We’re living in a remarkable age of television, with the opening seasons of shows like Legion, American Gods, and Stranger Things bolstering the medium and assuring viewers that television will be in a fine place even after cultural behemoths like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead come to conclusions.
Yet, there’s no question that a significant era for TV dramas ended in 2015 when AMC’s prestige period piece Mad Men aired the last episodes of its seventh and final season. The perennial critical and Emmy darling served as one of the main flagship vehicles for television in the period after giants like The Sopranos, The Wire and The Shield finished their runs in the late 00s.
10 years ago to the day, Mad Men proceeded forward, anchored by the central figure of Don Draper, a character with depth and complexity befitting grand works of literature. The series further boosted the reputation of television as an artistic rival to film.
Despite not enjoying the massive viewership numbers of Game of Thrones, nor the sheer hype of Breaking Bad, Matthew Weiner’s masterfully rendered saga of the shifting social mores and cultural revolutions in 1960s America was a champion for the medium. Thanks to Mad Men’s layered characters, myriad subtexts and its increasingly experimental structure, television was more evident than ever as a quality platform for genuinely rich, dense forms of storytelling.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Mad Men’s series premiere, here are the 10 finest hours the show had to offer.
10. The Jet Set (Season 2, Episode 11)
The Jet Set makes the cut for the juxtaposition between Don’s leisurely foray into sun-drenched California decadence and the earth-shaking developments moving into place back home in New York City without him.
More than that, though, it’s the way the episode takes the man at the centre of the mad world of Mad Men and charts him on a dreamlike journey into hedonism triggered by his decision to abandon Pete and business engagements, and pursue a path shrouded in intoxicating mystery.
Wholly unnerved by the apocalyptic tone of the latest advances in rocket technology and nuclear arms, Don’s acceptance of the invitation of the strange and wealthy titular jet setters plays like a retreat into a haven. In an surreal haze of sex and idleness, he’s free of the many responsibilities chaining him.
But only temporarily; the Rocket Age is bringing about change more quickly than our characters can handle. With the final reveal that there’s another person in the world who knows of Dick Whitman, Don Draper emerges from the rabbit hole that is The Jet Set with entirely new and wholly enticing dimensions. When he returns home, he’ll find the status quo transformed in his absence - the imminent sale of Sterling Cooper to a British firm beckons new masters for all on the horizon.
It’s a bold move to so suddenly trigger tremors through the foundations of the show without the presence of the main character, but it’s a creatively fascinating one. This is a standout hour in a terrific season.