As the final seven episodes of “Mad Men” approach, millions of words will be written about the show, its legacy and its importance to AMC. Museums are hosting retrospectives and screenings, and there’s even a restaurant promotion in New York tied to the show.
But maybe the best way for fans — and those who haven’t yet entered the world of Don Draper — to get ready for the final episodes is to, you know, watch “Mad Men.”
Now, committing to 85 hours of TV in the time before the last episodes begin on April 5 is a daunting task. Zap2it wants to make it a little easier. Below are 29 of its best and most important episodes of “Mad Men,” compiled chronologically, that would make an excellent preseason binge for either a newcomer or a long-time fan interested in revisiting the series.
All episodes are available on Amazon Instant Video now. Netflix has the first six seasons, and the first half of Season 7 will be available to stream starting Sunday, Mar. 22.
One more note: Plot and character details are, by necessity, discussed below. If you haven’t watched yet, well, sorry. You’ve had seven years.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (episode 1): The series pilot introduces slick, confident ad executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm), seemingly mousy new secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), oily accounts man Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), caddish partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery), bombshell secretary Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) and the rest of the team at mid-sized agency Sterling Cooper. Creator Matt Weiner’s long-in-the-making script and Alan Taylor’s direction immediately immerse viewers in the Madison Avenue and New York of 1960.
“The Hobo Code” (episode 8): Earlier Season 1 episodes established that Don is really named Dick Whitman and stole his current identity from a fellow soldier who died in Korea. This brilliant episode, which flashes back to the young Dick’s life, goes a long way to explaining why, along with establishing the way Don thinks in the present. It also explores the life of closeted art director Sal (Bryan Batt) and the weird attraction between Pete and Peggy.
“The Wheel” (episode 13): Season 1 ends with a professional triumph for Don, with his riveting pitch to Kodak about how to sell a new slide projector. Personally, though? Don arrives home to an empty house, with wife Betty (January Jones) and his kids having left for the Thanksgiving holiday without him. Peggy’s season-long weight gain is also explained — she was pregnant, unbeknownst to her or anyone else, including the baby’s father, Pete.
“The New Girl” (episode 5): Season 2 jumps forward to 1962, and early episodes spend a lot of time on an ugly affair between Don and Bobbie Barrett (Melinda McGraw), the wife/manager of an abrasive comedian (Patrick Fischler) who’s a pitchman for one of SC’s clients. “The New Girl” deepens that story some, but more importantly, it also features a flashback to Don visiting Peggy in the hospital after she gives birth. It’s a huge step in what will become maybe the most important relationship of the series. The “new girl” of the title, meanwhile, is Don’s new secretary, Jane (Peyton List).
“Six Month Leave” (episode 9): Poor Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray). His boozing ways catch up to him as he wets himself in the office and makes himself the subject of the episode’s title. It’s also illustrative of the care “Mad Men” takes to give even tertiary characters like Freddie a full emotional life.
“The Mountain King” (episode 12): In the previous episode, Don bails on a conference in Los Angeles, telling someone over the phone, “It’s Dick Whitman.” That someone turns out to be Anna Draper — the widow of the real Don Draper. The Don/Dick we see around her is the most relaxed and honest he’s been to date, and Hamm turns in stellar work. On the extreme other end of the scale, Joan learns in the worst way possible that her handsome doctor fiance (Sam Page) is not the man she thought. Upside: She gets to play the accordion.
“Meditations in an Emergency” (episode 13): Big character moments abound in the second-season finale, with the Cuban Missile Crisis as a backdrop. Don returns from California both to outmaneuver Duck Phillips’ (Mark Moses) power play at the agency and come clean, more or less, with Betty (who’s pregnant) about his affairs. Peggy and Pete have a great extended scene where it’s clear he now views her as a colleague much more than a conquest. All that, and Sterling Cooper agrees to a merger that will make it a much bigger player.
“My Old Kentucky Home” (episode 3): The early part of Season 3 makes a concerted effort to show Roger at his worst, and it hits a low point here as both he and his now wife Jane utterly embarrass themselves at a Derby Day party. Don meets a potentially huge new client at the party, while Betty has an encounter with a man named Henry Francis. Peggy and the other copy writers, meanwhile, get high during a weekend work session, while Joan gets a glimpse of life as a doctor’s wife that isn’t pretty. But: She plays the accordion.
“Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency” (episode 6): Hands (and severed feet) down the funniest episode in “Mad Men” history, provided you like your comedy pitch black. It features several stop-the-DVR lines from Roger (see below), as well as a fantastic Don-Joan scene that had fans wondering what if.
“Seven Twenty Three” (episode 7): After the fever pitch and very office-centered shenanigans of “Guy,” the show turns to a more introspective, unsettling episode. The partners force Don to sign a contract with the agency, and he deepens his flirtation with Sally’s (Kiernan Shipka) teacher, Miss Farrell (Abigail Spencer). Betty encounters Henry Francis again.
“The Gypsy and the Hobo” (episode 11): Betty is the most maligned character on the show, but the riveting sequence where she confronts Don about his past in this episode — all while Miss Farrell is outside in Don’s car — is among her finest. If only we got to see more of this Betty over the course of the show.
“Shut the Door, Have a Seat” (episode 13): As great as “Mad Men” is, its very measured pace doesn’t often lead people to describe episodes as “thrilling.” The third-season finale, however, is absolutely that, as Don, Roger and Co. break away to start their own agency at the same time Betty is flying to Reno to divorce Don.
“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” (episode 5): Season 4 jumps ahead 11 months and showcases the growing pains at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as the show reaches the midpoint of the ’60s. This episode includes both a great character beat for Roger — who refuses to business with Honda because he lost friends to the Japanese in World War II — and a wonderful bit of subterfuge from Don toward rival agency Cutler Gleason Chaough. The latter also includes this very funny and also oddly beautiful shot of Peggy tooling around a soundstage on a moped:
“The Suitcase” (episode 7): Very possibly the best episode of the series, and one of the best episodes of TV, period, in the 21st century so far. It’s mostly a two-character piece with Don and Peggy, who run through the complete range of emotions on a very long night at the office. Stellar work from both Hamm and Moss, including the now-legendary “That’s what the money’s for!” scene.
“Blowing Smoke” (episode 12): Don attempts to break both himself and SCDP out of a rut by publicly “quitting” tobacco via a full-page ad in The New York Times. His bold move doesn’t sit well with the rest of the firm, although his secretary Megan (Jessica Pare) seems to get that he’s trying to re-brand the agency. Betty finally agrees to move out of Don’s house, albeit as much to punish Sally as anything else.
“Tomorrowland” (episode 13): Betty’s petulant firing of housekeeper Carla deprives Don of a babysitter for the kids on a trip to California. He asks Megan to go instead, and by episode’s end they’re engaged. With all of Don’s personal baggage and the foundering of the new agency seen in Season 4, it ends on a surprisingly (and not unwelcome) upbeat note.
“A Little Kiss” (episodes 1-2): Don turns 40 and has to grin and bear a surprise party thrown by his now-wife Megan, who maybe doesn’t know her husband well enough to know that surprise parties aren’t his thing. Even when his beautiful wife does a sexy performance of “Zou Bisou Bisou.”
“Mystery Date” (episode 4): An unsettling episode with the Richard Speck murders as a backdrop sets the tone for an unsettling season. A flu-ridden Don has a fever dream about bedding and then killing a former fling, Sally fears her new house is haunted and Peggy has an awkward encounter with new secretary Dawn (Teyonah Parris), the agency’s sole black employee. Oh, and Betty’s fat now, you guys (a novel solution to hiding January Jones’ pregnancy).
“Christmas Waltz” (episode 10): Don has been disinterested in work for most of Season 5, but a fight/pep talk with Megan and an afternoon test-driving a Jaguar (a potential new client) with Joan as his “wife” reinvigorate him. As was the case in “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” the Don-Joan scenes are a marvel of chemistry — not romantic, but that of two old friends who know each other very well.
“The Other Woman” (episode 11): Joan takes a drastic step to land the Jaguar account and become a partner in the agency. It’s all the more heartbreaking when Don shows up just a little bit too late to tell her she doesn’t need to go that route. Financial officer Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), meanwhile, resorts to desperate measures to pay off a tax bill, and Peggy gets an offer from Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm).
“Commissions and Fees” (episode 12): A sense of dread hangs over most of Season 5, and it hits home in a big way in this episode. The finale that follows is a bit of a muddle, but the three-episode stretch that ends here is among the show’s strongest.
“The Doorway” (episodes 1-2): It’s now 1968, and the Drapers spend part of the two-hour premiere in Hawaii, where Don encounters a young soldier who reminds him of his Dick Whitman self. Back in New York, we find he’s sleeping with his neighbor Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) even though he genuinely likes her doctor husband (Brian Markinson). Don is no better at work, giving a truly out-there pitch to a hotel client. A mysterious new employee named Bob Benson (James Wolk) is working in accounts.
“For Immediate Release” (episode 6): Don and Ted discover their agencies are both pitching Chevrolet on new business, and they’re both likely to lose out to a bigger firm. They put aside their rivalry and hatch a plan to merge — which also brings Peggy (who’s less than thrilled) back into Don’s orbit.
“The Better Half” (episode 9): Don and Betty rekindle their flame during parents’ weekend at Bobby’s (Mason Vale Cotton) summer camp, each giving the other a reprieve from their more depressing lives back home. Bob Benson and Joan are getting along famously, but Peggy and her boyfriend Abe break up in a really tragicomic way.
“Favors” (episode 11): All the other times Don has seemed to hit rock bottom pale in comparison to what happens in this episode, when a visiting Sally catches him with Sylvia. Kiernan Shipka does some of her best work in the final scenes (and that’s saying something), which are devastatingly raw.
“In Care Of” (episode 13): The mess Don has made of his work and personal lives comes to a mortifying head in the finale, with Don coming apart at the seams during a meeting with Hershey that’s basically the funhouse-mirror version of his Kodak pitch from “The Wheel.” He reneges on a promise to Megan, but finally comes clean to his kids about where he came from in a quietly powerful scene that closes the season. Pete, meanwhile, picks the wrong time to mess with Bob Benson, leading to this all-time elevator moment:
“Time Zones” (episode 1): Season 7 picks up only a couple months after the previous season ended, making for the shortest gap between seasons “Mad Men” has ever had. Don is still dealing with the fallout from his meltdown — with help from Freddy Rumsen, of all people — and going through the motions of making a long-distance marriage with Megan work. Peggy is collateral damage in the Don situation, as the agency brings in a jerk named Lou Avery (Allan Havey) to be her boss.
“The Strategy” (episode 6): Don has been back at work for a couple of episodes, which has made Peggy bristle, but “The Strategy” shows again how potent their working relationship can be. In a way it plays like “The Suitcase” redux, but if anything Don realizes now that Peggy really is an equal.
“Waterloo” (episode 7): Season 7a closes with the moon landing, Bert Cooper soft-shoeing off this mortal coil (Robert Morse is a Tony winner, after all) and Don thisclose to being fired … until Roger steps in with a last-minute play to save Don’s career and make all the partners rather wealthy.