More than episodes or seasons, Mad Men is a show made up of scenes. No other series on television allows scenes of dialogue to breathe and develop quite like AMC’s finely crafted period drama. And with the final seven episodes premiering this week, we’re thinking back to all the great scenes we’ve witnessed over the past seven seasons.
Here, then, is our entirely subjective list of the 24 greatest Mad Men scenes so far, rigorously ranked according to verbal dexterity, visual flair, and emotional impact. Keep in mind, we’re not talking about “shocking moments,” per se, so you won’t find brief but iconic events like The Lawnmower or Roger In Blackface here — just the most satisfying, most immersive slices of 1960s life presented to us by Matt Weiner and his merry band of scribes.
Cheers, Mad Men; here’s hoping the final episodes provide a few more scenes to rank right alongside these classics.
24. Peggy and Joan gossip about Don’s engagement (Season 4, “Tomorrowland”)
Granted, this is a small scene and not high-stakes in the least, but it’s a joy to watch. When news spreads of Don’s engagement to his secretary Megan, Peggy retreats to Joan’s office and the two frenemies share a conspiratorial cigarette and gossip about the new pairing. “They’re all just between marriages, you know that,” Joan sniffs. Peggy shouts that she just signed a huge account, “but it’s not as important as getting married… again.” Watching these two giggle together, we get sad all over again that there won’t be a Peggy-and-Joan-in-the-’70s spinoff. (We’d watch it, Matt Weiner!)
23. Don pays his brother to go away (Season 1, “5G”)
We spotted the first chink in Don Draper’s armor when a man named Adam Whitman came to the office claiming to be Don’s (or “Dick’s,” rather) younger brother. Don feigned ignorance at first and told Adam to go away, but Adam persisted, and Don finally meets him in a seedy boarding house and lays down the law: “I have a life, and it only goes in one direction: forward.” He hands Adam $5,000 (a whole lot of money back then!) and tells him to never contact him again — the first indication of how far Don would go to sweep his past under the rug.
22. Ginsberg gives Peggy his
heart nipple (Season 7, “The Runaways”)
Computers can drive anyone crazy, as we learned from one of Mad Men's more bizarre, surreal plot twists. Ace copywriter Michael Ginsburg was always a bit of a kook, but the firm's adoption of a room-size supercomputer sent him over the edge. Here, he confesses his feelings for Peggy and assures her he's all better now: “I realized it was the waves of data. They were filling me up. I had to find a release.” With that, he hands her a small jewelry box, containing… his severed right nipple. “It's weird… they'll sew it up, but they won't take it off,” he calmly explains. “I had to do that myself.” With eligible bachelors like this to choose from, it's no wonder Peggy is still single.
21. “I’m Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana” (Season 3, “My Old Kentucky Home”)
Early in her copywriting career, Peggy already had a reputation for being a wet-blanket workaholic; when Kinsey and Smitty are stuck working over the weekend and decide to toke up in the office, they don’t even think to invite her. When she interrupts the party, Kinsey gets defensive (“I need it for inspiration”), but Peggy shocks them (and us) with the immortal declaration: “I’m Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana.” The guys can hardly believe it as she takes her first hit… along with a few tentative steps into the swinging ’60s.
20. Don and Lane share a drunken night out on the town (Season 4, “The Good News”)
Drunk Lane Pryce is the best Lane Pryce. Early in Season 4, Don and Lane find themselves alone in the office over the holidays and decide to get stinking drunk and paint the town red together. They share a flask and hoot and holler through a Godzilla movie; they commiserate over their recent divorces at a swanky steakhouse; they heckle a comedian at a smoky comedy club with prostitutes on their arms. The highlight: Lane drunkenly holding his steak over his crotch like “a big Texas belt buckle” and shouting, “Yee-haw!” Who says Mad Men isn’t funny?
19. Don and Betty lay in bed together at Bobby’s camp (Season 6, “The Better Half”)
As horrible as Don and Betty were together, it’s an undeniable thrill to see them rekindle their flame, post-divorce, at son Bobby’s sleepaway camp. But their post-coital conversation over a shared menthol cigarette proves things are much different between them now. Betty is happy with Henry, and knows better than to imagine a future with Don: “I love the way you look at me when you’re like this… but then I watch it decay. I can only hold your attention so long.” Don confesses that, for all his affairs, the physical act of sex doesn’t mean that much to him: “Why is sex the definition of being close to someone?” Betty just feels bad for Megan: “That poor girl… she doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.”
18. Don visits Peggy after she has her baby (Season 2, “The New Girl”)
This flashback shows us the aftermath of Peggy’s surprise pregnancy from Season 1… and a crucial bonding moment between her and Don. As she lies in a hospital bed after giving birth, Don sits down at her bedside and gives her advice he’s taken himself: “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” It’s advice that Peggy takes to heart, and the moment cements the relationship between boss and underling; now they both have secrets to keep, and pasts to leave behind.
17. Don listens to “Tomorrow Never Knows” (Season 5, “Lady Lazarus”)
There’s plenty of generational sea change swirling around in Season 5, and it all comes to a head here as Megan gives Don the new Beatles album Revolver, and tells him to play the wildly psychedelic album ender “Tomorrow Never Knows.” As John Lennon sings “Turn off your mind/Relax and float downstream,” we see a montage of how much Don’s world is changing around him: Peggy getting stoned and working late with Stan Rizzo, Pete falling in love with his neighbor Beth Dawes (the heart on the window!), Megan leaving SCDP to pursue her acting career. Don finally turns the record off… he’s had enough change for one night. (And for one decade.)
16. Don and Betty tell the kids they’re splitting up (Season 3, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”)
The flipside to the exciting adventure of Sterling Cooper scheming to fire themselves — more on that in a bit — is the harsh reality of Don and Betty’s divorce. (Damn, this is a great episode. Top 5, probably.) Here, after a season filled with bickering and an ugly bedroom confrontation, Don and Betty sit Sally and Bobby down to break the news that Don’s moving out. The kids’ confusion is heartbreaking: Bobby says, “Is this because I lost your cufflinks?” and Sally lashes out at Don, “You said you’d always come home.” Of course Don and Betty were toxic together, but it still hurts like hell to watch their family get torn apart.
15. Don and Joan share a drink, and a laugh (Season 5, “Christmas Waltz”)
It’s rare that we get to see Don and Joan share a scene together, so let’s savor this one. After test-driving a beautiful red Jaguar, the two head to a bar, both nursing emotional wounds. (She’s getting divorced; he’s feeling distant from Megan.) We learn why Don never made a move on Joan — “You scared the s—t out of me,” he tells her — and she laughs at his dumb hat. We get the sense that they both know each other too well to ever actually hook up, but there’s definitely more than a spark between them. Don even asks her to dance… but Joan wisely declines. It’s just as well. We probably couldn’t handle it.
14. Betty tells Glen how sad she is (Season 1, “The Wheel”)
Betty’s unsettlingly intimate relationship with neighbor boy Glen was one of Mad Men's odder subplots, but it demonstrated just how much of a scared little girl Betty was on the inside. Here, after a fight with Don, she spots Glen in a grocery store parking lot and opens up to him: “I can't talk to anyone… I'm so sad.” They hold hands as she weeps: “Please tell me I'll be okay.” But Glen's helpless and can only say “I wish I was older,” leaving Betty to deliver a gut-punch of a life lesson: “Adults don't know anything, Glen.”
13. Roger and Jane drop acid… and each other (Season 5, “Far Away Places”)
Roger was always up for a good party, so it’s not a shock when he agrees to dabble in LSD with his wife Jane. The psychedelic effects are subtle but effective (Roger hears a Russian marching band when he unscrews a bottle of vodka, and sees Bert Cooper’s face on a five-dollar bill), all set to the melancholy strains of the Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” But it’s his and Jane’s shared epiphany that they don’t really belong together that makes this a pivotal scene long after the drugs wear off; they’re finally able to tell each other the pure, unvarnished truth. Jane: “You don’t like me.” Roger: “I did. I really did.”
12. Ted tells Peggy he’s moving to California (Season 6, “In Care Of”)
We thought Peggy might have finally found true love in Season 6 with married colleague Ted Chaough… but once again, it ends with her heart being ripped in two. She and Ted had been planning a life together, but here, he informs her he’s moving to California with his family and leaving her behind. At first, she blames Don (“I can undo this”), but Ted tells her it was his idea: “I love you that deeply. I can’t be around you.” She angrily orders him to get out, and when he meekly adds, “Someday you’ll be glad I made this decision,” she drops the hammer: “Well, aren’t you lucky? To have decisions.” If we’re making a case for how ridiculous it is that Elisabeth Moss doesn’t have an Emmy yet, this scene is Exhibit A.
11. Betty confronts Don about his desk drawer of secrets (Season 3, “The Gypsy and the Hobo”)
Here, the long-fraying marriage of Don and Betty finally disintegrates: She demands he open his locked desk drawer that contains the evidence of his true Dick Whitman identity. At first, he resists and makes excuses, but Betty knows all his tricks by now: “You’re a very, very gifted storyteller.” They sit down at the kitchen table and Don lays his soul bare, but that drawer is the last straw for Betty: “I can’t trust you. I don’t know who you are.” Finally, he shows her photos of his real family, including younger brother Adam. “He came to me for help… and I turned him away,” he sobs.
10. Megan sings “Zou Bisou Bisou” for Don’s birthday (Season 5, “A Little Kiss”)
The Season 5 premiere delivered one of Mad Men's most ambitious set pieces: a sprawling, 10-minute stroll through Don's surprise birthday party at his lavish new Manhattan pad. Loose strands of witty banter intermingle with signs of the turbulent times (Bert debates the Vietnam War with Peggy's hippie boyfriend Abe), all capped off by Don's new wife Megan seducing him with a sexy rendition of the French pop tune “Zou Bisou Bisou.” Don's feeling a little uncomfortable (and old), but the envy in the room is palpable; when Roger asks Jane, “Why don't you sing like that?” Jane replies, “Why don't you look like him?”
9. Pete reveals Don’s secret identity to Bert (Season 1, “Nixon vs. Kennedy”)
That sneaky weasel Pete Campbell thinks he has Don backed into a corner when he snoops around and discovers Don’s Dick Whitman past. He tries to blackmail Don into giving him a promotion, but Don calls his bluff — and calls out his “deep lack of character” and “five-dollar haircut.” When Pete insists he’ll tell Bert Cooper, Don goes to the old man himself: “I won’t let you hold this over my head.” Pete does blab to Bert… but he shocks them both by responding with a blasé “Who cares?” He flatly dismisses Pete’s concerns: “This country was built and run by men with worse stories than whatever you’ve imagined here.” In your face, Campbell!
8. Peggy tells Pete she had his baby (Season 2, “Meditations in an Emergency”)
With the Cuban Missile Crisis looming and the world on the brink of nuclear annihilation, Peggy finally drops the bomb she’s been holding in since the end of Season 1. When the very married Pete tells Peggy he wants to be with her (“I wish I had picked you then”), Peggy coldly replies, “I could have had you in my life forever, if I wanted to.” She tells him she had his baby and then gave it away — an extra devastating blow, because Pete and his wife Trudy have had trouble conceiving. We almost felt a shred of sympathy for Pete Campbell here… almost.
7. Don bares his soul during the Hershey’s pitch (Season 6, “In Care Of”)
For nearly six seasons, Don put all of his energy into maintaining the Don Draper mystique… and then, in one pitch to Hershey’s executives, it all comes crashing down. Don starts out strong, spinning a fake tale about his father buying him a Hershey’s bar as a kid, and the clients eat it up. But then Don breaks down and tells the truth: “I was an orphan… I grew up in Pennsylvania in a whorehouse.” He recalls how he used to steal loose change from johns to scrape together enough money for a Hershey’s bar: “It was the only sweet thing in my life.” The pitch bombs spectacularly, and leads in part to Don being put on indefinite leave — but it’s a breakthrough for Don, as he finally starts to come to grips with his dual identity.
6. The Sterling Cooper team plots to fire themselves (Season 3, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”)
Things looked grim for Sterling Cooper when their British overlords PPL plotted to sell them off to rival McCann Erickson. Don, Roger, and Bert plead with Lane for a chance to buy back the firm, but Lane resists: “I should fire you for even trying to involve me in this conspiracy.” That sets off a light bulb above Don’s head: Why can’t Lane fire them all, voiding their contracts and allowing them to start their own firm? They assure Lane they’d make him a partner, and that they can cobble together enough accounts to stay afloat. Lane finally wears down, declaring with a wry smile, “Well, gentlemen… I suppose you’re fired.”
5. Peggy quits (Season 5, “The Other Woman”)
The complicated relationship between Don and Peggy comes full circle here when she asks to see him in his office. She takes a sip of whiskey to steel her nerves and thanks him for guiding her career, before informing him she’s leaving SCDP for a job at rival ad firm Cutler Gleason & Chaough. Don tries to laugh it off at first, thinking it’s a ploy to get a raise. But Peggy’s serious: “It’s time for me to move on.” Then Don becomes angry and mean (“Let’s pretend I’m not responsible for every single good thing that’s ever happened to you”), but Peggy remains calm: “You know this is what you would do.” Finally, Peggy offers a handshake… and Don takes her hand and kisses it, as Peggy sheds a single tear. The range of emotions Jon Hamm goes through in this scene alone earns it a spot on this list.
4. Lane and Pete trade punches in the office (Season 5, “Signal 30”)
This surprise round of workplace fisticuffs is so vastly entertaining — partly because it’s so out-of-the-blue for a normally quiet, calm series, and partly because it’s just so satisfying to watch Pete Campbell get punched in his stupid face. Lane is infuriated after learning Pete had been meddling with the Jaguar account; after a few insults are exchanged, Lane rolls up his sleeves, calls Pete “a grimy little pimp” (!), and commands him to put up his dukes. Then they throw down right there in the boardroom with Roger, Don, and Bert looking on. In fact, Roger speaks for all of us when he says, “I know cooler heads should prevail… but am I the only one who wants to see this?”
3. Don pitches the Kodak carousel (Season 1, “The Wheel”)
Throughout Season 1, we heard tall tales of Don’s spellbinding ad pitches, but we didn’t see him at the absolute top of his game until he pitches Kodak executives on their new slide projector. Don sells them on the power of nostalgia (“a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone”), using the projector to show photos of his own happy family — and at a time when he and Betty were bickering, giving the scene an extra layer of poignancy. We don’t blame Harry Crane one bit for breaking down in sobs.
2. “That’s what the money is for!” (Season 4, “The Suitcase”)
"The Suitcase" — hands down, Mad Men's best episode — finds Don and Peggy at odds: Peggy's frustrated because she's stuck at work on her birthday, and Don's avoiding calling to check on an ailing Anna Draper. Here, their animosity finally boils over, with Peggy begging for a little credit for coming up with the award-winning Glo-Coat campaign. (Peggy: “And you never say 'thank you'!” Don: “That's what the money is for!”) It's a raw, tense exchange, but nearly every line is a gem, and the emotional bruises suffered here do lay the groundwork for Don and Peggy to establish an even deeper bond
1. Don and Peggy share a slow dance (Season 7, “The Strategy”)
Is this recency bias at work? We don’t think so, but the fact that this powerhouse scene comes in one of Mad Men's final episodes isn't a coincidence; it's basically the culmination of Don and Peggy's entire relationship. It's a spiritual sequel to “The Suitcase,” with the two working on a difficult pitch for Burger Chef together. Peggy resists going with the traditional nuclear-family angle: “Does this family exist anymore?” But then the conversation turns personal; Peggy confesses she doesn't know anything about being a mom, and Don reassures her: “I worry about a lot of things… but I don't worry about you.” Then Sinatra's “My Way” comes on the radio, and Don takes Peggy's hand for a sweet, platonic slow dance. Peggy lays her head on Don's chest, and he tenderly kisses her head. We never want it to end… kind of like Mad Men.
The final episodes of Mad Men premiere Sunday, April 5 at 10 p.m. on AMC.