“Mad Men” is a series with relatively little interest in picking up exactly where we left off last week. Indeed, AMC’s flagship drama, which begins its seventh and final season on Sunday (our coverage here), delights in the episode as an art form unto itself. Here, with the requisite caveat that rankings are silly and subjective as well as good fun, are the ten best:
10. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Season 1 (Episode 1)
“Advertising is based on one thing,” New York ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) tells the executives of American Tobacco midway through the series’ pilot: “Happiness.” The first hour of “Mad Men” is as deceptively simple as its protagonist’s pitch, following Don as he romances Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), a bohemian Village artist, spars with department store heiress Rachel Mencken (Maggie Siff), and rejects a clumsy pass from his new secretary, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” sits squarely on Don’s shoulders, but its liveliness derives from the array of complex women he encounters. (“You know the rules,” Midge reminds him. “I don’t make plans, and I don’t make breakfast.”) By the revelatory final moments — a Norman Rockwell-esque image of Don at his children’s bedside, wife Betty (January Jones) framed in the door behind him — “Mad Men” firmly establishes the difference between selling the dream and trying to live it.
Honorable mention: “Blowing Smoke” (Season 4, Episode 12), in which Midge returns as a gaunt, desolate heroin addict.
9. “The Jet Set,” Season 2 (Episode 11)
The lure of California frequently turns the dream westward, most forcefully in the mirage-like “The Jet Set.” As Don escapes an aeronautics convention with Joy (Laura Ramsey) and her band of wealthy “nomads,” Los Angeles and Palm Springs enjoy the Chamber of Commerce treatment — sketched in white, turquoise, and sunshine as a theme reminiscent of “South Pacific” dances languidly on the soundtrack. But it’s the episode’s delicate rendering of what prevents us from starting fresh that lends depth to the picture postcard. Recovering alcoholic Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) relapses in a dim Italian restaurant; Roger (John Slattery) and Peggy repeat the same old romantic mistakes; Sal (Bryan Batt) remembers why the closet door remains shut. Even the chameleonic Don understands that no amount of wealth or distance can erase his past. “Hello, it’s Dick Whitman,” he says over the phone at episode’s end — for no matter how far we travel, “The Jet Set” suggests, life has a funny way of sending us back to where we came from.
Honorable mention: “The Mountain King” (Season 2, Episode 12), a less visually arresting extension of Don’s California sojourn — including a visit with Anna Draper.
8. “Tomorrowland,” Season 4 (Episode 13)
The strength of the season four finale rests on a handful of fraught exchanges, sutured together by phone calls, closed-door meetings, and cannonballs in the pool. Each of these turns on the mixture of the personal and the financial that so often destabilizes “Mad Men.” If Betty’s casually racist remarks in firing Carla (Deborah Lacey) point to the emerging cruelty of a woman who’s outsourced motherhood, Megan (Jessica Pare) and Don’s Disneyland liaison reveals that the caregiver’s touch is worth more to him than a salary. Perhaps the most satisfying scene in “Mad Men” history arrives along these lines: Peggy, the overlooked copywriter who just brought in new business, and Joan (Christina Hendricks), the underappreciated office manager who ensures the business runs in the first place, commiserate about this gulf between what we pay for and what we value. “That’s bullshit,” Peggy snipes, and the chuckle they share in that moment registers as a kind of rebellion.
Honorable mention: In “Babylon” (Season 1, Episode 6), Joan asserts her workplace dominion over Peggy — newly assigned to write copy for Belle Jolie — with another delicious line: “Well, you know what they say. The medium is the message.”
7. “The Better Half,” Season 6 (Episode 9)
Of the sixth season, the likeliest choice for best episode is “The Crash,” a frantic, amphetamine-fueled departure. But against this hour of aimless invention, I prefer the more rudimentary excitements of “The Better Half.” It would be enough that Peggy, anxious about a spate of recent neighborhood crimes, accidentally stabs her boyfriend, Abe (Charlie Hofheimer), in the middle of the night, or that the enigmatic Bob Benson (James Wolk) wears short shorts printed with palm trees. But the heart of the episode is Betty Draper’s rousing comeback. Her one-night dalliance with Don represents a powerful reversal: while she revels in the pleasure of sex and the ease of pretending it never happened, Don watches her wistfully, still hoping to write a different ending. “I love the way you look at me when you’re like this, but then I watch it decay,” she says frankly. “I can only hold your attention so long.”
Honorable mention: “The Gypsy and the Hobo” (Season 3, Episode 11), anchored by Betty confronting Don about his secret identity.
6. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” Season 3 (Episode 13)
Despite its reputation for desultory pacing, “Mad Men” occasionally devotes an hour to office machinations, and “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” cleverly assumes the staccato rhythm of the title’s declarative statements. In a deft feat of narrative construction, the formation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce from the ruins of a corporate raid is fragmented into several negotiations, moving seamlessly from the playful — Lane’s telephone conversation with an irate St. John Powell — to the poignant — a cathartic interlude with Peggy and Don that sets the table for “The Suitcase.” “There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me,” he says. “And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone.” It’s a moment built from three seasons of secrets and two lifetimes of grief, no less thrilling than the rest of the episode for being another kind of conspiracy.
Honorable mention: “For Immediate Release” (Season 6, Episode 6), culminates in the creation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Cutler Gleason Chaough, and it’s worth watching solely for the look on Peggy’s face when she hears the news.
5. “The Suitcase,” Season 4 (Episode 7)
Though Don’s silhouette graces the title sequence, Peggy has always been his co-protagonist, not to mention co-conspirator, co-worker, and protege. “The Suitcase,” a focused two-hander set on the day of Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay’s second championship bout, makes good on the promise of season three’s dazzling conclusion. It’s unhurried and terribly moving, bundled up with allusions to prior episodes. Duck and Don fight and Anna dies, a series of dissolves carrying her ghostly apparition into the frame, but the image I most vividly remember is a close-up of Don’s hand clasping hers. It mirrors their first close encounter, near the end of the pilot, reducing the tale of how far they’ve come together to a beautiful miniature, much like “The Suitcase” itself.
Honorable mention: If you relish Don and Peggy’s combative moments, the zenith is their tense, miserable Cool Whip pitch in “Lady Lazarus” (Season 5, Episode 8)
4. “Far Away Places,” Season 5 (Episode 6)
The “places” of what may be the series’ most formally inventive episode are not, literally speaking, very far: Plattsburgh, N.Y., near the Canadian border, is as exotic as it gets. Yet the succession of three stories, each set within the same 24-hour period in the summer of ’66, suggests a time-traveler’s journey: in the space of an hour we visit war-torn Europe by way of Mars, 1919 Chicago by way of a little acid, Don’s uncertain future by way of his inglorious past. An extended snapshot of people living long ago and far away, “Mad Men” is a child in time — full of reminders that the characters don’t know how their stories will end. The superb “Far Away Places” phrases it more succinctly. “Would you say it’s a delightful destination?” Don asks Megan after lunch in an upstate Howard Johnson’s. “It’s not a destination,” she replies. “It’s on the way to someplace.”
Honorable mention: Another triptych, “Three Sundays” (Season 2, Episode 4), this one focused on Peggy’s testy relationship with faith and family.
3. “Mystery Date,” Season 5 (Episode 4)
Exceedingly dark and tightly wound, “Mystery Date” frames “the war between the sexes” as a pitched and bloody battle. Set in the days following what Peggy’s friend Joyce (Zosia Mamet) memorably calls “the student nurse massacree,” the episode is an exemplar of the series’ multifaceted intelligence, weaving four distinct narrative arcs into the historical backdrop. At the episode’s center is the lurid triumvirate of sex, violence, and salesmanship, and each thread — Joan drops Greg (Sam Page); Peggy stands up to Roger; Don encounters an old flame; Ginzburg (Ben Feldman) pitches an idea — uneasily echoes this theme. Even the vertiginous camera angles and splashes of garish color (a single, hot pink shoe) in otherwise placid, drab surrounds feel like the stranger knocking at the door. Indeed, “Mystery Date” critiques the titillation industry by highlighting our complicity in it. After all, it’s Ginzburg — his conscience quailing at the image of “some girl trussed up like a cut of meat” — who sells this troubling fantasy the hardest. “She knows she’s not safe, but she doesn’t care,” he says at the close of his “dark Cinderella” pitch. “I guess we know, in the end, she wants to be caught.” Well, only if she’s wearing the right shoe.
Honorable mention: Compared to other prestige dramas, “Mad Men” is far from gratuitous in its depiction of sex and violence, but that doesn’t mean it shies from the grotesque — as in the eponymous joke of “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency” (Season 3, Episode 6).
2. “The Other Woman,” Season 5 (Episode 11)
“You’re talking about prostitution,” Joan tells Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) about Jaguar salesman Herb Rennett’s indecent proposal in “The Other Woman.” “I’m talking,” he replies, “about business at a very high level.” Mistaking their coercion for negotiation, the partners acquiesce to the “dirty business” of landing a new account, and in the process launch SCDP toward its moral nadir. Gorgeous and deeply unsettling, the episode suggests that the misogyny on display in the Jaguar campaign (“At last, something beautiful you can truly own”) creates an atmosphere in which possession includes people as well as products. Cutting between Joan’s impossible “choice” and Don’s lascivious pitch, her scarlet lips matching nothing so closely as the sports car’s alluring frame, “The Other Woman” powerfully illustrates the consequences of forgetting that everything has a price — perhaps especially when that price can’t be measured in dollars.
Honorable mention: For negative associations with Jaguar coupes, the only competition is the relentlessly bleak “Commissions and Fees” (Season 5, Episode 12).
1. “The Wheel,” Season 1 (Episode 13)
The climax of “The Wheel” takes place in a darkened conference room, images of Don’s happier days streaming past on the screen before him. “Teddy told me that in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound,'” he says to a pair of Kodak executives, referring to an early mentor.
“It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship; it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘The Wheel.’ It’s called ‘The Carousel.’ It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again, to a place we know we are loved.”
In closing the circle, “The Wheel” perfectly encapsulates the “Mad Men” ethos — tracing the thin line between nostalgia and regret, mining the ache that accompanies memory’s pull and time’s forward march. History is always hovering around the series’ edges, but the moving finale to season one points to the fact that “Mad Men” is as much about how we (mis)remember the past as it is about the past itself.
Honorable mention: I’ll probably regret not including “Meditations in an Emergency” (Season 2, Episode 13), if only for a conversation between Peggy and Pete that breaks my heart every time. But I suppose it’s a measure of the series’ greatness that I felt compelled to fit twenty episodes into a top ten list.
Season 7 of “Mad Men” begins Sunday, April 13 at 10/9c. Read Anne Thompson’s report from the premiere, and catch the previous six season on Netflix and iTunes.