This weekend, the first episode of the final season of "Mad Men" will air. Long championed as one of the defining series of this new golden era of television, the series, created by former "Sopranos" writer Matthew Weiner, is similarly entrenched in the halcyon days of Madison Avenue advertising: when a single magazine ad could change the course of history. The show often works best when it places its characters against the background of social, cultural or historical change, but it's ultimately less about the history and more about the characters.
And seeing as the show is coming to a close, we figured we'd take a look back at the 10 very best episodes in "Mad Men"'s first six seasons although, honestly, seasons two and six were kind of a wash. These were the episodes that captured our imagination, broke our heart, made us laugh, or intoxicated us with a combination of the three. There was a lot of drinking on "Mad Men." These episodes made us feel positively dizzy.
Without further ado... The 10 best "Mad Men" episodes ever...
10. 'The Crash' (Season 6, Episode 8)
It's always good when "Mad Men" gets weird. And throughout the series' difficult sixth season (what was up with Don's murderous dreams?) it seemed like the series was stuck in a prolonged, sludgy morass: Don was back to being a dick (and having sex with a neighbor), the agency seemed to constantly be in jeopardy, and Megan was undermined, nearly to the point of being extinguished from the series altogether. (This was especially disappointing after the zippy creative restlessness of season 5.) All of this makes "The Crash" such an exhilarating blast. While it is burdened with some meddlesome whorehouse-era flashbacks (one of the more crippling aspects of the largely disappointing season 6), the episode glides along with an unexpected rhythm. From the opening moments, with Cosgrove in a car full of men veering down the road uncontrollably, to the entire office being shot up with some unspecified snake oil supplied by Cutler's doctor, the episode feels in danger of spinning out and leaving behind WTF-worthy skid marks in its wake. Oh, and Cosgrove dancing? Priceless.
9. 'Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency' (Season 3, Episode 6)
Or, the one with the lawnmower. (Online theorists at the time picked apart how the runaway lawnmower in the office followed the same geographic trajectory of the Kennedy assassination; the actual event wouldn't be dealt with seriously until episode 12 of that season, "The Grown-Ups," an episode that almost made the list.) The episode, if not metaphorically detailing the Kennedy assassination, still feels like it's on the verge of an event of great importance -- Pryce's British overlords are coming to the office to check out the agency's operation, Joan is about to celebrate her last day -- but the episode clicks and clacks along with the interpersonal relationship of the characters and the way that even on the eve of historical change, it's the people that really matter. But that lawnmower, seriously.
8. 'The Beautiful Girls' (Season 4, Episode 9)
While the show might be called "Mad Men," it obviously belongs to the women – Peggy, Joan, Betsy, Sally – and this episode was devoted to them, spectacularly. Peggy gets reintroduced to "interesting soup" Abe and becomes furious with Don, Don trusts Faye to watch Sally, Joan and Roger reconnect (with serious ramifications) and Joyce pops up to make numerous analogies. One of the unsung heroes of the series, too, takes an unexpected turn when Don's elderly receptionist Miss Blankenship dies. There are a number of wonderful flourishes in the episode, but the biggest and best happens at the episode's end, when the series' three super-powered women (Joan, Peggy, and Faye) all arriving at the agency's elevator at the same time. It's one of the more memorable moments of the entire series and proof positive that the women of "Mad Men" provide its beating heart.
7. 'Far Away Times' (Season 5, Episode 6)
This episode is remembered mostly for the moment when Roger takes LSD (to the tune of "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" by the Beach Boys), and while that is an incredible moment, for sure (his realization that he and Jane are out of love is the very definition of conscious uncoupling), but that unfortunately comes at the cost of recognizing what a bold, nearly experimental episode it is structurally, playing out in a series of nonlinear vignettes, and also how deeply hilarious it is. In the segments that aren't devoted to Roger's psychedelic odyssey, Peggy gives an anonymous stranger a handy in the movie theater after getting a harsh evaluation at work, while, in another totally bonkers section, Don and Megan get in a fight and he leaves her stranded at a roadside diner. (His frantic call to the office in the first section of the episode had me giggling for days.) In a way you feel that this is Matthew Weiner's attempt to pay homage to the anthology series of his youth. It was certainly the closest thing the "Mad Men" crew has gotten to "The Twilight Zone." The entire episode feels like it's on LSD.
6. 'Flight 1' (Season 2, Episode 2)
The series' difficult second season was unnecessarily dour and largely out-of-focus, but this episode nicely solidified the moral push and pull of the entire series. Even though there is a whole lot of nastiness to be had in the episode (all the characters, even the nice ones, are sexually predatory and Joan is an accidental racist), the fact that it's centered around a historic airplane crash (one that Pete's father is on) niftily dramatizes the tug-of-war between the personal and the professional. The office is abuzz about how they can turn the tragedy into something that can turn a profit, while Pete is left to mourn in whatever way he can. Still, there are a few moments that eke out what could pass as actually joyous or funny, like when Peggy shoots down a potential suitor by quipping, "I'm in the persuasion business and frankly I'm disappointed in your presentation." Zing!
5. 'Tomorrowland' (Season 4, Episode 13)
The episodes of "Mad Men" set in California always have a different, offbeat tempo (remember when Don fell in with a band of aristocratic nomads?) and "Tomorrowland," named after the futuristically utopian section of Disneyland, was no different. Even though the episode begins with a somewhat tender moment between Don and Faye, it climaxes with one of the most divisive moments of the series -- when Don asks his assistant Megan to marry him. It's an episode where Don peels back the layers, exposing his two children to his past (sort of) and allowing himself the possibility of actual, reciprocal love (an idea that carries through much of the galvanizing fifth season). Betty prepares for the family's big move to Rye (she even fires Carla!) and Sally starts to understand just what kind of man her father is. It's an episode that feels perched on the edge of a Teutonic shift. Or, as Disney's Carousel of Progress says, "There's a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day." At least, that's the idea.
4. 'The Wheel' (Season 1, Episode 13)
"Mad Men"'s first season was somewhat slow and occasionally awkward, with too much emphasis placed on Don's mysterious past, sometimes at the cost of significant character development or metaphoric dimension. But the season finale was a certifiable humdinger. In it, a number of hugely dramatic things happen -- Betty learns that Don has been spying on her psychiatric sessions, Don learns of Adam's suicide, and Peggy gets promoted to copyrighter (much to the chagrin of Pete) -- but nothing compares to the moment when Peggy gives birth to a baby and she can't even look at her own child. It's an incredibly powerful moment that still, all these years later, has been seared into my memory. Equally powerful is the fact that Don, drawn in the first season as something of a bastard (more so than in later seasons, at least), goes through it with her. It establishes the very deep, very profound bond between the characters that the show would continue to explore and exploit as the series went on. The best moments of the series are between Peggy and Don. This episode made that abundantly clear, even then.
3. 'Commissions and Fees' (Season 5, Episode 12)
This episode of "Mad Men"'s peerless fifth season is one of the more frequently overlooked in the series' history, mostly because it's a huge bummer. But it's also one of the funnier episodes and one of the more emotionally resonant. This is the episode, of course, where Lane hangs himself in his office. It's one of the more brutal moments in the entire series, unflinchingly dramatized with the aftermath dealt with in painstaking detail. (Having to cut him down is truly heart wrenching; Roger reading his "resignation letter" is even harder to handle.) But the suicide, happening fairly late in the hour, allows for a ruminative, mournful episode where the spiritual temperature of the office is taken by Lane as he makes his final rounds (literally). When he seeks Don's help and doesn't receive it, it's the proverbial last straw. "Commissions and Fees" is a bittersweet and bitterly funny episode, with a running joke about the crappiness of the Jaguar, the agency's flashy new client, thwarting Lane's initial suicide attempt (since the car won't start properly). Yes, it's an episode that you won't want to re-watch anytime soon, but that doesn't mean that it's anything less than totally brilliant.
2. 'Shut the Door. Have a Seat.' (Season 3, Episode 13)
Proof positive that "Mad Men" could actually be fun. In this jazzy episode, the partners unmoor themselves from their British overlords and cook up a new agency -- the marble-mouthed Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The show has never been more deft or streamlined; the whole thing moves with a singular energy that the show has never captured before or since. The exhilaration comes from watching the partners scheme -- and then watching that scheme come to fruition. Not that it's all a romp -- Betty announces to Don that she's seeing an attorney about getting a divorce, and we're treated to a whole bunch of Don-was-raised-dirt-poor flashbacks (including one where he witnesses his father's death), the heated exchange between Peggy and Don, Pete's scheming, Roger telling Don about Betty's new love -- and these dramatic moments act as a way of giving the mechanics of the new firm an additional weight and power. This is an episode that you simply marvel at -- the "Mad Men" equivalent of a heist movie. Or, as Don says, "Obtain? We have to steal everything."
1. 'The Suitcase' (Season 4, Episode 7)
Everything about this episode is classic: the framing of the episode around the second Cassius Clay / Sonny Liston fight, Don noticing a mouse in the office, his heated exchanges with Peggy ("That's what the money is for."), Sterling sniping at Peggy ("I'm going to count to three and then I'm going to start saying a lot of words you don't want to hear sweetheart."), Peggy missing her own surprise party and the fizzling of her relationship with Mark, Don listening to Roger's audio tapes for his autobiography, drunk Don and Peggy at the Greek diner ("All the good cooks stay there."), Don throwing up, Duck calling Peggy a whore and then fighting Don, Don seeing a ghostly Anna and then calling California to have his suspicions confirmed, that hand squeeze, and the final exchange between Peggy and Don ("Door open or closed?").
Many have noted that the episode is an extended metaphor for what it's like to work in the "Mad Men" writer's room: to be locked inside and forced to come up with things, even when your back is up against the wall. But it's more than that: it's a peerless bit of storytelling, a richly emotional hour of television (it's hard not to cry along with Don), and the height of the series thus far. "The Suitcase" is about the baggage that we all carry, how much we left us effect us and how much we can simply let go. It's not only the all-time best episode of "Mad Men" but it's also one of the greatest hours of television in this new golden age.
When "Mad Men" is all over, one episode will be talked about and analyzed and goggled at. And that episode is "The Suitcase."
"Mad Men"'s seventh and final season premieres Sunday, April 13 on AMC.