As I recall, this was about the point in my first viewing of Mad Men that I began to get truly frustrated. “Babylon” is significantly better than “5G” in nearly every respect, but I still found myself glancing at the clock during its latter half. Don reconnects with Rachel for help on an ad campaign for Israeli tourism and their discussion of Utopia, the ideal and illusory place, makes a fascinating metaphor for the world of Sterling Cooper. The introduction of Roger and Joan’s relationship and Peggy’s “promotion” to copy writer shows that Don isn’t alone in chasing things that don’t actually exist. It’d be amazing, if only I care about the characters.
“[before we got together] I was so miserable, I was thinking of leaving my wife,” that delightful line from Roger, along with Joan’s understated pain upon hearing it perfectly characterizes their relationship as they each look for something that the other can’t give. Roger’s version of commitment is for her to give up her life outside of him, but his callous self-absorption is frustrated by her feigned indifference. While Joan insists that she’s having too much fun to become Roger’s kept woman, the subtleties of Christina Hendricks’ performance let us know there’s more going on here. Her resistance to his plan is as much about wanting more from him as it about wanting fun elsewhere. In the end, these two simply want something that the other can’t give.
Peggy’s also looking for something that’s not there in a career at Sterling Cooper. Her feedback during a panel on cosmetics is so impressive that she’s given the opportunity to write copy. As exciting as this is for our starry-eyed Miss Olsen, the reality is far removed from her hopes. I’m not talking about the fact that he promotion comes with more work for the same pay (although that’s bad enough), I’m talking about the fact that it comes just after we’ve seen the boys of Sterling Cooper at their worst. The observation of the research panel kicks the sexism up two notches and, even as they recognize her talent, the men can’t help but demean Peggy, “It’s like watching a dog play the piano.” This agency isn’t the place for Peggy to have aspirations.
Finally, we’ve got Don in his never ending quest to have it all. His illusions aren’t limited to the realm of Sterling Cooper, but encompass his entire life. The episode opens with a rather on the on-the-nose metaphor about Don’s home life coming crashing down and then the series’ first flashback gives us a glimpse of the “real” Dick Whitman. I think that this is also the first time that all three of Don’s love interests have appeared in the same episode as he has a meeting with Rachel and a liaison with Midge. It’s all part of the balancing act Don showed us in the opening scene with the breakfast tray, and we know that a fall is coming. Not only is the Don personae itself a lie, but so are the things he aspires to.
Christina Hendricks really was great throughout this episode, her interactions with Peggy being every bit as engaging as those with Roger.
The illusory ideal also works as a metaphor for the whole enterprise of advertising.
Peggy’s quiet observation while the other women get frenzied over the cosmetics was pretty great, particularly with the men initially not understanding it.
As I said at the outset, this episode left me cold in spite of all the excellent stuff going on. The finally image was particularly great as Joan, carrying her unwanted bird, stands well apart from Roger as they wait for separate cabs. And still, I found myself thinking “what a great image” rather than having any sort of emotional response.