The ‘Dispersal’ of Quality TV

This week I’m going to attempt a textual analysis of a particular scene from Mad Men.

I’ve chosen my favourite scene from the first season: the last scene of episode six, ‘Babylon’. You can view this short clip below:

To put it in context, this episode introduces the audience more clearly to (my favourite) characters Joan Holloway and Roger Sterling, and is also the episode in which Peggy is first noticed for her “Basket of Kisses”.

The episode focuses on the parallels between appearance and reality, such as the difference between Roger’s and Don’s unfaithfulness. Roger seems to have the best of both worlds, a fun fling with Joan, and the relationship with his wife for the sake of appearance. Roger revels in this relationship, while it doesn’t seem as though Don is enjoying himself in the same way.

At Sterling Cooper, there is also the idea of turning Israel into The Middle East’s ‘Rome’, not an easy task because, as Don notes, to Americans “Israel is a quasi-communist state where women have guns and it’s full of Jewish people…well, they’re not all Jewish, let’s not forget there’s also Arabs.”

The theme of appearance versus reality is epitomised in the scene with the one-way mirror, separating the, how shall I say it, crude, men from the women workers. It is in this scene where Peggy is the stand-out: barely moving, thinking (wait, what? That’s like a dog on a piano!) about what is going on around her.

The name of the episode is obviously important to the meaning as well. According to Wikipedia, “In the Rastafarian faith, the term “Babylon” is used for any governmental system which is either oppressive or unjust. In Jamaica, Rastafarians also use “Babylon” to refer to the police, often seen as a source of oppression because they arrest members for the use of marijuana (which is sacramental for Rastafarians). Therefore, “By the rivers of Babylon” refers to living in a repressive society and the longing for freedom, just like the Israelites in captivity. Rastafarians also identify themselves as belonging to the Twelve Tribes of Israel.”

The music scoring the final scene also plays on this theme, with the apt folk song “Rivers of Babylon“. Again, from Wikipedia:

The song is based on the Biblical hymn Psalm 137:1-4, a hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC:[1]

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion… They carried us away in captivity requiring of us a song… Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? ””

The montage of the scene begins with an ominous shot of Don framed by Midge’s arm, reminiscent of the famous leg shot from ‘The Graduate’.

Dustin Hoffman framed by Mrs Robinson's leg

Dustin Hoffman framed by Mrs Robinson’s leg

The closeup on Don’s face in this shot focuses the viewer’s attention on him, and what emotions are hiding behind that loaded look: disdain at being out with Midge instead of at home with her, or that he should be with his wife? Confusion? Irritation? The shot lingers long enough for us to question Don’s situation, but is perhaps too early in the series for the viewer to make any concrete assumptions about Don’s character.

The shots of the duo playing at the Gaslight add some more authenticity to the show. While the music, at least to me, feels slightly out of place in the 60s, the band members are eerily reminiscent of Bob Dylan and his band early in his career. In saying that, Matt Weiner and his team have clearly worked meticulously to create narrative realism and suspension of disbelief – from this scene alone simply take the fashion and hairstyles of all the men and women!

Bob Dylan with his band

Bob Dylan with his band

The shot continues to fade through to various characters, with quite a melancholy feel. The characters are doing bland tasks that are easily open to interpretation. Rachel slowly smooths down some ties as the camera pans around her, and we question what she is thinking about, probably her feelings for Don. The ties are appropriate for this instance as Don is indeed a business man.

This shot fades to Betty putting lipstick on her daughter, who is dressed in Betty’s wedding dress. The symbolism here is almost overpowering, as Betty longs for a different, better, time, a notion echoed by Don himself in the episode “The Wheel”, in which Don plays through memorable moments with Betty and the children on the Kodak Carousel.

Repeated closeups on Don’s face as the music replays the line, “we lay down and wept, and wept,” add to the ominous tone of scene. The montage seems very final even as we are halfway through it, the audience is aware the ending is coming and feel inclined to know what happens next week – this depressing ending can’t be all there is for their favourite characters!

The haunting final shot of Roger and Joan in front of the hotel furthers this idea. Joan walks out on to the street, and we are aware of the tilt in the sidewalk, a symbol of the disconnect and discord she is feeling about her relationship, and perhaps other relationships she may have. Roger appears, standing further up the hill, an indication of gender roles and highlighting the space between the two. Ultimately, we see that Joan’s power at the office and in the bedroom means little if she can’t be seen with Roger in public. And while the liaison may provide Roger with relief from a miserable marriage, the inherent nature of the relationship means that relief will forever be superficial and short-lived.


Bonus content time!

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