The best series on television returns for its sixth season on April 7th. As a diehard Mad Men fan, I've painstakingly gone through all five seasons and compiled a list of the ten best episodes, voted on by a conclave of Catholic Cardinals for two weeks until a clear number one was elected.
10. The Beautiful Girls (Season 4)
In a world dominated by men, the women are often more interesting.
9. Meditations in an Emergency (Season 2)
Two seasons worth of story-lines come to a head in this episode. Don returns home from California. Sterling Cooper is sold to PPL. Betty tells Don she's pregnant. Peggy reveals to Pete that she had his baby. In no other episode do so many different threads come to a head. Oh, and it's set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, just for kicks.
8. Pilot (Season 1)
An impeccably written pilot episode. We follow a man through his day. He works at an ad agency. He has a artist girlfriend in the city (and throws "marriage" around casually). He meets with clients. He comes up with a brilliant new idea for selling cigarettes. He drinks and smokes a lot. We feel like we're getting to know him, and then wham. He arrives at his home in the suburbs. Lo and behold, he has a picturesque house, wife, and two kids. The very definition of a successful modern man in 1960. This one moment had us asking the question, "Who is Don Draper?" Five seasons later, I still have no idea.
7. Far Away Places (Season 5)
This will forever be known as the episode Roger drops LSD, but all three parts are fantastic. Some of the best episodes in this series are when it breaks with the formula. Here, we saw the same day from the different perspectives of Peggy, Don, and Roger. This episode also contained one of the best musical moments in the show with the poignant use of the Beach Boys "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times." Sorry, but it's true Roger.
6. Guy walks Into An Advertising Agency (Season 3)
Mad Men isn't a show for graphically shocking moments. So when a man's foot is run over by a lawn mower, it's all the more memorable.
5. Shut the Door have a seat (Season 3)
Methodical doesn't even begin to describe Mad Men. It moves at a snails pace. But again, the best episodes of the show break with the formula. Shut the Door, by contrast, moves at a breakneck pace. It opens with news that Sterling Cooper is being sold yet again. Don, Roger, & Cooper race to start a new company by the end of the weekend.
The capper? This episode has the third best Don & Peggy moment when Don goes to Peggy's apartment to ask her to join him at the new agency. A heartbreaking moment.
4. The Wheel (Season 1)
Advertising will rarely move us in a truly deep, meaningful way. But when Don Draper pitches the "Carousel" to Kodak, it rocks us to our core (And makes Harry run out of the room crying). Don remembers, if only for an episode, how lucky he is to have the life he has. He races home, ready to embrace his family, but instead finds his house empty.
3. Signal 30 (Season 5)
Season 5 of Mad Men was largely about Pete Campbell's devolution into Don Draper 2.0, and thus, his road to the very same depression that plagued Don Draper 1.0. Although this episode is famous for the Laine-Pete fight, it's Pete crying to Don in the elevator that really seals this episode's greatness. "This is an office. We're supposed to be friends."
On top of that, the episode finishes with a Ken Cosgrove voiceover reading his thinly veiled short story "The Man with the Miniature Orchestra," aptly describing Pete's melancholy: "He thought it might've been living in the country that was making him cry. It was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear." It's a beautiful, tragic moment. One that perfectly captures the essence of the show from it's inception, culminating with one perfectly timed drop of water.
2. The Suitcase (Season 4)
It's no coincidence the first episode was Peggy's first day of work. This show has always been about Don & Peggy at its core. Even when they go whole episodes without interacting, their odd boss/employee - father/daughter - brother/sister relationship will always be there. In the Suitcase, they're given an entire episode, coinciding with the very bottom of Don's post-marriage bender and the loss of the "only person who truly knows him." But by the end of the episode, there's no doubt he found someone new who truly knows him.
1. The Other Woman (Season 5)
The episode where Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce sell their soul, if they had anything left to sell, that is. To land the prestigious Jaguar account, a car executive makes it clear he wants a night with Joan. If he gets her, they get the car. Don is the only board member against the idea. He plays the knight in shining armor, which provides a rare but always superb Joan & Don moment. His moment of good-hearted chivalry is done in Godfather-esque fashion in one of the two best scenes in movie or television over the last year. What's the other scene? That would be the end of the episode, where Peggy and Don share a moment so touching, so heartbreaking, it made me cry. It's the rare heartstring-pulling television moment the show actually earns. Simply put, this is the best episode in Mad Men history, and one of the best in television history.