The power of nostalgia: 10 iconic Mad Men moments

This Sunday, the end of an area begins in more ways than one. AMC’s brilliant series Mad Men returns for its final season, the beginning of the end for one of the best drama shows of the 21st century.

Mad Men premiered on AMC in 2007 and took us back to to 1960, telling the story of a decade in flux with themes that transcend just that time period. The show offers a fascinating window into the past as we see historical events like the JFK assassination and the Moon landing, explore the emergence of civil rights and female empowerment, and get a whole lot of smoke in our eyes.

However, beyond just the fun of peering into a time that’s so radically different from where we are today, the core of Mad Menis a story that could be told in any age. It’s a story about the pursuit of happiness and satisfaction with oneself, and the endless struggle to achieve what we want but feeling like it’s always just out of reach. Don Draper is like a modern version of Jay Gatsby: a man whose life is built on a lie and who comes across to his peers as this fantastical, masculine figure who has it all, but deep inside he’s deeply unsatisfied and endlessly reaching for something he may never have. When Don looks out the window of his office, we can almost imagine a green light in the distance.

Throughout its eight year run, Mad Men has provided us with brilliant moments that depict this theme of loneliness and dissatisfaction. It has also been full of moments that are just plain silly and fun, and the show isn’t always as much of a downer as that description would suggest.

From the carousel to the dancing to a hilariously dark lawnmower accident, here are ten of Mad Men’s defining moments.

Betty tells Glen she’s depressed

In a great moment in the Season 1 finale “The Wheel,” Betty shares a brief conversation with Glen where she confesses how sad and lonely she is. The fact that Glen is the one she is telling this to alone is pretty sad, like she doesn’t feel she has anyone else she can express these feelings to. She certainly can’t talk to Don about them. “Please tell me I’ll be okay,” she begs of him. Glen says he wishes he was older, like being older would help him know what to do or how to help, but Betty responds with “Adults don’t know anything, Glen.”

The Lawnmower

This scene isn’t as profound or symbolic as some of the others on this list, but it has to be included just for how downright insane and memorable it was. During a party where everyone is pretty drunk, one of the secretaries drives a lawnmower around the office. Everyone’s laughing and having fun when suddenly, out of nowhere, the lawnmower runs over Guy’s feet and blood shoots everywhere like something out of a Tarantino film. This is a moment so unlike Mad Men, a sudden burst of almost cartoonish violence, and it’s so unexpected and absurd that it’s actually kind of darkly funny.

Peggy tells Pete about their baby

Towards the end of the Season 2 finale, “Meditations in an Emergency,” Pete professes his love for Peggy and his desire to be with her. Peggy tells him that she could have had Pete and forced him to be in her life, but she didn’t. Pete finds out that Peggy had his baby and gave it away. This scene shows the incredibly powerful acting of Elisabeth Moss, who portrays such incredible sadness here. As she tells Pete, “Well, one day, you’re there…and then all of a sudden there’s less of you. You wonder where that part went, if it’s living somewhere outside of you, and you keep thinking maybe you’ll get it back. And then you realize…it’s just gone.”

The JFK assassination

Every once in a while Mad Men deals pretty expertly with real historical events occurring at the time, and one of the most iconic has got to be their depiction of the JFK assassination. In Season 3 Episode 12, “The Grown Ups,” for the first 15 minutes things are pretty typical Mad Men. Pete and Harry are talking in Harry’s office about the TV department, when out of nowhere everyone rushes into the office in shock telling them to change the channel. Everyone listens attentively to hear that President Kennedy was shot. The phones are ringing off the hook, and as Don strolls in to the office, everyone is gathered together and listening. For the next few minutes we check in on all the characters, and everything the episode had been setting up kind of crumbles away. The show depicts this event with such expertise, showing how quickly a seemingly normal day can turn into a nightmare.

The Hershey’s Pitch

This scene seems to be a pretty normal Mad Men pitch at first. Don is giving a pitch to Hershey’s, a pretty good one at that: he pitches Hershey’s as the “currency of affection,” describing the scene of his father taking him to the drug store and telling him he could get anything he wanted. He describes the allure of the Hershey’s bar, and the fact that his father buying it for him represented his love. Hershey’s is the currency of affection.

But we know this isn’t true. Don grew up an orphan and never experienced as much love as he’s describing here. He’s in the midst of a serious downfall here, and he suddenly has the urge to tell the Hershey’s executive the truth. He tells him that he was an orphan, and was never treated as a normal kid. Unlike this fictional situation he painted for us, Don has never felt wanted by anyone. When he ate Hershey’s was the one time he felt like a normal kid. Now, Don completely breaks down.

This is a huge turning point for the show, and a moment that would lead to Don’s firing later on. But it’s also such a real and authentic moment, and we can’t help but really empathize with Don here. Throughout much of the show he’s putting on this image of the cool guy who has it together, but deep down inside Don is deeply, profoundly lonely, and from childhood, he’s never really known anything else.

Peggy quits

This is a low point in the Don and Peggy relationship, but a high point in Peggy’s career. Earlier in the episode we see Peggy being treated pretty poorly, even though at this point she’s arguably even better at her job than Don is. In a lot of ways Peggy is really kind of the hero of the show, starting as a mistreated, objectified receptionist and rising higher and higher up in the company to the point where she doesn’t even need them anymore. Don at first doesn’t believe Peggy, but when he realizes she’s serious, he offers to match any number to get her to stay. Don tries not to show it at first, but it’s clear how much Peggy means to him. Peggy doesn’t want to negotiate at all, holding firm that this isn’t a decision about money. It’s about respect, and about her ideas being treated equally with everyone else’s. She has the opportunity to be the “Don” of another agency, not just the highest ranking girl below the “Don,” and she takes it. In a tremendously sad moment, Don kisses Peggy’s hand and she holds back tears and leaves. But just when we were feeling pretty sad, the elevator opens and Peggy smiles, excited about what lies ahead.

Don shows his kids where he grew up

For much of the series Don really is sort of a Jay Gatsby like figure, manufacturing an entire life for himself. Don literally steals his identity from someone else, abandoning his old life of Dick Whitman and trying to make something new. A lot of his struggle throughout the series revolves around an attempt to, somewhat dishonestly, erase the past and start new. But in the Season 6 finale, “In Care Of,” Don makes some pretty tremendous progress, in some way letting a bit of Dick Whitman back in. Earlier in the episode we had the Hershey’s pitch, with Don opening up about his real childhood and how tremendously sad it was. Now in the final scene, Don shares some of that reality and pain with his kids, who he decides deserve to know the truth about him. He takes them to the old, dilapidated whorehouse and matter-of-factly tells them “this is where I grew up.” Sally, who has become a pretty mature young woman at this point, looks at Don with a great sense of understanding. Don looks back, and it’s the most authentic, honest Don we’ve ever seen, finally willing to accept who he truly is and where he really came from.

Don and Peggy share a dance

Don and Peggy’s relationship is one of the most well developed and important of the entire series. While he began in a place where he was pretty dismissive of her and her abilities, Don slowly grew to love and respect Peggy, and there’s definitely a large part of Peggy that feels the same way. It’s like a father/daughter relationship, and though the two often struggle against each other, there’s definitely a mutual respect there. One of my favorite Don and Peggy scenes occurred last season in the episode “The Strategy.”

The two share a moment of bonding, opening up about their worries and pain. Peggy is insecure about herself and her future, looking into minivans at happy families and wondering where she went wrong. In a really sweet moment, Don says that he worries about a lot of things — that he has never accomplished anything and that he’s alone — but he doesn’t worry about Peggy. A song comes on the radio, and the two share a dance together. The two have been through a lot together, fighting and even being one another’s rival, but by this final season it appears the two have truly reached a place of mutual respect, and this has evolved into a complex but sweet friendship.

Don breaks down

Season 4’s “The Suitcase” is easily Mad Men’s best episode. It’s something of a bottle episode, focusing just on Don and Peggy as they stay in the office to work late. There are so many iconic moments from this episode alone, but the most affecting comes towards the end when Don makes a call and confirms that Anna Draper has died. He completely breaks down, and this is the most vulnerable we have ever seen Don. Peggy comes to his side, and Don says that Anna was the only person in the world who really knew him. Peggy comforts him and says that that’s not true. This is such a powerful scene that is a true testament to the power of Jon Hamm, and the moment when Anna’s niece says “she’s in a better place” and Don begins to tear up as he says “that’s what they say” is one of the most powerful of the entire series.

The Carousel

In this scene, Don is pitching an ad campaign to Kodak about a slide project which they’re calling the wheel. In a truly inspired pitch, Don talks about the concept of nostalgia. In Greek, it means “the pain from an old wound.” That’s because when we look back at something with nostalgia, there’s always an element of pain to it as we think of a place we’ve left and ache to go again. As Don is talking, he shows old pictures of him and his family during the early years when things were happy. He’s laughing with Betty, kissing her on their wedding day, and having fun with the kids. Looking at these pictures lets Don travel back to a place where he knows he’s loved, in contrast to where he is now. Accompanied by the brilliant David Carbonara score, this is a tremendously sad scene that captures one of the primary feelings of the show: the concept of unhappiness, nostalgia, and the pain of wanting to return to a time we’ve lost forever.

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