Is "Mad Men" the greatest television show of all time? Here's a list of all 92 episodes, ranked from best to worst
The Sopranos had "Christopher."
The West Wing had "Isaac and Ishmael."
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, God bless it, had "Where the Wild Things Are," "I, Robot... You Jane" and about a dozen other monster-of-the-week throwaways that even the most impassioned Buffy zealots and binge-watching shut-ins agree should be skipped.
But now that the series has drawn to a close in spectacular fashion, is it possible that there has never been a bad episode of Mad Men? And if not, does Matthew Weiner's 1960s period drama have a legitimate claim to be considered the Greatest Television Series of All Time?
I can't blame newcomers who find it hard to believe that across 92 episodes there's not a single misfire. And I'm sure there are naysayers who ask, is it possible that there's never been a good episode of Mad Men?
But the extraordinary hypothesis that Mad Men has lodged a perfect record is informed by something more than personal taste. When critics identify a bad episode of an otherwise great television show, the failure is usually the product of writers having run out of ideas for plots. Rarely an episode will flounder due to a poor acting performance, unless that actor is a guest star -- and Mad Men has always attracted top-notch Hollywood talent even in bit parts. Even in those uncommon instances when an otherwise impeccable regular cast member struggles with a specific piece of material, the real culprit is probably the script for offering up uncharacteristic lines or subplots -- which can be stumbling blocks for even the most accomplished thespians.
But Mad Men rarely encounters problem plotlines because, frankly, there's very little showrunner Matthew Weiner seems to care less about than plot. You could call that "patience with story," but it's more a matter of Weiner choosing to focus his energies on two very specific elements of the medium: mood and character.
In terms of mood, it's nearly impossible for even the show's biggest detractors to find fault in the elegant and era-specific production design and the haunting, beautifully-composed cinematography. And in terms of character, it's very difficult to find an example where a member of the cast, regardless of the size or importance of the role, behaves in a way that rings false to the time period or the broader crux of humanity. Each verbal aside or subtle facial tic betrays the trauma, loneliness, and anxiety festering beneath the surface of post-war prosperity -- a suffering that is only aggravated and perpetuated by the repression mandated by the mores of polite society in the 60s. The show's less enthusiastic viewers may snarkily refer to these personal miseries as #firstworldproblems -- however the desperate need for affection and the profound loss that's felt in its absence are universal to the human experience. The audience could be watching characters watch each other watch paint dry -- and occasionally episodes centering around tiny administrative conflicts are just as banal -- but even the most commonplace occurrences play a role in the slow poignant unfolding of decade-long story arcs defined by dashed ambitions, repressed desires, and unfulfillable emotional voids.
That's to say nothing of the majority of the episodes, which are so full of humor, tenderness, and heartbreak that audiences may see their own fears and anxieties reflected back at them -- a rare feat in any medium.
So after rewatching the first 85 episodes over the past few weeks alongside the final 7 that concluded the show's legendary run last Sunday, here is a totally scientific and accurate ranking of each hour of Mad Men.
1. In Care Of (Season 6, Episode 13)Like many great Mad Men episodes, the climax of "In Care Of" is a pitch.
From the false warmth of Lucky Strike's "toasted" campaign to the touching revised nostalgia conjured for Kodak in "The Wheel," it doesn't matter how commonplace or even harmful a product is -- Don Draper can sell it.
That's because while the details of each pitch may differ, they are all variations on the same persuasive argument: There's a void inside of us all. It screams out to be loved, to be wanted, to be told we're okay. And as someone who's experienced more pain, loneliness, and rejection than any one man should have to bear, Don understands the causes and contours of this emptiness better than most. A great advertisement speaks to this need for reassurance without drawing attention to it directly, leading consumers to subconsciously connect the dots between a product and their own emotional inadequacies.
To be this good at his job, Don couldn't possibly believe that a sports car or a box of cereal or a pet rock was really capable of filling these voids. Nevertheless, that doesn't make the emptiness any less real. And besides, on most days he probably doesn't believe anything else can fill it either.
Not that Don's ever had any misgivings about lying to advertisers or consumers -- he does enough lying to friends and family and lovers already. But the week he's required to pitch to Hershey's is not a normal week. Don has hit rock-bottom. His alcoholism has spun out of control, most recently landing him in jail overnight for punching a priest. And so has Don's philandering, with his teenage daughter Sally stumbling upon him having sex with a woman other than his wife, and consequently catching her father in so many lies that any trust or respect she had for him is obliterated. As for his mistress Sylvia, whom Don is convinced he's in love with, she is also married; as a matter of fact her husband is Don's friend. But after getting caught by Sally, Sylvia is too scared or ashamed or both to continue with the affair. Meanwhile, Don's wife Megan is as distant as ever, fed up with his drinking and his sloppiness, unsure of what exactly they're fighting for anymore.
Don has lost almost everything and is on the verge of losing everything else. So when the executives of Hershey's come to hear one of Draper's trademark pitches, he can't help but subvert the classic template of the Don Draper Special -- and the outcome is devastating. With hands shaking from alcohol withdrawal and tears welling up in his eyes, he tells the truth about what Hershey's means to him:
"I was an orphan. I grew up in Pennsylvania in a whorehouse. I read about Milton Hershey and his school in Coronet magazine or some other crap the girls left by the toilet. And I read that some orphans had a different life there. I could picture it. I dreamt of it. Of being wanted. Because the woman who was forced to raise me would look at me every day like she hoped I would disappear. Closest I got to feeling wanted was from a girl who made me go through her john's pockets while they screwed. If I collected more than a dollar, she'd buy me a Hershey bar. And I would eat it alone in my room with great ceremony, feeling like a normal kid. It said "sweet" on the package. It was the only sweet thing in my life."
To the surprise of no one, Hershey's did not choose Sterling Cooper, Don's agency, to manage its ad campaign. Moreover, Don is fired the very next day, losing the one constant in his life.
And yet despite the emotional devastation at the heart of this episode, "In Care Of" ends on a hopeful note. Don finally told the truth, even if it was to two strangers he would never meet again. And despite losing his job, something felt good about choosing honesty for once in his life, even if he did so at the wrong time, to the wrong people.
And so when picking up his children for the Thanksgiving weekend, Don takes a detour and drives them to an old, dilapidated home on a crime-ridden street in Pennsylvania. He exits the car and stares at the house with his children by his side and says, "This is where I grew up." And while he's lost too much too quickly to rediscover the life he once thought he could have, so many years ago when he took the name of a dead soldier in Korea, within the look his daughter gives him outside the abandoned bordello where he endured untold amounts of abuse and loneliness, there's a faint shadow of the respect she once had for her father.
2. The Suitcase (Season 4, Episode 7)Like "In Care Of," "The Suitcase" is an episode full of sadness. But what went unmentioned when discussing "In Care Of" -- and what's also a defining characteristic of this episode -- is the show's biting sense of humor, which rivals most comedies. No matter how bad things get, that keeps Mad Men from sinking too deep into the shadows.
The biggest laughs in "The Suitcase" come when Don and Peggy, pulling an all-nighter on an ad for Samsonite luggage, discover the audio notes for their boss Roger Sterling's memoir, hilariously titled "Sterling's Gold." In it, Roger describes Don's secretary, a woman they hired because unlike his last secretary she's so old and confused that Don wouldn't dream of sleeping with her, as "the queen of perversions" in her younger years. The notes also finally reveal the identity of this Dr. Lyle Evans character Roger always mentions, and what he has to do with Bert Cooper's "failed oriechtomy" which left him with the disposition of a spayed cat.
If you've never seen the show, that all sounds like Greek to you. But such is the greatness of Mad Men: the audience feels so close to its characters that we even get their inside jokes. And that closeness carries over when audiences identify with the characters' more serious emotional traumas. As for the trauma at the center of "The Suitcase"? The death of Anna Draper, the wife of the man whose identity Don stole, and "The only woman who ever really knew me," he tells Peggy.
It's fitting that Peggy is the one with Don as he deals with this loss. Peggy has more in common with Don than any of his romantic lovers, wives and casual flings alike. Their histories both contain a traumatic event after which they reinvented themselves. And near the end of the episode, as the two fall asleep half-embraced in each other's arms, it's one of the most moving images of platonic love ever captured on film or television.
3. Lost Horizon (Season 7, Episode 12)When McCann Erickson finally absorbed whatever acronym Sterling Cooper had become in its later years, the partners weren't terribly hopeful about the prospects of working for a giant mega-firm. But things turned out to be even worse than they possibly imagined.
Joan is almost immediately the target of sexual harassment and other bullying. They don't even respect Peggy enough to make an office available for her. Until that happens, she's just going to be rollerskating drunk on vermouth through the old SCDP offices while Roger plays creepy organ tunes -- a couple captains going down with their ship.
Meanwhile, Don hasn't been subjected to any gross injustices at McCann (yet), but that doesn't mean he isn't miserable, lost in a crowd of Creative Directors who value data over probing the depths of humanity. Or maybe he doesn't even hate it that much. Maybe he simply heard the word "Wisconsin" in a prep meeting for their newest client Miller Beer, and that's why he got up in the middle of a meeting to drive West to Wisconsin -- Racine, specifically. There, he hopes to find Diana the waitress: A woman whose dark hair and capacity for rejecting Don are equal to that of his adopted mother, whose absent affections he's been chasing ever since he was thrust into this world, unwanted.
But Diana is nowhere to be found in Racine. And instead of driving back to New York, Don keeps going West. As the camera pans up to the horizon, the space age brass and feedback of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" builds to the closing credits. Like Major Tom, Don is now unmoored from his Earthling attachments. Though instead of "floating in a most peculiar way" he's in a free-fall -- like the falling man in the show's introduction -- adding credence to the theory that Mad Men will end in suicide.
4. Person to Person (Season 7, Episode 14)I wonder if "Person to Person," the last Mad Men episode of all time, is also a reference to Bowie -- specifically, his 1975 masterpiece "Station to Station." Only instead of writing coded messages that are beamed from power stations to television stations (aka commercials), will Don finally start communicating less like an ad man and more like a human?
In watching the episode develop, that seemed like a plausible conclusion. After escaping from Kansas in one piece (barely), Don arrives in LA to find Anna's niece, Stephanie. When she sees Don he looks like he's been drunk for the past 1000 years. So she invites him to a yoga retreat and, because Stephanie is the only piece of Anna he has left, he goes. He would follow her to the death.
But apparently the feeling isn't mutual. Stephanie bails on Don and strands him at the retreat following an emotional group therapy session over her abandonment of her baby. (The theme of mothers abandoning sons continues to loom large, even up to the end).
With Stephanie gone, so is his last remaining connection to Anna. Compounding that misery is the fact that his alcohol withdrawal is likely nightmarish at this point. He makes a teary-eyed call to Peggy to "say goodbye" and to list every miserable thing he'd done under the name of another man -- a man whose death he caused.
After Don hangs up the phone he follows a soft-spoken woman to another group session. There, a middle-aged man of the straight world begins to speak. He isn't interesting, he says. His wife doesn't notice him. His coworkers don't notice him. Even his children barely react when he comes home from work. He likens this feeling to being stuck in a refrigerator with the lights off. Every so often the door opens and the light comes on. A face appears and for a fleeting moment the man believes he will be picked. But every time the person picks someone else, closes the door, and leaves him again in the dark, alone.
At this, he begins to cry. Don gets up, hugs the man, and they both start to cry. Don may be more "interesting" than the man in the refrigerator, but he's just as alone; just as consumed by darkness. However you interpret what happens next, in this moment Don has made a connection and a breakthrough.
But the episode's not over yet. Next we see Don, sitting atop a grassy hill by the sea in a group awaiting instructions for guided meditation. As he and the others start in with the Om mantra, Don's face morphs into the biggest grin the audience has ever seen on a Draper.
What's Don thinking? Has he reached enlightenment? Is he finally basking in the warmth of a real "person to person" connection?
No. He's thinking about his next ad. And it goes something like this:
"I'd like to buy the world a Coke..."
After losing everything, hitting bottom, and finally reaching out to a fellow student of loneliness in a raw display of emotional release, Don Draper is still himself, his mind at work determining how to best capture this sense of connection and community... to sell sugary soft drinks.
The cynical take is that Don realizes the spiritual fulfillment one supposedly achieves at a yoga retreat is no more or less satisfactory a way to cope with the traumas of human existence than the church of consumerism. And maybe he's right.
But there's another take which doesn't so much run counter to the cynical interpretation, but alongside it. Unlike The Sopranos, the other canonical television show Matthew Weiner worked on, Mad Men is not about how people never change. In fact plenty of people on Mad Men change -- Betty in particular. But for most of the characters, including Don, it's not that they don't change; it's that they gradually become the best version of the person they've always been, while learning to be comfortable with the person they're not. Don loves work, particularly the work of identifying human insecurities and presenting consumer products in a way that addresses those inadequacies, even if it's on the shallowest of terms. He is not a family man or a committed husband. These are things society told him he was supposed to want, but the more he tried to force his circular soul into that square peg, the more people he hurt and the more he hurt himself. Don knows what he is, and there's no shame in channeling the unique experience of yoga, Buddhism, and meditation to dream up a Coke ad.
This holds true for Peggy too. That's why she declined Joan's offer to become her business partner to stay at McCann Erickson. Among the various types of people in the world there are creatives and account men. And no matter where they land, Peggy will always be in creative, and Joan will always be in accounts. (As an aside, the only scene in the finale that didn't ring 100% true was the coupling of Peggy and Stan, which played like the ending to a cheesy romantic comedy. But I can forgive that because if anyone deserves a romantic comedy ending, it's Peggy).
Joan too knows who she is, which is why she didn't fight very hard to keep her new, rich, adventurous boyfriend, who is not only sick of work but sick of other people who work.
As for other hot takeaways from eight years of Mad Men? Something to the effect of "consumerism is bad" seems like a pretty obvious theme -- but it's also an overly simplistic conclusion that doesn't give justice to the complexity of the show. Consumerism doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's a response to the same lingering demons caused by trauma and loss that compel people to drink, do drugs, have sex with a different partner every night, go to church, exercise, do yoga, and -- yes -- buy things. The rise of consumerism is owing not to some collective wave toward shallowness. After the Depression, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, Americans both at home and fighting abroad lost hope in many of political, cultural, and religious institutions that for decades served useful purposes but also had failed them. Consumerism performed no better at providing answers than anything else. But thanks to the rise of television and two or three decades of prosperity following World War II it was only natural for consumerism to take its turn.
And as for Mad Men, it's not a show celebrating or denouncing consumerism. It merely uses consumerism as the window to examine both horrific post-war emotional traumas and the rise of progressive political movements.
5. The Wheel (Season 1, Episode 13)The presentation at the end of "The Wheel" is the quintessential Don Draper pitch. When putting forth his ad campaign for a slide projector carousel to the executives at Kodak, he explains the "ache" we feel to revisit memories of better times. For the presentation, Don uses images of his own family -- a family now at risk of falling apart after Betty discovers not only his infidelity, but the fact that Don has weekly calls with her therapist to collect information from their sessions and to better enable him to manipulate her psychologically. The reality of Don's situation sits in stark contrast to the warm and touching recollections of family he shares in his pitch:
"Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, 'nostalgia' literally means 'the pain from an old wound.' 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 let's us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved."
The picture perfect scenes of marriage he shows to the Kodak executives are, of course, a lie -- one that's nevertheless so convinced that in sends Harry Crane, whose marriage is also falling apart, running out of the office in tears. What's also a lie is the notion that a slide projector or any product will somehow make a marriage or a human being whole again, filling the emptiness inherent to the human experience. But that doesn't mean the emptiness isn't real -- or that the need to fill it any way possible isn't unbearably strong.
Oh and on top of all that there's Peggy's absolutely bat-shit insane subplot... That whole "weight problem"? It's something a bit more serious than that. She's pregnant! And she's giving birth! To Pete's baby! "The Wheel" makes clear that while most Mad Men episodes follow the beats and rhythms of stately, immaculately designed period dramas, what makes it far more close to real life is how it occasional revels in these scenes of crazed unpredictability.
6. Nixon Vs. Kennedy (Season 1, Episode 12)"Nixon Vs. Kennedy" is the first and best of Mad Men's many legendary party episodes, and the election night fete is a total and wondrous shitshow. With a water cooler full of creme de menthe at their disposal, the staff of Sterling Cooper engage in all manner of bad and boisterous behavior. Sal and Joan sharing an innocent stage kiss while performing a play written by Kinsey hilariously titled "Death is My Client," to Harry Crane beginning his long shameful career of adultery by hooking up with his secretary.
Meanwhile, the audience finally learns the story of how Dick Whitman became Don Draper, from the tragic accidental death of his commanding officer Lt. Donald Draper for which Dick was responsible, to Dick abandoning his brother at the train station to live a new life with somebody else's name. More than anything, the reveal is a relief: From Lost to Twin Peaks to X-Files, so many great shows are hindered by their desire to carry on with a mystery for too long -- to the point that, once it's solved, it's completely unsatisfying. With this episode, Mad Men not only dispenses with the mystery comparatively early on, it also smartly neutralizes the threats of Pete Campbell, who has discovered Don's secret and planned to blackmail him into helping Pete climb the corporate ladder. A weaker show would mine Pete's threats for as much suspense as possible, but Don quickly and brilliantly puts an end to such contrivances, warning Pete, "If your information is powerful enough to make them do what you want, what else can it make them do?"
And finally, there's a tragic historical irony to the election night. Kennedy is elected. The times they are a-changing. While stodgy old men like Bert Cooper are disappointed, younger Americans are filled with an enormous sense of hope that things are going to get better. Of course what the audience knows that the characters do not is that JFK will be assassinated -- along with Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy -- and the next ten years will be defined by Vietnam and -- not one to be easily vanquished -- Nixon.
7. The Milk and Honey Route (Season 7, Episode 13)Don's final dark-haired destroyer of worlds, Diana the waitress, is gone. His new firm McCann Erickson makes him feel equally insignificant, putting him in a room with 20 other Creative Directors who have all been fed the same lines about how they were brought in to bring things "up a notch." And so Don has nowhere to go but West, back to the Pacific Ocean he once fantasized about jumping into, never to return. But on his way to this supposed land of milk and honey, he's waylaid in smalltown Kansas after his car breaks down. His time there is fairly uneventful -- even in the middle of Midwest nowhere Don encounters a beautiful bombshell of a woman, though she's not interested in him -- until his last night in town when he attends a benefit at the local VFW for a vet who accidentally burned his kitchen down. Everyone is sharing war stories but Don stays quiet -- that is until one man recounts between pain-stricken whiskey pulls a story of how during World War II he and two other other Allied soldiers found themselves starving and stranded in the snow. They came upon four German soldiers and, well, let's just say the Americans did what they had to do to survive.
The WWII veteran's candor inspires Don to finally confess the whole story of how Dick Whitman became Don Draper. Draper was Whitman's commanding officer and he didn't just die, allowing Dick to take his name -- Dick accidentally killed him by dropping his lit cigarette into a pool of gas which engulfed Draper in flames. Whereas other listeners -- his wife, his friends, his colleagues -- might judge him, these men understand the hell of war, and that nothing is unforgivable if done in the name of getting home safely. It's an enormously powerful scene, and the audience can almost visibly sense the weight lifted off Don -- even if it's lifted for only a few fleeting moments.
Mad Men is a show about a lot of things. But perhaps above all else it's about trauma -- the trauma of war, the trauma of abandonment -- and how a generation of men and women tried to cope with this trauma, either through work, drugs, sex, consumerism, or in Don's case all of the above. But the only way to cope is by sharing that trauma with others -- family, friends, or even strangers -- thus diluting the load. But while Don feels better for a little bit, it doesn't take long for life to catch back up with him. And having alienating nearly everyone close to him, Don knows he'll continue to face this pain alone. In his mind, he is hopeless: That's why he gives his car away to the young con man who stole the veterans' money and blamed Don -- to give the kid a fighting chance at life. And that's why he's heading to California, we later learn, to see Stephanie. Even if Don is doomed, maybe he can use the last moments of his life to make things a little easier for someone else. There are certainly worse ways of living, and Don's already tried them all.
Finally, the audience learns of the ultimate fate of at least one character: Betty has advanced stage lung cancer and may not survive the next 12 months. It's tempting for writers, as a season winds down, to pull as much pathos as possible out of a story by giving a character a terminal disease. But this isn't tragedy for its own sake. After experiencing the trauma of watching her own mother die, Betty vows to make her last months as comfortable and routine for her family as possible and therefore rejects any experimental treatments, which she doesn't believe will work, anyway. (One of the saddest points of the episode comes when Henry asks, "What if John Rockefeller had this disease?" and Betty screams, "He would die!") In Betty's own way, this shows more strength and courage than fighting for survival would. And while there's always some arbitrary element ever time a writer chooses to kill off a character, this death sentence is an opportunity to show how much Betty has truly grown since her days as a doting, submissive housewife who believed naively that as long as she was beautiful, everything would always be okay.
8. The Strategy (Season 7, Episode 6)"The Strategy" is a bit like "The Suitcase, Jr." Both episodes concern that most poignant of platonic love affairs between Don and Peggy. But the Peggy Olsen of Season 7 is much different even than the Peggy Olsen of that classic Season 4 episode. She's experienced more of everything, including loss. Moreover, the farther away Peggy moves in time and space away from that fateful decision to give her baby up for adoption, the more she becomes like Don -- or rather, the more she realizes she's always been like Don. As I argued before, people don't change much on Mad Men, or if they do, it's temporary, like Pete's dreamlike sabbatical in California, or that time when Don quit drinking and started swimming for like 5 minutes.
But that doesn't mean the characters are stagnant. At best, they continue to become better and better versions of the person they've always been. Like Don, Peggy is a total workhorse, and she's finally coming to grips with that, just like Don did after he was fired and realized how important the work was to him. But while Don didn't have to necessarily choose between work and family, Peggy unfortunately did, thanks to the social conventions of the 1960s. (Though apparently things haven't changed so much after all -- at least week's PandoMonthly, Care.com CEO Sheila Lirio Marcelo spoke about how at some companies she felt compelled to hide the fact that she was a mother).
Of course just because she doesn't have a husband or child, that doesn't mean she doesn't have a family. The episode ends with Peggy sitting with Don and Pete at Burger Chef, their newest client. Considering that the pitch of the Burger Chef ad campaign is all about preserving domestic bliss by keeping family dinners alive, and so implications of the final shot of the three old colleagues is clear: This is her family. Is that sad? Maybe a little. But family isn't about blood relations, it's about closeness. And Peggy would rather have Don and Pete in her life than probably any of her various suitors over the years.
9. Shut the Door, Have a Seat (Season 3, Episode 13)There are a few great formulas Mad Men revisits over and over again. There's the Pitch Episode, like "The Wheel" or its sbrilliant ubversion "In Care Of." There's the Party Episode, like "Nixon Vs. Kennedy." And then there's, for lack of a better term, the Ocean's Eleven Episodes, where in the face of losing an account -- or even worse, losing the whole agency -- the show's principals conspire to pull off a magnificent scheme, usually to the tune of swanky spy movie jazz. "Shut the Door, Have a Seat" is the greatest of these heist-like episodes, in part because it's really a heist. After learning that Sterling Cooper's British parent companies plans to sell the agency off for parts. Don, Roger, and Bert suggest starting a new agency, but unfortunately they're all on contract -- unless of course they get fired. And so the beautifully tragic figure Lane Pryce fires the three of them, they spend a frantic weekend stealing away accounts and shoring up talent -- Pete and Harry are safe, Kinsey is not -- before swiping every last file, pencil, and paper clip from the agency, all before the telegraph comes through to the UK home office on Monday.
The gambit is successful, and moreover it's as thrilling and kinetic for the audience to watch as some of the greatest "let's-get-a-band-of-ragtag-misfits-together-and-pull-off-a-grand-scheme" movies of all time. At home, however, things aren't so great. Betty has made up her mind to divorce Don and, as he'll find himself over and over again throughout the show, he's left only with his work. But if there's one thing Don is great at, both professionally and personally, it's starting over. He's much better and building things than keeping them, and now he has a chance to once again work for a small, scrappy agency in control of its destiny.
Of course, after knowing the full story arc of Mad Men it's hard to rewatch this episode, knowing that Sterling Cooper would ultimately meet its demise, and the events of "Shut the Door, Have a Seat" are less a stay of execution and more a temporary reprieve. Eventually, everything ends and everybody dies. And while the agency was ultimately gobbled up by McCann Erickson years later, what matters is that Sterling Cooper was always worth fighting for, even if the final attempt to save it was a failure.
10. The Crash (Season 6, Episode 8)Pretty much every Mad Men fan loves each of the nine episodes above. "The Crash," however, like Breaking Bad's "Fly," is one of the most contentious episodes of the series. Here's the plot, in broad strokes: Practically the entire office takes shots of amphetamines in their butt administered by a mysterious corporate "doctor."
The result is, predictably, utter chaos. Don stays up three days straight convinced that the idea he's working on -- which has something to do with a soup account the firm never had and the prostitute that took care of him when he got sick as a child -- is going to change the world. Stan and Cutler spend the better part of an afternoon racing each other through their two story office. Ken Cosgrove, who in the first scene almost dies in a car accident after some drunk Chevy execs cover his eyes while he's driving (this is only one of many "crashes" the episode is named for) hilariously showcasing his hidden tapdancing talent.
Naysayers called "The Crash" indulgent and overwrought, like a work of short drug fiction by a college freshman who just discovered Hunter S. Thompson. But while the episode's central conceit -- let's get all the characters high and see what happens -- may strike some as lacking in sophistication, that summary fails to captures the subtle tensions at play in this carnival of butt-meth. It's also one of two deeply-written examinations on how drugs affect creativity -- the other is, "My Own Kentucky Home," when all the misfits who weren't invited to Roger's wedding smoke pot at the office.
Characters like Peggy and Ginsberg, who politely refused the drugs, are the audience's eyes and ears amid this chaos. While they put in the time and non-pharmaceutically enhanced concentration required to do the work, the drugs have inflated Don's ego to six times its size. He excitedly calls Peggy and Ginsberg into his office to share his idea for Chevy that he claims is bigger than the car industry, an idea that speaks to humanity on a primordial, elemental level. But when the pair of un-inebriated -- well largely un-inebriated, considering Peggy is probably drunk -- ask Don to be more specific, he can't. He has no tags. No images. No story. No ad at all. While the pot Peggy smoked in "My Own Kentucky Home" opened up creative pathways she wouldn't normally walk down, the amphetamine merely amplifies whatever idea comes into Don's head. And thanks to the drug's euphoric affect and hubris-boosting qualities, the idea becomes so exciting and powerful to Don that he cannot judge its merit with any measure of rationality. Nor does he have the patience to consider the details of its execution or to put it into words other people can understand.
As for the idea itself, it's not entirely clear, though the flashbacks of Don's whorehouse home that keep invading his brain provide some clues. He recalls a prostitute who cared for him and later forced him to have sex with her only a year or two into Don's puberty. When Don's adopted mother discovers her son's sexual exploit, she violently beats him. Now we see why Don is so disarmed and dismayed by any woman who rejects or abandons him -- just like his mother did -- why he's so starved for intimacy, and why to Don sex and intimacy have little to do with one another. The more closeness he feels toward someone, the less natural it feels to have sex with that person -- Don had clear performance anxiety issues with Betty, and it's suggested that those same issues arose over time with his new wife, Megan.
And so I imagine Don's life-changing idea was nothing short of an advertisement convincing consumers that owning a Chevy is tantamount to feeling a mother's love. Buy a Chevy and your mother who left you will instantly knock on your door and take you back into her arms. While we're at it, buying a Chevy might fix your sexual hangups too!
But ultimately whatever idea Don had doesn't matter because it's as much a drug-fueled fantasy as a hallucination experienced on LSD. There are plenty of stories and books and films about drugs. But few of them examine the relationship between drugs and the creative process, and even fewer of them are like "The Crash," exposing the ways certain drugs disrupt creativity. Oh and did I mention Ken Cosgrove's tap dancing?
11. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (Season 1, Episode 1)
With those two simple words in the first-ever episode of Mad Men, Don Draper announces why anybody would want to watch a show about advertising. Moreover, it crucially justifies one of the central conceits of the show: That while Don Draper may not be a novelist or a poet, he's still a creative genius.
It's not easy to make a TV show or movie about a fictional hero who for the purposes of the story is supposed to be some sort of wunderkind. If the hero is a musician, the songs she writes within the context of the story better be damned good -- almost good enough to be hits in their own right -- or else the audience won't buy it. If the story's about a brilliant comedian, then please please please make sure the comedian is actually funny. (There's this largely forgotten, enormously bad Robin Williams movie Man of the Year that's impossible to watch without cringing because the fictional audience can't stop laughing at the jokes this fictional late night show host tells. But the writers of the movie aren't funny people themselves so the whole movie falls apart).
For Mad Men the degree of difficulty is even harder. Audiences need to be convinced that A. writing a great ad, if not an artistic endeavor, is certainly a creative one that can impress on a number of psychological or comedic levels. And B. That this Don Draper character -- whose brilliance the other characters are unimpeachably convinced is real and unlike anything they've ever seen -- is actually pretty brilliant.
And so the pressure's on for both Don and the show in general when he delivers the first of many fictional climactic ad pitches to executives at Lucky Strike Cigarettes. The government had just barred tobacco companies from making unproven health claims in advertisements -- or put another way, tobacco companies can no longer just flat-out lie to consumers. And when your product is as inarguably deadly as cigarettes are, it's pretty hard to make them sound appealing without lying.
But there's an old quote that will serve Don Draper well again and again: If you don't like what your enemies are saying, change the conversation. Don't make it about health. The process of preparing tobacco for cigarettes includes a step where the leaves are toasted -- like marshmallows over a campfire or like a slice of bread with jelly on top that your mom made you for breakfast. Like how a fireplace makes your home nice and toasty in the Winter.
"Lucky Strikes are toasted," Don tells the chainsmoking ad execs.
"But so are our competitors,'" one of them responds.
"No they're not. Your competitors cause cancer. Lucky Strikes are toasted. Lucky Strikes: It's toasted."
The executive holds on for a beat then smiles. "It's toasted."
And so Don Draper -- and Mad Men -- pass the test, perfectly balancing clever semantics and a dash of dishonesty to help create an advertisement that, like all great ads, makes consumers feel like everything's going to be okay; that they're okay.
And that's a pitch for a product that ruins your senses, that makes your clothes and breath stink, and that basically kill you. But the product doesn't matter. What matters is the void inside of us, the one that tells us we're not wanted, we're not loved, we're not okay. Understanding that emptiness means convincing consumers that whatever's broken inside of them can be repaired: by that new car or that new soft drink or that new brand of tampons. And nobody understands emptiness better than Don Draper.
12. My Own Kentucky Home (Season 3, Episode 3)
The characters on Mad Men don't often perform musical numbers, but when they do, like the ghost of Bert Cooper and sexy chanteuse Megan, it's stupendous. And so the fact that "My Own Kentucky Home" features not one, but three of these interludes is something special. And the fact that these songs all arise so organically from the narrative that viewers barely notice the trend, is even more impressive.
Not that the music numbers are all what one would call enjoyable, per se. The most infamous of the three takes place at Roger's and Jane's engagement party, as Roger serenades his betrothed with a rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" -- in fucking blackface. "She loves when I do this at home," an astoundingly un-self-aware Roger tells the crowd, as if this as regular an occurrence as watching the nightly news. The crowd is by turns appalled, confused, and in some cases delighted, underscoring the not-even-a-little veiled racism of Southern garden party traditions.
Meanwhile, back at the office, the younger staffers are engaged in a more innocent form of recreation -- getting high at work while the bosses are away. It's Peggy's first time and her poor secretary Olive has stayed after hours on a weekend to make sure Peggy is safe around these dope-smoking degenerates. At first, Peggy is annoyed by Olive's busybody nature, but is ultimately touched by her motherly concern, and staring into her secretary's eyes, high as a kite, Peggy promises her, "I am going to get to do everything you want from me."
As for the stoners' musical contribution, Kinsey is called out by his drug dealer, an old college buddy, for burying his Jersey accent under big city artistic affectations before announcing to his coworkers that Kinsey was kicked out of Princeton's a capella troupe because he couldn't sing. A visibly self-defensive Kinsey smugly launches into a bitter -- though remarkably on-key -- version of "Hello My Baby, Hello My Honey..." before demanding that the dealer leave.
And finally, Joan and her horrible rapist husband Greg -- who despite his reassurances that he can support her once he becomes a surgeon, whenever that happens -- host a dinner party. When one of the guests begins talking about a troubling accident at the hospital that Greg is responsible for, the deadbeat sexual predator quickly changes the subject by asking Joan to entertain the guests with her accordion. And despite the rage and sadness building inside her toward her husband, she agrees, singing and playing, "C'est Magnifique."
What ties each number together is that they are not just musical performances, but social performances. Although he fails miserably, Roger desperately wants his friends and families to accept that his love for the much younger Jane is something real. And so he chose a song he sings to her at home that thus represents his intimacy to her. It's just too bad that the delivery and presentation of the song is creepy and racist.
So Roger, who's likely never worked a day in his life outside adopts what he thinks represents the culture of the rural South, perhaps in an misguided attempt to show that the love between Jane and him is a simple -- and not at all opportunistic -- kind of love. Meanwhile, Kinsey aims to do the opposite, proving his big city bonafides so there's no sign of his less cosmopolitan upbringing. And Joan desperately wants to keep up the appearance that her marriage with Greg is totally full of love and affection, not rape and resentment.
13. Seven Twenty Three (Season 3, Episode 7)
In business as in marriage, Don believes he belongs to no one. That's why he's never signed a contract. But Don isn't as independent as he'd like to think. He's a slave to his insecurities, particularly surrounding his parents. And so when Conrad Hilton, whose harsh demeanor and unmeetable demands remind Don of his father, says he will only work with him if he signs a contract, the choice is simple. After all, if he can win the approval of Hilton, it will be a way of exorcising his own demons surrounding his father, who didn't want Don any more than his adopted mother did.
But while the choice may be simple, it isn't easy, and there's nothing like a little drunk driving to clear Don's head. He picks up a couple of elopers on their way to Niagara Falls who offer him some pretty intense pills, which he naturally takes too many of. When they stop at a hotel, the young man beats a very impaired Don to the ground and robs him blind. And when Don wakes up sober, sore, and as full of self-hate and in need of validation as ever, he signs the contract to make Hilton happy, even though -- or perhaps because -- their relationship is about as abusive and dysfunctional as a business relationship can be.
14. Waterloo (Season 7, Episode 8)
Finally, there's a historical event that's a reason to celebrate, not to mourn. After the deaths of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy -- not to mention Vietnam -- America needed a win, and it came in the form of a successful moon landing. Back on Earth, Peggy and Don are preparing a pitch for Burger Chef. But after watching Neil Armstrong walk on the lunar surface -- and deliver a tagline for the ages -- Don learns that Bert Cooper has passed away. That means Don and Roger no longer have the votes to maintain control of their agency, and without that Don will almost certainly be forced out by Jim Cutler. And so just a few hours before the presentation and without any hope for a future at the agency, Don tells Peggy take the lead during the Burger Chef presentation. And she absolutely nails it, in an affecting speech about what the moon landing says about humanity's hunger to feel connected. Of course a few slimy burgers won't bring the planet together, but even the most cynical viewers can't help but find Peggy's speech convincing. In truth, it's every bit as powerful as "The Wheel" or one of Don's legendary pitches.
The episode could have ended there and, between the monumental historical context, the classic Draper-style pitch, and Roger's successful last-ditch effort to take back control of his agency, "Waterloo" would have still been one of the greatest hours of television Mad Men ever produced. But there's still time for one last scene, so why not make it a musical number? As Don enters his office, the future looking bright for the first time in over a year, the ghost of poor, neutered Bert Cooper visits Don to sing "The Best Things In Life Are Free" while surrounded by a chorus line of secretaries. There may be some profound meaning behind this supernatural event, but it doesn't matter. More episodes of television dramas should end with musical numbers this strange and rousing, this hilarious and moving.
15. Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency (Season 3, Episode 6)
...and leaves with one less foot and a ruined career.
Mad Men will seem to go multiple episodes without somebody even raising their voice. For some, that glacial pace makes the show boring. On the contrary, it renders those rare scenes of violence all the more powerful thanks to the element of surprise. After all, the audience possesses the quite logical expectation that an ad agency will not be the site of a bloodbath. This is midtown Manhattan, not Westeros.
And so when blood splatters the walls and workers of Sterling Cooper after the secretary Lois loses control of a John Deere riding motor and runs over a top executive's foot, it's as shocking as any beheading or impalement on Game of Thrones.
The act itself is not very funny. The executive's foot had to be amputated. But the flippant response from all involved is the height of absurdity. One executive remarks how for an account man this is a death sentence. ("How will he play golf?" he explains). I can't tell if Roger's kidding or not when he says, "Somewhere in this business, this has happened before." The fact that Lois isn't fired makes me think Roger is serious. This is a place where a secretary was fired for going into Cooper's office without his permission to look at a painting. I suppose she'd be safe had she left him gruesomely and permanently deformed?
The episode isn't all gallows humor, however. The party that plays host to the accident was thrown partially in Joan's honor, who quit her job because she would soon be supported by her surgeon husband -- the atrociously horrible guy who raped her in Sterling's office and then callously acted as if she wanted it like that. But after Joan put in her notice, the husband revealed to Joan that he wasn't accepted into a residency program, and she has to continue supporting them both. And so when the secretaries wheel out the goodbye cake, Joan breaks down in tears -- not because she's touched by the gesture, but because she now has to support her rapist husband and she can't even do it at the job she knows and loves.
16. Maidenform (Season 2, Episode 6)
Until this point, Peggy had succeeded at convincing her peers that she's a capable copywriter -- for a woman. But especially by "Maidenform" she's proven herself to be Sterling Cooper's greatest mind save for Don Draper, and that's only because he's had more practice. And so it's high-time that her colleagues at least start treating her as a equal, even though she's better than the lot of them. But doing so has nothing to do with writing great copy. Joan advises that, for starters, Peggy should stop "dressing like a little girl." Moreover, she begins to invite herself to the team's social gatherings -- even if they take place at a strip club.
If Peggy is uncomfortable at the strip club, she doesn't show it. But when she locks eyes with Pete from atop the lap of a Playtex executive, he is clearly unhappy. But it's difficult to say whether his rat-faced expression is one that's full of regret over not accepting Peggy's love when he had the chance, or one full of judgement, as if to say, "No matter how hard you try, nobody including myself will ever respect you."
And therein lies the supreme unfairness of a company like Sterling Cooper in the 1960s -- and, let's face it, the supreme unfairness of many companies in the 2015. A woman can be a secretary, and men will treat her as someone with limited brainpower and abilities who is lucky to share the same fluorescent lighting as these self-described creative geniuses and, in the case of account men, paragons of social acceptability. Or a woman can be like Joan, letting hell rain down on men who dare to cross her. But then idiot men will think of her as a cold-hearted bitch, whereas a man with the same qualities is considered "tough." Or a woman can be like Peggy, partying like one of the boys which will inevitably cause some men to criticize her moral compass -- even though those same men get away with murder. And no matter what archetype these patriarchal corporate cabals use to label a woman, these labels only exacerbate the tensions among different female staffers. As late as the final season, Joan and Peggy still regularly turned on one another in response to gender biases thrown their direction, instead of collaborated with one another. (That's why you could almost hear the applause emanating from Twitter during the season finale when Joan proposed the idea of starting a firm with Peggy as a partner. That Peggy declined the invitation speaks only to her own knowledge of herself. She knows her own strengths and they lie not in business but in creative.
Of course women aren't the only ones struggling to fit in. Along with Peggy, the other central character of "Maidenform" is Duck Phillips whose children come to visit. His old dog comes along too, which he "graciously" gave to his wife in the divorce, despite his undying love for the animal. Of course for many men, the strongest animal instinct isn't love, it's spite. He discovers that the kids didn't bring the dog because their father missed him. They brought him intending to leave the animal with Duck because his ex-wife's new husband is allergic. Upon hearing that, the recovering alcoholic almost takes a drink, but resists the urge and instead does something far worse: He pushes the dog out the front door of Sterling Cooper and abandons it. Duck is just the worst.
17. The Jet Set (Season 2, Episode 11)
Don Draper's trips to California always possess an otherworldly dreamlike quality, and "The Jet Set" is the episode that pioneered this visual and rhythmic style for all California episodes to come. To be honest, I'm not sure this episode has aged as well as others, because part of the initial appeal was the shock of seeing Don, the ultimate self-made New Yorker, in the same frame as palm trees, pools, and sunshine that isn't filtered through clouds and garbage. Nevertheless, there are still countless wonderful details, like the woman's post-coital reading of "Sound and the Fury" next to Don in bed. ("Sex is good. This book is just okay.")
But while California has its charms, the scenes that still really resonate are back in New York with Peggy. It would appear that Peggy has a wonderful night ahead of her: She's going to see Bob Dylan with the new German copywriter Kurt. The only snag? Kurt is gay.
At least Peggy gets a cool new haircut from him. "I don't know why I pick the wrong boys," she says. It's okay, Peggy. Everybody does.
18. The New Girl (Season 2, Episode 5)
I'm not entirely sure what Don Draper sees in his Season 2 mistress Bobbie Barrett, but I know what she makes him feel: Nothing. That's what he says when hurtling down a country road a liquor bottle in hand that's never far from his mouth for long. Most people don't go looking for companions who inspire a total lack of feeling. But Don's psyche and soul are so damaged that feeling nothing is a worthy aspiration. Anything is a welcome distraction from the creeping self-loathing that's threatened to eat Don alive ever since he was brought into this world unwanted.
But Don feels more than nothing when he drunkenly crashes the car. Miraculously both Don and Bobbie are merely scraped and bruised, but Don is arrested. In need of help bailing him out, does Don call Roger? Betty? Sal, maybe? No -- for no readily apparent reason he calls Peggy. As for why, Peggy keeps this to herself. But the audience sees in flashbacks that after giving surprise birth to Pete's son, Don was there to help and to advise her to give the baby up for adoption. He tells her she's talented. That she needs to move forward. This never happened," Don tells her. "It will shock you how much this never happened." Don should know.
Of course, Don knows the truth, which is that the past is never so easy to forget. Even in the final season, all it takes is the mere sight of a child for Peggy to become overwhelmed with conflicting emotions. But whether it was out of a selfish faith in Peggy's abilities or real affection toward her, Don helps give her a new life. And that act, along with Peggy coming through for him after the crash, lays the foundation for their love -- yes, it's platonic love but still, it's love.
19. The Other Woman (Season 5, Episode 11)
The events that transpire in "The Other Woman" are easily the most shameful in the history of SCDP. The firm is dying to win the Jaguar account and the head of the dealers' association Herb Rennet knows it. And to win this account, it won't take one of Don's brilliant pitches or Roger's smooth way with clients or even one of Harry Crane's media plans. What Rennett wants is a night with Joan. And while Pete is only one willing to say it, the agency is not above playing this game.
Both Lane and Don are disgusted by the idea (the ease with which Roger warmed to the idea is disappointing and is yet another reason why Joan was smart to reject Roger as a life partner). But unlike Don, Lane suspects Joan will say yes, and he wants to make sure she doesn't accept too small a reward for participating in this grotesquery. So he tells Joan to demand a partnership, and the firm agrees. And while yes, this partnership guarantees that her and her son will be taken care of for the rest of their lives, it's arguable that Joan already deserved a partnership for her service to the firm. Moreover, if she were a man, it's possible Joan would have already received one. Joan will go on to hold no grudges against her colleagues. She adopts an attitude -- even if she doesn't truly believe it -- that business is business. In fact the only partner she grows angry at is the one who pled with her to reject the offer: Don. That's because not even a year passes before Don, in a fit of childish defensiveness, insults Herb and dumps him as a client, simply because the man didn't speak of Don's work with the proper respect. And so after Joan gave herself up in a display of abject vulnerability for a piece of business, Don threw that same business out because his feelings were hurt.
20. Time & Life (Season 7, Episode 11)
We've been here before. Sterling Cooper or one of its iterations has faced almost-certain demise at some point nearly every season. And every time Don and Roger have found a way to save their company through some thrilling Ocean's Eleven-style scheme.
But whether its a company or a man, death can only be cheated so many times. And this time, the firm faces an adversary too powerful to outmaneuver or outsmart: McCann Erickson will absorb Don, Roger, Joan, Pete, and Ted, while discarding anybody else it deems expendable. (As viewers will see in the next episode, the reality of how this corporate monster will swallow up Sterling Cooper is even more troubling than anyone imagined).
But at least the team put up a good fight. But that's cold comfort for Don who following their surrender finds himself alone at the bar and alone in the world. Joan has gone home to her son, Kevin. Pete has to visit Trudy, and Ted and Roger both have dates -- the latter with Marie, the mother of Don's ex-wife Megan. Don has lost two wives, his children, his business, and the closest thing to a friend has better things to do than suck down whiskey and cigarettes in a dark room. For Don, however, that's all he has left.
21. For Immediate Release (Season 6, Episode 6)
Don is the hero of the day in "For Immediate Release," brokering a last-minute merger mapped out on cocktail napkins with the agency Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough, where Peggy landed after quitting Sterling Cooper. Thanks to the scheme, the new combined firm won Chevy's business, and it's all thanks to Don.
And yet by the end of the episode, Don shouldn't feel like much of a hero to audiences. Earlier in the episode, his pride led him to insult and later dump as a client the head of Jaguar's dealer's association, basically on a whim. This is the same repulsive man Joan slept with at the urging of Pete Campbell as a condition of signing Jaguar. And Don went and made Joan's sacrifice meaningless, just because he didn't feel his creative work was sufficiently respected.
Don had always been difficult. But he'd never let hubris get the best of him until now. Peggy knows this. And that's why she looks as if she's seen the Devil himself when she walks into her boss Ted's office and sees Don sitting on the couch, shit-eating grin from ear to ear.
22. The Mountain King (Season 2, Episode 12)
Of the two major California episodes of Season 2, "The Jet Set" is the most critically-acclaimed. But the one that follows it, "The Mountain King" is every bit as great, even if it lacks the beautifully shot dream-like qualities of its predecessor. But that's because the California of "The Jet Set" is a fantasy. "The Mountain King" is more down-to-earth. And the experience he has in this episode, crashing at the home of Anna Draper in her first appearance of the series, is more reminiscent of what day-to-day life might be like if Don finally moved to California. There's nothing glamorous about Anna's modest house, her tarot cards, the subtle sensations of salt in the air. But it feels like home to Don. Unlike the hash-fueled LA parties of "The Jet Set" and the Hawaiian beaches he imagined as a "jumping-off point" (to suicide?) in "The Doorway," Anna's is not a place to disappear; it's not a place to meet one's own demise by walking into the ocean "like James Mason in A Star is Born." And that's why Don has to go home.
23. New Business (Season 7, Episode 9)
The symbolism on Mad Men isn't always subtle. In fact there's a great line in "The Monolith" that addresses this. A computer has moved into the copywriters' room, displacing the workers. "This isn't supposed to be symbolic," Harry says, to which Don responds, "I know. It's quite literal."
But although Mad Men has a tendency to hit its viewers over the head with symbolism, there's also power in that -- especially when the filmmaking is as beautiful as it is on a show like this. And so it is with the end of "New Business." While Don is signing the divorce papers, Megan's mom Marie is robbing Don blind -- justice, she considers it. And so after losing Megan forever he arrives to the home they once shared to find it completely empty. And from the look on Don's faith to the timing of the edits when the robbery is revealed, the scene is the perfect -- if a bit obvious -- representation of the emptiness that's always lay inside him.
24. Babylon (Season 1, Episode 6)
This is Peggy's origin story. Her spiderbite. Her Adamantium. In "Babylon," Peggy Olsen sits among a group of secretaries asked to try on Belle Jolie lipstick to help creative devise a new ad campaign. But Peggy's the only one who's not trying on lipstick. She's staring at the trash can, full of tissues with lip smears. A basket of kisses, she thinks. And with that -- not to mention a huge amount of luck and a friendly face in the copywriting pool -- Sterling Cooper hires its first female copywriter. But there's nothing progressive about it. In fact, the amount of work and circumstance that led to Peggy getting that job are astronomical.
25. Red in the Face (Season 1, Episode 7)
Especially in the earliest seasons, Pete really is a despicable little man-child, who possesses the worst combination of riches, power, and crippling insecurity and inferiority. So why is he so entertaining to watch? How can an episode centered around him carrying out a task as dull as returning a wedding gift not only be eminently watchable, but also make for one of the better episodes of the entire series? And what is it about the way Pete delivers the words, "Chip N Dip," that is so oddly hilarious?
I think it's because Pete is so so close to being a good guy -- his weakness, however, lies in how much emphasis he places on what others think of him