Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Mad Men - "Babylon" (season 1, episode 6)

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Mad Men - "Babylon" (season 1, episode 6)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad MenMost days (except Saturday) I am offering a short review of another episode until concluding the first season. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on August 23, 2007/written by Andre & Maria Jacquemetton; directed by Andrew Bernstein): The episode opens with a reference to the previous one - Don falls down the stairs while carrying breakfast to Betty and experiences a flashback to the birth of his little brother. He seems a bit adrift for the rest of "Babylon," struggling in particular with an Israeli advertising campaign in which his decidedly gentile organization is trying to sell a distinctly Jewish phenomenon to, mostly, other gentiles. Don uses this as an excuse to meet with Rachel again; she informs him that she's American through and through but needs Israel to exist as a concept. She is on his mind later, when, at a Village coffeehouse with his mistress and one of her bohemian friends, Roy Hazelitt (Ian Bohen). Don is serenaded by a ballad longing for the promised land (whose title, referring to the land of exile instead, gives the episode its name). Another extramarital affair is introduced to us as Roger and Joan romp in a hotel room, he sublimating his possessive jealousy into passion, she determined to assert that she's in the know about how these things work. That jealousy is only further provoked when Joan supervises a lipstick-testing session in front of a large mirror at Sterling Cooper. The mirror is one-way: as the "office girls" guilelessly gaze at their own reflections and experiment with the product, the admen sit on the other side of the glass, gazing in at them with a jaunty leer. Only Joan seems to know the trick, smirking as she poses and bends over in front of the hidden audience, causing most of the men to salute while Roger winces. Peggy makes an impression of a different sort; gathering the tissue samples in a waste basket for the copywriter Freddy Rumson (Joel Murray), she playfully dubs it "a basket of kisses." Freddy repeats the line to Don, who looks befuddled by Peggy's invention; lest he appear too enlightened by contrast, Freddy chuckles, "It was like watching a dog play the piano." Nonetheless, he invites Peggy to write more copy for the company, on her own time of course.

My Response:
From its first few shots, stylized, quick-cut close-ups of breakfast being prepared, Bernstein's direction announces itself boldly. This is an episode full of grand flourishes, from the sharp cut to flashback to the closing musical montage (trading places with the usually song-infused closing credits) with its implications that all these characters are in exile, far from any home they can call their own. The show continues to offer a survey of contemporaneous culture, reveling in being a period piece, from the Exodus-infused (and Eichmann-fueled) Israeli fascination of that year to Don's first foray into the counterculture (although the bearded beatnik's hair is way too long for 1960). Meanwhile, Peggy's unexpected tiptoe into the "male" sphere of the office reminds us that the show starts in an early sixties environment only so it can delight in immediately building the groundwork for its conclusion in the early seventies; the series' "look how different things were" continues to be so on-the-nose that it's sometimes overbearing (especially considering the extent to which things hadn't changed as much as the creators imply, including in the writer's room of Mad Men itself). For the most part, "Babylon" offers new challenges and situations for its characters to deal with, some building off earlier groundwork, but most relatively self-contained. The opening scene provides a striking gesture, but functions primarily as an obligatory nod toward episode 5's big reveal before moving on to different subjects. Television shows, even in our more serialized era, are like that - they can't afford to sustain and amplify dramatic moments over the course of dozens, even hundreds, of hours so they have to make do with an ebb and flow that teases at least as much as satisfies. Nonetheless, shows are also able to slowly construct an elaborate interplay of interlocking parts, tinkering here and there to cultivate a certain area and then return to it later. Don's haunted past may not be an overt theme of "Babylon" but it's certainly present throughout, most pointedly in the closing moments where finally, it seems, he finds a way into the distant culture of the Other he's trying to represent at work - in their own can't-go-home-again isolation, he sees himself.

Next: "Red in the Face" • Previous: "5G"


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