I fancy myself to be a connoisseur of good television. Yes, I review some guilty pleasure shows on here (Glee, True Blood, The Walking Dead), but I pretty much spend half of my posts opining how those shows fail to live up their reputation. Most of my favorite programs are things that are no longer on the air and I haven’t gotten around to reviewing them on this blog because I’ve been spending my time watching series that I’ve never seen before. I may not be writing about all of the top-tier shows I’ve loved over the years (though I may eventually if I decide to rewatch them), but with the exception of The Corner (which is a miniseries so it doesn’t even count), there probably isn’t a single show I’ve reviewed so far that would actually make my top five series of all time. Only Breaking Bad and Buffy would likely crack my top ten. So, when I say that there was an episode of Mad Men on this particular disc that I consider to be one of the greatest episodes of television that I’ve ever seen, it means a lot. Nothing that had come before in this series prepared me for the exponential leap in quality that the show suddenly made. If this means that Mad Men is finally transforming itself into a truly top-shelf program, count me in because these last four episodes were some of the most sharply scripted television I’ve ever seen.

We finally get a look at what makes Duck tick this episode. Duck is divorced with two kids who can barely stand to be around him. He ruined his marriage with alcoholism, and even though he’s on the wagon now, his wife and children still want nothing to do with him. His wife is getting re-married and Duck is being stuck with the family dog. Though it was originally his only friend in the marriage, realizing that his wife has finally found another man nearly pushed Duck to drink. He doesn’t put when he’s done he releases the dog (a gorgeous breed) out onto the streets of NYC without a word. I literally gasped out loud during that scene. Peggy feels left out of the work in the office despite being one of the copy writers. So, with advice from Joan, she decides to start acting more like one of the guys so she can experience more success including visiting a strip club with the creative boys to celebrate signing a client. Don becomes part of the upper echelon of Sterling Cooper (though the show is a little unclear about what that means) and he buys a new car (though we get a quick flashback to his younger days as a car salesman where the real Don Draper’s wife confronts him as a fraud. Don has one last romantic rendezvous with Bobbie Barrett but he realizes how much she bothers him and he leaves her tied up in the hotel room. Ken wants Sal to proofread one of his short stories so Sal invites Ken over to dinner with his wife Kitty (even though Sal is obviously gay and has feelings for Ken). It is one of the most heartbreaking and awkward scenes of the whole series. Roger also begins a relationship with Jane, Don’s new secretary, after stopping her from being fired by Joan for breaking into Mr. Cooper’s office.

Shit really hits the fan though at a party celebrating Jimmie Barrett’s TV series being picked up for 39 episodes (something that would never happen on modern TV). Jimmie has been able to deduce that Don is sleeping with Bobbie and he tells Betty his feelings on the matter. After Don unintentionally offends Betty by making her part of a “sell” for beer company Heineken on how effective his ideas on product placement would be, she calls him out for sleeping with Bobbie. Though he denies it throughout the whole disc, she refuses to believe him and searches the entire house trying to find any shred of evidence that Don’s had an affair. Even though she can’t find anything, she still calls Don at the office and tells him not to come home. Don is forced to live out of a hotel room and they have to come up with lies to tell the children about why he isn’t home. Betty is a frazzled mess who looks like she isn’t showering or sleeping or changing her clothes. She just wanders through life like a zombie as their maid takes care of Sally and Bobby. Fred Rumsen, one of the account executives, pisses himself and passes from his drunkenness and is let go by the company, and Peggy takes his spot. While Peggy is happy for the promotion, she’s unhappy that it came at the cost of another man’s job and that Pete Campbell ratted Fred out in the first place.

I’ll talk about all of the other episodes later, but “A Night to Remember” is undoubtedly one of the five best episodes of television that I’ve ever watched. Maybe it’s the way that Matthew Wiener has allowed these characters to grow so much over the last season and a half and the way that they already felt so well defined, but in “A Night to Remember,” every single scene was bursting with so much authenticity that it was all almost too realistic to take in. Every moment seemed like it was playing out in two different worlds. There was the actual action and conversations that were taking place which were moving things forward at the face level, but it was the layers and layers of subtext in each word, in each hesitantly uttered phrase, in each sigh or furrow of the brow that spoke volumes about where our characters were. I often complain that Mad Men suffers from a bit of a pacing problem because episodes are often filled with one-shot filler stories. This episode had two filler story lines (Peggy working on the poster for Father Gill, and Joan helping Harry read scripts), but each of those stories moved those characters forward in significant ways. When Joan was let go as the script reader, Christina Hendricks imbued her with so much heartbreak and pain that I thought for sure we’d finally see Joan crying in the bathroom. It’s a testament to this show’s storytelling restraint that we didn’t.

“Six Months Leave” (the final episode of the disc) was nearly as good as “A Night to Remember” and was arguably less disjointed (though I’ll still always prefer “A Night”). There are so many different group dynamics on display in this show. There are so many cogs in the wheel of Sterling Cooper and their family members that you can lose track for a minute of when one person’s seemingly minor actions can have major consequences for another individual. Don and Roger discuss Don’s crumbling marriage which inspires Roger (with Don’s intention) to leave his wife Mona for Don’s secretary Jane. Don is simply talking about how he doesn’t understand why we put ourselves through the pain of marriage as a way to justify his actions with Betty and he ends up ruining another man’s (already ill) marriage in the process. Peggy is simply trying to get by as the only woman in an all-boys misogynistic club, but Pete trying to take care of a problem and advance himself manages to get Peggy a promotion. Fred Rumsen falls asleep at a commercial which causes Jimmie Barrett to insult the Utz family which ends with Don having to do damage control which results in Don sleeping with Bobbie which is the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back of his marriage. To quote The Wire, “All the pieces matter,” and in the giant jigsaw puzzle that is Mad Men, that sentiment is certainly true.

John Slattery impressed me more than any other cast member during this particular disc. If Elisabeth Moss is the unsung here of the cast (as I’ve said in the past), John Slattery is the prop player who sits quietly in the background making everyone else look better. He’s often such a quiet force in the episodes. He certainly takes a back seat in plot to Don or the rest of the boys/girl in creative. Yet, when he shows up, he commands the screen. He’s even more roguish and hedonistic than Don. Yet, Slattery (along with the script) turns Roger into one of those men that you might despise on some level for the callousness of his deeds, but you have to root for him because he’s such an inherently likeable guy. Even when he does something like leave his wife for a secretary, John Slattery pulls your heartstrings towards Roger in the confrontation scene at the office because you can see the pain he’s in but you also see the effort he takes to stay composed. Bryan Batt (Sal) was also a real difference maker on this disc because his scenes with Aaron Staton’s Ken Cosgrove were a brutally honest display of the small pleasures you had to take in life as a closeted gay man in the 1960s.

I’ve used this analogy before as Mad Men being a puzzle where all of the pieces aren’t there yet, and we’re only slowly given more and more pieces as the show continues.  In that regard, Mad Men then is often about the small moments within any given episode. As the series goes on, you get more and more of what’s happening, where these characters are headed, and why they continue to put each other through all of these hells. But on an episode by episode basis, you simply have the puzzle pieces in front of you. Most of your revelations about what’s happening on a deeper level don’t come until you’ve turn the episode off and thought about it. Thankfully, these little moments (the pieces I’m referring to) are so memorable. When Betty smashed a chair to pieces or realized that she was part of a game that Don was playing with his workers, those were defining moments of an episode. When Sal keeps Ken’s lighter as a memento of his visit, that’s a defining moment of the show. Joan and Roger have one last sexually charged conversation in his office before it’s revealed that he’s left Mona for Jane. These moments all build up, but to me Mad Men seems like a show built on a never-ending wave of moments. And somehow, it makes that work.

I’ll stop rambling about how brilliant this season is and refrain from going into a large spiel about how it’s “stories by a series of moments” structure serves as a metaphor for the reality of life as compared to the neatly plot-driven lives of TV characters, and instead implore anyone reading this article that has somehow managed to not start watching Mad Men yet that they must. This is the season where the show may be finally growing the beard. I had always enjoyed the show before and I thought the final four episodes of Season 1 were worth of an “A,” but I almost want to retroactively take that score back, because it wasn’t until now during these last episodes that I finally saw the ultimate potential of this series for intimately detailed, character driven storytelling. There are more textures, layers, flaws, and details in the most minor characters on Mad Men as there are in the main characters of most prime-time dramas, and it’s that sort of mature, intelligent storytelling that makes Mad Men such a blessing in an often barren TV environment.

Final Score: A

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