Mad Men's 'Babylon'. Mapping Out a Musical Metaphor

Creator's Statement

Over fifty years ago, in The Pleasure of the Text (1973), Roland Barthes advocated for a renewed consideration of the 'bliss' of a given text, against the indifference of science on the matter and the so-called 'puritanism' of ideological analysis. According to Barthes, the essence of that 'bliss' lay in its inability to be fully expressed. At the time, to account for this bliss in a textual form, Barthes resorted to 'an evidently random succession of fragments: facets, aphorisms, touches and shoves, nudges, elbowings, bubbles […], "phylacteries"’.[1] I think the video essay format can overcome this alleged rift between ideological analysis and spectatorial pleasure. The form indeed enables political and cultural criticism while also acknowledging and embodying the 'bliss of the film' (understood here in the very broad sense of the term, encompassing many forms of moving images and sounds), notably thanks to the formal opportunities of simultaneity, layering, and synesthesia, among others. According to Barthes, the pleasure of the text could 'very well take the form of a drift' (Barthes, 18), a term that I can adopt as well to describe my reflexive process in this video essay. 

Working on the final sequence of Mad Men S1E6, I indeed found myself drifting into many ideas, at first without a rigid, predefined structure. Eventually, the structure emerged progressively, almost organically, as I wandered along this musical moment and its intermedial ramifications. This is a moment that I have found myself obsessively returning to over the years, for conferences or classes. The sequence takes us to a Greenwich village venue, where we see a live band performing a version of an 18th century round that has, since then, become associated with Don McLean’s famous 'Babylon' song on the American Pie album in 1971. The sequence dissolves to a montage that highlights several silent characters and their shared loneliness. This meditative moment manages to connect the characters without giving out a clear or univocal message, also connecting to a complex network of intertextual connections, including historical and mythical references that become almost dizzying when one sets out to explore them. Overall, this dense referentiality allows the television show to document the period it represents, the 1960s, while prompting us viewers to examine our relationship with culture, and with the past. Delving into the long musical history of the Babylonian reference, from biblical Psalm 137 to Rastafari songs, this essay shows how music plays a crucial role in the complex referential density of the show, bringing together different eras and numerous cultural references to contextualize and historicize the characters’ (and our own) sense of loss and longing. 

The meandering nature of my approach necessarily left out a lot that could have been studied more deeply. The use of a conclusive, evocative song for each episode, for instance, is a recurring feature of Mad Men, even if all the songs do not have the same intermedial density.[2] The Sopranos had been seminal in its use of pre-existing musical tracks to close each episode. Matthew Weiner, Mad Men’s showrunner, had worked as a writer and producer for seasons 5 and 6 of the HBO show, and, just like David Chase, the showrunner of The Sopranos, he claims a high degree of control over his work,[3] working closely with composer David Carbonara [4] for the choice of jazz, pop, rock, or classical pieces, notably those that mark the end of each episode.[5] Such musical quotations maintain the viewers’ attention throughout the final credits, which are thus an integral part of the episode – let’s remember that Mad Men aired before streaming, when there was no 'skip credits' button, and when the next episode did not start automatically. The use of final songs encourages us to linger on while the end credits are rolling, and sometimes to reconsider the episode in light of the tune’s lyrics, rhythm, melody, or original context in the case of well-known pieces. It is thus a kind of authorial feature that is specific to the serial form, and it also embodies the combination of multiple modes of authorship at play in a series. For the 'Babylon' song for instance, Weiner and Carbonara’s choice of 'Babylon' could seem anachronistic, since Mad Men viewers are more likely to associate the song with Don McLean’s 1971 American Pie album than with its origins – an 18th century song composed by Philip Hayes, which was then arranged, in the 1940s, by Lee Hays of The Weavers.[6]

Taking after The Sopranos and Mad Men, other shows have followed suit in this use of meaningful or evocative songs or musical pieces to close an episode, whether it be systematic (Master of None, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Easy, Silicon Valley, Orange Is the New Black) or occasional (like some episodes of Breaking Bad or Succession). In Mad Men, even if the chosen pieces are often chronologically or thematically linked to the plot,[7] yet there is no rigid system. In terms of genre for instance, we go from Ella Fitzgerald (S1E4) to a Bach cantata (S2E4), or from an original composition by David Carbonara (S4E3) to Elvis Presley (S6E2). These tunes mostly function as a kind of coda, a temporary conclusion that continues while the narrative stops. Unlike film credits, which are long enough for us to listen to an entire song or musical piece (sometimes even several), in a series, the credits are often too brief to play a whole tune. The music thus gets interrupted, fading out, encouraging us to pursue and continue the episode, both narratively and musically. In 'Babylon', on the contrary, the song is concluded before the end credits start rolling, and the fact that the song itself is a complete performance contributes to making it one of the musical moments that resonate most fully with the episode it concludes.[8] For O’Sullivan, who links this sequence to the 'carousel' scene of S1E13, this is also one of the moments when the show’s aesthetics and narrative perfectly combine to reflect upon the serial format itself: just as 'the round underscores how serials operate prosodically', the montage 'underlines how serials operate narratively – namely, by juxtaposing the disparate and asking us to see connections between the images, the enacted slides of people doing things' (128).[9] 

I thus found myself also riding the carousel, as it were: as the structure of the video essay gradually emerged, I noticed it was echoing the musical form of the round, 'something explicitly both linear and circular, with some singers pressing onwards and some turning back, a sound that moves forwards and backwards' (O’Sullivan, 127). I was drawn back again and again to the same shots, which were gradually laden with additional resonance, becoming harmonically richer, just as the musical phrases of the canon become fuller thanks to the polyphonic repetition. My intermedial wandering led me to adopt a cyclical construction, one in which the passage could gradually be watched differently, thus also echoing the process of close analysis, this back-and-forth movement between a microscopic audiovisual study of a sequence and the 'macro' level in which one considers it within different contexts. Beside its multisensory nature, the audiovisual form also allowed some serendipitous discoveries, and fruitful modes of co-presence of several works, which I explored with the use of visual or aural layering and superimpositions, audiovisual palimpsests that brought together Boney M and Joan Holloway, or allowed a face-to-face meeting between the two Dons, Draper and McLean. The split screen also proved a useful device to bring together several cultural references in the video essay’s conclusion, in the hope of conveying a sense of the gradual saturation of the original sequence as one follows the ramifications of the Babylonian reference.

In the end, adopting the video format has helped me overcome a certain frustration that academic writing had sometimes triggered. Researching intermediality is indeed a rich, exhilarating (Barthes would say 'blissful') experience: one reads other texts, watches still or moving images of different kinds, listens to music (sometimes even singing along), while the form of the linear, textual, academic article necessarily reduces the teeming, multisensorial nature of the research process. Referring to readers who revel in the pleasure of the text and its 'logical contradictions', Barthes acknowledged how 'the Biblical myth is reversed, the confusion of tongues is no longer a punishment, the subject gains access to bliss by the cohabitation of languages working side by side: the text of pleasure is a sanctioned Babel' (Barthes, 3-4) – an apt Babylonian reference (what else?) to describe the opportunity offered by the direct manipulation of sounds and images to the scholar reflecting upon intermediality, and blissfully enacting the aggregation of diverse forms of expression.

Works cited


Barthes, Roland. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text. trans. Richard Miller. Hill and Wang.

Goodlad, Lauren M. E. 2013. 'The Mad Men in the Attic. Seriality and Identity in the Modern Babylon', in Lauren Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert A. Rushing, eds. Mad Men, Mad World. Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s. Duke University Press (ebook). 

Molanphy, Chris. 2015. 'A (Nearly) Comprehensive Guide to the Music of Mad Men', NPR April 7.

O’Sullivan, Sean. 2011. 'Space Ships and Time Machines: Mad Men and the Serial Condition', in Gary R. Edgerton, ed. Mad Men. IB Tauris, 115-130.

Sepinwall, Alan, and Matt Zoller Seitz. 2019. The Sopranos Sessions. Abrams Press.


Films & TV

Breaking Bad (created by Vince Gilligan, AMC 2008-2013).

Easy (created by Joe Swanberg, Netflix, 2016-2019).

Fargo (created by Noah Hawley, FX 2014-).

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (directed by Howard Hawkes, 20th Century Fox, 1954).

Mad Men (created by Matthew Weiner, AMC 2007-2015).

Orange is the New Black (created by Jenji Kohan, Netflix 2013-2019).

Silicon Valley (created by Like Judge, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, HBO 2014-2019).

Sopranos (The) (created by David Chase, HBO 1999-2007).

Succession (created by Jesse Amstrong, HBO 2018-2023).


[1] Richard Howard, 'Note on the Text', in Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang, 1975, vii.

[2] I gave a talk about this at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2017, available online for those who understand French:

[3] For The Sopranos, Chase picked the music along with producer Martin Bruestle, music director Kathryn Dayak, and Steven Van Zandt – see notably Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, The Sopranos Sessions, New York, Abrams Press, 2019.

[4] David Carbonara also features in the 'Babylon' closing sequence as one of the musicians.

[5] Musical choices featured prominently at the Mad Men exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in 2015. See Chris Molanphy, 'A (Nearly) Comprehensive Guide to the Music of Mad Men', NPR April 7, 2015.

[6] McLean also stressed this dispersal of authorship, explaining that Lee Hays himself had been inspired by a song that was created in the Warsaw ghetto in the 1930s – I want to thank Sean O’Sullivan for pointing out this piece of information from the liner notes of the 2003 CD reissue of the American Pie album. The fact that neither he nor I have been able to corroborate this link with the Warsaw ghetto indeed does not invalidate it, but could be yet another instance of the 'hauntology' that I discuss at the end of the essay. 

[7] For instance, at the end of S2E9, in which characters learn about Marilyn Monroe’s death, the closing song is 'I’m Through with Love' from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.​

[8] As is also the case of – for instance, Bob Dylan’s 'Don’t Think Twice' (S1E13, illustrating the duality of the ambiguous season ending), or The Beatles’ 'Tomorrow Never Knows' (S5E8, showing how Don is out of touch with the new pop culture).

[9] The 'Babylon' episode and the final montage sequence was also studied by Lauren Goodlad, for whom the sequence reflects the ambiguities of Don Draper’s character by linking him, not just to the 'exodus narrative' (the idea that 'departure for the Promised Land—through Zionism or death—is the only escape from troubled identity'), but also, through the final montage sequence, to mostly female, alienated figures. To her, this process can be seen as a 'range of alienated identifications whose common threads are exile, captivity and the necessity of singing' (Goodlad, ebook).


Ariane Hudelet is Professor of visual culture in the English department at Université Paris Cité (LARCA research unit / CNRS). She has published widely on adaptation, text-image relationships and TV series. With Anne Crémieux, she recently edited Exploring Seriality on Screen (Routledge 2021) and La Sérialité à l’écran (PUFR, 2020); she is the author of The Wire, les règles du jeu (Presses Universitaires de France, 2016) and the co-editor of the TV/Series journal.

When I first saw Ariane Hudelet’s work ‘Mad Men’s Babylon’ at the conference at which she first presented it, in complete but draft form, I thought that this was an audiovisual essay reveling in all of the advantages of scholarly argument in videographic form that was able at least to equal substantial written academic communications in richness, complexity, subtlety and range of primary and secondary source referencing.[1] I don’t think videographic scholarly work is in any way inferior to written expression, of course, but, as a practitioner and theorist of both these forms, I do think that the former is generally different when it comes to what we might call its affordances, or to what we might understand as its particular strengths, especially in relation to its relatively short form. Hudelet’s video is twenty-one and half minutes long but expresses way more, and does so much more engagingly, persuasively and precisely, in my view, than a written work that could be read aloud, like a conference paper, in the same amount of time (around 2000-3000 words), for example.

The final form in which the video appears confirms my initial impressions. This work is a tour de force – of television analysis, critical comparison, cultural erudition, audiovisual exemplification (especially using visual and musical archive materials), cogent argumentation, detailed interaction with earlier scholarship on the subject, and, finally, conceptual invention and conclusiveness. Its memorable phrases, especially in the latter vein, will continue to resonate with me, long after viewing (for example, ‘diffuse epiphany’, ‘cohesive audiovisual chorus’, ‘music and intermedial reference reintroduce a spectral blackness’.)

Two formal elements stand out for me. The work has a really superb voiceover, one beautifully written and paced, which strikes a very hard-to-achieve performative balance of vocal appeal and scholarly authority. Its use of superimposition as a method of concise and convincing comparative handling of materials was also deft and inspiring. The poetic and the explanatory sit so well and effectively together in ‘Mad Men’s Babylon’ that I’m pretty sure this will be the work I most frequently recommend as my go-to example of what the scholarly video essay can do. It is also one of the finest short-form audiovisual studies of a particular instance of intertextuality that I have come across and so will undoubtedly be a very important point of reference for my own continuing videographic explorations of that subject.

Finally, please note that I write here as a reviewer in support of the publication of this video essay on behalf of [in]Transition’s editorial team as, for very good reasons, the original second peer reviewer of Ariane Hudelet’s video essay was unable, at this time, to supply a final version of their report on the work for publication. Their first evaluations of this work made an invaluable contribution to it, however, as is acknowledged in the video itself. We would like to thank that reviewer very much for their work and expertise, and we would be very happy to publish a final report by them here in future.


[1] For a recent and important collection of work on the scholarly video essay, I highly recommend The Cine-Files: An Online Journal of Cinema Scholarship, issue 15, 2020, co-edited by Tracy Cox-Stanton and Allison de Fren.

Ariane Hudelet’s videographic work effectively demonstrates the drillable complexity of the TV series Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015). Hudelet focuses on the end of a single episode – 'Babylon' (1.6) – to unfold her larger argument about the show’s intermediality, specifically the metaphorical use of historical and musical references, and about Mad Men’s poetic, meditative style which underscores its preference for difficult characters and relationships that resist the 'gray flannel suit' or 'counterculture' stereotypes inscribed in the cultural memory of the 1960s.  Taking Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) reaction to a performance of the song 'Babylon' at a Greenwich Village coffeehouse that is intercut with a montage showing the episode’s other central characters as a cue, Hudelet follows the musical reference and unpacks its manifold meanings. In doing so, she also showcases the affordances that the video essay offers for a multimodal academic engagement with Mad Men’s rich intermedial connections.

This video essay belongs to the growing body of videographic work on television published in [in]Transition. As Jason Mittell has recently pointed out in his review of Erlend Lavik’s video essay 'Setting the Scene: The Opening 164 Seconds of The Wire', the days when television was notably underrepresented in the journal are finally over (see also Mittell’s earlier assessment in 'Videographic Telephilia'). The latest publications on narratively complex series range from Lavik’s formal and thematic analysis of the opening scene of The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008) to Elizabeth Alsop’s experimental exploration of 'televisual excess' in The Knick (Cinemax, 2014–2015), Hannibal (NBC, 2013–2015), The Leftovers (HBO, 2014–2017), and Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime, 2017). In her video essay, Hudelet approaches Mad Men as a 'drillable text' (to use Mittell’s description of programs that invite viewers 'to dig deeper, probing beneath the surface to understand the complexity of a story and its telling') and offers yet another example of how videographic work can engage with contemporary television.

The video essay relies on repetition as a method of discovery, replaying the same sequence again and again. With each iteration, viewers return to the coffeehouse performance of 'Babylon', to learn more about the musical reference – from its origin as a biblical psalm mourning the loss of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people origins to Don McLean’s interpretation to Rastafari adaptations into reggae songs to Boney M.’s disco hit 'Rivers of Babylon'. As the video essay progresses, viewers also begin to understand how this intermediality serves to frame the characters and their relationships in terms of isolation, loneliness, and longing. This circular structure of the video essay (or 'carousel' to pick up on the metaphor that Hudelet borrows from Sean O’Sullivan’s excellent analysis of Mad Men’s serial condition), the layering of various sounds, and the use of superimpositions as well as multiscreen compositions allow Hudelet to draw multiple connections and highlight the show’s complexity in ways that also echo the lyrical quality of Mad Men.   


Works Cited

Alsop, Elizabeth. 2020. 'The Television Will Not Be Summarized'.  [in]Transition:Journal. of Videographic Film. and Moving Image Studies, 7.3.

Lavik, Erlend. 2021. 'Setting the Scene: The Opening 164 Seconds of The Wire.” [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, 8.3.

Mittell, Jason. 2013. 'Forensic Fandom and the Drillable Text'. In Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, edited by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. New York University Press.

--. 2017. 'Videographic Telephilia'. [in]Transition:Journal. of Videographic Film. and Moving Image Studies, 4.1.

--. 2021. 'Review: The Opening 164 Seconds of The Wire'. [in]Transition:Journal. of Videographic Film. and Moving Image Studies, 8.3. 

O’Sullivan, Sean. 2011.'Space Ships and Time Machines: Mad Men and the Serial Condition', in Gary R. Edgerton, ed. Mad Men. IB Tauris: 115-130.