Mad Men’s 11 Most Essential Episodes

While Monday brought with it the end of new episodes of Mad Men, the show that added heft to television critics’ hyperbole of a golden era in television programming, the show feels as if it has not ended as much as reached an important passage in its long, liminal text; one that will continue past us as we wind back through the pages. Perhaps it is fitting that Mad Men complete its eight seasons (or seven, if you want to get technical about it) in lieu of so many of the shows it ran with; among them Breaking Bad, Dexter and Boardwalk Empire. These shows, also ‘anti-hero’ heavyweights, struggled as they sprawled incontainably outwards, to render final events quickly becoming foregone conclusions, with the same gravitas as before. The liminal quality of Mad Men, its best episodes, seasons and moments feeling like a collection of short stories, finds it lacking the same problem – see last week’s “The Milk and Honey Route”, perhaps the best episode of the series.

As a long-time viewer, watching episodes before school on my laptop  (I was in year ten at the time and have since watched it countless times), the end – its best feature being that the most moving scene focuses on a character we’ve never even seen before, impressed upon me the notion that a finite ending can be more enriching than a definite one. Mad Men has always been a show about people moving through time (what show or movie isn’t I guess) but lately, it has also captured how time moves through or past people, its subtle erosion and the myriad repetitions and revivals.

Looking outwards from ad agencies at the broad horizons of the 60s, 70s and beyond, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner stated that he wants people to view it, its characters – from Pete to Peggy, Roger, Don et. al. – through the framework of two questions: “why am I not enough?” and “is this all there is?”. Essential questions for each character, foregrounding their “essential narrative” (as remarked by critic Adam Kempenaar – a person’s long held self-epitaph) featured and discussed on a site called The Essential – here is a list of this writer’s essential episodes of Mad Men.

Note: Spoilers below. Apologies if this list (by episode order) disappoints the completist. Honourable mentions include Shoot, Meditations In An Emergency, The Colour Blue, Shut The Door, Have a Seat, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, The Summer Man, The Monolith, Waterloo – everything with Ginsberg, LA Pete Campbell, Joyce (Peggy’s photographer friend) or Roger being Roger and so much more.

The Wheel

The series one finale asks us “what’s in a name?” as Don is tasked with pitching the campaign for Kodak’s new slide photo projector. “It’s not called the wheel, it’s the carousel,” says Don, selling the Draper family photographs – memories, as much to himself as to the others in the room, “it lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.” Very much a foundational episode, “The Wheel” aches with nostalgia for misplaced or absent centres, Don returning to a once full but now empty household, the pitch selling to everyone but those who matter – leaving him by the doorstep, stairs, ready again to resume a circular pattern.

Three Sundays

Taking place across three separate weekends, “Three Sundays” leaves small traces of everything good about the show in its various story lines. Don and Betty deal with Bobby’s behaviour at home, the company is forced to prepare a pitch under time constraints, and Peggy and her family meet the new parish priest. Familial strife and the buzz of the SC&P office in full flight is anchored under the maturing gaze of Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipke – on-point even at such an early age) and the episode has one of the greatest endings in the show’s history; “for the little one,” says the father, handing Peggy an egg in a courtyard during an Easter egg hunt – Moss, as do most actors on the show, delivers. Prompted – if within an instant and rather cruelly to a higher level of spiritual contemplation beyond the church.

The Mountain King / The Good News

Who the hell is Dick Whitman and why should we give a damn? These two episodes answer such questions as emphatically as ever. Flashbacks have always been troublesome as they seem like lines drawn for a connect the dots drawing, yet Mad Men manages to make back story a part of the story. There is no B story (other than, maybe, Chauncey the Dog) – Joan learns troubling things about her husband (the mountain king of the title) and in “The Good News” tries to start a family – Peggy pitches Christian ritual, taking the place of lead creative in both episodes as Don goes AWOL in California. Don is the proverbial Christian Pilgrim (behaviour wise), so redeemed through love and connection in “The Mountain King” and the unfortunate bearer of bad news in the latter episode. Each storyline bleeding into the other, perhaps it is fitting that the end of “The Good News” is a meeting of the partners: “are we ready to begin 1963?” asks Joan. A look is shared, characters in somewhat of a daze, the past made present.

The Fog

Trying to find an episode that encapsulates Betty and Don and their marriage other than the obvious (i.e. “Shoot” or “Meditations In An Emergency”), was a challenge, yet “The Fog” excellently segments the two – Betty giving birth, Don in the waiting room – to get a sense of how they feel about themselves and each other. Through Betty’s drug-induced dream sequences as she gives birth, it also highlights the outstanding set-design – slightly artificial interiors against the rarely seen exteriors, contributing to the artificial surfaces that elide Don Draper and the advertising industry. The character he meets in the waiting room, a prison guard having his first child, strikes at Don’s core. “I’m going to be a better man,” he opines to Don, ebullient. A re-birth somewhat cliché, except that we, as Don, know what such a phrase means or more importantly doesn’t mean.

The Suitcase

Peggy and Don’s storylines cross in what would be a heavyweight episode of any series. What begins as a tense, short-lived work meeting – “that’s what the money is for!” says Don when Peggy reveals her jealousy over his winning the award for Glo-Coat – soon becomes an evening spent together, trying to find “the idea” for Samsonite suitcases, having dinner and watching the Mohammed Ali-Sonny Liston fight. Perhaps more than any other Mad Men episode, “The Suitcase” captures what it means to truly share yourself with another person. As Peggy is struck down by the ending of her relationship with Mark, and Don by the death of Anna, they find new doors open to each other, to themselves.

Signal 30

“I have nothing, Don,” opines Pete Campbell as they descend in an elevator together. Pete here is not only treated as a symbol of yuppie white privilege (a thing invisible to those who have it) but as somebody – like Don and Roger and so many others, seemingly unable to change and just now coming to realise it, recognising the futility in everything he has against the promise of everything he doesn’t. He meets a girl at driving school who falls in with a younger guy, gets into a fight with Lane at the office in front of a gaggle of male partners. To further, it’s not just “why am I not enough?” but why am I actively wrong? A question the show has dealt with since it’s beginning, finding new and poignantly fertile ground here.

Commissions and Fees

Lane is found out by Don for fraudulent check cashing and is forced to retire. His bristling isolation ends in suicide – hanging himself in his office after his wife unwittingly buys him a new Jaguar. Don, not for the first time, is implicated in a character’s death; his CO in Korea, his stepbrother Adam who also hung himself (and looms throughout the episode). This is the classic Mad Men lament, Don not as much shocked as Roger, Pete or Joan who are also left to deal with it – but deeply unsettled by how familiar it all seems. The winter chill builds to a pitch in an episode that, like the rest of season five (as SC&P courts Jaguar) and like Lane, gets lost in the work.

The Crash

In its later seasons, Mad Men opened itself fully to formal experimentation. This is no less clear than with season six, episode eight, “The Crash”, a drug sending the office – the creative team working over the weekend – into overdrive. Possibly the most enjoyable episode of the series, a showcase for Mad Men’s deft filmmaking as the characters move through time – at a glance and unawares – circling the work, the ephemera of their lives for some hidden meaning. It should be noted just how damn fun Mad Men is to watch, from Don racing around the halls and making grand, empty pronouncements to Ginsberg throwing a dart at Stan (and all the bloodshed that entails).

In Care Of

Assuming, diverting and hiding behind responsibility, professional and personal. A somewhat linear episode, one like “The Wheel” except that the wheel falls off in Don’s Hershey’s pitch. An admission among many – the truth. Who am I to you? “In Care Of” finally adopts a position of understanding, however tacit, as Don shows Gene, Bobby and Sally the decrepit home where he grew up. To truly know and love a person – “from both sides now”, as Judy Collins sings – but in the present moment (so much the spirit of the show). Also, this has to be a nominee for the single best credit song in the show’s history.

The Runaways

A more-personal-than-normal personal favourite (in for “Waterloo”). Beginning with an image of a seemingly antiquated comic strip and peaking with Ginsberg presenting his gift-boxed nipple to Peggy, a release of the pressure the installation of modern data crunching computers had been putting him under. Rather than just ask what it would feel like to have technology beyond your wildest dreams progress into your old workspace, the show, aligning with Don’s missing Stephanie and just barely stifling Lou and Cutler’s attempt to force him out of the agency, also asks what it means to have the past evaporate before you. To relent or to fight. I wrote the note for this episode on a typewriter at first, referring to a Wikipedia page on my laptop for reference. A rapid re-contextualisation mirrored in how SC&P CGC sees itself, Peggy’s relationship with Ginsberg and Don with his past.

The Milk and Honey Route / Person To Person

I’ve always felt that in criticism, the writer-reviewer should at least be as honest in their writing as the work they’re writing about is honest with itself. These last two episodes of Mad Men are about as honest as it gets. Highlighting why the series is at once the most novelistic on television and the most (understatedly) cinematic – the finale of the show folding inward into a series of deeply felt conversations between characters (on and off the phone) – trying to bridge the gap. With “The Milk and The Honey Route” Don and co. were forced to confront themselves, in “Person To Person” they are compelled to look, to truly look at each other, the people around them in the world. What’s in a name, what’s in a company, what’s in a brand, what’s in a person, what’s in the world. Close your eyes. Maybe we should just go buy a Coke.

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