With only a week to go before the final episodes start on Sky Atlantic, what better time to revisit the high points so far? Hannah Dunleavy does so with pleasure.
It goes without saying, but just in case it doesn’t, I LOVE Mad Men, so picking the best bits is hard. Don’s Kodak pitch is beautiful; Pete and Trudy’s Charleston is delightful, and Roger’s first experience with acid is, well, a trip. If you haven’t started watching by now, I’m not going to try to persuade you, but be aware, reading this will be spoilerific for you. And kind of pointless.
Shoot (S1 E9)
“Mrs Draper, what the hell are you doing?”
Aah, Betty, what a divisive figure you’ve been. Much like any TV wife – particularly Breaking Bad’s Skylar White – she’s much hated. And to be fair, there is something in the second Mrs Draper’s particular brand of neediness, bitchiness and questionable parenting that could drive you towards it. Me? I love her. Any time with January Jones is a pleasure, even if post-divorce Betty hasn’t always successfully integrated with the rest of the series,
This episode belongs to Betty, who’s under a psychiatrist for being highly strung (AKA bored out of her brain). So, when a rival agency tries to woo Don by offering his wife a modelling job, she grabs the opportunity with both hands.
But, like the neighbour’s pigeon the Draper dog catches mid-flight, she’s brought down to earth pretty sharpish. She goes to a casting call dressed like – nope, there’s no explaining it – and finds fashion, like so many things, has left her behind. Then, when her husband tells McCann-Erickson to shove it, she’s let go and takes the news in exactly the way you’d expect of Betty.
Over dinner, she lies to Don, saying it was her decision, only he knows she’s lying. Were she a better-rounded human being, she’d probably know that he knew, but Mrs Draper only sees what she wants to see. And then she goes outside, fag in mouth, and starts shooting at her neighbour’s birds.
Betty, you strange and beautiful creature.
The New Girl (S2 E5)
“Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”
An episode which cuts directly from Pete in a sperm bank to Roger frantically beating a paddle ball AND has Freddy Rumsden playing Mozart on his flies, what’s not to like?
So, who is The New Girl? Ostensibly, it’s the future second Mrs Sterling, Jane Siegel, who makes her first appearance here (personally, I’m a big fan of the first Mrs Sterling, Mona). In reality, the new girl is Peggy – wonderful, wonderful Peggy – who, by the episode’s end has made a small but significant leap forward by calling her boss Don, not Mr Draper.
It’s the result of a weird couple of days. He gets leathered with his latest woman-on-the-side, bumps into her predecessor, the now-married Rachel, takes it badly, smashes up his car and gets arrested. Peggy borrows money and a car to bail him out, acquiring, for her trouble, Bobbie Barrett as a houseguest.
The next 36 hours or so prove important to our beloved Miss Olsen, as the older woman dishes out some advice she takes on board (“Be a woman, it’s a powerful business when done correctly.”). Bobbie’s constant prying as to the nature of Peggy and Don’s relationship also sparks a revealing flashback – a truly terrific scene in which Don visits Peggy in hospital after she’s given birth and delivers that remarkable advice of his own.
Guys Walks into an Advertising Agency (S3 E6)
“The doctor says he’ll never golf again.”
It’s easy to remember this episode for the blood-spattered black comedy fest that is Guy McKendrick’s two-day stewardship of Sterling Cooper, but it’s also a dynamite episode for Joan.
When Ken Cosgrove rides Chekov’s mower into the office, it’s her penultimate day and everything looks rosy. Just a few hours later she realises she’s jumped without a parachute, as husband Greg isn’t just a rapist, he’s also not good enough to be a surgeon. It’s a rare day Joan allows her façade to slip, but she does here, bursting into tears during her leaving speech. And not because it was good. (It wasn’t.)
Then perpetual fuck-up Lois hits a career peak, taking her new boss’s foot off with a ride-on mower. (“Just as he got it in the door.” Oh, Roger.) Joan takes charge of the situation and soon realises Lois has done everyone a favour, so it’s heart-breaking to watch her head off into the unknown, carefully maintaining the illusion that everything is under control.
I can’t mention this episode, without noting the gorgeous scene which closes it, the sort of visual loveliness Mad Men excels in. Don comes home to find Sally convinced Baby Gene is a reincarnation of her recently-deceased grandfather. He sits down with his daughter and the baby to explain that, in fact, they don’t know who her brother is yet. Reminding us, of course, that Sally has no idea who her father is yet either.
The Suitcase (S4 E6)
“Bert Cooper has no testicles.”
Almost universally regarded as Mad Men’s best episode (I don’t agree), The Suitcase is about the death of the first Mrs Draper and the World Heavyweight Championship bout between Mohammed Ali and Sonny Liston, both of which occur off-screen.
While most of the office set off to watch the boxing – Roger, rather hilariously, with two recovering alcoholics – Don’s a mess, knowing Anna is close to death in California. He takes it out on Peggy, making her work all night and miss her birthday dinner, inadvertently causing the end of her relationship with dippy Mark.
As the night progresses they have the infamous “that’s what the money is for” fight, get hammered, talk about their father’s deaths and the child Peggy gave away, and try to work out how to sell suitcases. For a bit of light relief, they also find the tapes of Roger dictating his biography which reveal some surprising stuff about Bert Cooper and the comedy goldmine that is Ida Blankenship. (Seriously, Sterling’s Gold has been on the top of my reading wish-list for half a decade.)
By the time Anna dies, Don’s a puke-stained mess and devastated at the loss of the only person who really knew him. Peggy tells him that’s not true but she’s wrong; Don’s compartmentalised his life to such a degree only Anna had a grasp on it all.
Yes, nothing’s really changed by the end of the episode, but it’s a gorgeous diversion and a rare celebration of platonic male-female relationships.
Signal 30 (S5 E5)
“He had chewing gum in his pubis.”
It never fails to amaze me that of the 12 actors nominated for Emmys for their Mad Men performance, none have been Vincent Kartheiser. It’s a sadly underappreciated performance of a sadly underappreciated character: complex, contradictory and extremely funny (albeit not always intentionally) Pete Campbell.
Pete’s changed more than any of the series’ characters and yet managed to stay exactly the same. Yes, he’s gone from being the greatest threat to Don, to his greatest ally and is undoubtedly one of the brightest, most progressive and hardworking people in advertising, but unfortunately he’s also still a self-indulgent tool.
Signal 30 is named after the film Pete watches in his drivers’ ed class, itself named after a radio call sign indicating to the emergency services that a car crash has been fatal. It is Campbell’s lowest hour and Kartheiser and Mad Men’s finest.
There’s a lot fun to be had at the Campbells’ dinner party with everyone in their sports jackets and the third Mrs Draper, Megan, forgetting Cynthia’s name, but the centrepiece is that amazing in-office punch-up between Lane and Pete, spurred by a trip to a knocking shop and a piece of chewing gum.
As the episode closes, with Pete still hearing the drip of the tap that Don’s already fixed, Ken starts reading one of his short stories. It’s not a story he’s written that happens to fit Pete’s situation; it’s a story he’s written about Pete and, as such, it’s the perfect ending to the perfect episode.
Mad Men previews are notoriously spoiler free, so if you want to get excited without ruining anything for yourself, you can have at it here. Roll on next week.936 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.