[This article discusses past episodes of Mad Men, and it may contain SPOILERS.]
The final seven episodes of Mad Men will begin with an episode still concealed (for most of us) behind a thick cloud of cigarette smoke – otherwise known as creator Matthew Weiner’s famous veil of secrecy. And while the details of the premiere, the season, and, of course, the finale remains uncertain, one thing is: no matter what happens, this will be the culmination of one of the greatest television programs in the history of the medium. It is the series that put AMC on the map. It is the series that made stars out of Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, January Jones, and Vincent Kartheiser (to name but a few).
As such, there is a hint of melancholy in seeing an important part of the medium we all love prepare to come to an end. Of course, the series will live on forever – all six and a half seasons are currently available both on Blu-ray and Netflix – meaning it can (and should be) revisited – both in its entirety, and for the individual gems that popped up along the way (you know, those gems whose luster made the treasure that is the series shine even brighter).
And so, before Mad Men drives off into the sunset – as the season’s key art suggests – before Don Draper lights up his last Lucky Strike, and before Peggy Olson does it her way one last time, we propose a Mad Men mini-marathon, featuring some of the best of the best the series has to offer.
‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’
How can you not begin with the episode that started it all? There is as rich a story behind the journey of Matthew Weiner’s script for the pilot episode, as there is in the episode itself. The script, written in 2001, was responsible for Weiner landing a gig on The Sopranos, but it lingered for years before AMC came calling. The rest, as they say, is television history.
Throughout the pilot, there is a striking elegance to how Weiner introduces his characters, developing the parameters of their relationships by building them around the confines of the 1960s, as well as the business Sterling-Cooper is in. The episode does what all good pilots do: it builds two worlds simultaneously. In this case, it is building the personal and the professional, letting it all orbit around the enigmatic Donald Draper, while still finding time to establish Peggy, Pete, Joan, and the particular office politics of the early 1960s.
Despite the layered character and world building, what makes ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ such a fantastic start is how it reveals the third, unforeseen layer to Don’s life in its closing moments. It’s such an unexpected development that the richness of it sets the tone for the entire series.
‘Marriage of Figaro’
A personal favorite, the third episode in the series revolves around the split between Don Draper’s work and home life. It’s the third episode in the season, and it is, for the most part, the first solid glimpse the audience gets into Don Draper at home.
While it begins at Sterling-Cooper, and seeks to remind viewers of not only Don’s ongoing flirtation with Rachel (Maggie Siff), but also that Pete is back from his honeymoon, the second half of the episode focuses on Sally’s birthday party. But mainly it’s intent on Don looking his best, while acting his worst. The party is intended to for Sally, but it’s really a chance for Betty to show off how wonderful her life is – a great house, two beautiful kids, a handsome and successful husband – while also establishing the reasons why, despite having everything, she’s so unhappy.
The party is a dramatic attempt to peel back a layer on its characters, while also examining the many ways Don simply doesn’t fit (or want to fit) within those four walls. When Don disappears, under the pretense of getting Sally’s cake, he leaves Betty high and dry. It’s a humiliation Don will deliver unto his wife countless times, but one of the first is also one of the most effective.
Sterling-Cooper is tasked with creating an ad campaign for Israel, leading to Don’s misguided efforts to understand the country through the only Jewish person he knows – Rachel Menken. But the episode is about more than another Sterling-Cooper account; it focuses largely on the ways in which characters attempt to move out of a sense of stasis into something more suited to the person they want to be.
‘Babylon’ focuses a good amount of its time on characters like Joan, Roger, and Peggy all trying to get what they want. Whether it’s a more substantial relationship, like what Roger wants from Joan, or a chance to move up in a male-dominated workplace, like Peggy does when she coins the “basket of kisses” slogan, there’s a strong sense of character want and motion, even if they’re not entirely aware of what it all means themselves.
Then there’s Don in the beatnik bar, ready with a snappy reply to any insult Midge’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) other boyfriend can deliver. Don appears controlled by his utter disregard for the community he finds himself in, until a stirring rendition of the episode’s titular song (featuring an appearance by Mad Men composer David Carbonara) seems to find some sense of humanity underneath all that derision.
There is no other episode of the series that has become a stronger representation of the kind of beauty and structure the show has to offer. Ask most people what they remember about the first season, and they will likely tell you about Don’s pitch to Kodak, where he re-invents the wheel so to speak, coming up with the carousel, by using an emotionally exploitative appeal to arouse interest from the client.
It is a powerful climax to an incredible first season. And considering what the episode entails: Don learning his brother killed himself, Betty facing the prospect of Thanksgiving without her husband, Pete realizing the first big account he brings in will be handled by Peggy, and Peggy’s realization that she is carrying Pete’s child, the powerful sense of nostalgia the episode conveys is measured against the self-reflexive actions undertaken by so many characters.
This, of course, leads to a chance of true introspection by the core group of characters that is ostensibly slapped away when a glimpse at the truth seems too impossible to bear.
Spending time with characters away from work is often a boon for Mad Men, and it’s never more apparent than in ‘Three Sundays.’ The episode is demonstrative of how well the series tinkers with structure, which it does by dividing its time between three characters (on three consecutive Sundays), looking at how they spend the last day before beginning a new workweek.
Don and Betty spend a lazy Sunday drinking in the living room, while sort of paying attention to their kids, and dancing to Bing Crosby. Then there’s Peggy, who spends time at church, dealing with Father Gil (Colin Hanks), who learns of the child she’d had and given up for adoption. And finally, we see Roger, trying to be an adult, but still acting like a child, at one point saying, “I want everything I want.”
Roger’s childlike desire, and his unfamiliarity with the word “no” is a part of the episode’s consideration of how being an adult and acting like one are often two very different things. Throw in Sally mixing drinks for her parents, and Peggy being resented by her sister for not being punished for having a child out of wedlock, and you have the makings of a tremendous episode that is divided between characters and united by the sheer power of its thematic resonance.
‘The Mountain King’
The idea of confronting one’s true nature is a concept that Mad Men likes to revisit time and again. And in ‘The Mountain King,’ it does so under the guise of potential change that is both internal and external. With Don and Betty’s marriage on the rocks, Don does what he does best: puts distance between himself and his problems.
Meanwhile, with its proposed sale to Putnam, Powell & Lowe, Sterling-Cooper is also on the cusp of great change. Like everything, that potential change sends ripples that stir characters like Roger and Bert in different ways. Roger wants to use the sale to finance his divorce from Mona and marriage to Jane, while Bert contemplates what such a change will mean to his position at the company that bears his name.
Don spends much of the episode with Anna Draper – wife of the man whose identity he stole. Their interaction serves as the foundation for the idea that circumstances, marriages, jobs, and even names may change, but who you are as an individual is something far less mutable.
‘Meditations in an Emergency’
Season 2 ends with the natural continuation of the notion of change that ‘The Mountain King’ brought forth. The episode is, by and large, about confronting your actions and dealing with the consequences, all of which unfolds against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
While the news of Sterling-Cooper’s sale ripples through the offices – bringing good news to Roger, Don, and others who stand to make a load of dough off it – there is an escalation of tension between Don and Duck. That tension ends with Don revealing he has no contract, before walking out of the meeting with the new owners, knowing they can’t live without him, and that he has a cool half-million dollars in his back pocket if they think they can.
But Don’s blissful sense of freedom (even though we know he’s not really leaving Sterling-Cooper) is short-lived, when Betty tells him she’s pregnant. This comes after Betty finally welcomes Don home, but not before having a tryst of her own. The same theme is explored again, in a poignant moment between Peggy and Pete, when she reveals the truth about having his child, and how she could have trapped him if she wanted, but instead chose to live without him.
‘My Old Kentucky Home’
Roger and Jane throw a party to celebrate the Kentucky Derby and their success as a married couple, and the whole soiree becomes an illustration of how people put up a veneer of success, when what actually rests behind it is something far different. The episode naturally makes you compare everyone’s marriage to Don and Betty’s, and each one stacks up differently. What’s interesting is how often it does so through music.
To that end, Roger and Jane deliver a horrific musical number that serves as the catalyst for Don to meet Conrad Hilton. At the same time, Pete and Trudy deliver a spectacularly rehearsed rendition of the Charleston, making it seem as though they are the perfect couple. The truth is: aspects of their marriage are probably just as rehearsed.
Meanwhile, Joan has to put up a similar veneer, as Greg’s continued failure as a surgeon means he’s come to rely on her more and more as an example of his success. This leads to another great musical scene in which Joan plays the accordion, in an attempt to shift the focus from the unpleasant parts of her relationship to something a little more positive.
Amidst the drama of Betty and Don’s failing marriage – helped along by the increased presence of Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) – the couple (and everyone else in the show) is forced to deal with the assassination of President Kennedy.
Much of the episode is told through the lens of people collectively experiencing a traumatic event by gathering around a television set. There is the sense that the calming effect of the television keeps everyone from losing his or her mind, as the rest of the world seemingly descends into chaos.
By the episode’s end, the inevitable revelation that Don and Betty’s marriage is over mirrors the fall of Camelot in a way that sets the tone for the rest of the series. The lingering optimism that began the ’60s has begun to fade, and the show becomes a reflection of that.
‘Shut the Door. Have a Seat’
What would Mad Men be like if it were a heist movie? Imagine Ocean’s Eleven set in an ad agency, and that’s basically what you get with the season 3 finale, ‘Shut the Door. Have a Seat.’
After realizing that they will lose their company a second time, when news hits that Putnam, Powell & Lowe intend to sell Sterling-Cooper off, Don, Roger, Bert, and Lane Pryce scheme to create a new company, essentially relying on the loophole of Lane’s position to get them out of their contracts. The result is the quintessential creation of the new status quo that appropriately redefines the series moving forward.
And it does so through the promise that everyone gets a chance to start over. That is a tall order for a show that has dangled such a proposition in front of its characters for three seasons at this point, but it doesn’t make the climax to season 3 any less thrilling.
‘The Good News’
During the holiday break, Don and Lane get drunk and go see Gamera – what more could you possibly want from an episode of Mad Men? Well, if you are that rare person who does want something more, then ‘The Good News’ still has plenty to offer you.
Much of what it offers, though, comes from the seemingly endless well of melancholy the series has to draw from. When his visit to California is cut short after learning Anna has cancer, Don returns to New York – minus the restorative cleansing his trips out West usually bring. The news leads him and the equally miserable Lane to go on a bender that, despite offering several hilarious moments, like Lane slapping a steak to his waist and exclaiming, “I’ve got a big Texas belt buckle. Yee-haw!,” and the two drunkenly talking through the aforementioned Gamera, becomes another depressing glimpse at how much Don’s personal life has unraveled since season 3.
Still, ‘The Good News’ shows how funny the series can be, even when it’s pointing out the awful mess its characters have made of their lives.
What is arguably one of the best episodes of Mad Men – in season 4, or any other season – ‘The Suitcase’ offers a compelling look at what Don and Peggy’s relationship really means to each of them, and how close the two really are, despite all that has (and will) come between them. It is the exploration of a love and affection that is free from the trappings of romance, and is therefore something more pure – even when Don’s busy puking after his rocket-like trip on the Time-Life building’s elevators.
The episode is full of the show’s requisite meditations on change and death, again shown against the backdrop of something culturally relevant: this time it was the title fight between Ali and Liston. Through it all, the episode manages to come away with some poignant ideas about moving on (hence the suitcase), and how even something awful like the death of a loved one can sometimes reveal itself to be a change for the better. Then again, in true Mad Men fashion, it also suggests that even when good things come, it is guaranteed they won’t last forever.
‘The Summer Man’
As much time as the series has spent examining the question of whether or not people can change, there is perhaps no moment more laser focused on the idea than the journal-writing Don Draper of ‘The Summer Man.’ And yet, because Don is who he is, and does what he does for a living, the introspection the character engages in throughout the episode feels at times to be Don Draper selling Don Draper on the idea of a better Don Draper.
The result, then, is some gorgeous writing that captures the essence of the series’ central character, as a series of thoughts on how he perceives himself. It’s sort of genius, since, after all, who is Don Draper but a product created by Dick Whitman as a means of leaving his old life behind? What’s surprising, though, is how close Don comes to actually changing, to actually turning over a new leaf and becoming a better man. Of course, by the end of it, he rips up the journal, only to find himself invested in work once more.
‘A Little Kiss, Parts 1 & 2’
As we enter into season 5, it must first be said how truly solid and organized in both theme and structure Mad Men was in its fifth season. Maybe that is because the series had nearly 18 months between the end of season 4 and the start of season 5, but whatever the case, these 13 episodes are spectacular – and they begin with the two-part ‘A Little Kiss.’
Much like with the start of season 4, there was a new status quo for the audience to absorb. This time, however, it had to do with Don’s marriage to Megan. And what better way to examine that, than by inviting the offices of SCDP to the Draper home, to watch as Megan sings ‘Zou Bisou Bisou’ to an embarrassed Don as a way of celebrating his fake 40th birthday?
Wrapped up in discovering all of Don and Megan’s relationship is the importance of Don turning 40, signaling the passage of time, which is perhaps also a contemplation of the time the series lost between seasons. Either way, this two-part season premiere packs an enormous amount into the span of two hours, not only making up for the time the series was away, but also hurriedly trying to get more out of the time that is left.
Season 5 was likely the most death-obsessed season of the death-obsessed show. Death imagery was everywhere, from a bored Don drawing ominous nooses, to the mass murder of nursing students, and the sniper shootings in Austin, it was clear what Mad Men was thinking about. This led many to speculate that Pete, who was having a rough go of it out in the suburbs of Cos Cob, would be driven to suicide by season’s end. That, of course, wasn’t the case, but it didn’t stop ‘Signal 30‘ from throwing some fuel on the ridiculously speculative fire.
That speculation may have resulted from the forlorn looks on Pete’s face, as he too realizes he’s getting older, and that he’s on the slow march to his end. It certainly doesn’t help that Pete’s taking a driver’s safety course, and must watch the gruesome social guidance film from which the episode gets its title, while flirting with a much younger woman.
This is one of those strikingly beautiful episodes of Mad Men that is remarkable not because something major happens, but because nothing major happens. It is simply an hour of contemplative moments that revolve around a terrific dinner party at the Campbells’ house, and ends with everyone wondering why they’re still not happy, despite seemingly having everything they could possibly want.
There is a question swirling around another fine literary season finale of Mad Men, and that is the notion of the titular phantom. Is the phantom Don Draper? Is it the image of Adam Whitman Don keeps seeing? Or is it the guilt and responsibility Don feels over the death of Lane Pryce (who never appears, but whose presence is surely felt in the red chair between Don and Rebecca, Lane’s widow)? Chances are, it’s all three, in one way or another.
But perhaps the phantom is really that elusive dream of something more that evades everyone, leaving them empty. It is summed up when Megan’s mother Marie tells her daughter, “Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas.”
Like the rotten tooth inside Don’s head, Marie’s words set the tone for the finale, and for the season ahead, suggesting (quite accurately) that the rot has taken hold and things are not going to get better,
‘The Doorway, Parts 1 & 2’
If ‘A Little Kiss’ was an experiment in making one long episode and then cutting it in two, then ‘The Doorway‘ is Matthew Weiner experimenting with making a Mad Men movie. Say what you will about the sometimes-uneven episodes of season 6, but the two-part premiere is poetic and beautiful in the best way possible.
Packed with symbols and allegory, the episode is almost like a literary puzzle that is as focused as ever on the idea of death and the meaning of everything leading up to that final moment. “All I’m going to be doing from now on is losing everything,” Roger says, and it’s hard not to think that Roger’s voice is the voice of the series, contemplating the end that is just around the corner.
At a certain point, the episode becomes transfixed on the accumulation of things. A soldier’s lighter, a pair of skis, a copy of Dante’s Inferno, a shoeshine kit. They all have some deeper meaning, and all of it is pointing at the uselessness of accumulating stuff. But in a sense, that accumulation of stuff is the series looking back not only on the history it is attempting to live through, but also on the history the show has created for itself and its characters.
There may be no more divisive episode in all of Mad Men than ‘The Crash.’ A hallucinatory and surreal hour of television from a series that typically doesn’t go for that kind of storytelling, and yet commits to it fully nonetheless.
After Jim Cutler fixes everyone up in the office with his “special” doctor’s proprietary blend of vitamins and amphetamines, SC&P descends into chaos – in a way that reflects the increasingly disordered world seemingly tearing itself apart beyond the confines of a single ad agency.
The episode is one strange trip after another, offering viewers the chance to see things they likely thought they never would, like Ken Cosgrove tap dancing like a maniac, or Jim and Stan racing each other around the office. In many ways, the weirdness of the episode is indicative not only of the world outside at the time, but also of the season as a whole, suggesting its frenzied nature was at least partially deliberate.
When all is said and done, season 7 will have to be looked at in its entirety, without the silly and unnecessary split a la Breaking Bad that didn’t ratchet up the anticipation for the finale, so much as make casual viewers think the show simply ended without much fanfare. But questionable decisions about the final season aside, ‘The Strategy‘ is a standout episode, one that can go up against the best of any season, and certainly one that demonstrates the power Don and Peggy’s relationship, in the wake of Don ostensibly losing everything and having to start over.
The episode revolves around Don finally making peace with Peggy, and the two realizing how important their relationship is to one another. It also plays on how the audience has been watching this relationship for so many years, and it effortlessly evokes nearly every Don and Peggy moment from the last six-and-a-half seasons.
‘The Strategy‘ is an unforgettable episode that could easily have served as a very satisfying series finale. And it ends not only with Don, Peggy, and Pete together at a table, like a real family, but with Don finally realizing that change is possible, and that he, of all people, has been the one to change.
‘Waterloo,’ the finale to the first half of season 7, serves as the farewell to the great Robert Morse, as Bert Cooper says goodbye to SC&P just moments after the astronauts of Apollo 11 land on the moon. The episode captures a moment in time as well as Mad Men has done in the past. And as the series has also done, it turns that moment into something the characters don’t merely experience but are able to reflect on as well.
And while the passing of Bert Cooper is done with style and grace, ending with a terrific rendition of ‘The Best Things in Life Are Free,’ the finale still has the unsentimental task of dealing with the business at hand. Which, in this case, is actually the business of Roger brokering a deal to sell the company again. The move puts Roger in the driver’s seat for the first time, and helps mend the wounds caused by Don’s past selfishness.
As the series rounds the corner on its final seven episodes, it once more finds itself dealing with a new status quo. When you consider how successful such shakeups have been in the past, Mad Men seems poised to head into its finale as surefooted as ever.
The final seven episodes of Mad Men begin Sunday, April 5 @9pm on AMC.