There are two books in this episode, and I am starting with the one that comes second in the episode: Exodus.
Am I the only one that cares enough to mention that? Probably.
Exodus, by Leon Uris is the book that started the Mad Men reading project for me. The book was, as I’ve written before, sitting on my bookshelf when I was watching the episode (S01E06, Babylon) for the second time, and because it played such a prominent role in the episode, and I hadn’t read the book, I stopped watching, read it and continued on.
It completely changed my appreciation for the show, and made me getting through the entire series a much longer journey.
Three people meet Don as he enters the boardroom: Nick Rodis (Bruno Oliver) from Olympic Cruise lines, Yoram Ben Shulhai (Danny Jacobs) from the Israeli ministry of tourism, and Lily Meyer (Irene Roseen). Lily hands Don the book.
“If Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East, Haifa can be the Rome,”
Lily explains that the book is a best seller and there’s a movie with Paul Newman starring in it. Hmmm. Never knew Paul Newman was Jewish. I checked out the preview and will not be watching that movie.
Don and the cronies are baffled by the account, and Don does not get Exodus. He doesn’t understand the Jewish people and their history. He doesn’t get the sentimentality. He doesn’t know how to “sell Israel.” He needs help
The episode climaxes as Don sits down for lunch with a reluctant Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), who is afraid of what Don represents, and the hold he may have on her.
It is an excellent scene, and a poignant look into Don’s soul, the Jewish-American identity and the importance of Israel. Have a look.
There is an important part of the American identity in the 60s here. Rachel has a keen and deep connection to her Jewish tradition and culture even though she says straight up, “I’m really not very Jewish.”
Though she brushes the question off, she easily and effortlessly breaks down what Israel means to her and her people without missing a beat. Her people living in exile that have finally found a home. Don wouldn’t understand because he sees Rachel and the Jewish people as “those people,” the other. Rachel challenges Don’s embedded anti-semitism (even if he defends himself), and comes up with this brilliant line that sums the argument up:
“It just has to be. To me it’s more of an idea than a place.”
Babylon is the episode’s title. Exile. Perfect. This is Mad Men. Characters in exile searching for utopia. Characters who do not recognize community or collective identity and can never quite connect that their failure to find utopia may lie in their failure to embrace community. There’s a good whack of anti “commie” language in this episode tossed as Israel suggesting Israel is apart from America. Yet, yet, yet, Rachel and Lily know better. They know America and Israel are bound together.
It is no wonder that the book baffles Don. There are two things Don runs from particularly in season one: his past and community. He does not understand the point of either of them, and doesn’t feel he needs them. He doesn’t want to go out with the boys, Betty’s family, or any other group setting, and he certainly and dramatically does not want to delve into his past. Poor Adam.
Yet, yet, yet…
The Exodus from exile to utopia is something, ironically, that seems to motivate Don. The episode remember begins with a flashback to Don as Dick Whitman on the farm. Shake it off Don. The future is before you. That is where joy is. It’s the paradox that makes the show so good and Don such a compelling character.
Then the episode grabs you by the scruff of your neck and freezes you like a kitten in her mother’s mouth at the end.
The reason I kept reading books seen in the show is summed up in the final scene of this episode. Don is dragged to a beatnik cafe with his mistress Midge.
He hates it and the people there (again community), and then her friend begins to sing Babylon.
Don’s glare evaporates as Midge’s friend Ian (David Carbonara) begins to sing.
“By the waters, the waters of Babylon.
We lay down and wept and wept for the Zion.
We remember thee, remember thee Zion.”
As the song plays, a montage of Rachel returning home, Betty brushing Sally’s hair and Roger and Joan leaving their hotel room overlaps. Why? Because that, in all its complication, is Don’t community. Those are who he cares for at the moment and those he hides himself from. It’s another excellent scene. (It’s posted below)
The episode ends with Roger and Joan apart waiting for separate cabs. Beautiful.