"Mad Men" is a series with relatively little interest in picking up exactly where we left off last week. Indeed, AMC's flagship drama, which begins its seventh and final season on Sunday (our coverage here), delights in the episode as an art form unto itself. Here, with the requisite caveat that rankings are silly and subjective as well as good fun, are the ten best:
10. "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," Season 1 (Episode 1)
"Advertising is based on one thing," New York ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) tells the executives of American Tobacco midway through the series' pilot: "Happiness." The first hour of "Mad Men" is as deceptively simple as its protagonist's pitch, following Don as he romances Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), a bohemian Village artist, spars with department store heiress Rachel Mencken (Maggie Siff), and rejects a clumsy pass from his new secretary, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" sits squarely on Don's shoulders, but its liveliness derives from the array of complex women he encounters. ("You know the rules," Midge reminds him. "I don't make plans, and I don't make breakfast.") By the revelatory final moments -- a Norman Rockwell-esque image of Don at his children's bedside, wife Betty (January Jones) framed in the door behind him -- "Mad Men" firmly establishes the difference between selling the dream and trying to live it.
Honorable mention: "Blowing Smoke" (Season 4, Episode 12), in which Midge returns as a gaunt, desolate heroin addict.
9. "The Jet Set," Season 2 (Episode 11)
The lure of California frequently turns the dream westward, most forcefully in the mirage-like "The Jet Set." As Don escapes an aeronautics convention with Joy (Laura Ramsey) and her band of wealthy "nomads," Los Angeles and Palm Springs enjoy the Chamber of Commerce treatment -- sketched in white, turquoise, and sunshine as a theme reminiscent of "South Pacific" dances languidly on the soundtrack. But it's the episode's delicate rendering of what prevents us from starting fresh that lends depth to the picture postcard. Recovering alcoholic Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) relapses in a dim Italian restaurant; Roger (John Slattery) and Peggy repeat the same old romantic mistakes; Sal (Bryan Batt) remembers why the closet door remains shut. Even the chameleonic Don understands that no amount of wealth or distance can erase his past. "Hello, it's Dick Whitman," he says over the phone at episode's end -- for no matter how far we travel, "The Jet Set" suggests, life has a funny way of sending us back to where we came from.
Honorable mention: "The Mountain King" (Season 2, Episode 12), a less visually arresting extension of Don's California sojourn -- including a visit with Anna Draper.
8. "Tomorrowland," Season 4 (Episode 13)
The strength of the season four finale rests on a handful of fraught exchanges, sutured together by phone calls, closed-door meetings, and cannonballs in the pool. Each of these turns on the mixture of the personal and the financial that so often destabilizes "Mad Men." If Betty's casually racist remarks in firing Carla (Deborah Lacey) point to the emerging cruelty of a woman who's outsourced motherhood, Megan (Jessica Pare) and Don's Disneyland liaison reveals that the caregiver's touch is worth more to him than a salary. Perhaps the most satisfying scene in "Mad Men" history arrives along these lines: Peggy, the overlooked copywriter who just brought in new business, and Joan (Christina Hendricks), the underappreciated office manager who ensures the business runs in the first place, commiserate about this gulf between what we pay for and what we value. "That's bullshit," Peggy snipes, and the chuckle they share in that moment registers as a kind of rebellion.
Honorable mention: In "Babylon" (Season 1, Episode 6), Joan asserts her workplace dominion over Peggy -- newly assigned to write copy for Belle Jolie -- with another delicious line: "Well, you know what they say. The medium is the message."
7. "The Better Half," Season 6 (Episode 9)
Of the sixth season, the likeliest choice for best episode is "The Crash," a frantic, amphetamine-fueled departure. But against this hour of aimless invention, I prefer the more rudimentary excitements of "The Better Half." It would be enough that Peggy, anxious about a spate of recent neighborhood crimes, accidentally stabs her boyfriend, Abe (Charlie Hofheimer), in the middle of the night, or that the enigmatic Bob Benson (James Wolk) wears short shorts printed with palm trees. But the heart of the episode is Betty Draper's rousing comeback. Her one-night dalliance with Don represents a powerful reversal: while she revels in the pleasure of sex and the ease of pretending it never happened, Don watches her wistfully, still hoping to write a different ending. "I love the way you look at me when you're like this, but then I watch it decay," she says frankly. "I can only hold your attention so long."
Honorable mention: "The Gypsy and the Hobo" (Season 3, Episode 11), anchored by Betty confronting Don about his secret identity.