I started renting Mad Men DVDs from Netflix in late 2010. I had already heard a lot—way too much, in fact—about the series, and despite having already learned about most of the major plot points, I wanted to see it for myself. It has since become one of my favorite shows, and needless to say, I’m more than a little excited for tomorrow’s long-awaited season 5 premiere.

Originally, I was going to write about my top 10 episodes of Mad Men, but I wanted to be able to discuss each of my favorite episodes in a little more depth, so I reduced the number to five. These are the five that I believe are the best examples of the show’s great writing and acting, and maybe even the ones that best define what the series is all about. (And besides, picking just another five episodes to include with these five just proved too difficult of a decision, which I’m sure any fan of this show can understand!)

If you have never watched the show but plan to, or you’re not done with the first four seasons yet, there are some MAJOR spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk!

5. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Season 1, Episode 1)

Don Draper considers the possibilities for new Lucky Strike advertisements.

With new regulations coming for tobacco advertisements and increasing information about the health risks of smoking, Sterling Cooper’s creative director Don Draper must find a new way to market Lucky Strike cigarettes and soothe the company’s fears about their future. Meanwhile, he is also juggling a bohemian girlfriend in the Village with his picture-perfect wife and children in the suburbs.  The episode also introduces other key characters, including account executive Pete Campbell, office manager Joan Holloway, senior partner Roger Sterling, and Don’s naïve new secretary Peggy Olson, who has no idea just how much her life is going to change after that first day on the job.

The first season of Mad Men, in my opinion, was a bit uneven, but this first episode was a terrific start to the series, immersing us in its complex characters, sharp dialogue, and captivating atmosphere right from the opening scene, and already throwing in a few surprises as well.  It establishes right away that this isn’t going to be a nostalgia piece about the 1960s, but an honest look at the prejudices and bad behavior of the era that people are often quick to forget.  While the series faltered a bit after “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” this episode showed how much potential Mad Men had, and I was very happy to see that potential finally becoming fulfilled by the end of the first season.

4. “Meditations in an Emergency” (Season 2, Episode 13)

After keeping a secret for almost two years, Peggy tells Pete the truth about their relationship.

The nationwide panic of the Cuban Missile Crisis is brilliantly juxtaposed in the second season finale with crises in the lives of the characters. Sterling Cooper is being sold to a larger British firm, and no one at the office is sure what it could mean for the future…assuming there is one. Back at the Draper home, Betty, still separated from Don, receives some unwelcome news: she is pregnant with the couple’s third child.

What stands out most in this fine episode, though, is a cathartic scene between Peggy and Pete. After refusing to leave New York with his wife in order to “escape” a nuclear attack, Pete invites Peggy into his office for a drink and admits that he loves her and “should’ve picked [her] then.” Peggy responds by finally telling him that their brief tryst left her pregnant and that she gave the baby up for adoption. It’s a marvelously written and acted scene, and Peggy’s words to the shaken Pete reveal so much.  She is acutely aware of how much she’s changed during her time at Sterling Cooper; she’s no longer a meek, insecure secretary, but a gifted copywriter with an office who can hold her own against anyone else at the agency. While she a little seems unsure whether all the changes in her are for better or worse, she’s moved on from her onetime lover, and she isn’t letting him or anyone else define her anymore.

3. “Nixon vs. Kennedy” (Season 1, Episode 12)

Don Draper recalls his final moments as Dick Whitman in this flashback to the Korean War.

The employees at Sterling Cooper decide the 1960 election is a perfect reason to throw an all-night office party—a party that has, of course, some unexpected results. The real story here, though, is the revelation of how Dick Whitman became Don Draper—namely, by stealing the identity of an Army superior killed in action. It’s a shocking story that makes one realize the extent of Don’s resourcefulness and his desperation not to return to his old life. I found myself torn between horror at what he had done and understanding that he did what he had to do. Having watched the entire series twice now, I still don’t entirely know what to think of these actions.

Of course, the drama doesn’t stop there. After stealing a box of photographs and other items meant for Don in a previous episode, the ever-sneaky Pete Campbell knows about Don’s past and attempts to blackmail Don into giving him the coveted Head of Accounts position. There’s been tension between Don and Pete since “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and it reaches a boiling point here. It’s the first time we see Don losing control of the situation; he is clearly terrified that his years of lies will be exposed and everything he has worked for will be ruined. However, this cat-and-mouse game between Don and Pete, one of the most gripping story arcs in the series’ history, comes to a conclusion neither of them expects as agency patriarch Bert Cooper steals the show with his answer to Pete’s attack on Don.

2. “The Suitcase” (Season 4, Episode 7)

Peggy and Don grab a bite at a diner after arguing earlier in the evening.

Set against the background of an historic boxing match between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, “The Suitcase” focuses on the complex relationship between Don and Peggy. After Don’s demands for a Samsonite campaign disrupt Peggy’s birthday plans, the two have a brutal argument about Don’s tough treatment of Peggy and who deserves credit for what. Later in the evening, though, the two go out for dinner and drinks and confide in each other more than they ever have. Don talks about his unhappy childhood, while Peggy discusses not wanting what women her age are expected to want. After a surprise confrontation with former Sterling Cooper employee Duck Phillips–also a former lover of Peggy’s–the two fall drunkenly asleep on the couch in Don’s office. The following morning, Peggy comforts Don after he learns that his beloved confidante Anna (the real Don Draper’s widow) has died from cancer—news he’s been avoiding since the previous day.

This is one of the most acclaimed episodes of Mad Men, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a near-perfect combination of wit, emotional rawness, and surprisingly tender moments between Don and Peggy.  These two have often been very hard on each other, but they have also have a connection that neither has with anyone else at the office, or outside of it. Peggy can say things to Don that she can’t say to most other people. Don respects Peggy and her talent, and unlike a lot of other men at the agency, he doesn’t see her gender as any reason for her not to be successful. These are two people who are happiest when they’re working, and despite the tension that arises between them from time to time, on a personal level, they’re more comfortable with each other than with their own families or lovers.  “The Suitcase” does a wonderful job of observing and analyzing all of this without other distractions. Whether there’s a romantic future for these characters or not (I’ve heard it speculated, and I have mixed feelings), this is one of the most interesting relationships on television.

1. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” (Season 3, Episode 13)

A personal end and a professional beginning come together in Don Draper's life.

Who knew that there’d ever be so much action in one Mad Men episode? Just as Don and Betty’s marriage is breaking up, Sterling Cooper and its parent company are for sale to McCann Erickson. Don, Bert, Roger, and Lane know the takeover will destroy their positions and their power, so they decide to take action. With a secretiveness that rivals any well-done caper movie, they get themselves fired from Sterling Cooper, recruit a few key employees to join them, and steal all the important client materials they’ll need for their new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  Because there was so little discussion of the possible sale in previous episodes, this incredibly clever episode is full of thrills and surprises, and it makes the audience feel as if they’re in on the best secret ever. The episode is further boosted by Joan’s return to the office where she belongs, using her managerial skills to help with the transition to the new firm instead of wasting them at home on her irritating, ne’er-do-well husband. Perhaps the best moment, though, is when Don visits Peggy at home after she rejects his offer to join the new firm. He’s been tough on her all through season 3, but he wants to reassure her that he values her abilities. “I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you,” he explains, finally convincing her. It’s an incredibly touching moment and a nice preview of what would happen later on in “The Suitcase.”

Once again, part of Mad Men’s brilliance is its juxtaposition of its storylines. The dissolution of the Draper marriage isn’t exactly a shock at this point, but it’s still heartbreaking to watch Don and Betty explain the situation to their confused, devastated children. Positioning that sad end in Don’s personal life against the excitement and hopefulness of the new agency is a brilliant move, not only because it presents a reflection on endings and new beginnings, but also because of what it says about Don Draper himself. No matter how unable Don is to save anything in his personal life, he will always find a solution when it comes to his work. With its sharp combination of hope and despair, meditation and action, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” is everything we’d come to hope for from Mad Men (and then some), and yet it reveals that nothing on this great show will ever be quite the same.

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