“A Basket of Kisses.”
“Babylon” picks up right where the momentous “5G” left off — revisiting the unlikely circumstances of Donald Draper’s past. He falls down the stairs in 1960 and suddenly flashes back to a scene from 1936, watching the birth of Adam as real as if it were happening right there in his kitchen.
The fact that Don can have these sorts of “visions” is a compelling caveat, but the visions themselves are the real miracle. As will become clear in later episodes, Mad Men can depict the Depression-era ‘30s just as well as the Madison Avenue ‘60s. The flashback scene in “Babylon” occurs so naturally and with such seamless transition that the viewer is immediately immersed in the story.
When Don snaps back to reality, he simply goes on with the rest of his day. The fleeting glimpse into Dick Whitman’s past is just a minor distraction, a concussive coda to the emotional trauma of the previous episode. It also shows that Mad Men is comfortable in any setting, which is a rare gift indeed.
The flashback lasts only a short minute before “Babylon” switches gears to seduction and sex. Not necessarily in that order.
Don gives Betty some of that Mother’s Day lovin’ and a few days later goes out to lunch with Rachel Menken, the department store owner who had previously spurned him. They keep their date professional, as Don is having problems with an Israeli ad campaign and seeks her advice, but Rachel can’t deny her true feelings. She’s fallen head over heels.
Meanwhile, Don continues his steamy affair with mistress Midge Daniels, the pot-smoking proto-hippie. Things get complicated when one of her beatnik boyfriends shows up, forcing Don to reluctantly join them at an open-mic night in Greenwich Village. Maybe I spoke too soon before — this is one stereotyped setting that Mad Men could have done without.
Betty, Midge and Rachel all satisfy different sides of Donald Draper’s selfish desires. However, “Babylon” as a whole shows Don to be nothing more than a narcissistic womanizer. And maybe a bit of a sociopath.
Betty represents the perfect exterior. She and Don are living the American dream, but the superficiality of their lifestyle is becoming clearer by the day. It’s a telling sign when even her pillow-talk is depressing.
Meanwhile, Midge only serves one purpose: an outlet for Don to stick his Dick Whitman in. Sure, she’s cool and free-spirited, but she’s by far the series’ most ineffective character. Midge is out of place, and Don knows it.
Don also knows that Rachel Menken — the smart, sophisticated Jewish girl — is the one he really wants. Rachel represents salvation, the chance to right all wrongs. But does Don really need another fresh start? Therein lies Mad Men’s greatest contradiction.
Surprisingly, the episode’s most torrid affair belongs to Roger Sterling and Joan Holloway. Roger is like an older version of Don: a famously suave advertising executive who cheats on his wife. On the other hand, Joan becomes a far more unique character than initially thought.
“Babylon” is a big victory for the Mad Men women, who are all revealed to be much more independent than the earlier episodes had let on. Nowhere is this more obvious than with Peggy Olson.
When the Sterling Cooper secretaries take part in a blind lipstick test, Peggy is the only one who isn’t fawning over the free product. “I don’t want to feel like one of a hundred colors in a box,” she tells senior copywriter Freddy Rumsen. She then refers to the tissues in the garbage can as “a basket of kisses.” By the end of the day, she’s asked to write copy on the Belle Jolie account.
While all the other characters are working hard to find love, Peggy’s only love is hard work. Advertising is her passion, which is actually quite inspiring. For as much as Mad Men is a show about relationships, it’s also about the ambitions of big business. Peggy has her sights set on the top, relationships be damned.
The episode’s ending is surprisingly disappointing. At the Gaslight Café, a folk group plays “Psalm 137” (which features the lyrics that give the episode it’s namesake, “By the rivers of Babylon“). The performance is then set over a montage of Roger, Joan and Don, reflecting on their multiple extramarital affairs.
To this reviewer, the whole scene felt a tad melodramatic, as if the emotional magnitude was being forced. From what I gather, the song has nothing to do with the montage being depicted. It’s just there to sound poignant. In the end, it’s just distracting.
Nevertheless, “Babylon” is a well-executed episode of a young series that is only scratching the surface of its complexities. It might only be a minor installment, but Mad Men is consistently operating as a well-oiled machine, hinting at greater things to come.
Mergers & Acquisitions
- Mad Men composer David Carbonara is one of the musicians who appears during the “Psalm 137” performance at the end of the episode.
- Roger playfully floats the idea that Joan should get her own apartment so that they don’t have to sneak around anymore, but Joan knows better. She knows that their love isn’t built to last.
- Don realizes that Midge has her own life outside of their affair and that she has many lovers. It’s the same situation as Roger and Joan, although Roger handles it a lot better than Don. That’s because, for better or worse, Roger is more accepting of who he is — he doesn’t give a shit about cheating on his wife.
- “Babylon” was written by Andre and Maria Jacquemetton and directed by Andrew Bernstein.
- “He ain’t my brother.”
- “They taught us at Barnard about that word ‘utopia.’ The Greeks had two meanings for it — ‘eutopos,’ meaning the good place, and ‘utopos,’ meaning the place that cannot be.”