I think this one of the more daring episodes in that it has an unresolved quality about it. Unlike music—where leaving things unresolved leaves the hearer hanging—unresolved in fiction invites us to comfortably draw our own conclusions. And that is a daring thing to do with the early 1960s because we just might draw the "wrong" conclusions.
Speaking of which, a number of people I have read commenting on this episode see it as presenting the female perspective after the very male 5G episode. I think that is just projection. What we really have here is an episode about how men see women. This is a very male show. That, more than anything else, is what makes it stand out in the otherwise very female land of television.
The title picks up on a theme that we has been building quite steadily for some time now and that is the identification of Don Draper as a Moses-like figure. In episode 2 he told us he was a like Moses, "a baby in basket" and we will eventually learn that this is literally true.
Babylon is a land of exile but it is not the land that Moses led the Hebrews out of. That leaves an interesting question for us here: What is Babylon in this story?
We start in the perfect suburban world that Don lives in with a scene in which it is slowly revealed that Don is making breakfast to take up to Betty because it is Mother's Day. I think we are supposed to take it as an indication of what Don thinks of Betty's intelligence that he takes only the colour comics section of the paper up to her.
And he falls down the stairs breaking all the crockery and we get an odd flashback. Odd because Don does not flashback into the world of his childhood. Instead people from his childhood get flashed forward into his dining room.
It's a great scene. A new baby has been born and Don—like any child but particularly as an adopted orphan—needs to be reassured that he really belongs to this family. Instead, he is told that the child has been named Adam "after the first man."
Yeah, you're really part of this family. In a sort of second class way that is.
"Mourning is just extended self pity"
Don says this to Betty when she goes on an extended riff about aging leading into a discussion of her mother. A number of people have picked this up as a sign of Don's coldness and emptiness. And you could do that if it weren't a dead-on accurate description of Betty here. A more self-pitying shallow twerp would be hard to imagine.
Again, I think Jane Austen had Bettys number, she is just another "one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them."
We get an odd little bit next in which Betty goes on about anticipation. About how she does nothing all day but think of Don coming home and how much she wants him. But ase her words say one thing, her actions say another. It's hard to imagine a more determined mood killer than Betty in this scene, first breaking a kiss to ask Don to turn the light off and then to deliver this utterly unconvincing line about how she thinks of nothing but how much she wants him while her actions say the opposite.
So what are his alternatives?
We get two deliberate parallels. First there is Midge in the previous episode who delivered a similar monologue on anticipation only hers was actually erotic. She delivered wood, Betty delivers wooden. More importantly, she actually does eagerly anticipate rather than just claim to as a manipulative ploy the way Betty does here. Second there is Rachel. While in Bed, Betty demonstrates that all she learned from her degree in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr was how to be shallow. Rachel's time at Barnard, OTOH, was obviously better spent as she is able to talk about history and culture in a profound and intelligent manner.
Roger Sterling Esq.
Who is the irreplaceable actor in Casablanca? It's not Bogart. Bogart makes it a better movie than it would have been had the part gone to George Raft but the movie still would have worked. The guy it wouldn't have worked at all with out is Claude Rains.
Without him the character of Louis Renault would not be perfect and he has to be perfect for this movie to work. He has to be the lovable cad whose presence we enjoy so much that we don't think too much about the actual hero. Because, on close examination, the hero isn't really all that desirable except as fantasy. You'd like to have known Rick Blaine but you'd be better off married to Captain Louis Renault.
The same is true here. John Slattery as Roger Sterling makes this show. Like Rains in Casablanca, it's pure magic every time he is on screen and the parallel life he makes to Don's is what makes the former worker.
Don and Rachel have lunch. In response to Don's saying that the people he is dealing with are Zionists, Rachel says, "Zion just means Israel. It's a very old name." She's right. And then she talks about not wanting to visit Israel but it being very important that it should be there.
This is an episode of being estranged from your roots. Of wanting to go home but really having no home to go to. No mother to go home to. That's what Don and Rachel have in common.
A long fuse
There is a subplot about lipstick that starts the progress of Peggy from secretary to copywriter. Peggy and Pete aren't exiles so much as expatriates. They both wnat to leave the culture they grew up in. They are haunted by it like Don and Rachel.
Anyway, the important thing to remember is that it is Freddy Rumsen who spots Peggy's ability. Don is oblivious to it.
Character parallel, Rachel's mother died having her.
And we finally get to Babylon
Which, surprisingly, turns out to be Midge's bohemian beat world. The episode ends with Don still firmly ensconced in this exile but we can tell it won't last.
The funny thing—if you buy the New York Times version that this series justifies why the sixties had to happen—is that the Beats come off so utterly unpalatable. To really believe the 1960s are a good thing you have to trust what the NYT wants to tell you and not your own lying eyes. For here, before our eyes, we see a very stylish age being replaced by an age that has no style at all.
There is a nice outro song though. It's a setting of a few lines from Psalm 137 repeated over and over again. As we here it, sung as a canon, we get a montage of shots. We get Rachel handling a tie and thinking of Don. We get Betty busy teaching her daughter to be another appearance-obsessed airhead just like her. And we get Roger and Joan dressing in their hotel room and leaving separately. The final shot is the two of them in front of the hotel pretending not to know one another in a composition that could be by Cartier-Bresson. It's all hauntingly beautiful.
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat,
sat and wept,
as we thought of Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung up our lyres,
for our captors asked us there for songs,
our tormentors, for amusement,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
How can we sing one of the songs of the LORD
on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither,
let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour.
Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Tranlsation
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