The final episodes of AMC’s “Mad Men” will begin airing on Sunday as one of the most acclaimed shows in the history of television comes to an end. A lot has happened in the 10 years that have passed on the show, but fans looking to get caught up before the finale can help themselves by a revisiting some of series’ greatest episodes.
While the final seven episodes are sure to produce at least one hour of television deserving of inclusion on this list, here are the 10 definitive episodes of “Men Men”:
1. “The Suitcase” (Season 4, Episode 7)
One of the greatest strengths of “Mad Men” is the large ensemble of complex characters the show has created and nurtured. But if one were forced to boil the show down to just a pair – the Walt and Jesse of “Mad Men,” if you will – then it would certainly be Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy (Elizabeth Olson). The show’s best episode focuses exclusively on the pair’s relationship. While the rest of the office goes off to see the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight, an increasingly alcoholic Don strong-arms Peggy into skipping a birthday dinner with her boyfriend to work on a campaign for Samsonite suitcases. Don abuses his protégé throughout the episode, but Peggy is complicit in their lonely obsessiveness with work – a similar dynamic to recent Oscar nominee “Whiplash.” As the night drags on, walls come down between the colleagues as they confess the ruined state of their personal lives. When Don finally breaks down after receiving the news about the death of Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton), Peggy implies that she too knows the real Don in one of the series’ most touching moments.
2. “The Crash” (Season 6, Episode 8)
For a show famous for its slow-burn, subtle drama, “Mad Men” has sure had a knack for the surreal. Season 6’s drug-fueled “The Crash” was an experimental high for the series. The enigmatic episode saw Cutler (Harry Hamlin) contacting his personal doctor to hook everyone in the office up with amphetamines to give them a boost while working on the seemingly impossible Chevy campaign. What resulted was a manic fever dream of an episode with moments both entertaining – Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Stanton) tap-dancing, Don’s powerfully ambiguous speech to the creative team – and heartbreaking – Peggy turning down a grieving Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), Don’s flashbacks -- as each character aggressively numbed his or her personal pain.
3. “The Wheel” (Season 1, Episode 13)
Every season finale of “Mad Men” has been so strong, that including them in a list of the best episodes feels like cheating. But some are too important to ignore. One such episode is “The Wheel.” There is a reason one of the main promos for the final episodes uses Don’s speech from his Kodak Carousel pitch. The monologue is Don’s most profound at-work moment and one of the series’ greatest scenes. Also, by this episode’s end the writing was on the wall for the end of Don and Betty (January Jones) and Peggy was promoted to a junior copywriter – plus, revealed to be pregnant. The happy ending fake-out at the end before Don comes home to an empty house for Thanksgiving weekend served as an early lesson to fans not to expect Don to change – or find contentment – anytime soon.
4. “Shut The Door, Have A Seat” (Season 3, Episode 13)
Another season finale here, but undeniably one of the series’ most exciting episodes. Faced with an unwanted buyout, Don has Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) fire him, Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) so they can start a new agency. Watching Don and Roger choose – and subsequently woo – Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), Peggy and Joan (Christina Hendricks) to join them was one of the more interesting explorations of the many character relationships on the show. As if that was not enough, the episode also featured the final collapse of Don’s marriage.
5. “The Other Woman” (Season 5, Episode 11)
The women of “Mad Men” had a big episode in Season 5’s “The Other Woman.” Joan agreed to an indecent proposal to land the firm Jaguar and get herself promoted to partner, while Peggy – reaching the final straw in her subservience to Don – quit to take a job at CGC. Peggy’s resignation scene with Don was a master class between the two actors.
6. “In Care of” (Season 6, Episode 13)
The last season finale on this list saw Don reaching the end of his rope with the double life he had created for himself. The impromptu confessional during his pitch to Hershey stands as the show’s most shocking moment – not involving a lawnmower, at least. Standing with his children in front of the Pennsylvania brothel where he grew up, fans had a rare feeling that Don had finally turned a corner in his life.
7. “The New Girl” (Season 2, Episode 5)
This episode is most notable for Don’s famous line to a recovering Peggy – “It will shock you how much it never happened.” However, the Season 2 high also introduced the future Mrs. Sterling, Jane Siegel (Peyton List), to the show and Joan’s engagement announcement, as Peggy – in the present – fought to further her standing in the office.
8. “The Strategy” (Season 7, Episode 6)
Another episode focusing on the Don-Peggy relationship, “The Strategy,” followed Peggy being constantly undermined as she developed the campaign for Burger Chef. The hour ended with Don and Peggy sharing a dance in the office to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and a dinner at the aforementioned restaurant with Don, Pete and Peggy after Peggy’s assertion that the American family does not exist.
9. “The Grown Ups” (Season 3, Episode 12)
“Mad Men” has been brilliant at the subtle incorporation of 1960s events into the character-driven storylines. This episode – centered on the assassination of JFK – did that as well as any other. From the reverberations of the news through the secretary pool to Margaret Sterling’s (Elizabeth Rice) ghost town wedding – the event served as the perfect backdrop to Don’s failing marriage.
10. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Though rewatching this episode exposes much more one-dimensional versions of the show’s many characters, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” cannot be denied its place on the Mount Rushmore of television pilots. The hour episode brilliantly set up the 1960s setting, dripping with period detail and authenticity. It is easy to forget that the revelation that Don was married was a twist ending on the first watch – and a masterful one at that.
What would make you list of the greatest “Mad Men” episodes? Tweet your thoughts to @Ja9GarofaloTV.