LadyGhosts of TV Past

Mad Men: Exile in Babylon

Last time on Mad Men:

Everything was kind of terrible and sad, except for the short story-writing rivalry among the Smarmies, which was hilarious. Pete didn’t deserve Trudy, but then again he never does. Peggy tried to be a good secretary and mostly succeeded. Joan won, but then again she always does.

Toast pops out of a toaster, orange juice and eggs (what?) are poured into a pitcher, as is coffee into a cup. Don is making breakfast on a tray with a yellow tulip (which is my favorite flower so call me, Don Draper!). He grabs a section from the paper and glances at it on the way up the stairs. Halfway up, he wobbles and topples backwards to the hard wood floor at the bottom. He is flashed back in time to looking up at a group of adults, one of whom, a man, says, “Dick Whitman, watch where you’re going! You’re gonna break your neck!” The man asks Dick if he’s going to cry or get up; Dick elects to get up. He says he was scared because there was a lot of screaming. The man, his father I’m guessing, says there always is. A woman, not Dick’s mother as we know from the previous episode, introduces Dick to a wrinkly baby. She says God has blessed them and given him a brother. Dick corrects that they aren’t brothers, but his father says of course they are. Dick turns away to look at Don, who is still sprawled at the bottom of the stairs. He is brought out of his memories by Sally shrieking, “Daddy!” from the upper floor, and Betty scrambling down to check on him. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he explains.

Later, the house is dark as they return from their holiday outing with two sleeping children and one red balloon. I’m sure it means something that the balloon is red, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen that film.

Don is reading The Best of Everything, which is the novel on which the movie they went to see was based (and I’m kind of hoping that they dropped the kids off at a sitter before they went), in bed while Betty criticizes Joan Crawford’s eyebrows. Back up off, Betty. Don says some men like eyebrows, and all men like Joan Crawford. Betty stresses about aging. She says she’d like to disappear instead of growing old. Don says he’ll put her on ice. Don asks how her day was, and Betty says it was lovely, but she’s still stuck on aging. She says her mother was older than Joan Crawford and still beautiful and cheerful up to her death, which Betty hopes to emulate. I’ll bet you do, Bets. She says her therapist recommended a book about the mourning process. Don thinks that mourning is extended self-pity. Hooo boy. Is that going to bite you in the ass.

Don, as usual when he wants Betty to shut up, gets snuggly. Betty says she wants him so much, she thought about it all day. Don agrees, but Betty really wants to talk about it. She wants him to know that all she thinks about all day is him coming home. No pressure or anything, Don. He reassures her that she has him. Sometimes. He doesn’t add that part.

At the office, busy people rush around with purpose. The full complement of fruity adult beverages is arrayed for a meeting with cruise line representatives and some from the Israeli Tourism Board. Roger mispronounces his name. They propose Israel as an exotic destination. They are going to visit another agency, but they feel that its humorous approach might not be the best for them. They are looking for a “traditional”/”glamorous,” depending on translation, approach as well. The moment with the miscommunication is a nice touch in an episode titled “Babylon.” The Israeli tourism woman says copies of Exodus, the 1958 book about the founding of modern Israel, are flying off the shelves, and that Americans have a love affair with Israel. Don asks about their ideal tourist, what does he make in a year? She replies however much Don makes. Roger opines that they always say that.

Roger’s wife and daughter have arrived in the office and are waiting at the front. Mona, Roger’s wife, reminds him that they’ve come into the city to get his daughter, Margaret, a haircut. Roger protests that he likes her ponytail, it makes her look young. Margaret: “I like your hair, Daddy, it makes you look old.” Well, then. I guess that’s what we need to know about that relationship.

Roger turns to the mousy secretary, whom I believe he addresses as “Ginger” and I’d like to believe was selected for him by Mona, for haircut advice. She cuts her own hair. The look on his face is amusing. Luckily, Joan and Don amble by at that moment. Mona remarks that they make a handsome couple, which”¦ well, is an entertaining thought, considering. Okay. We’ll leave that alone for now.

Mona prompts Margaret to say hello, and Margaret says, “Hello, Mr. Draper,” in a way that drips of Inappropriate Crush. Mona asks Joan where all the girls are getting their hair styled these days, and Joan says that she’s thinking Brigitte Bardot and that she’ll make Margaret an appointment. If there is one lady I’d want telling me what’s what at fourteen or however old Margaret is, it’s probably Joan. Roger slumps a little from the impact of that little interaction.

Pants off, reclining on a bed, speaking to an unknown person in a hotel room, Roger complains about his daughter. She doesn’t know what she wants with her life and he doesn’t know what they did wrong. “We gave her everything she wanted and she’s still useless.” The unknown is Joan, who is getting dressed, and thinks Roger is being too hard on his daughter. He says when he was her age he rode a tramp steamer around the East Coast. Joan thinks it was probably a yacht, and he and his daughter are both spoiled. She asks him to zip her up and he is not particularly helpful. She points out that some people in the room actually have to go back to work. They banter a bit. Joan doesn’t like eating food in the bedroom; it reminds her of a hospital. Interesting. Roger thinks she should get her own place and cook for him. Joan thinks things are fine as they are and he agrees.

“Do you have any idea how unhappy I was before I met you? I was thinking of leaving my wife!”


He says he’s tired of sneaking around, but Joan knows that sneaking around is his favorite part. He offers to get her an apartment with a bird so she won’t be lonely; she says she likes hotels. Mostly what she likes is her independence. “Roger, if you had your way I would be stranded in some paper weight with my legs stuck in the air.”

She says, not unkindly, that they both know she’ll eventually “find a more permanent situation,” which is either the best euphemism for marriage or the best euphemism for murder I’ve heard yet, and he’ll move on to a newer model. “The “˜61s are coming out soon,” she purrs. He wants whatever she wants because Roger is not a complicated man.

Don is looking at Holocaust pictures? I think? He can see why they want the guns. It’s a meeting of the usual suspects about the Israeli tourism account. Pete wonders if they should exploit the danger as excitement, which is a nice echo back to his embracing of the Freudian death wish in the first episode. Sal thinks they should use the “Promised Land” angle, but Don thinks they definitely need to keep religion out. Pete thinks the whole thing is communist, but Don points out that it’s communism as schilled by the Daughters of the American Revolution, referring to the book. Paul thinks the book was great; he especially liked the parts about dying for the cause and damning the man and such. Of course you did, Paul. Don sums it up as, “A quasi-Communist state, where women have guns, and it’s filled with Jews”¦ and Arabs.” Paul points out that they have oranges there. Sal thinks the best thing about the whole thing is that the people are good-looking. He holds up a buxom cover babe from an Israeli magazine for proof. Don thinks for a moment and decides to continue the conversation later; he needs to make a phone call.

As the Smarmies file out, he asks Peggy for a private line.

It’s Rachel Menken he wants to talk to. Her secretary buzzes her for the call, and she hesitates before taking off her earring. Let me tell you that it straight up never occurred to me to take out one earring before getting on the phone before I saw Mad Men. I was just really careful not to bang the receiver around on it. Taking them off is much easier. The end.

She admits to Don that she debated not taking his call. He wants to see her, for business, he clarifies. She agrees to lunch, but only after he insists that it’s important. He gazes pensively at the buxom brunette of Sal’s manufactured hetero fantasies.

At home in bed, he flips through Exodus, as Betty bustles around opening windows, complaining about the weather, and asking him to clean the gutters. She wonders if he just got a library card or something, since she rarely sees him read anything that doesn’t come in a manila folder. Don “mhms” her. She asks if it’s any good. It doesn’t have as much action as he thought it would. Betty heard it was a romance. She says the first boy she ever kissed was Jewish. Don: “How did that happen?” Betty tells the story of a synagogue mixer for charity, “for those poor skinny people in the boats.” The Jewish boy danced with her all night. Don wants to know if he was a good kisser. Betty says he was certainly more experienced than she was, then her friend told everyone on the school bus she was “necking with David Rosenberg,” and she got dirty looks, but everyone was blonde by the next summer. It’s a pretty typical Betty story in the typical Betty narrative: she’s the innocent, then she’s victimized, then everyone is jealous of her.

Betty starts getting kissy, but Don protests that it’s hot, “and I have to read this book about the desert.” Betty says fine, but suggests an air conditioner.

Ken and Sal are meeting with Freddy Rumsen in his office. Freddy has an open bottle of what looks like vodka on his desk. They chat about a baseball theft, and Sal asks if the screwdriver on Freddy’s desk is breakfast. Yep.

They’re meeting to discuss Belle Jolie lipstick, whose claim to fame appears to be the range of colors it comes in. They’re not impressed with the work of their predecessors, so it must be a new account. They make fun of the names of the colors for a bit. Ken break in, asking if they knew that lipstick is meant to imitate the flush of a woman’s face, “after you’ve treated her right.” Freddy suggests that if he’s going to quote the research report he probably shouldn’t start, “Did you know”¦” Heh. Freddy says, “To be honest, I don’t speak moron. Do either of you speak moron?” By moron he means woman, so they agree to “throw it to the chickens.”

By which they mean a focus group composed of the secretaries and led by Joan, who is decked out in a hot damn red dress and her usual gold pen necklace, and our Reigning Queen of Bitch Face, who is decked out in a Soviet chic skirt suit. The team of Smarmies watches through “one-way glass,” or maybe it’s “two-way glass,” they can’t really decide. Either way, “it’s better than x-ray vision.”

Joan explains that what they’re doing is called “brainstorming.” Secretary: “That sounds intimidating!” It’s all Joan can do to keep a straight face. She reveals the lipsticks to squeals of excitement. Sal walks by the mirror writing off–literally, he’s crossing them out with a marker, or maybe a lipstick, on the glass–the women one by one: bad taste, horrible wig, etc. The rest of them just act their usual creepy selves.

RQoBF is bluntly asking the secretaries questions about how many lipsticks they own, how they choose which ones to wear, etc. It’s the most intimidating lipstick interrogation I’ve ever seen, so maybe the one secretary had a point. Joan walks behind her, editorializing. RQoBF insists that she stop it. She does, but elects to blow smoke in the Queen’s face instead.

Inside the other room, one of the Smarmies thinks they should have put a man in the room so they’d take it seriously. I’m not even going to dignify that with indignation. Joan leans over a table, displaying her ass for the audience behind the glass. The audience salutes her. Literally. Roger looks slightly perturbed.

They notice that Peggy, whom they call “Mouse Ears,” so I suppose her novelty has worn off, is watching the other women rather than trying on the lipstick. Jazzy music plays over slow motion as the wheels in Peggy’s brain turn.

Elsewhere, Don is waiting at a restaurant for Rachel. He thanks her for coming and offers to get her something. They exchange pleasantries. He tries to compliment her, but she would like to discuss the urgent business he insisted he had. He tries to get her to order a drink, but she’s not going to. He admits that he called her because of the Israeli tourism account. Rachel: “And I’m the only Jew you know inNew York City?” Don: “You’re my favorite?” She suggests he read the book. He says he has, and he doesn’t get it because it’s all sentimental stuff about World War II trivia and oranges, and they’re making a movie with Paul Newman. Rachel thinks that’s two good reasons to see it. Word. He spills on his tie and she mops it up for him, remarking that he seems significantly less together than usual.

She advises Don not to cross any Israelis, points out that she’s not an expert on the entirety of Jewish culture and resents being treated like one, and skewers his dismissal of “World War II trivia” by referencing the recent arrest of Adolf Eichmann. The point being that the Holocaust is not so far behind everyone as Don is able to put it behind him. She says that Jews have lived in exile for a long time, naming Babylon and Brooklyn as specifics, and they’ve managed to make a go of it, probably because “we thrive at doing business with people who hate us.” Don looks like he’s been slapped, and says he doesn’t hate her. “No, individuals are wonderful,” Rachel shoots back sarcastically.

Guys, I love Rachel Menken so much. I guess I never thought that much before about how she is essentially the sole voice of the modern viewer in this first season–the outsider in so many ways, but unable to see outside the mystique of Don Draper in others.

Don says that isn’t what he meant. Rachel says that Israel is culturally important. Don asks why she isn’t there, then. Don. Stop it. She explains, more patiently than he deserves probably, that her life is in New York. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean she has to live there, but it needs to exist regardless. “It’s more of an idea than a place.” “Utopia,” Don suggests. He tries to hold her hand. She tells him that the Greeks had two meanings for that word: the good place, and the place that cannot be. She leaves, but not before warning him against billing her for the lunch.

Phew. That was quite a conversation.

Joan dismisses the secretaries, thanking them for their time. Freddy explains that they’re going to count the tissues to see how many shades they each tried. Peggy, who’s helping clean up, brings him a trash can full of tissue that she christens, “your basket of kisses.” He like that, and wants to know who thought of it. She did. He asks her about the brainstorming session, and under Joan’s watchful glare she elaborates that she didn’t get the shade she wanted, so she didn’t try another because she’s very particular. “I don’t think anyone wants to be one of a hundred colors in a box.” Joan thinks she’s “complained” enough and sends her off. “I bet you wish you could pour that in a glass and drink it,” Joan spits at Freddy.

Don, in his office, asks Peggy to clear his afternoon and apologize to the ketchup company he’s blowing off. The Belle Jolie team ambles in to discuss Peggy with Don. Freddy says she’s full of surprises, Don hadn’t noticed as he usually averts his eyes to try to avoid being blinded by the earnestness. Freddy repeats Peggy’s lines to Don. “It was like watching a dog play the piano.” They all glance outside as Joan slams some files down on Peggy’s desk.

Rachel makes a phone call to her sister, who’s in the nursery with a sleeping baby. Rachel: “I think I might have met someone.” Her sister is like, uh, you think? Rachel says he has some serious limitations. For one, her dad would hate him. For another he’s married, but that doesn’t come up. He does have glorious hair, though. Her sister says, “It’s 1960, we don’t live in a schtetl, we can marry for love!” Rachel: “I’m not sure people do that anymore.”

Joan tells Peggy, not without a certain air of contempt, that they want her to write copy for the lipstick campaign. Peggy is shocked and thrilled, but Joan makes it clear that she’ll still be doing all her other work and she won’t get a raise. Peggy wonders if she should thank them. Maybe tomorrow when she’s better dressed, she thinks. Joan says no, they wanted Joan specifically to relay the message. The hierarchy is preserved, and Peggy gets that point.

Midge, carrying a potted plant, answers the door, “And here I was just waiting for a man to help me with my yard work!” Oh, Midge. You’re my favorite. Not really. Rachel Menken is my favorite. They get right down to it, but are interrupted by a knock at the door. It’s Roy, an annoying beatnik. He invites Don, whom he refers to as “Dad,” to the Gaslight to support a friend. Don is like yeah, right, but Midge promises to wear a skirt and nothing under it.

Joan meets Roger in the hotel, late because a media buyer offered her ballet tickets and insisted they share a cab and she couldn’t shake him. Roger wants to know who, but Joan says it doesn’t matter. They start to kiss, and she notices a covered cage, from which cheeping noises are coming. “You didn’t.” Roger did. He uncovers the cage to reveal a canary. Joan giggles and asks what she’s supposed to do with it. Apparently anything but put it on the radiator, according to the pet shop. He just doesn’t like to share her. Before they get busy in bed, Joan forces him to cover the cage.

In the Gaslight, old school hipsters read wedding announcements and do various other boring performance arty things. Midge asks for a round of drinks, a decision which Don fully supports. Rob ribs at Don about mediocrity, but Don thinks they’re staring mediocrity right in the face. It comes up that Don works in advertising. Rob: “Perpetuating the lie? How do you sleep at night?” Don: “On a bed made of money.” This is the way I rationalize Pnina Tornai’s ability to continue to create hideous wedding dresses. Don explains that people want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anybody. Don pokes at Roy for his vanity, suggesting that he probably took more time than Midge to do his hair this morning, which I’m guessing is probably true, and unemployment, though Roy insists he’s starting a theater company. A redhead that they surely cast for her fantastic performance arty voice, seriously, she nails it, is doing a piece about fucking Fidel Castro at the Waldorf Astoria. Don rolls his eyes when she finishes. The crowd demands tits or get the fuck out, and she obliges. Don wants to leave, but Midge has to wait for their friend to play and sing, “The Waters of Babylon.”

We get a montage of the various characters: Rachel laying out ties at the store; Betty applying lipstick for Sally, who is wearing one of her dresses, and asking her to pucker the way Mona asked her to in the second episode; Joan and Roger getting dressed and stiffly parting without a goodbye outside the hotel, Joan with her birdcage in hand. They stand apart, the lights from the hotel behind them, for a moment before the credits.

This episode is flawless.

Next time:

Roger acts like an ass.


By (e)Kelsium

Kelsium lives in Southern California with her partner and collection of almost (almost!) kill-proof plants. She enjoys the beaches, but finds the lack of acceptable bagels distressing. She considers herself an expert in red lipstick and internet rage.

2 replies on “Mad Men: Exile in Babylon”

I think it’s hard for me now to think about Don’s relationships outside the context of his future relationships, you know? It’s hard for me to remember that this first season was all about the myth of the man that is Don Draper, knowing that that myth is continually chipped away at over the next several seasons. But I do think Rachel serves as a modern viewer proxy in that regard. She calls him on his bullshit, making his bullshit more palatable for us because at least someone’s acknowledging that it’s bullshit, but she’s still in love with him, so on first viewing we are too.

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