10 years ago today, on 19 July 2007, iconic TV drama Mad Men first aired in the US. It was the first glimpse we got of the mysterious advertising creative Don Draper (John Hamm) and the bonkers going-ons around him in his work life and love life – all of which overlapped on a regular basis.
90 episodes, 16 Emmys, 5 Golden Globes and one man’s tale of boozing, schmoozing and the occasional bit of work on Madison Avenue later – the show came to define the Second Golden Age of TV alongside The Wire, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.
As the show celebrates a decade since its first airing, we’ve dug deep into the Mad Men canon to give you the definitive ranking of the show’s finest episodes. Bottoms up, here we go.
10. The Other Woman (Season 5, Episode 11)
Male characters’ escapades dominate most of the early episodes but as the show progressed, copywriter Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) and office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) become integral to the show.
The Other Woman is the perfect example of the pair simultaneously making moves in the career. Joan negotiates a promotion and partnership in their company SCDP (Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) – even if it comes at a pretty disgusting price and Peggy announces to Don that she would be leaving SCDP to join a rival firm. It’s not an ideal scenario for either character, but gives the two of the show’s most crucial characters the spotlight they deserve.
9. The Gypsy and The Hobo (Season 3, Episode 11)
Early on, it’s made clear Don’s identity crisis is show’s primary narrative, but it’s not until Season 3 that his true transgressions are made known to his wife, Betty (January Jones). Here she discovers the true extent of his identity theft, and his previous life known as Dick Whitman. Emotional and eye-opening for everyone involved.
8. In Care Of (Season 6, Episode 13)
By Season 6, the wheels had fully fallen off Don’s life as erratic decision making and copious amount of day-time drinking makes his job untenable. A pitch to chocolate giants Hershey’s sees Don blurt out that he was brought up in a brothel and physically abused as a child.
It’s the first time he publicly opens up about his childhood to anyone apart from his first wife, Betty. But despite losing the client and being forced to take a leave of absence, a weight is lifted off his shoulders and the episode ends with him taking his children to visit the dilapidated home he grew up in. Closure for him, kind of.
7. Person to Person (Season 7, Episode 14)
As far as endings go, the show’s finale ties up pretty much every loose end you could ask for. Pete Campbell and wife Trudy move to Wichita, Joan starts her own business and Peggy and fellow creative Stan Rizzo admit their love to each other.
Don, meanwhile, heads to retreat in California to distance himself from advertising and for some much-needed therapy. The show’s final scene, however, shows that isn’t quite the case – as a meditative state inspires him to create the famous ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ advert from 1971. You can take Don Draper out of Madison Avenue, but you can’t take Madison Avenue out of Don Draper.
6. Commissions and Fees (Season 5, Episode 12)
As a whole, Mad Men was famed for its careful plotlines and brooding introspection – though that’s not to say they can’t do the odd shock moment. Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), one of SCDP’s co-founders, provided the show’s most unexpected in the form of his suicide in Season 5’s penultimate episode.
The writing was on the wall after Don discovered Lane’s account fiddling and demanded his resignation from the company, however Lane’s decision left the remaining members of SCDP – and audience members – inconsolable.
5. Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency (Season 3, Episode 6)
There were fun bits too, honestly. Look no further than than the Season 3 episode which zipped with energy, one-liners and the show’s most WTF moment – a severed toe as a result of erratic tractor driving in the office.
4. The Wheel (Season 1, Episode 13)
Season 1 falters in comparison to later episodes, however its final episode provides us with one of Don’s most legendary scenes: his intensely moving ‘carousel’ pitch to Kodak.
Coming soon after he learns of his brother’s suicide, Don reevaluates his life, his marriage and job in the stunning three-minute scene. A rare window into the mind of a troubled mind and a creative genius.
3. Shut The Door. Have A Seat. (Season 3, Episode 13)
Chaos often brings out the best in each character, and the Season 3 finale certainly proved just that. As original company Sterling Cooper is sold, Don, Joan, Peggy & co. orchestrate a daring exit strategy to create their own company, SCDP. Few shows can execute the breakneck pace, all while managing an airtight plot. The show’s most electrifying episode, for sure.
2. Waterloo (Season 7, Episode 7)
As a result of the show being set in 1960’s New York, there’s no way that creator Matthew Weiner could ignore the momentous social upheaval happening around the world – and in the US specifically. Key moments from the decade’s history are effortlessly woven into the show’s plot, like JFK’s assassination, the Stonewall Riots and The Beatles touring the US, to name a few. They all have nothing on arguably the decade’s defining moment; the 1969 moon landings.
In Waterloo, Don once again finds himself as crossroads. His second marriage is disintegrating, his position at SCDP is uncertain, and his impending pitch to fast-food chain Burger Chef is based around the wholesome family life that he can’t seem to find. This all happens against the backdrop of the first men landing on the moon, as each character becomes engrossed with the moment for different ways.
For Don, he realises it’s the nail in the coffin. As the world moves into uncharted territory, Don is standing still and he comes to realise that his lifestyle makes him well and truly a relic of the past.
Oh, and it offers the show’s most surreal scene – Bert Cooper singing and dancing from beyond the grave. Weird, but beautiful.
1. The Suitcase (Season 4, Episode 7)
Ultimately, the show is defined by Don’s relationship with his protégé, Peggy. In Season 1, she begins as his shy, bumbling secretary and by the finale, she’s moved up the chain to become the creative big-wig at one of the world’s leading advertising agencies. In comparison, Don starts the show as a well-respected ‘genius’, but as the show and decade moves on – his life steadily falls apart. One rises, and the other declines spectacularly.
By Season 4, the pair meet somewhere in the middle. Peggy is well-respected by colleagues, but can never gain Don’s approval. Don, meanwhile, is just about holding his life together. The Suitcase, however, is a watershed moment for the pair. Set against the backdrop of the infamous Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali boxing match, Don forces Peggy to miss her birthday celebrations and remain with him overnight at the office to work on a pitch. It’s here where Peggy finally confronts Don over the lack of respect she receives from him and as he also learns the news a close friend’s death, Don realises just how alone he is in the world.
Devastating in places, and wickedly funny in others – The Suitcase is without a doubt the most touching and important episode of the show’s run.