With Mad Men returning this Sunday for the first half of its final seventh season, you won’t have enough time to rewatch all 76 episode. But there is time to rewatch a single, important episode from each of the show’s six seasons. The episodes we’ve selected aren’t necessarily the best or the funniest or the most significant episodes of their seasons; instead, these are the episodes that best illustrate each season’s theme and purpose. Mad Men isn’t just a linear show; what happens in season one comes up again in season six, and patterns of thought and behavior cycle through again and again. Watch these six episodes and you’ll be reminded of the man Don Draper claims to be.
SEASON ONE: “NIXON VS. KENNEDY”
The Wheel gets all the glory, and everyone remembers Roger barfing on the carpet in “Red in the Face,” but “Nixon” usually gets overlooked. But there’s a lot in this episode, and not just because we learn about the actual mechanics by which Dick Whitman became Don Draper. This is when Pete plays what he thinks is his trump card — he has a shoebox of Don’s personal artifacts — yet winds up with nothing. He doesn’t have the upper hand; he doesn’t have Don’s respect; he doesn’t have Bert’s cooperation. Such is the saga of Pete, the guy who will never be as successful as he thinks he will.
“Nixon” is also the first time we hear Don talk about fleeing to California. He rushes to Rachel’s office and begs her to flee with him, and just as she’s caught up in the moment, she stops herself. “You don’t want to run away with me, you just want to run away,” she tells him. We see this behavior from Don over and over — think of Dr. Faye telling Don that he “only likes the beginning of things” — where he sees women as an escape hatch.
In current episodes of Mad Men, Peggy’s a badass. She’s well respected, and she has strong, positive relationships with Joan, Ken, the various secretaries, and most of the employees of Sterling Cooper and Parters. But it was not always like this! In season one, Peggy was the object of ridicule, and while everyone else was getting drunk and performing “Death Is My Client,” Peggy was back in Brooklyn. When she comes to the office in the morning, she’s horrified by the vomit-filled garbage cans and general havoc. Plus, someone stole $3 out of her locker, and when she complains, everyone teases her. Eventually she cries to Don that “people hate [her].” “Innocent people get hurt, and other people, people who are not good, get to walk around doing anything they want. It’s not fair,” she tells him. This could be the thesis of Mad Men: We do not live in a just world. People on Mad Men don’t get what they “deserve.” Some of us, like Don, are more comfortable with that fact than others.
SEASON TWO: “THE NEW GIRL”
Some of us still think of Rachel Menken as Don’s perfect mate. But rare is the person who still thinks this about Bobbie Barrett, Don’s showbiz-savvy mistress in season two. Don doesn’t even seem to like her that much; sleeping with her is sleeping with his own self-loathing. In this episode, he drunkenly crashes his car, with Bobbie in the front seat — and he calls Peggy to come bail him out of jail. Which she does. We see in flashbacks that Don is the only person who visited Peggy when she was in the hospital following her pregnancy, and in these scenes we hear Don espouse his borderline sociopathic philosophy: “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”
Everyone on this show gives Peggy advice at some point, and on “New Girl,” it’s Bobbie’s turn. “You have to start living the life of the person you want to be,” Bobbie tells her with a whiff of condescension. It’s the sort of advice that sounds empowering for a second (be whomever you like!), but is actually alienating and scary (abandon yourself and have no roots!). Bobbie and Don are both proud of the degree to which they were able to invent themselves, but Peggy’s able to see them as cautionary tales; when no one knows the “real” you, one can become unmoored.
SEASON THREE: “GUY WALKS INTO AN ADVERTISING AGENCY”
You remember this one. It’s the one where Lois runs over Guy’s foot with a tractor. And while that’s certainly one of the show’s most memorable scenes, it’s not the only reason the episode is important. Recall that the tractor is being driven around during Joan’s going-away party; it’s her last day at Sterling Cooper because she’s marrying Greg. Peggy pulls Joan aside and tells her, “I don’t want you to think I never listened to you. It’s just … we can’t all be you.” Joan had mercilessly bullied Peggy in the first two seasons, and even earlier in season three Joan scolded Peggy, telling her that her roommate ad “reads like the stage direction from an Ibsen play.” So this is a gesture of forgiveness on Peggy’s part, and a pretty big one.
All of season three is a lead-up to the Kennedy assassination, and while the characters of course don’t know that, the audience certainly does. In “Guy,” there are a few images of Joan looking an awful lot like Jackie Kennedy, sitting in the hospital in a blood-stained dress, glassily staring off toward the horizon. In season two’s “Maidenform,” we were told that Joan is “a Marilyn” — or rather, that maybe Marilyn Monroe is really a Joan — and here we see her as a Jackie, though in the worst possible context. “That’s life. One minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute some secretary’s running you over with a lawn mower,” Joan says to Don in the waiting room. She’s being wry, but that’s one of the themes of the season: Violence is pervasive and random, and there’s nothing anyone can do to avoid entropy.
We also get a solid look at just how lousy living in the Draper house really is. “Guy” takes place just after Baby Gene’s birth, when Sally is convinced that the baby is a reincarnation of his namesake, her beloved grandfather. Betty’s attempts to placate Sally, first by punishing her for being too “clingy” and later by getting her a Barbie doll that’s “from” Gene — “Babies get fairies to do things. You know that,” Betty tells her. Sally has been on the receiving end of some pretty terrible parenting, and what might be the most damaging to Sally is that her parents very rarely listen to anything she says. It’s bad enough to be ignored, but to be completely dismissed can make someone stop trusting themselves. Sally’s told repeatedly that her fears are stupid, that her behavior is shameful, that she can’t be trusted — this is not a recipe for raising stable, well-adjusted kids. Sally’s eventual rebellion won’t be for nothing; she’s got plenty to resent about the way she was raised.
SEASON FOUR: “THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS”
The most important episode of season four is obviously “The Suitcase,” and it might be the most riveting episode of Mad Men ever. It’s also been rewatched and picked apart by every fan of the show, which is why I’m picking “The Beautiful Girls” here — it’s with the assumption that you’ve already seen “The Suitcase” multiple times.
“The Beautiful Girls” is the episode where Mrs. Blankenship dies. Where Sally pours rum on Don’s French toast. Where Sally totally wipes out running down the hallway at Sterling Cooper. Where Megan kneels down and comforts her. We know how season four ends up — with Don dumping Dr. Faye on her ass and running off and marrying Megan — and “Girls” is when those wheels really start turning.
Don demands that Dr. Faye talk to Sally, interact with Sally, take care of Sally — something Faye has never shown any interest in, nor aptitude for. She tells Don as much, and he apologizes, but this is the beginning of the end for these two. And not because Don puts his children first. Ha! No. Because Don wants to be the women he sleeps with, and when he realizes that Dr. Faye is just a regular person with flaws and shortcomings like everyone else, she loses her appeal.
As Don and Faye start drifting apart in “Girls,” Peggy and Abe kinda-sorta start getting together, until Abe writes an article criticizing Sterling Cooper client Filmore Auto Parts’ racist hiring practices. He claims he thought she’d be proud that she inspired him, and this is one of our first clues that Abe might not be a great match for Peggy, since he doesn’t really listen to her. “I have to say, most of the things Negroes can’t do, I can’t do either, and nobody seems to care,” Peggy tells him. “Half of the meetings take place over golf, tennis, in a bunch of clubs where I can’t be a member, or even enter. The University Club said the only way I could eat dinner there is if I arrived in a cake.” He pooh-poohs this. “All right, Peggy, we’ll have a civil rights march for women,” he says, dismissively. Don’t be fooled by his progressive posturing, Pegs! This is a guy who’s going to trick you into buying a crappy apartment building that you don’t want.
Finally, “Girls” is on the rewatch list because it’s the episode where Kevin Harris is conceived. Of all the couples on the show, Joan and Roger seem the most destined for each other — not in any permanent monogamous capacity, but these are two people who will never be out of each other’s orbit. Ever.
SEASON FIVE: “SIGNAL 30”
Season five is all about death. Death imagery pervades the whole season, culminating in Lane’s suicide, and “Signal 30” points to how that unease around death and violence leaks into every aspect of our lives. Pete’s in driver’s ed in “Signal 30,” a perfect setting given how immature he is, and of course during the breaks in class he likes to chitchat with the teen girls about sniper murderers. A plane crash affects the firm’s Mohawk pitch. Ken says Pete’s new stereo is long enough for a man to lay down in, like a coffin. “Saturday night in the suburbs, that’s when you really want to blow your brains out,” Don says.
“Signal 30” is also important because Lane lives out everyone in the office’s dream: He punches Pete right in the face and kisses Joan. Neither are the triumph he wanted, of course, but in their own ways these are small victories. Some of the last victories Lane ever has, sadly. “If they’ve tried to make you feel you’re different from them, you are. That’s a good way to be,” Joan says in an attempt to comfort Lane. Later in the season, in “The Other Woman,” Joan tries to figure out if that advice applies to her as well.
SEASON SIX: “THE BETTER HALF”
What is the purpose of romantic partnership? It’s something Mad Men likes to explore but not answer. What did Betty and Don get from each other? What about Peggy and Abe? Roger and Mona? Roger and Joan? Roger and Jane? In “The Better Half,” that answer seems to be stability and consistency — not that everyone gets it from their marriages or romances, but that’s the goal. It’s why the episode is all about selling margarine: It’s shelf stable and will last forever.
Much of season six is about repeated patterns, namely Don becoming old sleazy Don again, cheating on Megan just like he cheated on everyone else, and in “Half” it comes full circle, with him sleeping with Betty when they go visit Bobby at summer camp. Betty also re-wears a pair of notable earrings in the episode, driving home just how many of these stories are about old habits. Roger shows up at Joan’s apartment, only to be greeted by Bob Benson and his short-shorts — yet another misstep in timing for Joan and Roger. Abe gets mugged, and then Peggy accidentally stabs him, bookending a not-great few days for Mad Men’s favorite activist journalist. Don says in season one that he wants to run away to California; come the conclusion of season six, that’s exactly what’s happening. “The Crash” revisits the ideas of season two’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”
The episode closes with “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me,” because how could we forget?