Tuesday, May 19, 2015

'Mad Men' Greatest Hits - The Top 20 Episodes, Part 2: #15 - #11

On Sunday night, AMC’s Mad Men wrapped up its extraordinary eight-year run. You can read my full review and analysis of the finale here, and now that the series is over, we are spending an entire week bidding farewell to this incredible show by counting down the Top 20 episodes from throughout the run. Things kicked off yesterday with #20 - #16, and will continue through Thursday with two more installments. This is Part 2, with #15 - #11 on the countdown.

So without further ado (and, it goes without saying, with spoilers), let us continue our walk down Mad Men memory lane, with Part 2 of the Mad Men Greatest Hits, after the jump…

15. Souvenir (Season 3 Episode 8)
Written by Lisa Albert and Matthew Weiner; Directed by Phil Abraham

“Well, you know, when you don’t have any real power, you have to delay things.”
 – Betty Draper

In my review of the series’ penultimate episode, “The Milk and Honey Route,” I noted a tendency for Mad Men to thematically pair Betty and Pete together, even though the two rarely met over the life of the series. Yet the commonalities between the two are clear – Betty and Pete each feel compelled to follow the conservative 1960s feminine and masculine ‘scripts,’ respectively – and “Souvenir” is one of the best episodes to tackle that idea. It is essentially a dual-narrative episode (there is also a subplot with Sally, but it is so brief and lightweight as to be irrelevant) that tells two short stories.

On one side, we have Betty continuing to try enriching her domestic life – here by helping future husband Henry Francis on a campaign to save a local reservoir – before accompanying Don on a brief trip to Rome. And while I would not call “Souvenir” the ‘best’ Betty episode, I certainly think it is the most dynamic and thoroughly human showcase the character ever received. Both at home and in Rome, Betty just seems so alive and vibrant and complex – between feeling attracted to Henry, having lingering love and hatred for Don, in her dissatisfaction with life in Ossining, in flirting with Don and others in Italian, etc. – and January Jones is nothing short of stupendous in this exquisite showcase. Betty Draper is an incredible character in this episode, as she often was, and while I have “Shoot” and some other Betty showcase hours higher on this countdown, I’m not sure if there is a single Betty hour I would more quickly point towards to silence the character’s haters than this one.

In the hour’s other half, we have Pete, facing a weekend alone at home while Trudy is out of town, and who winds up doing one of the worst things he or any other Mad Men character ever does in coercing his neighbor’s German au pair into sleeping with him. It is a painful and ugly story, ultimately, but also a fascinating one, as it starts in a fairly innocuous place – Pete meets the woman in the hall, and tries to help her with a problem – and continues with a fairly lighthearted tone until reaching its horrifying conclusion. What Pete does is absolutely inexcusable – there really is no other word for it but rape – yet what makes the story provocative is how Pete clearly thinks he’s following an established social script. I don’t know if he sets out to help the au pair thinking he will get a sexual favor in return, but when he returns the dress near the end, he has this instinct – shaped by masculine figures in his life like Don Draper, Roger Sterling, and others – that the natural next step is a sexual encounter. When she refuses, he pushes until it happens anyway, because he thinks that is what he, as a ‘man,’ is supposed to do. The power of “Souvenir,” then, comes in watching two people boxed in by the social constructions of masculinity and femininity – and the varying horrible and repressive things that happen when these notions dictate our lives.
14. The Other Woman (Season 5 Episode 11)
Written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner; Directed by Phil Abraham

“Oh, this car. This thing, gentleman. What price would we pay, what behavior would we forgive, if they weren’t pretty, if they weren’t temperamental, if they weren’t beyond our reach and a little out of our control? Would we love them like we do? Jaguar. At last, something beautiful you can truly own.”
 – Don Draper

This quote, from the pitch Don gives to Jaguar at the episode’s climax – and which is intercut with Joan, the night before, prostituting herself to Herb from Jaguar in exchange for a partnership – forms the crux of an episode that is, on the whole, the most damning statement Weiner and company would ever made about the corrosive nature of patriarchal structures. “The Other Woman” is one of the more controversial episodes Mad Men ever did, and easily one of the most uncomfortable to watch, but I also believe it to be one of the most essential. Of all the great 21st century TV cable dramas from this period, Mad Men was by far the one with the best and most developed female characters, and also the most directly feminist in its approach to exploring how women navigate a male-dominated world. In “The Other Woman,” Weiner and company put the extremes of that world under the knife, in an hour that is all about how, in patriarchal structures, women are viewed and treated as objects. The symbolism of the Jaguar pitch is far from subtle, but then, the notion of Joan being manipulated by the partners into trading her body for upward mobility, or Don throwing a wad of cash in Peggy’s face in a moment of frustration, is hardly quiet in expressing a point of view either. “The Other Woman” is an angry and heartbreaking episode about the way men feel they need to ‘own’ the women in their lives, and how those women, in turn, react when confronted with this reality.

Joan’s tragic story is at the center of things, and I am still, several years and many viewings later, unsure about whether or not the episode presents these events in the best way possible. The choice to withhold Joan’s ultimate choice from the viewer, and only present it out of sequence during the Jaguar pitch, makes for both an incredibly powerful emotional punch – Don is the only partner who actively opposes the prostitution plan, yet layering his words over Joan’s fate underlines his inherent complicity in what happens – and feels like a bit of a narrative cheat for a show that so rarely broke with established style. Whether Joan would do what she was does here is also, of course, up for debate, but that is one of the things I value about this episode – it is complex and enigmatic, but not in a way that, for me, ever feels inorganic or unearned.

After all, “The Other Woman” is structurally predicated on the contrast between Joan and Peggy, two characters who have long provided differing lenses towards feminine agency in the 1960s. Their intelligence, independence, and talent makes them similar, but where Peggy quickly developed a belief in breaking down barriers, Joan, up to this point in the series, always felt she needed to find success in working within those socially defined lines (hence her marriage of partial desperation to Greg, AKA History’s Worst Monster). In “The Other Woman,” that contrast takes center stage, as Joan finds upward mobility by resigning herself to the worst of what this patriarchal system expects, and Peggy moves up in the world by taking a meeting with Ted Chaough, and realizing there are actually people who value her talents above her gender.

As complex and powerful as all this material is, it really is the final scene – in which Peggy tells Don she’s leaving, and Don falls to pieces at the same moment he’s feeling horrible about what happened to Joan – that pushes “The Other Woman” into the series’ uppermost echelon. The range of emotions Jon Hamm displays in that sequence – going from disbelief, to anger, to pettiness, to confused and frightened grief – and the melancholy determination Elisabeth Moss displays in return, is simply marvelous. The image of Don kissing Peggy’s hand, and then refusing to let go, is as layered and aching a visual as the show ever devised, and the final moment – of Peggy, standing at the elevator, grinning at her newfound freedom to the sound of “You’ve Really Got me Going” – is an incredible rush. “The Other Woman” is an imperfect episode, but also an immensely powerful and rewarding one, an hour that reveals new layers of sadness and complexity to me every time I revisit it.

13. My Old Kentucky Home (Season 3 Episode 3)
Written by Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner; Directed by Jennifer Getzinger

“I’m Peggy Olson. And I want to smoke some marijuana.”
– Peggy Olson

Really, this episode is probably worth its spot on the list for the above quote (and accompanying moment) alone, as it is rightfully one of the show’s most amusing and iconic lines. Yet when one considers that “My Old Kentucky Home” also includes Pete and Trudy dancing the Charleston, Joan playing the accordion and singing in French, Don’s first encounter with an as-yet unidentified Conrad Hilton, and the horrific spectacle of Roger in blackface, it becomes readily apparent that this is simply one of the most memorable episodes from the entire run of the series.

It is also one of the most elegantly structured, with the ensemble divided into three different weekend socialization rituals. Don and the senior-level management at the agency attend Roger’s old-time Kentucky Derby party; Joan hosts a dinner for Greg and his medical friends; and Peggy and the junior copy-writers, forced to work over the weekend, obtain marijuana from one of Paul’s college friends and get high. Each ‘gathering’ features a different musical performance – Roger’s blackface routine, Joan and the accordion, and Paul being goaded into singing a capella – and offers contrasts between varying generations. Roger’s party is like stepping into the past (blackface included), while for Peggy, the marijuana represents something new and contemporary, which she embraces fully. Joan, meanwhile, is stuck between eras, trying to be the good 50s style housewife in hosting this event, but unable to hide the talented and expressive individual she is deep down.

As sharp and insightful as the structure proves itself, the greatest strength of the hour is the opportunity it creates to watch all these characters bounce off each other, at length, sometimes in unexpected combinations. The episode breathes beautifully, and that it hosts so many all-time great Mad Men moments under one roof is a testament to just what a spectacular handle the script has on these characters (and to Jennifer Getzinger’s quietly stunning direction – the image pictured above, of Peggy inhaling pot for the first time, on the couch, is one of my favorites). There are certainly bigger and more eventful Mad Men episodes than this, but few that are so moment-to-moment satisfying.

After all, any episode that includes Peggy laughing and declaring “I am so high” after listening to Paul sing has to be a classic, right?

12. Waterloo (Season 7 Episode 7)
Written by Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner; Directed by Matthew Weiner

“I have to talk to people who just touched the face of God about hamburgers.”
– Peggy Olson

“Waterloo” is another of those episode where simply listing off all the great moments it plays host to – Peggy’s climactic pitch to Burger Chef, Peggy’s unexpectedly emotional (and funny) goodbye to tenant Julio (“I don’t want to go to Newark!” “Nobody does.”), Burt Cooper saying “Bravo” upon seeing the moon landing, Roger’s takedown of Jim Cutler (and subsequent hilarious exclusion of Harry Crane from partnership), etc. – would be enough to make it an obvious inclusion on this list. “Waterloo” is simply masterful, a finale to a 7-episode season that lands as hard as the conclusion to any of the full-length runs, and which brings each of the characters to places we’ve been waiting to see them go for years. Don finally, officially handing the baton off to Peggy, realizing his own obsolescence and letting her make the Burger Chef pitch – “Maybe that’s the way it always should have been” – and then seeing Peggy give her own masterpiece pitch – her version of Don’s iconic ‘Carousel’ pitch, in essence – is one of the most satisfying bits of character arcing the show would ever do.

But for me, it all comes down to one moment in particular, and that is the last scene, in which the ‘ghost’ of Burt Cooper appears before Don and sings “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” If I am ranking the all-time best Mad Men moments, that goes in the top ten, no questions asked. That Weiner and company would be audacious enough to let Robert Morse, their famous musical theater actor, break out a rendition of a song he once helped make famous, at this most crucial turning point in the life of Morse’s character and the series as a whole, simply stuns me. The performance and choreography itself is simply wonderful, and the sense of surprise at seeing it unfold never fails to leave me feeling stunned.

More importantly, though, the song comes when Don – and the audience – needs to hear it most. The narrative through-line of Season 7A is Don putting his professional life back in order, and in “Waterloo,” he succeeds at that goal rather spectacularly. His protégée comes fully in to her own, he and Roger maneuver to kick Jim Cutler out of the agency, and he redeems himself in the eyes of the other partners by making them all obscenely rich. The sense of victory and joy when Don and company win the day is so all-consuming that “Waterloo” feels like it very well could be a series finale…

…until Don walks down the stairs, and sees a vision of his departed friend and mentor, and is reminded that “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” And in one of Jon Hamm’s best moments of silent, expressive acting, Don’s eyes well with tears, and the viewer follows suit. Even before we had seen the final half-season, Cooper’s declaration felt painfully prophetic. There could not be a more powerful way to kick us into the series’ home stretch.   

11. In Care Of (Season 6 Episode 13)
Written by Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner; Directed by Matthew Weiner

“Not great, Bob!”
 – Pete Campbell

Speaking of spectacular season finales, “In Care Of” is a doozy. This is my only pick from Season 6 in the top 20, but do not take that to mean I look down upon this season. I actually think Season 6 is one of the most provocative and powerful years the show ever delivered, dark and challenging in so many wonderful ways, and if it has fewer obvious stand-out installments than other seasons, that is in large part because this finale is so good, so cumulative and impactful, that it simultaneously towers over the rest of the season while representing everything it did so well. That Season 6 could push us towards an hour like “In Care Of,” which includes elements as tonally diverse as Don’s tragic Hershey pitch and the black comedy of Pete’s mother being potentially murdered at sea, speaks to just what a rich year of television this was.

The Hershey pitch is of course the centerpiece here, easily a ‘Top 5’ Mad Men moment, and we shall get to that shortly. What makes “In Care Of” so marvelous on the whole is how it uses the central narrative of Don’s disintegrating professional and personal lives as a backdrop against which to frame a whole lot of dark character material. Some characters are picking up the pieces – Joan’s personal life is stabilizing in the aftermath of divorcing Greg, and after a year in which Roger’s entire family distanced themselves from him, she allows Roger to become part of their son Kevin’s life – while others are grappling with the line between success and disappointment. I never cared much for the affair between Peggy and Ted, but the contrast here between that relationship falling apart – and Peggy becoming ‘the other woman’ she never wanted to be – in the midst of Peggy rising higher than ever before at the agency gives Elisabeth Moss some wonderfully meaty material.

And Pete, of course, experiences the roughest week of his life, in what is undoubtedly the show’s best concentration of tragicomedy this side of “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.” First his mother is killed at sea by Manolo – her caretaker/short-term husband/Bob Benson’s lover and co-conspirator – and after confronting Benson, Bob quietly shuts Pete down by humiliating him in front of Jaguar, causing Pete’s entire professional life to crumble. This is simply a terrific episode for Vincent Kartheiser, above and beyond his all-time greatest comedy moment from the life of the series – watching the “Not great, Bob!” clip is an easy way to make any day better – and the strange way the hour pays off on the many mysteries of Bob Benson – one of my favorite Mad Men supporting players – is equal parts hilarious and terrifying.

But the crux of the hour is, again, Don, who after realizing how desperate and sad every corner of his life has become, quietly implodes during the Hershey pitch. It is a piece of writing I cannot help but reproduce here:

“I was an orphan. I grew up in Pennsylvania, in a whorehouse. I read about Milton Hershey and his school…and I read that some orphans had a different life there. I could picture it. I dreamt of it. Being wanted. Because the woman who was forced to raise me would look at me every day like she hoped I would disappear. Closest I got to feeling wanted was from a girl who made me go through her Johns’ pockets while they screwed. If I collected more than a dollar she’d buy me a Hershey bar. And I would eat it alone in my room with great ceremony…feeling like a normal kid. It said sweet on the package. It was the only sweet thing in my life.”

Even reading that monologue, I feel my jaw drop, and tears welling in my eyes. In the moment, with Weiner’s steady direction and Jon Hamm’s utterly remarkable performance – I would rank this right alongside the carousel pitch in “The Wheel” and his meltdown in “The Gypsy and the Hobo” as one of his best scenes in the series – the sequence is downright overwhelming. The major shifts in the status quo it leads to – Don being kicked out of the agency, and then taking Sally and his children to see the whorehouse he grew up in – just make the moment resonate all the more. And when taken as part of the incredible whole that is “In Care Of,” this hour is easily one of the series’ best.

Come back tomorrow as our journey through Mad Men's greatest hits continues, with #10 - #6 on the countdown, and throughout the week as we say farewell to this incredible show.

Read all my previous Mad Men reviews and coverage at this link.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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