It might not be the pop culture phenomenon that it once was (the grabbier, faster likes of “True Detective” and “Game Of Thrones” having surpassed it at the nation’s watercoolers), but last Sunday saw the return of “Mad Men,” and if the seventh season premiere was anything to go by, it’s as good as it ever was. Matthew Weiner’s show, about the lives of the employees of a Madison Avenue ad agency in the 1960s (and in particular, the alienated, self-reinventing golden boy Don Draper, played to star-making effect by Jon Hamm, and Elisabeth Moss’s secretary-turned-high-flyer Peggy Olsen) has been a critical favorite since it launched in 2007 and almost singlehandedly made AMC a serious home for prestige drama (paving the way for network-mates “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” in the process).
To this writer’s mind, it’s as good a show as anything that’s aired in the golden age of TV drama — stranger, funnier and more novelistic than many of its competition, and without the nudity or violence that sometimes makes the others look a little juvenile in comparison. To celebrate the show’s return for the first part of its final season (the season will conclude in the spring of 2015), we’ve picked out our ten favorite episodes of the series to date. Agree? Disagree? Make your thoughts known in the comments section below. And spoilers ahead, obviously.
"The Marriage Of Figaro" (Series One, Episode Three)
"Mad Men" certainly hit the ground running — it's hard to think of as strong a drama pilot in recent years. But we wouldn't necessarily say that it was a full-on classic straight out of the gate. For us, it was the third episode, "The Marriage Of Figaro," that truly sold the show as something special, and entirely different from anything on TV. Whereas the previous two glimpses at "Mad Men" had introduced us to the characters' world, this was the first focused look inside the head of Don Draper, and it becomes increasingly clear what a messy, messy place that is. The show's ability to juggle perspective is one of its great gifts, and though we have brief moments involving Pete and some others, this episode is really the Don show. Or should it be the Dick Whitman show: Don being recognized as "Richard Whitman" on the train at the beginning of the episode is the first taste of the double life that our anti-hero lives, an incredibly intriguing tidbit that many shows would have led off with in the pilot. From there, we see him make an extra-marital move on unimpressed heiress Rachel (the excellent Maggie Siff, later of “Sons Of Anarchy”), before returning home for daughter Sally’s birthday party. It’s this sequence that’s the most astonishing thing that the series had done up to that point — as neighbors gossip and kids play, Don gets drunker and drunker, an alien in his own home. And when Betty sends him out to pick up the cake, he instead falls asleep by the train tracks, before returning home with a puppy for the kids. It’s a remarkable insight into the extent to which Don is existentially uncomfortable in his own skin, and the way he operates is a quiet shock that makes you abhor him even as you’re a little charmed. There was plenty more of that to come...
“Shoot” (Season One, Episode Nine)
If there’s one character who the show hasn’t always served brilliantly, it’s Betty Draper. As the events at Sterling Cooper became ever more central and compelling, the character stood out more and more, not least after her and Don divorced, and she’s become less and less crucial to the show over the years, which may be the best given some of the subplots she’s had (the fat suit years being something of a lowpoint). But in places, she’s been just as complex and fascinating as anyone else, never more so than in her season-one showcase “Shoot.” Directed, interestingly, by “Freaks And Geeks” creator and “Bridesmaids” helmer Paul Feig (his sole contribution to the show to date), it digs into Betty’s internal life for the first time, as she’s tempted by a potential renewal of the modeling career she had before she had the kids and married Don, as the potential front for a Coca-Cola campaign. The issue, unfortunately, is that the job has come about from a rival agency, McCann-Erickson, as part of their attempt to poach her husband away from Sterling Cooper. When Don ultimately turns them down, Betty’s job evaporates. She’s talked herself out of it by then, but it’s a sad evocation of her unfulfilled dreams, and hammers home her complete lack of independence (she’s almost literally a pawn in the machinations of those trying to win over Don, and has so little agency in the decision that it’s almost desperate). Which makes the episode’s conclusion (making clear the pun in the title) so satisfying: after feuding with a neighbor after dog Polly ate one of his birds, she marches onto the porch, cigarette hanging from her lips, and opens fire on the pigeons. January Jones can get a bad rap from some, but her performance here, and in the rest of the episode, is a reminder of what a terrific job she does in a very difficult role.