What is "Babylon"?

 Posted by on December 28, 2007 at 10:04 am  Season 1
Dec 282007

The episode title “Babylon” is more oblique than many. What does it mean?

Over lunch, Don asks Rachel about Judaism and Israel. She says the Jews have always been exiles; first in Babylon, and then all over the world. She tells him “Zion” is just an ancient word meaning “Israel” (Don is a little threatened by those “Zionists”), and that she has no interest in living in Israel, but it’s important to her that it exists.

It seems that, if there’s a Homeland, she is more at peace with living in exile. Don, too, lives in exile”from himself”and we see the first flashback to the childhood of Dick Whitman in this episode.

One thing that’s interesting about Don/Dick is that he has no education. Dirt poor, abused, neglected, Dick joined the Army and then began the life of Don Draper. Betty tells him what she learned in “first year Anthropology,” and Rachel tells him the Greek meaning of “Utopia,” which she learned in college; he is hungry not just for these women’s bodies, but for the knowledge they have. And that underscores his outsider/exile status.

Later, Don meets Midge, longing to satisfy both hungers. He grabs her passionately (right after seeing Rachel…) and then she shows him a beatnik underground in which he is an alien. It is there, at “The Gaslight,” that Midge and Roy’s friend sings a version of Rivers of Babylon (at least, I think it’s Rivers of Babylon”it might be one of the other songs based on Psalm 137).

And, finally, Joan and Roger. He is alienated from his wife and daughter. Which is clearly his own fault. They are in a hotel, which is a no man’s land, a place between, a territory for the homeless that reminds Joan uncomfortably of a hospital room (suggesting some back story there, I think). It is also a waystation, a place where they can find comfort in each other. In the final seconds of the episode, as the song plays, Joan and Roger are apart from each other, and leaving the hotel. Leaving Babylon? Or leaving Utopia to return to Babylon?


  15 Responses to “What is "Babylon"?”

  1. This, along with watching "The Wheel" again last night, reminds me again what a classically American character Don Draper is. I mostly think of Gatsby, not only because of the self-creation, but also the yearning (there's that word again!) for a past that never was.

    "By the rivers of Babylon,
    Where we sat down,
    And there we wept,
    When we remembered Zion

    The key word there is "remembered." It's an idea that goes all the way back to the Puritans, who thought they were going back to the lost Eden, to the City On The Hill (the first American image of Utopia.)

    Zion can't be real. Rachel, a realist who lives in Babylon, knows, despite her own yearning, that Utopia means a place that doesn't exist. But Don doesn't. You can see it on his face as he watches the Edenic family life shown in the pictures at the climax of "The Wheel." He's caught up in it (God, Jon Hamm is an amazing actor!), conned far more thoroughly than the Kodak reps. When he goes home he's fantasizing that that perfect family (something neither he or Dick Whitman ever knew) will be there. When they're not, it's a crushing final image of the season. It's Don in Babylon, weeping as he remembers Zion.

  2. Brilliant comment, Mel. You hit all the notes I was thinking of, maybe better. The tie-in with the Wheel is dead-on.

    Rachel, I think, has had a fairly happy, or at least well-adjusted, life. When you can look back on an upbringing that is flawed but okay, you look at Utopia realistically. But Don probably survived his horrific childhood with fantasies of Utopia, and he's not going to be able to let them go.

    The lyrics you quote are Rivers of Babylon; a song I know very well because I'm a huge fan of The Harder They Come soundtrack. But the lyrics Midge's friend sings are just slightly different:

    By the waters, the waters, of Babylon.

    I haven't been able to identify if it's a different song or a variation on the same song.

  3. And yet he claims to be the ultimate cynic. In the first episode when he takes Rachel for a drink, his whole rap about not believing in love, etc. He is so layered…he has the wife and kids but behind that are affairs and a philosophy about love being nothing more than a tagline but behind that he really cares about all these women but behind that he wants a Utopia he denies exists.

  4. Don…doesn't know he believes in love. He wasn't loved as a child, and that's kind of permanent. So the longing that fills him cannot be given a name. He's more closeted than Salvatore.

  5. Okay, here are the lyrics they sang:

    By the waters, the waters, of Babylon
    We lay down and wept, and wept, for thee, Zion.
    We remember thee, remember thee, remember thee, Zion.

    That's it—it's the one verse, done as a round.

    Not the same as "Rivers of Babylon," or "On the Willows" for that matter. It appears to be this one.

  6. I know "Rivers of Babylon" from Linda Ronstadt's 1976 cover. That version originated in 1970 with The Melodians.

    Thanks for the lyrics of "By The Waters of Babylon." Did you find anything about the origin (not counting the 137th Psalm)? Just curious, I love folk music history. I couldn't find anything, (though I did have a fun afternoon poking around on folk song sites) but I did find this on Youtube:

    One man singing a round is pretty cool.

  7. Stunning. I just wish that one of them would open their eyes.

  8. Mel, I know Rivers of Babylon from the Melodians version on the Harder They Come soundtrack, which I think is the original (or, it's their original song, I think they may have recorded it earlier, because the movie was 1972). This one (and that guy was incredible!) is Waters of Babylon. As far as I can tell from poking around with my mad Google skillz, it's a traditional hymn. .

  9. Babylon is a double Biblical reference. The first most everyone recognizes, the city to which the Israelites of the Kingdom of Judah were exiled after their conquest by Babylonia. But Babylon is also referenced in the Book of Revelation, as a figure for a corrupt civilization. Everyone in Mad Men lives in Babylon — both in figurative exile from their true selves AND in a sexualized civilization where beautiful clothes, money, and the proprieties mask an underlying series of lies (this is in part why the song continues to play while Joan and Roger are leaving the hotel). Its interesting that both Rachel (who, as one poster notes, seems to be able to distinguish from the real and the ideal) and Midge (who stops Don from leaving just before the song is played) have a sense of the New York both as a place of exiles and as a place of corruption.

  10. Thanks, Professor, that's fascinating.

  11. Does anyone have the names of the musicians for this episode? I have searched and searched the credits and cannot for the life of me find them. I can't believe they wouldn't be listed, being so central to the theme.

  12. Max, we're looking into it. Maybe we can find something.

  13. Best thing about the episode was it cleaned off the Babylon concept from all it's tired Matrix/Rasta backstory…

  14. Just wanted to say that this post and its comments are really, really, interesanting. I have just finished the first season of Mad Men and I think is fantastic. Thank you for this wonderful information.

  15. Mar, welcome!

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