[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.