With the finale still rattling around in my head, I don't think there's any better time for this list. I'll caution that it's been a long while since I've seen the episodes from the earlier seasons, and there are some minor spoilers ahead in the various entries. As always, episodes are unraked and ordered by airdate. And since "Mad Men" refrained from multi-parters, no need to cheat this time out.
"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" - The pilot episode that introduces us to Don Draper and his world. It so wonderfully sets the tone for the rest of the series, showing us the ins and outs at Sterling Cooper, giving us a peek at forgotten gender dynamics of the era, and setting up all the questions and conflicts the show wants to tackle. I love that the divide between Don's work and home life is already hinting at his duality. The pilot was lauded for its unusually high production values, and no surprise that it still looks great today.
"The Wheel" - One of Don's defining moments is the Carousel pitch to Kodak. After an episode full of family crises big and small, Don takes comfort in nostalgia. The irony, of course, is that it's nostalgia for something that doesn't exist. Don's marriage has been built on constant deception, resulting in him coming home on Thanksgiving to an empty house. Trying to leave his past behind leads to his brother's awful goodbye. The first season ends with the divide between Don's image and his inner world more incompatible than ever.
"Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" - We simply must have the episode where the new London executives arrives at the firm in the midst of Joan's farewell party, and there is a terrible accident involving lawn care equipment. Nothing can match the climactic moment for sheer, visceral, jawdropping, impact. However, I also love the subplot where Sally is convinced that baby Gene is a reincarnation of her recently departed grandfather, which is resolved by one of Don's best - and too rare - paternal moments.
"Shut the Door. Have a Seat." - The gang pulls off a thrilling heist in this episode, stealing away the firm's biggest assets and clients from under the noses of their overseas superiors. It's a lot of fun watching everyone band together, raid the offices, and strike out on their own. However, this is also the episode where a far more sobering separation takes place. Betty demands a divorce from Don, and no matter what he promises or threatens, she won't back down. She's the one who ends up pulling off the harder, more daring departure.
"The Suitcase" - Don and Peggy spend an eventful evening together trying to come up with ideas for a Samsonite campaign. In the process, they address many of the long-simmering tensions and resentments between them. It's an excellent, focused, small-scale piece of drama featuring the show's two best characters. The performances are excellent and the writing is spectacular. We learn so much about Don and Peggy as they clash, commiserate, and finally connect on a deeper level than we've ever seen before.
"The Other Woman" - By far the most controversial episode on this list, and possibly of the show's entire run, as it provoked strong responses when it aired. Joan is asked to sleep with a loathsome Jaguar executive to secure the much-needed account, which prompts varied reactions from the SCDP partners. Meanwhile, Peggy is wooed by Ted Chaough to leave the firm. Several storylines come to a head here, but it's Peggy and Don's tumultuous mentor-protege relationship that ends up stealing the show again.
"Commissions and Fees" - Lane Pryce's downfall is the darkest point of "Mad Men's" darkest and most unforgiving season. The episode is also absolutely gorgeous, with its chilly visuals and nocturnal intimacy. I was tempted to include "Signal 30" for Lane and Pete's fisticuffs, but Jared Harris's performance here is a heartbreaker. I found his suicide attempt in the damn Jaguar more affecting than anything that came after, though Don taking matters into his own hands at the end of the hour comes awfully close.
"In Care Of" - You could have ended "Mad Men" at the close of the sixth season, with the Hershey pitch serving as a mirror to the Carousel pitch, and the pair of them bookending the whole series. Don's inner turmoil is finally affecting his work in ways that can't be ignored, and we see the first real signs of impending change. Pete and Peggy also hit low points, including the capper to Pete's season-long struggles with the infuriating Bob Benson. It would have been a glum way to go out, but in some ways very fitting.
"Time & Life" - Another big crisis is looming for the firm, and another daring plan is executed by the Sterling Cooper team. Except this time, things don't go the way anyone expects. The established patterns are being broken and "Mad Men" is quickly drawing to a close. The episode draws heavily from the characters' past exploits together, and it's here that we see everyone starting to say their goodbyes, or at least planning them. The show's creators could be abrupt, but they understood it takes a while to let the big things go.
"The Milk and Honey Route" - Betty was always a complicated character, but ultimately one of the most rewarding to follow over the course of the show. She gets the most satisfying ending, along with Sally, though it's certainly the saddest. Pete also sorts out future plans while Don is out west exorcising his demons, but the main event is really Betty's fate and the reactions of everyone around her. Don's ability to reform will forever be in doubt, but Betty demonstrated that she could and did change with the times.
Honorable Mentions: "Meditations in an Emergency," "My Old Kentucky Home," "A Little Kiss," "Signal 30," "Faraway Places," "The Phantom," "The Strategy," "Waterloo."