“Babylon” is probably Mad Men’s most entertaining episode to date, but it’s also the most frustrating installment in the series so far. On the one hand, it’s loaded with absolutely priceless lines of dialogue and does a lot to further our understanding of several characters and relationships. On the other, it takes too many of its jokes a little too far, resulting in the largest amount of annoyingly obvious period jokes since the pilot.
The episode begins with an intriguing coda to last week’s episode: Don Draper slips on the stairs and hits his head, resulting in a brief flashback to the day his brother Adam was born in the 1920s. At first glance, it seems to recall the numerous flashbacks to Tony Soprano’s childhood that The Sopranos offered over the years, but there’s a key difference—the flashbacks in “Down Neck” and other episodes were often shown from a relatively objective POV rather than being filtered through Tony’s memory. Here, however, Don Draper and his younger self seem to make eye contact through time. It’s a hallucination, obviously, but it’s also a very effective way to convey the uneasiness of his relationship with the past and the degree to which the events of “5G” continue to haunt him, his apparent ultra-stoicism last week .
After this emotionally tense scene, “Babylon”’s comic streak becomes evident when Don and Betty’s discussion of Rona Jaffe’s 1958 novel The Best of Everything and its 1959 screen adaptation results in Don obliviously claiming that Salvatore’s affection for Joan Crawford constitutes evidence of the screen legend’s sustained beauty. The meta nature of the line makes it a bit of a groaner, but it’s also so funny and effective in context that it’s hard to begrudge Weiner the joke (the same goes for an anachronism I’ll get to way down below).
In any event, the discussion of Crawford leads Betty to revisit her mother’s death, resulting in one of the series’ rawest marital scenes to date. Don waves away his wife’s melancholy mood, saying that “mourning is just extended self-pity” and then bringing up a pygmy tribe he read about that brewed their ancestors’ ashes into beer—a beautiful metaphor for the way he relates to his past, per his binge in “Marriage of Figaro”.
At Sterling Cooper, the focus shifts to Roger Sterling, who continues to be the series’ richest character. Sterling’s wife, Mona (Talia Balsam) makes a crack about how her husband’s grey hair makes him look older than he is, a joke that sort of breaks the fourth wall—many people assume that John Slattery is around 50, but he just turned 44 or 45 (depending on whether one believes Wikipedia versus the IMDB) on August 13—indeed, he’s at least a year younger than George Clooney, the ex-husband of Balsam, Slattery’s real-life spouse.
The interplay between Joan and Sterling’s family at the office, followed by the masterfully-staged revelation of Sterling’s affair with the queen of the steno pool, is one of the series’ most elegant and intriguing sequences yet (and it gives a whole new level of meaning to Joan’s “5G” quip about Don, unlike most of the men at Sterling Cooper, being handsome enough to snare a mistress outside the office). Her remark here about how “food that close to a bed reminds me of a hospital” hints at events which may have shaped her, and she has enough great moments in this episode to make me seriously hope that she continues to be a major player.
When Joan tells Roger that she knows as much about men as he does about advertising, she’s incriminating the hell out of herself in light of how Sterling’s insight into the business has been another source of many of the series’ best lines (this week: “They always say that”, in response to the Israeli official’s remark that her ideal tourist would make as much as Don does). As in Don’s bedroom scene with Betty earlier, there’s a jokey reference to women as the equivalent of cars that can be traded in forr new models. While that’s unfortunately true where the wives and mistresses of the rich and powerful are concerned, the wisecrack is undercut by Joan’s frank description of the sense of power she derives from stringing along multiple sugar daddies. The advent of serious feminism is still a few years off, yet Joan is hardly the only woman who enjoys a significant amount of control over the men in their lives.
Salvatore’s priceless remark about Israel’s most marketable quality being the local tendency toward extreme attractiveness sets up the reintroduction of Rachel Mencken when Don asks for her unvarnished insights into the Israeli mindframe. It may seem like a flimsy excuse to have lunch with her, as Don is obviously still attracted to her, but it also speaks to the cultural-sponge sensibility that makes him so good at his job. Rachel maintains the upper hand throughout the encounter both because she has knowledge Don wants an because she plays her emotional cards so close to the vest. This leads to the breathtaking scene where she reveals her feelings for Don in a phone conversation with her sister. It’s an incredibly well-written and acted scene that may just be one of the most realistic depictions of the way siblings relate to each other that I’ve ever seen in film or television. The scene ends with a blistering assessment of the social rules that bind the characters of Mad Men as tightly as the codes that govern the lives of those in Pride & Prejudice. “It’s 1960, we don’t live in a shtetl, we can marry for love,” her sister argues to Rachel. “I’m not sure people do that anymore” is the solemn reply.
Matthew Weiner definitely overplays his hand in the sequence where the Sterling Cooper secretaries serve as an impromptu lipstick focus group while the men literally watch from the peanut gallery (Pete Campbell even brings a snack!). One secretary’s bleating remark that brainstorming sounds like something difficult is inches over the foul line—it’s hard to believe that any woman could have such a low opinion of her faculties when she’s got the example of Joan walking around in front of her daily.
Joan’s covert manipulation of the focus group and titillation of Roger through the glass marks another display of her power, which we soon learn is something she guards jealously when we see her patronizing the hell out of Peggy when relaying the message that Fred Rumsen (a terrific new character played by Joel Murray) is intrigued by Peggy’s potential as a copywriter. At first glance, Rumson seems like he might be the biggest lush at Sterling Cooper (no small achievement), but he’s soon revealed as someone whose clear-eyed view of the business rivals that of Roger Sterling. Rumsen’s put-down of Ken is classic; ditto the way he uses one of Salvatore’s snarky quips as the jumping-off point for an impassioned—and convincing—explanation of why Peggy might be an advertising natural. Unfortunately, Weiner once again gilds the lily by ending with Rumsen’s too-far-over-the-top observation that observing Peggy’s insight was “like watching a dog play the piano.”
The wave of verbal wit crests in the episode’s climactic sequence, the delicious war of words between Don and Roy, the bohemian poseur with whom Midge is apparently also involved. Midge displays her power by goading the two, then sitting back and watching the sparks fly, and the lads don’t fail to put on an impressive show. The montage that follows as the beatnik poets at the club hand the stage to a corny folksinger, like the wisecracks which cross the line, is annoyingly on the nose (and the song just doesn’t seem right for a 1960 folkie, though that may just be me), but it’s redeemed by the haunting final shot of Roger and Joan in front of the hotel after their latest tryst. Ultimately, we see, Joan’s power at the office and in the boudoir means little if she can’t be seen with Roger in public. And while the liaison may provide Roger with relief from a miserable marriage, the inherent nature of the relationship means that relief will forever be superficial and short-lived. As broad as “Babylon” is at times, it ends on a note that beautifully demonstrates the level of insight that makes Mad Men so special.
Some insanely nerdy historical points:
“Babylon” is by far the most specifically dated episode of Mad Men—since Mother’s Day is the second Sunday in May, the opening scene therefore takes place on May 8, 1960. During Don and Rachel’s lunch at the Pierre, she makes reference to Adolf Eichmann having been apprehended in Argentina by Israeli agents “last week”. Eichmann was captured on May 11, 1960, but was held in a safe house for ten days before he was flown to Israel. David Ben-Gurion made Eichmann’s capture public on May 23 and it first made the New York Times the following day.
For Rachel’s statement to be correct, three weeks would need to pass in the middle of the episode, placing their lunch during the week of May 30-June 3. Even then, a scan of the Times’ online archive suggests that Israeli authorities were vague about the specifics of the capture for quite some time: On May 26, the Paper of Record ran a three-inch unbylined item commenting on a storiy in the Isreali press, which reached the conclusion that “the implication of this dispatch, which was subject to Israeli censorship, was that Eichmann was kidnapped in Brazil or Argentina.” Not until June 2 was Argentina specifically identified by the Times as the locale of Eichmann’s capture, via an AP story which tantalizingly only cites anonymous “reliable sources” as the basis of an extremely detailed account of Eichmann’s life on the lam. This would push us into the week of June 6-11 1960, two weeks after the capture first made the news and a full month past mother’s day. Instead of delving further into pretzel logic to justify Rachel’s line, it’s probably best to just conclude that Matthew Weiner screwed up.
The use of The Best of Everything is a bit off, as Rona Jaffe’s novel was published in 1958 and the screen version was released in October, 1959. The references to Exodus, however, are chronologically accurate, as the Leon Uris novel, published in 1958, was still a bestseller two years later and reached the screen in December of 1960. Unfortunately, the funniest and most stinging line of the whole episode—Joan’s invocation of Marshall McLuhan—is unfortunately an anachronism. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which the great Canadian cultural theorist coined the phrase “the medium is the message”, was published in 1964.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.