Mad Men has been one of the most emotionally dense and darkly funny television shows of the 21st century – with a rich tapestry of great characters and storylines, including Joan’s constant magnificence, the heist of the agency at the end of the third season, and the hidden strengths of the Draper wives and his neglected kids.
But there are still moments that have stood out as deeper and funnier than others in this brilliant series, and here are 10 of them (in no particular order) -
1. “This device isn't a spaceship. It's a time machine.”
Mad Men: The Carousel from ray3c on Vimeo.
Don Draper’s first great ad pitch comes at the climax of the first season, and is for a cheesy slideshow carousel machine, but he ends up turning into a meditation on memory and happiness and love that leaves everybody in the room gasping. And it’s made all the stronger with the knowledge that Don did have all these things, but they’re gone now. He is still married, but his family is lost to him, and that happiness only exists in photos.
(It's a speech that is so great, it even sounds terrific when it's done in a voice like Bane from the last Batman film.)
The next time Don is this honest in a pitch, he almost destroys his career by telling the Hershey people about growing up in a whorehouse. But Peggy learns his lessons, and by the current season she has her own devastating pitch meetings.
2. Don gives Peggy some great and terrible advice
The relationship between Don and Peggy is the central relationship of the whole series – a love story without any actual romance. It started early on, with his recognition of her copy-writing talents, but it’s cemented in the moment he visits her in a hospital soon after she has given away her baby, and tells her that it will shock her how quickly she can get over the past and leave it all behind. Because he's done it.
It’s incredibly good short-term advice, getting her out of her depressive state, but it’s also incredibly bad long-term advice, because nobody can ever really leave the past behind. At least Peggy figures that out before Don does.
3. The lawnmower
Mad Men hasn’t been afraid to tackle the big questions of existence, but it’s also not afraid of some blackly hilarious slapstick, with Peggy accidentally stabbing her lover with a home-made harpoon and Joan intentionally smashing a vase over her husband’s head.
But the darkest, funniest moment saw an up-and-coming young exec lose his foot to a ride-on lawnmower being haphazardly driven around the office by the agency’s dimmest secretary. A shocking and sudden event, punctuated by the other corporate big-wigs lamenting - without irony - that he’ll never play golf again.
4. ‘Who cares?’
Don’s big secret - that he’s really Dick Whitman, a nobody from a whorehouse in Butthole, Illinois, who stole a dead man’s name - threatens to destroy his carefully-built world throughout the series, and his reaction to that threat shows just how the character has grown over the years.
But in the early days of the series, when the odious Pete Campbell threatens to expose him to senior partner Bert Cooper, everyone gets a lesson in modern America when Bert turns around and says ‘Who cares?”
The agency’s top man isn’t going to lose his greatest creative force just because of something as unimportant as who he really is, and Pete is left flailing. This is America in the 20th century - it's full of back-stabbing and selfish power-grabbing, but it's also a place where anybody can throw off their past and remake themselves into somebody new.
5. Fisticuffs in the boardroom
Pete might be the only one in the series to really see the future, embracing the capitalist idea of marketing to anybody and everybody, even if they’re not the right colour or sexual orientation, but he’s still a total jerk and it’s always fun to see him stumble around, (sometimes literally).
It all comes to a head when he pushes the stiff-upper-lipped Lane a step too far one day, and after an argument over ‘gum in the pubis’, Lane and Pete have an old fashioned donnybrook, which ends with Pete going down on his ass. It's the most entertaining boardroom fight ever filmed.
6. ‘Not great, Bob!’
Watching the misfortunes of Pete is one of the obvious highlights of the series, especially with actor Vincent Kartheiser’s brilliant comic timing and delivery. His greeting to nemesis Bob Benson in the company elevator is the most perfect delivery of three syllables in the series.
7. Roger gets to fire Burt for the second time
Head accounts man Roger is a horrible and selfish son of a bitch, but he’s also awfully charming and funny, and he loves his job. Especially when that job involves getting rid of somebody he doesn't like.
His second chance to fire Burt Peterson is his finest moment as a likeable asshole, especially because Burt is an even bigger jerk who deserves all the derision he gets (see also: the ongoing humiliations of Harry Crane). It's not so charming when Roger has to do it to somebody the audience actually likes, like Ken in the new series, but sometimes his evil is put to good use.
8. Sealed with a kiss
It might have been a platonic love story, but by season five, Peggy had had enough of Don's dramas, - especially when he's throwing money at her - and left the agency just as it had its first major triumph.
Don could have been a total dick about it when she tells him, but when she offers her hand to shake their goodbyes, he kisses it, and lets her go, and spends the rest of the series trying to get her back.
9. Any time Don Draper is left alone
Don Draper is the neediest character on TV, even though he always consciously destroys the things he actually gets. While he hates being alone, he is often left stranded at bars, and restaurants, and his apartment balcony, and on the sofa in the office, and he always looks like he has the pressure of all existence bearing down on him, a self-loathing existential weight that shows in the tiniest gestures.
Fun fact: Jon Hamm has never won an Emmy for his performance.
10. Family dinner
The most recent episodes from last year were another stunning run, with magnificent moments like Don/Peggy's long-coming slow dance, or Burt Cooper's elegent side-shuffle off this mortal coil, or this moment, where these three people – who have all done horrible things to each other – can sit down and have a meal together.
They're all without family, so they make do with what they have, and Pete is the kid, of course. They've made a touchingly human connection, one that is usually hidden by advertising and artifice. It's Mad Men at its best, and the promise of more of that to come over the next two months is wonderful.