The 10 Best 'Mad Men' Episodes
Which 'Mad Men' Episodes Stand Out Amongst the Rest?
Not too long ago, I decided to sit down and watch Mad Men for the first time. I know, I know, I'm incredibly late to the game; but I've now finally seen it and I'll admit, I get the hype. Don't get me wrong, the show is far from perfect (it definitely has its flaws) but there are so many shining moments throughout.
While all seven seasons are definitely worth checking out, I thought I would put together a list of the 10 best episodes. These really stood out amongst the others and in various ways, helped to highlight the show's strengths.
All that being said, here are those episodes and of course, the rest of this post will contain spoilers.
10) Season 7 Episode 14: Person to Person.
The finale makes it onto the list because it was a nice way to close up the series; however, it only just makes it onto the list simply because it felt a little rushed in places. That being said, I did appreciate that we got to see where everyone ended up.
Don (Jon Hamm) remaining at the retreat wasn't quite what I was expecting, but it does seem like he found inner peace. At least then we're left to envision him keeping that peace and finally settling down considering in the past, every time he gets something good going with his life, he manages to ruin it. While that is happening, Peggy (Elisabeth Olson) remains working and also starts up a relationship with Stan (Jay R. Ferguson). I would have preferred to see them in a relationship before then so we could get used to it but still, a happy ending at least which I was more than happy about considering some of the things Peggy has gone through of the course of the show.
With Sally (Kiernan Shipka), we see that she is staying at home to help take care of Betty (January Jones) which was definitely one of the more upsetting endings to the show, and finally, we see that Joan (Christina Hendricks) has started her own business which operates out of her apartment. The latter really struck me because right at the start of Mad Men, Joan genuinely thought that getting married and not having to work was the dream. Everything she has hoped for hasn't really worked out the way she thought it would, and so it was nice to see her take agency and become her own boss. It really highlighted that ambitious side of her that we saw grow throughout the series.
While it might have been a little rushed in places, I loved the balance this episode left. There was some closure to certain things but primarily, everyone's story was left open just enough. We know Betty is going to die but we aren't forced to watch it, Sally might be looking after her but she and her siblings are still young, Joan started a business but we're left to imagine how that might grow, and we get to leave Peggy on a happy note with lots of room to wonder how her life might change and how her career might develop from there. It really felt like the kind of ending that not only closes up the story but still leaves room for any fan's who might have envisioned something a little different.
9) Season 6 Episode 13: In Care Of.
I'll admit, I was stuck between this and season six episode 12 for this ninth spot, but in the end I thought the finale was just a little better.
Flashbacks to Don's past aren't exactly new but these ones, coupled with the things he goes through in this episode, lead him to showing his children where he grew up. You can see that they don't quite know what to do with the information, but how the scene was filmed was so well done. I particularly loved how the episode ended with no one talking, and Sally and Don just sharing a look. The two of them have gone through so much over the course of the show, and not all of it is good. As she got older, she's seen more of his flaws and she's had to grow up a considerable amount in quite a short space of time. You could almost feel that during that final scene.
Throughout the episode, you can see Don slowly slipping as he speaks a little too much in a meeting and is forced to take time off work by the other partners. Not only that, but his plans to go to California with Megan (Jessica Paré) are ruined when he agrees to stay so that Ted (Kevin Rahm) can go instead. And that's a whole other can of worms, considering Ted had just slept with Peggy and had been talking about leaving his wife for her. There's not a lot of hope in this episode, and it leaves the sixth season on a surprisingly sad note; but that being said, it was so incredibly well made and definitely one of the stronger episodes.
8) Season 7 Episode 7: Waterloo.
A lot of things in this episode are changing and/or falling apart. Don and Megan's relationship comes to some kind of end, Peggy finds out her young neighbour Julio (Jacob Guenther) whom she has been spending a lot of time with is moving, the partners make another big decision which has the agency merging with McCann Erickson, and we say goodbye to Bert Cooper (Robert Morse).
That last one was more upsetting than I thought it would be. Leading up to us finding out, the characters are all watching the Moon landing. I really enjoyed that. There was just something so comforting about it. Some of the characters were in their own homes (with people they loved) but even those characters who were away on business gathered so that they could watch the landing together. It worked really well that we had the scenes and then Roger (John Slattery) got the phone call. The overall tone bled really well into him going to the office and taking Bert's name off of his office door.
His death leads to a series of changes. Don realises that he might finally be ousted from the agency, which leads to Peggy presenting the Burger Chef ad, something she should have been doing the entire time. You could tell that Don thought the same before this episode, based on how he convinces her that she can handle it. However, as I mentioned above, the partners end up voting to merge with McCann Erickson, which keeps Don in the agency.
I was pretty surprised how much change the show went through in this episode, considering it's halfway through the final season, but it worked surprisingly well. The whole episode was well structured and paced. There was this sense of comfort in a lot of the scenes that had the likes of Bert Cooper's death hitting much harder.
Also, can we just appreciate that during the dance number, Bert doesn't have his shoes on because no one was allowed to wear shoes when they went into his office. It was just a great little detail.
7) Season 2 Episode 5: The New Girl.
While this entire episode was good, I have to admit that the friendship between Don and Peggy was the main pull. Their dynamic is always fantastic and this particular episode provided some pretty big insight into their relationship. After the car crash, she ends up being the only person he can call. It seems like he does it because he knows she won't tell anyone and she won't (openly) judge him for what's happened, well, at least not right away. However, although that is all true, as the episode goes on we also find out that he visited her while she was in the hospital. The two of them become close over the course of the whole show but to have these moments so early on was pretty great. At this point in season two, they've still got a ways to go but this episode still manages to highlight how good they are together.
Also, watching Peggy and Bobbie Barrett (Melinda McGraw) interact was really entertaining. The latter tries to pry into Peggy's relationship with Don and what that might be because even she has questions about it just like everyone else does. And really we, the audience, are in a similar boat. We do get to know more about Don and Peggy's friendship than the other characters around them but things are still slowly revealed to us so even we're kept in the dark sometimes, just like in this episode with the reveal that he had visited her in the hospital.
6) Season 5 Episode 4: Mystery Date.
This episode was a little strange, especially with the scenes between Don and Andrea Rhodes (Mädchen Amick), however, there were a lot of other moments throughout this episode that I just couldn't get over. There were some smaller ones like Roger paying Peggy to help him with an advertising problem (her haggling with him was hilarious), Peggy and Dawn (Teyonah Parris) bonding a little (Dawn quickly becomes one of the most interesting characters in the show so this was a lovely addition to the episode), and Sally being scared of what's been in the news lately.
The big takeaway from this episode was by far Joan finding out the truth about Greg (Samuel Page) signing back up to the army instead of being forced to go. They finally have it out, and she stands up against his childish behaviour as well as calling him out on not wanting to be with his family, and for raping her in an earlier season. That last point—I thought it would never come up again. There's still no punishment for him because of it, but to see her stand her ground and call him out on it was amazing. Christina Hendricks' acting is always phenomenal but her scenes throughout this episode were just something else.
5) Season 7 Episode 6: The Strategy.
I really loved watching Don and Peggy work together on her ad for Burger Chef. It's one of the times where he actually lets her take the lead and is simply there to help and not to take over. She's so concerned that the work she's got isn't good enough and is convinced that Don, considering he's the one that's actually presenting it, might bring up something last minute to save the day. Instead, we see the two of them go over the work and the entire time. He simply helps her and encourages her as she tries to come up with something new. It was so good to see his faith in her ability to do the work. The pair of them do work so well together, and we've seen in other episodes (including some that are higher up on this list) that they have a pretty great relationship. Also, the scene where they dance at the office was really sweet.
In this episode, we also get a conclusion to the relationship between Joan and Bob (James Wolk). There had been a few question marks around his intentions but he was genuinely good to her and Kevin. Really, his offer of marriage so he can hide the fact he's gay when he starts his new job and she can have some stability wasn't that much of a surprise. However, the scene where he actually suggests it was just beautifully done from the way it was shot to the acting involved.
Also, by the end of the episode, there's a vote to make Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) a partner after the agency loses some business, which was interesting to say the least; but that, along with Bob's reveal that he's leaving the agency, plays in massively to some of the events in the next episode.
4) Season 3 Episode 13: Shut the Door. Have a Seat.
The thing I appreciated the most about this episode is seeing some of the main figures of Sterling Cooper working together in order to secretly start their own agency. It was also great to see Joan and Peggy brought in because the men (primarily Don and Roger) recognised that the new company couldn't be successful without them. Really, there was just something so satisfying about watching everyone work together in a way in which there's no hierarchy but, instead, everyone is integral to making their plan work.
It did take me a couple of episodes in season four to adjust to the new setting and change in characters, however, the season three finale really did help with that transition. It's doesn't necessarily only show us the process of transferring everything over to a new agency, but every second of the episode does contribute to that and/or lead up to it. It's a pretty good example of how well done the pacing can be in Mad Men.
3) Season 3 Episode 6: Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.
This episode was honestly just a lot of fun and highlighted the ways in which Mad Men can get dark but still be hilarious. The people from London come, to visit but it doesn't exactly go to plan. While partying, one guy ends up losing his foot in a bizarre series of events. I really loved the shot of all of them talking in one of the offices after the fact and there's blood splatter all over the frosted glass windows. Along with that, everyone's reactions to the whole ordeal as it was happening was perfect. Peggy practically faints, four employees of Sterling Cooper are completely covered in blood, and Joan instantly jumps in to deal with the injury. The whole thing was a lot funnier than it had any right to be and this entire episode was just a blast.
Throughout, we see a lot of focus on Joan. It's her last day of work, and she's got a lot to deal with. Of course, she does it really well. She's professional right up until the end, and I loved the scenes between her and Don at the hospital, as well as seeing her be calm and dealing with the injury. Naturally, things just continue to go wrong. While it is her last day at the agency, it's not her last day working as she thought. Greg doesn't get the residency he had been hoping for which means their situation isn't changing at all and she'll have to find work again.
While all of that is going on, we see that Sally is scared of her baby brother because he shares a name with her grandfather who recently passed away. Her admitting that was so innocent and continued to add the darker humour of this episode. The scene where Don sits with Sally and Gene and promises there's nothing to be afraid of was really sweet. He messes up a lot in the show but he's always been surprisingly patient with his children (at least at that point in this series) and scenes like this really show how much he loves them.
2) Season 5 Episode 12: Commissions and Fees.
Funnily enough, even though this episode primarily focuses on Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), I wouldn't instantly jump to call him a huge favourite of mine. Don't get me wrong, Lane was a great character and I did thoroughly enjoy watching him, he just wasn't near the top of my list. However, for me, that really highlighted how genuinely good this episode was. It made me care even more than I ever thought I would (or could), and it completely captured my attention the entire time.
This whole episode was just beautifully paced, leading up to the heartbreaking end. Something Mad Men got right is that it never felt like all of the focus on Lane during this episode was because they had neglected him beforehand. They weren't trying to make us care about him at the last minute just so they could create an upsetting episode. Before this, there had been so many great moments with Lane that allowed us to get to know him and even like him. Commissions and Fees felt like the writers were just trying to add to that and it was genuinely wonderful to see Jared Harris get a chance to really shine.
Something that also helped the pacing was that there was another storyline going on as well in the form of Sally getting her period for the first time. It actually worked well to have both of these happening at the same time. Things were happening in Lane and Sally's lives that would change them in some way, but the degrees of that were vastly different. While they both felt a little alone and unsure, his was much more final and devastating while hers could be seen as a new chapter. Both are essentially a turning point.
1) Season 4 Episode 7: The Suitcase.
As soon as I saw this episode, I knew it would be on this list. Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss's performances were honestly phenomenal, and while they often do an amazing job, their talent, as well as their chemistry, was highlighted throughout this episode. This was mostly because most of it centres on Don and Peggy have a lot of one-on-one time.
Throughout, they change settings, starting with Don's office before moving to a diner and then a bar before returning to the agency. They talk the entire time, and not all of it is happy. You see them go through various emotions and the fact that they're primarily alone for the episode gives them both a chance to actually let their guard down. Their friendship is a prominent relationship throughout the entirety of Mad Men and even at this point in season four, they've already been through a lot.
By the end of the episode, a drunk Don tries to punch Duck (Mark Moses) for insulting Peggy before she and Don end up falling asleep in his office. No matter what else happens in this episode, it is almost entirely about them. There might be a lot to unpack but the writers somehow managed to strip it back to make it feel a lot more raw and open. Something that is helped by the acting talents of both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss.
And there we have it, the 10 best episodes! I thoroughly enjoyed all of these and putting this list in order was surprisingly difficult. That being said, I do want to list five honorary mentions.
The following episodes (listed in chronological order) only just missed out on the top spots and are worth checking out almost as much as the ones that did make it.
- Season 1 Episode 9: "Shoot"
- Season 5 Episode 2: "A Little Kiss (Part 2)"
- Season 5 Episode 7: "At the Codfish Ball"
- Season 6 Episode 12: "The Quality of Mercy"
- Season 7 Episode 13: "The Milk and Honey Route"