Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye

The Quality Of Mercy

“Porpoise Song”, the Monkees

The Quality Of Mercy, Season 6 Episode 12


            Not much overtly happens in this episode, and this song isn’t that lively either. But as a tone setter, both are top notch. The drowsy, ethereal production pairs with Don’s insular guilt, loathing and self-medication as he shuts himself off from everyone. Coming from an unfairly derided “kiddie” band who were quite good once they decided to mature, “Porpoise Song” seems to be (beyond its druggy trappings) a farewell to innocence, and that’s certainly what Sally Draper is going through. They’re slow motion disasters – something has to give, and soon.



“By the Waters Of Babylon”, Babylon

            Another ruminative, hard to pin down track. It’s performed diegetically (the show’s composer is actually in the band!) in a club where Don hangs out with some hipster friends. The episode Babylon has a penchant for Hebrew culture and iconography, given that Don is familiarizing himself with second-generation Jewish immigrant Rachel Menken. Her people’s struggles with exile and longing resonate with Don, who reinvented himself after a tragedy but is always a little uncomfortable.

            He also happens to be doing research for an Israeli tourism client at the time. While chatting about the subject, Rachel explains that Babylon is the promised land, a Shangri-La of sorts. Their relationship seems like that, too good to be true, ships passing in the night and so forth. She makes a point of telling him ‘utopia’ literally means ‘the place that cannot be’. Their exchange gives the folk standard at the end additional significance.

            This episode introduces the complicated romantic history between Roger and Joan, as well. She feels out of place and trapped, despite his good intentions. Meanwhile, Peggy tries to find her own utopia by introducing a creative idea while participating in a female focus group. It’s the first step for her in a long, hard battle against the male-centric workforce. While everyone in this episode is wanting to go to a place that may not exist, the band mournfully sings “By the Waters Of Babylon”, getting the show’s plot on track through the unlikely catalyst of the Middle East.


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I’ll Never Tie You Down

A Little Kiss

“You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”, Dusty Springfield

A Little Kiss, Part Two, Season 5 Episode 2


            “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” is a sweeping, dramatic Technicolor song to kickstart an era, if the episode’s earlier musical number didn’t already do it well enough. Like some moments in the show’s plottier episodes, it gets somewhat lost in the shuffle, but that’s sort of the point. There’s a huge cultural revolution encroaching on SCDP, and this free-spirited tale of swinging and female empowerment leads us along with it. The one relevant element of its lyrics is their similarity to Megan’s predicament – she doesn’t have any expectations or impositions for their marriage, and she learns the hard way that Don has real trouble conveying intimacy.



“Telstar”, The Inheritance

“Love Is Blue”, The Flood

            Season five’s lively premiere brings to mind two other episode closers, both fantastical and luxurious palate cleansers far removed from the show’s usual knotty thematic toppers. Despite having no extraneous connection to any storyline or theme, these hit instrumental pieces capture the mood of the office at their respective times: brimming with vitality in the former, and wistful in the latter.

            “Telstar” is a musical shock for such an early episode, brimming with innovation and futuristic sounds as Don and Pete take off in a first-class jet. It betokens the influx of modern technology and youthful trends, signals toward a new setting and shows a plane ride for the first time on the series. The stage is certainly being set here for the 1960s as we know it.

            Meanwhile, “Love Is Blue” is more classical and melancholy, taking an even-handed approach to ending a story about Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, which could have easily lapsed into preachiness or obvious sentimentality. It reflects on the difficult dichotomies of a whole decade while representing the peace and love that no one can completely attain.


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John Slattery as Roger Sterling and Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in Mad Men.


         As my project winds down to the less profound shorter entries, I wanted to give due credit to the show’s equally amazing use of music during an episode. They may be more situational, and not as cathartic or cumulative as a climactic tune, but these choices are still quite memorable and are far ahead of most other TV music.


“A Beautiful Mine”, RJD2

Every episode

            In a project about Mad Men’s music, it’s impossible to overlook the show’s iconic, stirring theme song. It was sought out for its impeccable balance of retro and modern elements, turning sonic components of a chamber music string quartet into a trip-hop shuffle. It’s glossy yet nostalgic, suggests the melancholy and intrigue to come, and plays alongside some striking metaphorical visuals in the title sequence.

“My Way”, Frank Sinatra

The Strategy, Season 7 Episode 6

            The Strategy’s scene of Don and Peggy discussing their work and lives while reworking the unsatisfying Burger Chef pitch is a coded way for them to apologize for their respective slights and rekindle their friendship. They look back on their accomplishments and evolution, as the audience remembers all the conversations they had in this office, particularly in The Suitcase, which is a companion piece to this episode.

            And then something magical happens. A Frank Sinatra song starts playing on the radio, evoking the era that lay behind them in a symbolic and literal manner. Though it was a huge hit at the time, as Peggy remarks, “My Way” tells a tale of past victories, fondly reminiscing on an uncompromising and successful career. It is a beautiful tale of sentimental bombast, orchestrated in a steadfast and classic fashion. For our two leads and the musician, it represents the culmination of a life, and a message of gratitude and resilience for both parties.

            In a playful, yet reverent turn, the colleagues share a dance, at last on equal footing after a crazy decade. Peggy nestles up to Don for comfort, and Don cradles Peggy for stability. This moment is so staggeringly powerful and climactic that it should have by all means closed out the episode, and not doing so was an unfortunate miscalculation. Yet I won’t hold that against it too much, as this is still one of the show’s greatest sequences.

“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, the Beach Boys

Far Away Places, Season 5 Episode 6

            Jane and Roger’s LSD trip is a seminal moment for the latter’s character development and for the series, welcoming abstract expressionism with panache and pathos. The sad and prosaic revelation that it engenders makes the Beach Boys a superb pick for an introspective breakdown. Their 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds was an emotionally intimate and sonically vivid diary of an album, and Brian Wilson’s childlike evocations of longing suit Roger to a tee. Every plotline and conversation he has seems to be a power struggle, so determined is he to prove his mettle and earn the admiration of his peers. Therefore, it makes sense for him to dive headlong into youth culture accompanied by this rueful song about feeling out of place. The cinematography of the whole sequence is stunning, to boot. Another one of the series’ best scenes.

“Ebb Tide”, Ken Griffin

A Little Kiss, Part One, Season 5 Episode 1

            Mad Men’s effective introduction to the swinging Sixties, following a child’s dreamlike excursion through her period-furnished home to the strains of an acid-tinged pop instrumental. It’s brief and disconnected from the episode it precedes, almost like a wordless prelude.

“Zou Bisou Bisou”, Jessica Pare

A Little Kiss, Part One, Season 5 Episode 1

            If the last song didn’t do the trick, this bravura full-cast set piece and musical number definitely will. It’s perhaps the most widely seen and remembered scene of the entire show, and though the cultural revolution gradually penetrates the story in dribs and drabs, this is its guns-blazing statement of purpose. In fact, it’s so outlandish for Mad Men up to this point that it unsettles Don (well, technically it’s the fact that his wife is more gregarious and free-spirited than he, but either one works). Megan’s performance is sexy and daring, not to mention beautifully choreographed, with phenomenal set design and great reaction shots in cutaways throughout.

“I’m A Man”, Spencer Davis Group

Time Zones, Season 7 Episode 1

            Don’s arrival in L.A. in the season seven premiere is extremely rousing. It’s not even that important theme- or plot-wise; it exists as pure iconography. A Mysterious Man in Sunny California greets the Beautiful Starlet in Slow Motion in a Red Convertible while she takes the Wheel.

            The song only reinforces this, with groovy sensation & sexuality that’s already an anachronistic throwback, before either character knows that this venture is headed south. Don goes from being a weary traveler clumsily shaving on a plane to a facsimile of the confident sex symbol he once was. Megan may not be having the success she appears to project, either. This sequence is a ravishing introduction to a brave old world.

“Band Of Gold”, Don Cherry

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Season 1 Episode 1; In Care Of, Season 6 Episode 13

            Singer Don Cherry’s “Band Of Gold” is a stately swing ballad. It shows up a few different times, notably in the first scene of the series, and with Don at perhaps his lowest point in season six spending a night in jail for assaulting someone. It’s a full-circle scenario, and encompasses his failed marriages and circular behavior in one lyrical image. Its idealistic, archaic sound also evokes memories of the past, a tactic I’m aware the show uses a lot. But this track is its apotheosis.

“Hi Lilli Hi Lo”, John Slattery

Lost Horizon, Season 7 Episode 12

            This tune pops up in brief, rudimentary fashion as a diegetic performance in one of Mad Men’s most emotional, fun and surprising stories. It’s easy to overlook, as Peggy flits about on roller skates while Roger accompanies on miniature organ in the gutted remains of SC&P. But basic research into the lyrics reveals a sweet goodbye of a children’s song whose heartbroken wisdom, put charmingly and plainly, is a fantastic button on Roger’s story. “A song of love is a sad song, for I have loved and it’s so.”

“The Twist”, Chubby Checker

The Hobo Code, Season 1 Episode 8

            This scene is important for many reasons. It establishes Peggy and Pete’s adversarial, sibling-like friendship after their ill-advised tryst. It’s also an early indicator of the show’s effortless showmanship and style. There are many nuanced character moments amidst the dancing and canoodling. And, more than any song featured up to that point, it reinforced the pivotal role 1960s music would have during the series’ run.

“Bye Bye Birdie”, Ann Margaret

Love Among the Ruins, Season 3 Episode 2

            The narrative linchpin of a season-long ad campaign, this clip (from the movie of the same name) opens episode two of season three. Its anachronistic cheeriness and tame sexuality is amusing, and its mysterious allure is remarked upon by all the male characters. The Ann Margaret performance serves a sort of mantraic function in the season, being repeated in various contexts. In fact, the Patio Cola spot it inspires gives Sal Romano a satisfying spotlight arc.

“September In the Rain”, the Wedgewoods

Lady Lazarus, Season 5 Episode 8

            Far from feeling like a stab in the heart, as Ginsberg says, this charming little pop tune is a favorite of mine. To be fair, it’s a dated relic of the moptop era, but that quality is important to the bait and switch of the episode’s plot.

“Baby Jane”, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels

For Immediate Release, Season 6 Episode 6

            This brief clip fills a pop music vacancy in an otherwise tremendous, eventful episode, serving as a brash transitional lubricant. Even when the song wasn’t the centerpiece or a didactic cornerstone of an episode, Mad Men knew how to use a quick fill in a practical and stylish way. This one obviously references both the city the ad men are in and the pitch they’re fighting for.

“C’est Magnifique”, Christina Hendricks

My Old Kentucky Home, Season 3 Episode 3

            This performance of a traditional number shows an idiosyncratic talent of Joan’s (and Christina’s!) while conveying some deep regret through her vocals and mannerisms. The episode it appears in also has an amusing a cappella diversion with Paul Kinsey, as well as a brilliant dance sequence for Pete and Trudy. With these many memorable melodic interludes, it does seem at times like Mad Men truly was all about the music.


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The Only Life I’ve Ever Known

Public Relations

“Tobacco Road”, the Nashville Teens

Public Relations, Season 4 Episode 1


            Here is a song so uncannily married to the episode it’s in – theme, storyline and all – that it could serve as an example of the heavy-handedness detractors find in the show. But it’s a worthy payoff to a characteristically coy season premiere. Plus, it’s a rousing climax, even as it’s being mixed over a conversation and slow camera pull-out.

            “Tobacco Road” serves as a dramatic exclamation point to a somewhat elliptical episode. After the massive changes of any given season finale, and the inevitable time jump, Mad Men premieres are very sly and stingy with how much information they dole out, answering burning questions in an oblique and patient fashion. In this opener, the audience’s desire for candid plot reveals after the agency shakeup is contrasted with Don’s aversion to openness. This tension is resolved with his chastising pitch and boisterous final interview hinting at all that has happened in the last year.

           We see this in the episode to some extent: SCDP got a modern, groovy office and new, younger staff members. Some characters have gone through a sea change in their personality, like Sally and Peggy (the latter of whom engineers a guerilla marketing stunt and now banters brusquely with the boys). Others are as reserved as ever, like Don and Betty.

            The audience knows instinctively from Don’s problems and overall arc that he’ll have to reconcile his troubled past at some point, and the turbulent culture of the decade will serve as a backdrop to his self-improvement. Fittingly, this tell-all hard knock memoir of a tune plays when he comes clean about the new agency, an important step on the road to his emotional well-being. Its lyrics betray the secrets lurking under Don’s pretense, perfectly reflecting his impoverished upbringing, the tragic fates of his parents, and his inner hobo’s life strategy to “blow it up, start all over again”.

             Despite his showmanship in the second interview, this blustery pop hit shows the ‘real Don Draper’ everyone in the hour was mentioning. It packs a surprising garage rock punch for a new era of politics and pop culture, while also foreshadowing the plot implosion of the seasonal arc with its title. Change is sometimes slow to take effect in the halls of SCDP, but this ending is an electrifying sign of things to come.


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Look Out Your Window And I’ll Be Gone

The Wheel

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, Bob Dylan

The Wheel, Season 1 Episode 13


            The Wheel’s climactic Bob Dylan track is one of the scant few songs in the show that is presented anachronistically, this one because it was at the end of a first season with no future in sight, and so the creator wanted to potentially wrap it up on his own terms. There are only a handful of Dylan tunes I outright enjoy in and of themselves, and judging from its use here, this is one of them. The mood of regret and emptiness is palpable as Don sits on the stairs in solitude and ponders his life of running away.

            First we’re shown a family reunion, where all is forgiven and the illusion of happiness is sustained. But the jarring cut to a lonely stairway dispels that fiction. In some ways, this is the first crack in Don’s armor, subverting the charm of his good looks, glamorous job and placid family life. His regret manifests itself in a soul-wrenching ad pitch for a rotating slide projector, of all things, justifiably regarded as one of the show’s high points. In it, he explores the value of nostalgia and pain using photos of his own life. Knowing his dark past as we now do, his deep sadness becomes clear while Dylan’s ballad undercuts it with telling bluster and pretense.



“Bleecker Street”, The Suitcase

“Early In the Morning”, A Night To Remember

            The Wheel’s conclusion recalls two more plaintive acoustic songs in the show’s run. The first, “Bleecker Street” is a humble, cryptic ballad that closes out the most critically acclaimed episode of the show. With the delicate poetry of The Suitcase’s one-on-one drama, Simon and Garfunkel’s tune may well symbolize the entire politicized New York folk scene that followed Beatlemania, of which the duo were a critical part.

            As the soundtrack plays a quietly picked guitar and breathy novelistic lyrics, we see the closed-off Donald Draper make an attempt at openness and honesty that’s unprecedented and monumental for him, leaving his office door ajar in the rejuvenating light of morning. Between his two favored underlings, Peggy and Pete, he has shared every painful secret of his past, and found valuable companionship with them (particularly the former). After a night of work and fraternizing, he and Peggy bond over their mutual respect and passion for creative endeavors. Meanwhile, Cassius Clay changes the face of celebrity and youth culture overnight with a blindsiding knockout. And on the other side of the country, Anna Draper finally succumbs to cancer, inevitable news that Don was avoiding the whole episode, and a burden he bravely shares with his protégé.

            Earlier in the series, Colin Hanks performs a longing rendition of a traditional folk number in the episode A Night To Remember. He seems to sublimate his urges toward congregation member Peggy with this (somewhat secular) hymnlike song. His reticence for the future and resolute hopefulness are both reflected by “Early In the Morning”, a paean for a spiritually lost age.


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Come On And Take It

A Tale Of Two Cities

“Piece Of My Heart”, Big Brother And the Holding Company

A Tale Of Two Cities, Season 6 Episode 10


            This pick is a bit of a fun lark, but still somehow has a measure of gravitas (perhaps not despite, but because of how dryly silly the situation is). The episode itself is full of interesting parallelism, metaphors and plot developments. But I can’t for the life of me figure out how it fits into the closing tune. Instead let’s focus on the character in that last shot: Pete Campbell.

            Pete’s whole character has been an exercise in making the audience feel empathy for someone who is usually an unpleasant scoundrel, and for the most part, the writers succeeded. He is visibly upset and constrained by the expectations of his blue-blood upbringing, the various demands of strait-laced masculinity (including the veneer of success that he obsessively pursues), and his own impetuous immaturity, which makes it difficult to remain a faithful family man.

            That last factor makes him a sort of kindred spirit to Betty, who is also trying to grow into the mold the world has set for her while developing as a person. For the most part, Pete follows in his mentor Don’s aimless footsteps, making similar mistakes, but essentially trying to do what is right. Don is hard on him, but they’re also protective of each other when it comes down to it. Roger and Joan loathe him, being as he is an unctuous example of the younger generation.

            His relationship with Peggy is thorny and complex, given that they start out the series unwittingly conceiving a child after a one-night stand. The sometimes brutal honesty and understanding they share as contemporaries withstands the entire decade, though they naturally grow apart from each other at work and as people.

            Eventually, Pete has a mild redemption arc in the show’s endgame after years of seeming like an obstacle or boor to others. (Notice, however, that he tends to be in the right about social issues, albeit in the most insulting ways possible.) In this episode, he is nearing that sympathetic turning point, having become alienated from his family, bored with romantic affairs, stuck in a rut at his job, and facing his mother’s deterioration into dementia. After years of behaving in a neurotic, stuck-up manner, old-fashioned Peter Campbell cannot take it anymore and smokes a joint to relax, blowing impressive smoke plumes while checking out a nubile young secretary.

            This scene is overlaid with the sounds of yet another super-famous Sixties band. Janis Joplin sings a defiant song that seems to reflect all the abuse Pete has taken (and given out, as it’s about a jilted woman) over the course of the show. Meanwhile, Don, Roger and Harry have some misadventures on a California vacation. Roger is assaulted and Don gets so high he almost drowns in a pool. I wanted to tie all the other events of the episode together, but I’ve done that well enough elsewhere. The pressure is on at this point of the story, and sometimes you need to just blow off some steam.


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Let Me Down the Easy Way


“Break It To Me Gently”, Brenda Lee

The Gold Violin, Season 2 Episode 7


            Mad Men characters are manipulative charlatans sometimes. Don’s deceptive past is a testament to that, but every main character lies and cheats at some point, a way to expose the flawed human beings beneath the glamorous exterior. The Gold Violin has plenty of examples of this shady behavior. It’s an early-show standout, with a few plotlines that nearly tip over into uncomfortable revelations and pull back at the last second.

            The playful question of why Bert Cooper bought an avant-garde painting hangs over the hour, while some underlings (led by brassy new secretary Jane) go snooping around to find an answer. Tension mounts, but they never get caught and are instead confronted with a mystifying work of art. Jane faces some repercussions, but smooth talks her way out of them. Ken gets a standout story in this episode as well, workshopping his novel unbeknownst to the office and unwittingly toying with poor Sal Romano, who has fallen in love with him. Again, nothing comes of it besides lingering apprehension.

           In the A plot, Betty starts to get an inkling of Don’s affair with Bobbie Barrett, and becomes ill in his flashy new car. He had bought it on a whim earlier and made a point of protecting it, so her vomit is an unwitting symbolic form of retribution. The song the credits smash cut to fits in as a riposte to this storyline. Brenda Lee was a well-regarded chanteuse who sang many hits in the early part of the decade. Known for being adept at both belting and crooning, she carries the emotional heft of this ponderous episode with a paradoxical tune that forcefully requests discreetness and sensitivity at the end of a relationship. This also foreshadows the marital problems Betty’s discovery will cause, a tremendous letdown which informs her character for the rest of the series. Season two has many barely averted disasters, but this one has the biggest ramifications.



“Do You Want To Know A Secret?”, Hands And Knees

“Trust In Me”, Blowing Smoke

“Money Burns A Hole In My Pocket”, Time and Life

            Besides the one mentioned above, there are several tense episodes punctuated by canny songs. These choices all comment on the problem which brought their episode’s conflict: respectively, a lack of openness, trust and financial control.

            The first two tracks complement each other well, since they occur very close together. In an interpersonal sense, so much of Mad Men is about give and take, secrets and lies. So some degree of both codependence and emotional distance is present in every exchange. This boils over in the agency bankruptcy storyline in season four. Blowing Smoke finds Don going behind everyone’s back to potentially save the business, but the secrets and withholding from Hands And Knees resurface to complicate things. Thus, their two closing tunes are about deception and trust. The former is an instrumental cover of a well known Beatles tune, and the latter a classic Etta James soul song.

            By 1970, SC&P has become a relic of an outdated era, and the partners realize this in the masterful episode Time And Life. Featured amidst the chaotic paradigm-changing din of the final scene is this track by a crooner who represented an old vanguard of traditionalist musicians riding out the remnants of their career. Truthfully, the Rat Pack and their contemporaries had quite a bit of success in the 1960s (recall the use of Sinatra’s “My Way”, then a number one hit, in The Strategy). As with any era, the changes weren’t instant and absolute. But Dean Martin and his pals were just delaying the inevitable, and to represent this corner of the musical spectrum, Matt Weiner waited until the agency’s glories were equally faded.


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