Saturday, May 23, 2015

Top 15 Mad Men Episodes

WARNING: There are spoilers in this post. Read at your own risk.

This was the first 'fun' Mad Men episode. What I mean by that is after 11 episodes with these characters, the show allowed an episode like this to have so many characters mingle with each other and have it set against the Kennedy/Nixon debates. There's also a crucial backstory where we learn how Don Draper became Don Draper.

Roger and LSD. Don hallucinates he's back in Disney's Tomorrowland. Add to this, the brilliant use of Beach Boys' I Just Wasn't Made For These Times.

13. 5G
We knew Don had secrets. That was revealed to us by the structure of the pilot. The power of this episode lies in just how deep those secrets lead. Don's refusal to be attached to anything related to his past is heartbreaking.

Stranger in a strange land. This episode takes Don to Palm Springs. Where he meets a group of people whose identities are as anonymous as his. This episode proves that Don is the master chameleon. Even in a place so far away from home, he can find a way to fit in. Oh, and Laura Ramsay.

The biggest draw to watching this show in the beginning (for me, at least) was to see how characters bump up against the turbulent times of the sixties. Here we see the Cuban Missile Crisis become the final punchline to many of the scenes. Ones in which the emergencies in the character's lives, no matter how in control of them they think they are, find a way of sneaking up on them in unexpected ways.

AV Club did an excellent review in which they likened this episode to the story of the blind men and the elephant. In a sense, every series can attest to this. Where an episode is only a piece of a larger whole. The thing about Mad Men though is that so many moments that would seem to have relatively no significance in a show that was more packed with thrills, contain an abundance of pathos. Don looking down an elevator shaft. The window fog. It was at this stretch of episodes where few could rival Mad Men in storytelling.


Season Six was Don acting as the proverbial bull in a china shop. So its fitting storywise to see the cards fall so far out of Don's favor towards the end of the season. A moment at the end of the season finale has Judy Collins' Both Side Now play as the final shot lingers and it is outright devastating. Perhaps the show can best be summed up in the lyrics of this song.

I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all

There is a moment in season 2 where Pete sits in a chair and reflects while holding a gun in a montage. Nothing happens. It's a piece of a larger whole and in lesser hands, this gun would have been used. This says a lot about the show. Mad Men is all about subtext. Which leads it to not be nearly as action packed as Breaking Bad or filled with liberal gunplay as The Sopranos. And it doesn't have to be. This episode solves the dilemma of "nothing really happening on the surface" in a unique and macabre way. There's also other great moments: Joan Harris and her husband's future, Ken Cosgrove's happy obliviousness, Roger's name not even being on the slide chart of heirarchal power.

7. SIGNAL 30

Every show has that season. The one where you wish the quality from episode is strongly consistent for its entire run. Signal 30 kicked off a stretch of some of the best episodes of this show. This is a strong episode for Pete Campbell. A character who at one point, made me say "Fuck this show and its dirtbag characters" in my head. Season 5 is where I returned after a long hiatus and not only was that bitter aftertaste gone, it gave me new perspective on characters like Pete. Also an integral part of this episode, Lane Pryce. Whose character arc comes to a conclusion this season in a very macabre and sad way. Above all else, the episode will be remember for Pryce Vs. Campbell.


Series finales can have a profound sense of closure (Six Feet Under) or end on an ambiguous note (The Sopranos). We've seen so many variations of the finale that to see what Weiner pulls off for Mad Men, it feels fresh. 

Don Draper's existential crisis throughout the series saw him go through two divorces and covering up his real name. So when the the two episodes leading up to the finale had him leave the office and go on a journey towards self discovery, it felt like the only logical way for Don's story to come to a head. I thought it would end in an office. A suicide, most likely. That seems like the thing they would do. I am so happy they did not go that route. 

Person to Person manages to make each major character's story have a logical sense of closure. You don't want these people to go their separate ways. Yet that is where their respective destinies carry them. 

For some it is coming to the realization that the person who they have been working with for years if someone they deeply care for. For others it is reigniting the flame of their long time love and embarking on a new home. 

Then there is Leonard and Don Draper. Two people who have never met before but share a feeling deep down that they have to carry. That moment between these two strangers was the most cathartic in the series for Don's character. 

But Weiner doesn't stop there. He doesn't fill in the blanks during the last 5 minutes. We can do that ourselves. What results is the work of sheer genius. As much as I wanted to see what these characters were doing in the 80s, the finale simply says: that doesn't matter. Mad Men was about a time an a place. Where ad executives created campaigns while assassinations, the threat of nuclear warfare, and the Vietnam War flickered on the television in the other room. 

Mad Men was about the about connecting as societal discord was prevalent. Giving people hope in a time of crisis.  

You know, the things in life that are free. The real things. 

Apollo 11 landing on the moon marks this episode in the same way the Cuban Missile Crisis marked Kennedy Vs. Nixon. Only this time the crisis here becomes a resolution.

Jim Cutler was the thorn in my side this season and I was happy to see him leave after this episode. As a whole, this episode (the first half of season 7, actually) was all about the future. Looking forward. The beats of these stories had a finality to them. Which makes them all the more important in learning where our characters are going to end up.

Bert was right. The best things in life are free.

I'd be hard pressed to say there is another episode of Mad Men as enjoyable or as entertaining as this one. All the core characters who work at Sterling Cooper Price up to this point- Don, Roger, Bert, Lane, Peggy, Pete, Joan, Harry- take action against the recent absorption of Putnum Powell and Lowe, which in turn allows McCann Errikeosn to buy out their company. Everyone here is at the top of their game. It's an Ocean's Eleven kind of episode that also sees the bickering and on-life-support marriage of Don and Betty come to a climax. This is how you write a season finale.

"I'm walkin' down the long, lonesome road, babe. Where I'm bound, I can't tell."

Everything comes down to Don's pitch for a slide projector called Carousel. In his peach he talks about nostalgia and how it's original meaning in Greek means the pain from an old wound. If I had to tell someone what Mad Men was about or just show them one scene from the show to hook their interest, this would be the one.


Joan. Megan. Peggy. These three women are the main threads that create one of the strongest episodes of this or any other show. Each one is backed into a corner and forced to make a decision that changes them. For Joan it's a means to sign Jaguar to the company. For Megan, it's her pursuit to continue to do what she wants: acting. Peggy's decision, while not nearly as frightening as Joan's, sees between two doors: past and future.

Mad Men may be set in the 60's, but the sexism that was present in the workplace continues to this day and asks us how far have we progressed?


If I had to make a list of the ten best episodes of television, this would make it in. From the beginning Don and Peggy had a chemistry in the workplace. Peggy had just started as a secretary and she quickly rose to Creative Consultant. They are the fan favorites. So to see an entire episode devoted to them is every fan's dream. Anything could happen.

Pick out the seventh episode out of any season of this show and you will see just how willing Weiner and company are willing to experiment with story structure. The seventh episode of the fourth season is a bottled episode in the vein of Breaking Bad's Fly. Subtext turns into text as the characters say things we have been wanting them to say as the show progressed. Both Don and Peggy are people who long to escape who they are. The overarching melancholy of the show carries them to the direction they only know how to go- forward.

Season 1

Season 4

"I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand on Bleecker Street"


  1. This is making me wish that I had kept up with the series. UGH, I need to binge watch this soon!

    1. Do it man. It is worth it. Such a great show.

  2. A truly great list here. Love all of your choices, but yes, the show's magnum opus has to be The Suitcase. I loved everything about that episode. Should've won Moss and Hamm Emmys.

    1. Thanks!

      I adore that episode and yes, they should have won Emmys for their performances.