I can’t imagine what this weekend’s series finale would have to do for Mad Men to not be my favorite television show of all time. I love it that much. It’s going to be a bittersweet departure, and if I’m being honest, I would be disappointed if it weren’t. What could be more Mad Men than being incredibly happy and incredibly sad at the same time?
Anyway, I knew I had to commemorate this historical occasion somehow. Last year, I thought I could make my way through all of Mad Men and write extensive reviews of every episode leading into the finale, but as it tends to happen with my projects, life happened and I couldn’t keep up. I did make it through the first two seasons, though, and you can find those reviews here.
In lieu that I didn’t make it through my original idea, I decided that, at the very list, I should share my list of the best episodes in the show’s history. I mean, if I’m going to argue that this is narrative television’s biggest achievement, I might as well provide some evidence, so her we go…
The 20 Best Episodes of Mad Men
(in chronological order)
1. Babylon (Season One, Episode Six)
The first episode of Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, does a wonderful job of establishing the world of the show and introducing us to its main players (thanks in no small part to director Alan Taylor), but I will contend that the show’s first truly great episode was “Babylon.” This is a true Mad Men episode of the first order, with three story-lines that connect thematically and color our understanding of the characters and the show going forward. This episode was the first to focus on the women of the show -one of the best thing about Mad Men is its female characters- and introduced us to the affair between Joan and Roger, one of the show’s defining relationships.
2. The Wheel (Season One, Episode Thirteen)
Perhaps Matthew Weiner’s biggest stroke of genius, and definitely the moment that announced Mad Men as a major contender for the pantheon of television’s greats, was how he chose to end the first season. Don’s pitch of Kodak’s carousel is so beautiful it’s almost impossible not to tear up every time I watch it, which makes the very last shot of the episode, set to Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” one of the show’s most poignant and iconic moments.
3. Maidenform (Season Two, Episode Six)
Is one of the most symbolism-heavy episodes of Mad Men, and one of the darkest episodes of television I have ever seen. It’s all about reflections, doppelgängers, and missed opportunities in an episode in which Don, Pete, Peggy, Joan, even Duck Phillips realize that they are failing at being the person they thought they could be. The last scene of the episode, with Sally watching her dad shave his beard is incredibly desolate, as the audience contemplates the futility of being human. The show didn’t end up being quite as dark in the long run, but “Maidenform” gifted the show with some deeply existential stakes.
4. Meditations in an Emergency (Season Two, Episode Thirteen)
The thing about the second season of Mad Men is that it is so uniformly great, it becomes almost impossible to point out to a stand-out episode. Even if the show hit its highest peaks in subsequent seasons, I truly believe there is not a single mediocre episode in this batch; and it all comes together beautifully in the season finale, during which the Cuban missile crisis brings the characters to reflect on their complicated pasts and their uncertain futures. Don triumphs with his power-play against Duck Phillips, Betty learns that she is pregnant, and Peggy has a heartbreaking conversation with Pete. Again, the last shot of the season has become iconic, building on the end of “The Wheel”, only this time Don sits next to his wife, not knowing how to deal with the times that are yet to come.
5. Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency (Season Three, Episode Six)
By this point, we knew Mad Men could be dark, and we knew Mad Men could be funny, we just didn’t know it would be willing to mix those elements, and what a great result said mix would deliver. Otherwise known as “the lawnmower episode”, the British start their reign at Sterling Cooper with the wrong foot (pardon the pun), and we get an amazing scene between Don and Joan. Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks have amazing chemistry, and the way the show has wisely restrained on pairing these two has turned their few interactions into a rare televisual aphrodisiac.
6. The Gypsy and the Hobo (Season Three, Episode Eleven)
The defining moment of the Draper marriage, as Betty discovers the truth about Don’s past. It was a confrontation a long time coming, and this episode delivers in, you guessed it, incredibly bittersweet fashion. Jon Hamm is amazing, and January Jones -not the best served actress in the show’s history- shines in what is arguably Betty Draper’s greatest moment (Ok, Betty shooting the pigeons might be better, but still, this is a great episode).
7. Shut the Door, Have a Seat (Season Three, Episode Thirteen)
People who’ve only seen a couple episodes of Mad Men think I’m being disingenuous when I say it is an exciting show. Well, the season three finale is exhibit A of my argument. This beautifully executed Ocean’s Eleven-style caper made the politics of the advertising business seem like a more life-and-death situation than the dismantling of an atomic bomb. The most fun the show has ever been? Maybe, but this pivotal moment turned out to be just the beginning of what the show had in store.
8. The Suitcase (Season Four, Episode Seven)
Probably the best hour of television the show ever produced, this one-on-one bottle episode quickly became the defining blueprint to understand the nature of one of the show’s most important relationships: Don and Peggy. The fact that Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss didn’t win Emmys for their performances in this episode is just the best argument for anyone who wants the discredit the value of the Television Academy.
9. The Beautiful Girls (Season Four, Episode Nine)
This episode features the show doing two of the things it does best. The first one is turning the spotlight on some of its wonderful female characters, with story-lines focusing on Joan, Peggy, Sally, and season four recurring guest Dr. Faye Miller. The other, is the show’s rare but always efficient dark sense of humor, as we bid farewell to Ida Blankenship, one of the show’s funniest characters, in appropriately hilarious fashion.
10. Signal 30 (Season Five, Episode Four)
Saying Pete Campbell is an unlikable character is an understatement. But while most people hate Pete, he is one of my favorite characters just because of how unique he is Being born at the precise moment where he is too young to reap the fruit of the all-american fifties lifestyle, but too old to be part of the sixties counter-culture, Pete is a truly fascinating character, dreaming of becoming a man that is about to become extinct. This is my favorite Pete-centric episode, because we waited five season for Pete to be punched in the face, and then “Signal 30” decides it can’t land said punch without making us feel a little sorry for the guy.
11. Far Away Places (Season Five, Episode Five)
Mad Men had played with tone and structure in the past, but “Far Away Places” took the experimentation to a whole new level. Build as a non-chronological triptych of stories focused on Peggy, Roger, and Don (and Megan), this episode not only had fun with the way the story was being told, but made the most out of it by featuring some of the show’s most memorable moments. Megan’s orange sherbet, Peggy’s handjob at the movie theater, and Roger’s first LSD trip are all classics.
12. The Other Woman (Season Five, Episode Ten)
Staying on the topic of structural experiments, “The Other Woman” is notable not only because it is a great Joan episode (that would re-define the character going into the show’s second half), but because it used structure both as a way to misdirect and surprise the audience, and the make the punchline an effectively hurtful one. Also, Don kisses Peggy’s hand, and it means so much on so many levels.
13. Commissions and Fees (Season Five, Episode Eleven)
Lane Pryce was as impenetrable as he was endearing. The endearing part is easy to grasp; when I say impenetrable, I mean it was hard to put myself in his shoes, considering his old-fashioned sense of honor and etiquette. In any case, our clearest link to Europe, aka the “old world”, couldn’t have stayed with us until the end of the show, and Lane makes his exit in appropriately spectacular fashion. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good Sally storyline, and this episode has one of the best (and most controversial) ones.
14. The Crash (Season Six, Episode Seven)
The ultimate example of Mad Men‘s willingness to experiment, in “The Crash”, the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are injected with a stimulant that is supposed to give them inspiration, but ends up sending them into a hazy hallucination of a weekend. It’s not easy to make sense of this episode, but it’s an achievement, and if nothing else, gave us this.
15. The Better Half (Season Six, Episode Eight)
On first glance, I thought this episode was a little too obvious on the way it connected its themes, focusing on the characters’ relationships and their “better halves.” However, as time has gone by, it has grown on me tremendously. Its biggest achievement is that after being the weakest link for two seasons, it gives Betty a much needed recovery. She was down in the pits for a while, but this episode had her emerge gloriously revamped.
16. In Care Of (Season Six, Episode Twelve)
It’s hard to beat “The Suitcase”, but if there is any other option for Jon Hamm’s finest hour, it’s got to be the season six finale. Don’s Hershey’s pitch is the most important development for the show going into the final round, and Hamm delivers. Also, the relationship between Don and Sally might be my favorite, and after putting it to the test, this season offers a more than satisfying resolution in the last moments of this finale…
17. A Day’s Work (Season Seven, Episode Two)
…And talking about the Don-Sally relationship, season seven picks up at a pivotal moment for the father and daughter. Don spends much of a day in which little work is done with his daughter, and their scene at the diner ends up becoming the most essential moment to understanding just how complicated and messed up their father-daughter relationship really is.
18. The Strategy (Season Seven, Episode Six)
I know I just said Don and Sally is my favorite relationship, but just thinking about the slow-dancing to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” makes me think I was a fool for believing, even for a second, that there is anything that can top the complicated, destructive, hilarious, empowering relationship between Don and Peggy. With scenes that resembled many fans’ dreams as closely as the “My Way” dance, and the dinner at Burger Chef, it was just so gratifying, going into the last batch of episodes, to know that the show knew where its heart was.
19. Waterloo (Season Seven, Episode Seven)
Peggy has a huge moment of triumph! And after a dreadfully stressful season, Don does it again! Somehow, he manages to end up back on top. But, hey, wait a minute. What is that? The best things in life are free? A perfect farewell for Robert Morse, and an even more perfect set-up for the end of an amazing show.
20. Time & Life (Season Seven, Episode Eleven)
The last half-season of the show got off on a slow start, but by calling back to some of the most memorable moments in the show’s history, “Time & Life” was an exhilarating hour of television. The gang decides to stage one last coup, but the results are not what they expected. The end of an era indeed, now we just have to wait and see where our favorite characters land as the show wraps up this weekend.
And even then, this list means leaving out a number of fantastic episodes of television. “At the Codfish Bowl”, “For Immediate Release”, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”, “Three Sundays” they could all be among the best episodes of any series. Hell, “My Old Kentucky Home” should be on this list based on one line alone. The fact they aren’t on this list only shows what a great show Mad Men has been. It will miss it, even if I know that if the show could talk, it would quote Trudy Campbell and say “I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past.”