This episode of Mad Men is just incredible, both for its artistry and for its interwoven themes of exile and longing for mother/motherland, captivity, and liberation among Jews and among 1960s American women.
The Babylonian Exile (or Babylonian Captivity) occurred historically from roughly 598–538 BCE, when many Jews were exiled from Israel (Zion) and enslaved in Babylon, a place synonymous with sin. As the beautiful song at the end of the episode quotes from Psalm 137:1, “By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept for thee, Zion. We remember thee, Zion.” The experience of exile and longing for one’s home or homeland are central to the episode. Yet separate “Babylonian” efforts by Don and Roger to “capture” their respective girlfriends, Midge and Joan, to use for their own personal “sins” of adultery, fail, and the men experience exile in an emotional sense as much as the women do.
Rachel Mencken’s classic explanation to Don of the two meanings of utopia – the good place, and the place that cannot be – resonates throughout. After falling down the stairs while bringing Betty her Mother’s Day breakfast, Don recalls his feelings of exile as a boy whose mother had died in childbirth and whose father had recently died at the time his half-brother, Adam, was born. Even as an adult, Don longs for his mother, his original “home” – the good place that, for him, cannot be. Later, he tries to dominate girlfriend Midge, whom he wants to capture (metaphorically) and keep for his occasional pleasure, despite being married to Betty. Midge’s rejection of an exclusive relationship with him puts Don into a sort of emotional exile; he just doesn’t know why he can’t have Midge for his utopian “second home” – another good place that cannot be. Finally, Don and Rachel form an emotional bond in which she mothers him to some extent, yet it’s a relationship that has no future. Don is like a good place for her to feel at home for the moment, but one that cannot be for very long.
Early in the episode, Betty begins to reminisce with Don about her recently deceased mother. However, attempting to command her full attention, Don tells her that her remembrance is just self-pity. Betty feels exiled from her original home, her mother – her own good place that can no longer be, if in fact it ever really was a good relationship in the first place. Not long after, Betty talks to Don while making love with him and reveals how much she thinks about having sex with him, how badly she wants him, to the point of going through the motions of doing her daily chores in a sort of trance while being mesmerized by her desire for sex.
Don replies matter-of-factly, “You have me,” as if he doesn’t really understand the overwhelming level of yearning that sexually experienced women in love can feel. In this respect, Betty craves her personal utopia – sexual union with Don – because unlike Don, she can’t just have sex anytime she wants it. For Betty, having sex with Don is the good place that can be, but only occasionally – at his whim – and not enough.
Meanwhile, Roger spends much of the episode attempting to capture and isolate Joan, his office girlfriend. He proposes to set her up in a fourth floor walkup in the City with “no doors or windows” where she could cook for him and be there at his pleasure. He even offers her a bird in a cage (symbolizing beauty in captivity) to keep her company while she is isolated and put to work cooking him dinners in this imagined male-utopian retreat. She politely turns him down, however, saying that she likes hotels and carry-out food better. She also says she’s happy where she is, living with her roommate, Carol, and entertaining other guests as well. Roger’s good place requires Joan’s metaphorical enslavement, and because Joan rejects it, that good place for Roger cannot be.
Another picture of Babylon is seen in the Belle Jolie portion of the episode. We see a group of Sterling Cooper secretaries being ushered into a group room and asked to try on different Belle Jolie lipsticks. Unbeknownst to most of them, several male executives watch them from behind a one-way mirror, laughing, drinking, and making mostly crude comments about them. The women may not see themselves as enslaved or servile, but they accept being addressed as “girls” and clearly feel unempowered as adults. And considering it’s the 1960s, they work for much lower wages than the men do, and they take orders and do many personal favors for the men (including sexual favors) in efforts to please them, without reciprocity. For the men laughing at these women, and also patronizing Peggy for having a good ear for advertising phrases (Freddie Rumsen: “It was like watching a dog play the piano!”), this event creates a Babylonian/utopian good place that can be, but it also results in one of the “chickens” (Peggy) actually being promoted – being let out of captivity, metaphorically speaking.
Finally, the ad campaign that Don accepts for his creative group at the time is for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. The project involves depicting Israel as a good place for American tourists – the good place that not only can be, but that is there now, waiting for visitors to enjoy. This view of Israel and its beautiful people presents a nice twist on the story of Jewish exile through history. It’s also interesting to see how advertisers regularly create utopian types of images in order to sell products, or in this case, tourist attractions.
There’s so much more to this episode that can’t be tied to a single theme. Just to hear the beautiful music at the end accompanying the stunning final visual montage, to observe all the poignant human interactions throughout, or to catch the many great gag lines, makes Babylon well worth repeated viewings.
Mad Men Season 7 will resume on AMC in spring 2015. Until then, why not revisit some of your favorite episodes from the past on DVD?
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