jason stives pours a glass of scotch and lights a smoke and ponders over the best episodes of one of TV’s most revered shows…
For some readers and definitely for some of the staff here at Pop-Break, this Sunday breathes a heavy sigh of relief as Mad Men returns for its fifth season after an almost two year hiatus from cable television. In celebration, uber-Mad Men fan Jason Stives chose what he believes to be the best five episodes in the shows relatively stellar run up to now…
It’s very difficult to choose just five episodes out of four full season’s worth of greatness (although many would argue that Season Two is largely forgettable in being memorable). That being said its best to take from the stories that define the essence of the show. Many critics and non-fans of Mad Men paint the show as nostalgic schlock and that its brittle plot points and soap opera tendencies put it in the vein of being hokey and less than original.
The truth is Mad Men soaks itself up in being just what is presented as — an unapologetic look at the social commentary that makes up the myths we hold about the past. In a way, the show is a reflection of our own petty desires and capabilities to be cruel yet human because every man, woman, and child has flaws. The sixties setting is simply perfect because we know what the history books make of it and the image of the family with 2.5 kids is only upset because of truthful beliefs about wealth, racism, and the overall gender inequalities of one of the most radical times in the past century. While the show is chock full of great moments (sorry, I excluded the amazingly over the top lawnmower incident from Season 3) the best episodes are the one that centers on the shows pivot, and that is and always has been Don Draper.
5.The Wheel (Season 1)
Mad Men’s first season finale climaxes on a mesmerizing scene involving Don pitching The Carousel to Kodak, a device used to display timeless images in a revolving format. Throughout the first season, we struggle to understand how Don feels about being a family man and the importance of the people in his life. By the end of “The Wheel,” we see the beginning of the end of the Don Draper we grew to know over the first season. It still continues to spiral even as we head into the Season 5 premiere but the stereotype we believed Don to be comes unraveled as he discusses the importance of memories and how a carousel is reminder of how you will always find your way back to your home.
4.Shut The Door, Have A Seat (Season 3):
There is something so satisfying and conniving about the third season finale, in which we learn that Sterling Cooper is being sold to the British company, McCann, leaving the fate of the agency in peril. This episode is two-fold as one door closes and another opens. Actually, several close including the marriage of Don and Betty, which spirals into a heavy confrontation about infidelity (ironically) and the eventual divorce, with Betty hopping a plane to Reno with political aide Henry Francis. Don is truly put through hell in this story between secretly establishing a new ad firm with his fellow Sterling Cooper cohorts and having to tell his children that he won’t always be coming home anymore. But as always he comes out strong and showing the legion of supporters that follow Draper into a risky new venture is exciting. Secretive nature of the move out of the office into a makeshift hotel room is really amusing.
3. The Gypsy and the Hobo (Season 3):
Longtime fans of the show now look at the former Betty Draper as a stuck up, petty, and remarkably immature ex-wife of Don Draper. But during Season 3 she was a psychologically distressed housewife, somewhere between a preening princess and a hopeless victim of Don’s constant tom foolery. It was only a matter of time before Betty would learn of Don’s flakey past on top of the fact that he has practically slept with half of Manhattan but the confrontation that would follow was one for the record books. In the Season 3 episode “The Gypsy and the Hobo,” Betty, with Don’s box of delights (pictures and such) in hand finally comes face to face with Don and his guilty past.
In that moment, the male dominated sixties is turned on its side as Betty berates Don, practically cowering in a corner over the sudden discovery of the past he tried so hard to keep secret. It’s one of the last times this reader ever found himself feeling sympathy for Betty as this was an inevitable turn of events but somehow the viewer always finds himself coming back to Dons defense regardless. It helps that he IS the shows pivot and all.
2. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (Season 1):
In college, my screenwriting professor showed the pilot to demonstrate what he deemed the perfect construction for a first episode: one that develops quick pacing, simple character structure, and a basic set up to entice the audience only to slowly pull their interest in. Mad Men has always been far simpler than most shows with a heavy dramatic climate. Never one to feature huge stunts or overly shocking cliffhangers, it has placed its sense of interest and ability to be gripping by being about seemingly perfect people doing what we in the 21st century thrive on through trash television and tabloids to display to our public eyes.
Don Draper is the poster child of sixties American class with the nice car, successful job, and happy family but he is a mere stereotype to his cheating ways. This is told in reverse right from the beginning with his infidelity before the establishment of his family acting as a way to never be fully comfortable with the man called Don Draper. He is admirable in his way of making himself trust worthy to those who don’t know him well, which is basically everyone and his knack for creating darling imagery for ads is quite amazing. In one of the best scenes in the shows run, we see the man in action as he picks up the pieces left by Pete Campbell after a failed pitch to Lucky Strike cigarettes.
1.The Suitcase (Season 4):
The freshness of this episode may bar it for some from being that great (even if it has been almost two years since it aired) but Season Four’s “The Suitcase” is an unauthorized summary of Mad Men’s two most important characters and the show as a whole. An episode devoid of most of its supporting players, the story revolves around Don and Peggy being stuck at the office working on an ad for Samsonite while everyone is downtown watching the famous Clay versus Liston boxing match. In the midst of this Peggy breaks up with her boyfriend and Don learns some tragic news about the person who knows him the best.
Here we learn the most about Draper than both the Season 1 and 2 flashbacks combined. An emotional wreck by episodes end, Don is completely vulnerable, shedding the façade of machismo and single malt scotch and finally allowing the loss of the most important loved ones in his life to absorb his fain ad men image. Because they are seemingly as close as everyone sees them to be, they confide much in the time they spend together in this episode including Don talking about his stint in Korea and Peggy discussing the sudden death of her father. The ups and downs both characters share while coming up with a campaign for Samsonite leads to a statement from Don that ultimately summarizes the characters of Mad Men in their non PC world: People do things. This is summed up in one of the most intense scenes involving Peggy confronting Don about not receiving the respect she deserves for coming up with ideas that make him money.