November 3, 2009

Mad Men, Season One: Babylon

Our Mad Men series continues with a post from Ben. Check back for another one from Dave tomorrow.

OK, so this is my second Mad Men post in a week and a half. And it's all of a day after my brother's Mad Men post. At a certain point, dear reader, you might starter to wonder if we here at the Awkward Haiku have an unhealthy fixation with the show.

The answer, of course, is "no." Mad Men fixations are entirely healthy, just like martinis and cigarettes. If you think that any of those things are bad for you, we can hire some white-coated chain-smoking doctors to go on television and assure you that they are not.

Having cleared that right the hell up, let's talk about "Babylon," my favorite episode of the first season of Mad Men. (Yes, "New Amsterdam" has some of the best lines in the whole run of the show--the last few minutes of "New Amsterdam," starting with Don telling Pete he's fired, might be the best few minutes in the history of television--but as an overall episode, I think "Babylon" might be even more compelling for me.) As usual, if you don't like spoilers and you haven't watched the material being talked about, I'd strongly advise you to watch it before you start reading blog discussions of it. And, honestly, if you haven't seen the first season of Mad Men yet in November 2009, it might be about time to get on that.

So, "Babylon": (more after the jump)

Representatives of the Israeli Tourism Board want Sterling-Cooper to sell Israel to America while "leaving the Bible out of it." (One of the Israeli tourism people is pretty obviously a Golda Meir figure, maybe even an homage to the depiction of her in "Munich.") Don brings home "Exodus" (the Leon Uris novel, not the book of the Torah) and reads it in bed. Pete wonders aloud if the kibbutzes make the Israelis "commies," and hilarity ensues about how off-putting it is that Israeli women have guns. Betty tells a story about how the first boy she ever kissed was Jewish, and Don is fascinated, then she tries to transition to marital whoopie, and he shuts her down. Rachel, the one recurring Jewish character on the show, acidly tells Don in the middle of very-weird-sort-of-flirtation that "'those people,' as you call us" having their own state is very important. Throughout the episode, there are explicit discussions of Zionism, the Holocaust and Jewish identity. It's the central motif tying together all the deeper themes at work here, since the episode is of course, like all episodes of Mad Men, really about the characters wandering through their lives like they always do, and building the atmosphere of the show.

So on the surface we have Israel, the Holocuast, Zionism, Jewishness. Exile and diaspora and everything that comes with it. Then everything that happens with every character in the episode is a metaphor for some type or level of exile. We see the first glimpses of "Don"'s secret, Dick Whitman's impersonation of the long-dead man actually named Don Draper itself being mostly a literalized metaphor for his deep sense of existential alienation and out-of-place-ness with the world around him.

We see Betty's painful exile from her real life as a model in the City to Betty Friedan's feminine mystique of suburbia and child-rearing, where she hates her children and is painfully in love with a husband who's always going to be emotionally out of reach, something she tries to express at the beginning of the episode, failing as miserably as she always does. We see Roger and Joan arguing about meeting in hotel rooms and the impermanence of their relationship, and Rachel thriving on "doing business with people who hate us" and talking about things that she thinks will never be, and most of all, again, we see Don, trying and failing to connect with the world.

One of the most interesting things about Don is that the closest thing he has to meaningless sex is with his wife. None of the women on the side approach her ex-model good looks, and all of his extra-marital wanderings seem to reflect much deeper and much less well-understood cravings. Hence the Jews and Beatnicks and...well, let's not even get into what's going on with the Bobby Barrett thing in Season Two.

Anyway, towards the end of the episode, one of those girls drags him to a Beat cafe where he sees all kind of pretentious nonsense--Posturing Beat Guy tells him that Broadway is the birthplace of mediocrity and Don tells him that "it might be born there, but I have a feeling that it's conceived right here"--and then... well...

One of the best things about Mad Men, a key ingredient of the show's effect, is that it's all about having your cake and eating it too. Glorifying, mocking, condemning and aching in fond remembrance of the same stuff at the same time. At its best, the show simultaneously inspires two reactions, warring for the same headspace. ("Wow, that's really fucked up! What's wrong with these people?" and "Damn straight. That's how a man does it.") A very similar trick is pulled off here, when after all the silliness and posturing at the Beat cafe, when Don's just about ready to leave and his girl tells him to wait and listen to this one last song, after a whole episode that was defined by the characters talking and thinking about Israel and Jewish identity, a whole episode of exploring all types and levels of Exile as it manifests itself in all of these people's lives, the whole thing ends with a heart-rendingly beautiful folk rendition of the 137th Psalm.


We sat by the waters of Babylon and we wept,
We wept for Zion.

...and it's perfect.
TV doesn't get much better than this.

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