men, is hoping for Utopia, because searching for Utopia is searching for impossible happiness and what is advertising if not that? The more the show goes on, the more it becomes clear that it is very much about an ideal version of events that cannot be reached. As such, it’s easy to say it is a story about America (considering the American dream and all that), but it’s much more universal than that. It’s a story about human desire, and human desire can only be satisfied briefly until you are ready to wish for something else.

Also in this Episode:
Peggy gets her moment to shine during the Belle Jolie brainstorm session, when she hands Freddy Rumsen the trash and calls it a “basket of kisses”. It’s funny (and on-point with the character) that Joan sees Freddy’s enthusiasm with Peggy’s line as him wanting to bone her, but it turns out he was truly impressed, and Peggy will now be writing copy. She won’t get a raise, will still have to be Don’s secretary, and will have to do the writing on her own free time, but it’s still a victory for her, and one that will color the character going forward.

Random Thoughts:

  • Since I’m singing the praises of this episode, let me point out that it was directed by Andrew Bernstein, and written by Andre Jacquemetton and Maria Jacquemetton, two of Weiner’s right-hand writers, who would stay as part of the show’s writing staff until the end.
  • Which, by the way, makes me want to point out that this is a fantastically written episode in terms of dialogue. So quotable!
  • Lots of talk about Joan Crawford this week. Betty thinks she wasn’t what she used to be, Don doesn’t mind her, and Sal loves her, obviously.
  • “Don’t you two make a handsome couple” says Roger’s wife Mona when she sees Don and Joan walking together. She is not the first, and definitely won’t be the last, to think that.
  • “The first boy I kissed was Jewish” “How did that happen?” “My friend Deirdre was friends with a jewish girl. Beth… Gold, Silver, something” This whole exchange between Don and Betty is so amusing, and the story about Betty’s first kiss is such a lovely and humane moment for the character.
  • “That seems like a loaded question” “It is unloaded and I insist you curb your editorial comments”
  • “Oh please, there wasn’t any Max the communist”
  • “Broadway is the birthplace of mediocrity” “Maybe it’s born there, but I think it’s conceived right here”
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