It might not be the pop culture phenomenon that it once was (the grabbier, faster likes of “True Detective” and “Game Of Thrones” having surpassed it at the nation’s watercoolers), but last Sunday saw the return of “Mad Men,” and if the seventh season premiere was anything to go by, it’s as good as it ever was. Matthew Weiner’s show, about the lives of the employees of a Madison Avenue ad agency in the 1960s (and in particular, the alienated, self-reinventing golden boy Don Draper, played to star-making effect by Jon Hamm, and Elisabeth Moss’s secretary-turned-high-flyer Peggy Olsen) has been a critical favorite since it launched in 2007 and almost singlehandedly made AMC a serious home for prestige drama (paving the way for network-mates “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” in the process).
To this writer’s mind, it’s as good a show as anything that’s aired in the golden age of TV drama — stranger, funnier and more novelistic than many of its competition, and without the nudity or violence that sometimes makes the others look a little juvenile in comparison. To celebrate the show’s return for the first part of its final season (the season will conclude in the spring of 2015), we’ve picked out our ten favorite episodes of the series to date. Agree? Disagree? Make your thoughts known in the comments section below. And spoilers ahead, obviously.
“The Marriage Of Figaro” (Series One, Episode Three)
“Mad Men” certainly hit the ground running — it’s hard to think of as strong a drama pilot in recent years. But we wouldn’t necessarily say that it was a full-on classic straight out of the gate. For us, it was the third episode, “The Marriage Of Figaro,” that truly sold the show as something special, and entirely different from anything on TV. Whereas the previous two glimpses at “Mad Men” had introduced us to the characters’ world, this was the first focused look inside the head of Don Draper, and it becomes increasingly clear what a messy, messy place that is. The show’s ability to juggle perspective is one of its great gifts, and though we have brief moments involving Pete and some others, this episode is really the Don show. Or should it be the Dick Whitman show: Don being recognized as “Richard Whitman” on the train at the beginning of the episode is the first taste of the double life that our anti-hero lives, an incredibly intriguing tidbit that many shows would have led off with in the pilot. From there, we see him make an extra-marital move on unimpressed heiress Rachel (the excellent Maggie Siff, later of “Sons Of Anarchy”), before returning home for daughter Sally’s birthday party. It’s this sequence that’s the most astonishing thing that the series had done up to that point — as neighbors gossip and kids play, Don gets drunker and drunker, an alien in his own home. And when Betty sends him out to pick up the cake, he instead falls asleep by the train tracks, before returning home with a puppy for the kids. It’s a remarkable insight into the extent to which Don is existentially uncomfortable in his own skin, and the way he operates is a quiet shock that makes you abhor him even as you’re a little charmed. There was plenty more of that to come…
“Shoot” (Season One, Episode Nine)
If there’s one character who the show hasn’t always served brilliantly, it’s Betty Draper. As the events at Sterling Cooper became ever more central and compelling, the character stood out more and more, not least after her and Don divorced, and she’s become less and less crucial to the show over the years, which may be the best given some of the subplots she’s had (the fat suit years being something of a lowpoint). But in places, she’s been just as complex and fascinating as anyone else, never more so than in her season-one showcase “Shoot.” Directed, interestingly, by “Freaks And Geeks” creator and “Bridesmaids” helmer Paul Feig (his sole contribution to the show to date), it digs into Betty’s internal life for the first time, as she’s tempted by a potential renewal of the modeling career she had before she had the kids and married Don, as the potential front for a Coca-Cola campaign. The issue, unfortunately, is that the job has come about from a rival agency, McCann-Erickson, as part of their attempt to poach her husband away from Sterling Cooper. When Don ultimately turns them down, Betty’s job evaporates. She’s talked herself out of it by then, but it’s a sad evocation of her unfulfilled dreams, and hammers home her complete lack of independence (she’s almost literally a pawn in the machinations of those trying to win over Don, and has so little agency in the decision that it’s almost desperate). Which makes the episode’s conclusion (making clear the pun in the title) so satisfying: after feuding with a neighbor after dog Polly ate one of his birds, she marches onto the porch, cigarette hanging from her lips, and opens fire on the pigeons. January Jones can get a bad rap from some, but her performance here, and in the rest of the episode, is a reminder of what a terrific job she does in a very difficult role.
“The Jet Set” (Season Two, Episode Eleven)
Despite the show’s title referring to a New York address, “Mad Men” has never been able to resist the lure of the West Coast (indeed, with Megan and Pete now residing in L.A., it appears from the first episode of season seven that the show is officially bi-coastal). But that’s nothing to be feared: trips to California have been responsible for some of the most memorable episodes, not least with “The Jet Set,” the first time its characters headed cross-country. It sees Don and Pete in the City of Angels for an aeronautics convention, but in true Don fashion, he’s soon easily distracted, heading off for a drive, a party and some heat-stroke induced sex with the enigmatic Joy (Laura Ramsey). Directed beautifully by Phil Abraham (one of the show’s regular and best helmers), there’s a carefree, woozy feel to the Californian sequence that really gets to the heart of the appeal of Don’s dirty weekend (why he didn’t move over there several seasons ago truly puzzles us). But that plotline (and the killer cliffhanger, as he calls someone unknown and announces himself as Dick Whitman) are only one element in a stellar episode, that also sees Duck Phillips plotting for his British former employees to buy the agency, Roger impulsively proposing to much-younger lover Jane, and the rest of the office discovering that new hire Kurt is gay. Some of these picks include major events in the lifetime of the show, but some are just the series working at the top of its game, and this is one of those moments.
“Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency” (Season Three, Episode Six)
Shocking moments of extreme violence have become a hallmark of cable drama, from “Oz” and “The Sopranos” to “Game Of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead,” but given the nature of the show, that’s not a well that “Mad Men” has gone to very often. The major exception comes near the conclusion of this episode, and the result is one of the most talked-about scenes in the history of the program, one that caps off an episode that’s superb throughout. Amid other plotlines — Sally, haunted by her grandfather’s death, is having trouble adjusting to her new baby brother, Joan’s scumbag husband has been passed over for promotion, Don meeting with Conrad Hilton — we see the arrival of British executives from PPL, to announce their reorganization. Lane, much to his displeasure, looks set to be transferred to Bombay, to be replaced by young hotshot Guy McKendrick (Jamie Thomas King). But at a celebration, a drunken typist at the helm of Ken Cosgrove’s new ride-on John Deere mower runs over his feet, virtually severing it, and suddenly the status quo is restored. It’s a brutal, shocking and darkly funny scene, and one very much in the spirit of the series in general: death and injury aren’t a result of preludes and build-up, as in so many other shows, but comes at random and sometimes in the silliest way possible. At the time, you can’t help but laugh (the joke-like phrasing of the title of the episode isn’t an accident), but it doesn’t laugh long: the callousness with which it’s announced that Guy’s career is over is shocking, and the way that Roger and co. joke about it is doubly so.
“Shut The Door. Have A Seat” (Season Three. Episode Thirteen)
In general, we’ve avoided picking out season finales here, even though the final episodes have a tendency to make sense of the season as a whole in a way that’s become deeply associated with the show. But we couldn’t possibly ignore “Shut The Door. Have A Seat,” which closes out the third season in a hugely satisfying manner, and remains the boldest and most impressive finale the show’s attempted to date. It’s always very exciting when a show rips up the status quo, and that’s exactly what happens here. With Sterling Cooper, and parent company PPL, up for sale again, to arch-rivals McCann Erickson, the future initially looks uncertain, until Don suggests a breakaway agency to Cooper, and then Sterling (Don making up with his friend, the pair having been on the outs for a while). As they convince Lane to fire them (in exchange for making him a partner in the new company), and lure away Pete, Peggy and other key personnel, it becomes the closest that “Mad Men” has ever come to becoming a caper movie — a plan so crazy that it… just… might… work. And work indeed it does, with the new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (complete with an ass-kicking Joan, free of her husband now he’s gone to ‘Nam) starting to exist by the end of the episode. It’s fun, exciting stuff (and, when Don finally gives Peggy the credit she deserves and asks her to join him, even moving), but the professional triumph comes at the expense of the personal, as Don’s marriage finally implodes, and Betty heads to Reno with lover Henry in order to get a divorce. The scenes between Jon Hamm and January Jones here are bruising and powerful, and the one where they tell the kids that they’re separating is doubly so. The show’s handling of the JFK assassination itself, in previous episode “The Grown-Ups,” could have been better, but the seismic changes that take place in its aftermath probably couldn’t have been.
“The Suitcase” (Season Four, Episode Seven)
If there was an inevitability to this list, it was this one: “The Suitcase” has already become legend, considered almost as soon as it aired to be the show’s finest hour, and we’re damned if we can think of anything that’s surpassed it since (the cast were fans too: Jon Hamm told an interviewer “I’ve never ever worked on something and felt the way I felt after [‘The Suitcase’].” Something of a chamber piece (or ‘bottle episode,’ in TV terms), it focuses, to the exclusion of almost everything else, on what is almost inarguably the key relationship in the show: that between Don Draper and his protege/rival Peggy Olsen. Despite the two never striking up a romantic relationship (thank God), and their differences in later seasons, their friendship has been at the heart of the show throughout, and it gets its best-ever showcase in “The Suitcase.” Against the backdrop of the Sonny Liston/Muhammad Ali fight, Peggy is dumped by her boyfriend (not unhappily) and stays in the office to work on a pitch for Samsonite with Don. The pair have a tumultous evening of dinner and drinks, taking in an argument over Don failing to appreciate Peggy, the acknowledgment of her given-up child, a darkly hilarious appearance by Duck, who’s broken in an attempt to shit in Don’s office (he’s drunkenly stumbled into Roger’s instead), and the death of Don’s friend Anna (the real Don’s wife, and perhaps the closest thing, except for Peggy, he’s ever had to a friend). Both lead actors used it as their Emmy submission that year, and frankly, it’s rather staggering that they didn’t win — their deft performances are the best they’ve ever given on the show, and a reminder that, just as Don and Peggy ultimately bring out the best in each other, Hamm and Elisabeth Moss are each other’s finest dance partners.
“Signal 30” (Season Five, Episode Five)
Every fan of the show will likely have a different favorite season, but for this writer, it’s the show’s fifth, as you might be able to guess from the three episodes that I’ve picked out from it for this list. Like many of the show’s finest hours, ‘Signal 30” is a focused character study that could have come from a literary short story rather than as part of an episodic TV drama, this time focusing on one of the show’s most divisive characters, Pete Campbell. After trying to fix a leaky faucet in his kitchen, Pete and Trudie (the always great, often undervalued Alison Brie) invite the Cosgroves and the Drapers for dinner, where Ken’s secret side-career as a sci-fi writer is exposed, and the faucet bursts, leading to Don essentially emasculating Pete by fixing it properly. Entertaining a client from Jaguar, Pete eventually cheats on his wife in a brothel (having abortedly flirted with a teenager in his drivers’ ed class), and is then challenged, hilariously and brilliantly, to a fight by Lane when the Jaguar client’s own extramarital excursions are exposed. Pete is a character almost unique in television history–he’s defined principally by his weakness, only dangerous because he has such a ruthless touch, and yet over six seasons, Vincent Kartheiser has managed to make him somehow sympathetic as well as just plain pathetic. Here in particular, he’s moving as he breaks down in the elevator to an unfeeling Don. Directed by John Slattery (who’s become one of the series’ most reliable hands), the script served as the last produced work by legendary “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Cool Hand Luke” screenwriter Frank Pierson, who was a consulting producer on this series — he co-wrote the episode with creator Matthew Weiner, and passed away in July of 2012, three months after the episode aired, aged 86. You couldn’t ask for a better way to cap off an extraordinary career.
“Far Away Places” (Season Five, Episode Six)
As if to prove our point about Season Five, the very next episode after “Signal 30” proved to be pretty much another instant classic: “Far Away Places.” Following Peggy, Roger and Don over a single day in a cunning tripartite structure that warps time cunningly and unexpectedly, it might still stand as the structurally boldest moment of a series that’s never been afraid to break from formula (or, really, never quite established a formula). Peggy argues with boyfriend Abe, has an unsuccessful pitch with Heinz when she’s abandoned by Don, gives a stranger a handjob in a screening of “Born Free,” and discovers that new recruit Michael Ginsberg was born in a concentration camp. Roger, meanwhile, meets Timothy Leary at a dinner party, tries LSD with his wife Jane, and has a warm and candid conversation with her in which they decide to end their marriage (though Jane seems to regret it in the morning). Meanwhile, Don takes Megan out for the day to a hotel in Plattsburgh, which turns into a fight, which turns into Don leaving her in a parking lot, nearly ending their marriage before a passionate reconciliation. It’s the show’s take on “Pulp Fiction” et al, and gloriously done; each mini-episode has a slightly different feel and tone, but with a thematic and visual consistency to unite them (thanks, one suspects, to director Scott Hornbacher, and a moment now to acknowledge how remarkable the direction on the show is, given that most of its helmers are relatively little-known, at least for now). Best of all is a closing shot of Don in his office that, one suspects, could make a fitting final image to the series as a whole (at least on some YouTube supercut or something…)
“Commissions And Fees” (Season Five, Episode Twelve)
“Mad Men” is not a show, broadly speaking, where things happen. Obviously things do happen, but they’re low-key, internalized things (as anyone who’s ever watched one of the hilariously un-revealing ‘next week on “Mad Men”’ promos will know)–the show is one of slow-burn dealing with plot across a season that a show like, say, “Scandal” would get through in a single episode. But occasionally, a major event hits the show, as it does in “Commissions And Fees,” and it’s one of the many reasons we picked the episode out over so many of the other good options in the transcendent closing section of season five. Focusing principally on Jared Harris’ Brit-in-exile Lane Price, it’s the last time we see the character, because it opens with his mild embezzlement being discovered by Don, who fires him, and ends with him committing suicide in his office. Lane’s downfall, a combination of pride, financial mismanagement, and a reluctance to ask for help, had been brewing for a while, but most viewers hadn’t dreamed that he’d go as far as he does here. Then again, the knife twists on him for a while, not least in the moment when his wife (Embeth Davidtz) reveals that she’s bought him a Jaguar that they simply can’t afford. There’s a dark humor laced throughout (the Jag, previously deemed as ‘unreliable’ by others, fails when he tries to gas himself in it), but it doesn’t lessen the power as his body is discovered, glimpsed through the high window of his office: this is TV death done as upsettingly and suddenly as it happens in real life. There’s a loose cycle-of-life feel to the episode (Sally gets her first period, much to her terror), but it’s Lane’s death that lingers over the episode, and much of the series that’s followed since.
“The Crash” (Season Six, Episode Eight)
“Mad Men” is a show about the 1960s, but it’s really only recently become about the Sixties — what we think of culturally as the 60s is exemplified mainly by 1967 onwards, and much of the show has dealt with the awkward transition from the world of 1950s suburbia to a more dangerous, counter-cultural time (see Roger Sterling post-orgy in the seventh season premiere). As such, drugs have been a late arrival on the show (see the acid trip in “Far Away Places,” but it’s always done them well, and that’s particularly true of the uppers-fuelled “The Crash,” the most experimental and weirdest moment of the underrated Season Six. The new merged company are facing severe overwork, and so Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) brings in his doctor to give the staffers a shot of vitamins and amphetamines to get them through a long weekend of completing work for Chevrolet. It’s the most formally experimental thing the series has ever attempted (props to director Michael Uppendahl for an excellent job here), walking a fine line and never making clear what’s a hallucination and what isn’t–it could be everything, or nothing, or somewhere in between. Even Sally, who’s emphatically not on drugs, has a very curious encounter when she comes across an intruder who claims to be Don’s adoptive mother. The episode proved highly divisive when it aired, with some finding it empty and pretentious, but further rewatches have made clear that it’s anything but. It’s simply great that a show like “Mad Men” can take a risk like this six years in, and we hope there are more to come like it across the final season.
Honorable Mentions: Of course, there’s plenty more where that came from if you’re looking for further “Mad Men” greatness. In season one, we’re particularly fond of “5G,” in which we meet Dick Whitman’s brother, and finale “The Wheel,” with the famous ‘carousel’ speech. Season two brought “Flight 1,” which sees the death of Pete’s father in a plane crash, “Six Month Leave,” featuring the firing of Freddie Rumsen, and “The Inheritance,” the haunting trip to see Betty’s father.
In season three, opener “Out Of Town” sees Don and Sal head to Baltimore, while “The Gypsy And The Hobo” is another excellent Don-centric episode. Season four has the excellent “The Good News,” as Don and Lane get hammered together and bond, the stunning “The Crysanthemum And The Sword,” and “Blowing Smoke,” featuring the return of Rosemarie DeWitt‘s Midge. Season five begins with the two-hour “A Little Kiss,” and the devastating “The Other Woman,” as Joan is pimped out to the Jaguar executive in exchange for a partnership. Meanwhile, season six’s most memorable episodes include “Collaborators,” in which Trudie finally kicks Pete out, the Martin Luther King-featuring “The Flood,” “Man With A Plan,” as Don’s relationship with Sylvia becomes dominant, and the always-welcome trip to L.A. in “A Tale Of Two Cities,” plus the finale “In Care Of,” as Don finally has the meltdown that’s been so overdue.