'Mad Men' seasons' best episodes stun, sizzle


The cast of “Mad Men” in the season three finale, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” one of the most exciting and essential episodes of the series. (Photo courtesy of AMC)

Warning: This article includes spoilers for the first four seasons of “Mad Men.”

With “Mad Men’s” fifth season premiering Sunday, The Daily Texan worked through the first four seasons of AMC’s hit drama and found five essential episodes for catching up.

Season 1, Episode 1 — “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” — A lot of shows are struggling to find themselves in their pilot episodes, but “Mad Men” introduced audiences to Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) and the rest of Sterling Cooper with the same sure-handed confidence that guides the show today. The first scene of the series is an instant classic, but even better is the scene where Don Draper conjures up a pitch for the moguls from Lucky Strike Cigarettes out of thin air.

Season 1, Episode 12 — “Nixon vs. Kennedy” — “Mad Men’s” first season gives a lot of screentime over to Don Draper’s secret past, and “Nixon vs. Kennedy” shades in the final details of how Dick Whitman became Don Draper. The episode also gives us a languorous sequence as the office drones watch the results pour in from the titular election that’s filled with the small character details that “Mad Men” does so well. What makes it really memorable is senior partner Bertram Cooper’s (Robert Morse) reaction to an underling’s attempt to blackmail Don with knowledge of his true identity: a terse, characteristically Randian, “Who cares?”

Season 2, Episode 12 — “The Mountain King” — Season two doesn’t have quite as many striking moments as its peers, but “The Mountain King” is a spectacular episode featuring a transformative performance from Jon Hamm, whose Don Draper has decided to cast away his old life and live out his days as alter ego Dick Whitman. It seems like Hamm is playing an entirely different character here, and it’s startling to see Don so relaxed and friendly. Back in New York, a British company with deep pockets is circling Sterling Cooper, Peggy gets her most triumphant moment to date when she lands her own office, and Joan (Christina Hendricks) is at her most hollow and defeated after a traumatizing encounter with her fiancée in Don’s office.

Season 3, Episode 6 — “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” — “Mad Men” catches a lot of flak for its languid pacing, and up to this point, season three certainly takes its time with any significant plot movement. It turns out that creator Matthew Weiner was just getting all the pieces into place for this explosive episode, where plots like Joan’s impending departure from Sterling Cooper, the new company dynamic and Don and Betty’s new child all come to a head. Not to mention the macabre moment when a British executive’s foot meets a John Deere lawn mower, which is “Mad Men” at its most brazenly outlandish.

Season 3, Episode 11 — “The Gypsy and the Hobo” — Season three is distinct for its unshakable sense of impending doom, illustrated through the changes at Sterling Cooper and the collapse of the Draper marriage. When Betty finally learns the truth about Don’s past, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and the resulting confrontation is Jon Hamm’s finest moment on the show, from the tremble in his fingers as he tries to light a cigarette to the pain he evokes with a lengthy monologue about his late brother. It’s a wonderful, cathartic episode that also features a welcome look at Roger Sterling’s life before World War II.

Season 3, Episode 13 — “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” — “Mad Men’s” season finales are unpredictable. The biggest plot developments usually transpire in the penultimate episode, and finales are the denouements, but season three closes with one of the most entertaining episodes “Mad Men” has ever produced. When Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) jump ship to start their own agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, it makes for a gloriously satisfying heist film of a finale. It also gives us one of the sweetest moments in Don and Peggy’s relationship and a sense of excitement and momentum that carries over into season four.

Season 4, Episode 7 — “The Suitcase” — Up to this point, season four saw Don in a downward spiral as a result of his divorce and his rising star in the advertising world, and all it takes is a long night with protege Peggy to shake him out of it. “The Suitcase” shrinks the show’s exceptional ensemble down to just Hamm and Moss for most of its runtime, and the show’s dialogue is at its most crisp and nuanced as they trade barbs and, eventually, Don voluntarily shares part of his past for the first time. “The Suitcase” is probably the finest episode “Mad Men” has ever produced, and it’s because of the painstaking detail that’s gone into creating the Don-Peggy dynamic, the audacity of building an entire episode around the duo and especially Elizabeth Moss’ remarkable performance.

Season 4, Episode 13 — “Tomorrowland” — Remember how I said “Mad Men” has unpredictable season finales? Well, it’s hard to pick a more shocking plot twist on “Mad Men” than the romance that blossoms between Don and his secretary Megan (Jessica Paré). Throughout the episode, Don is disarmingly happy and honest, even letting his kids in on some of the key Dick Whitman mythology, and audiences get one of his best sales pitches ever when he unexpectedly proposes to Megan one morning. Going into the fifth season, we’re left wondering if this relationship is just Don at his most impulsive or if he’s serious, not to mention the fate of the financially ailing Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Printed on Friday, March 23, 2012 as: Previous episodes inspire anticipation