Never Watched Mad Men? This Episode Will Give You a Real Sense of the Series Without Spoiling Anything.

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 17 2013 9:07 AM

Gateway Episodes: Mad Men

madmen_sundays_2
A scene from "Three Sundays," a Season 2 episode of Mad Men

AMC

Mad Men has had plenty of wham episodes, the installments of a series that change everything. But the show builds to those character reveals and surprise twists of fate slowly. Such water cooler moments are only really rewarding for longtime viewers, who have been present for the gradual raising of the stakes and can fully enjoy the narrative explosions that ensue.

This complicates the search for a suitable gateway episode for the Mad Men uninitiated. Without knowing the juicy backstory, you probably won’t understand the fuss about such episodes. You need a slice-of-life installment, one that will lead you through the show’s universe, pointing out the sights and the not-to-be missed signposts, letting you slowly sink into the characters’ lives and the world they inhabit. Such an episode will help you figure out whether this is a world you really want to spend more time in—ideally without giving too many of the series’ surprises away.

Advertisement

That’s why “Three Sundays,” the fourth episode in Season 2, is the one to watch first. It focuses on three characters: Don Draper (Jon Hamm), creative director at Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling Cooper; Roger Sterling (John Slattery), the firm’s senior partner; and Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss), its junior copywriter. Over the course of three consecutive Sundays, we see the essential struggles and motivations that will drive story arcs for episodes and seasons to come.

The year is 1962, and the Sundays in question are Passion Sunday, Palm Sunday, and Easter Sunday. Setting an episode during Lent six months before the Second Vatican Council changed the Catholic liturgical calendar was surely intentional—the tension between tradition and modernity is probably the most fundamental subject of the show. And understated details like that are one of the best things about the series: There’s always room to argue about such symbolism and subtext. Mad Men rarely confirms, denies, or explains anything.

“Three Sundays” shows us Don’s hyper-competence in the office and his lack of facility at home—he opts out of any real domestic responsibility, ignoring his wife’s increasingly desperate pleas that he get more involved in their family life. We also get hints at how this all connects to his mysterious past. His wife Betty (January Jones) wants him to discipline their son, and asks at one point, “Do you think you'd be the man you are today if your father didn’t hit you?” Halfway into Season 2, our antihero is still only dimly understood by us, but “Three Sundays” provides some (non-spoiler-y) glimpses into what makes him tick.

We also get to know breezy Roger Sterling, a man who’s never met a sensory pleasure he didn’t feel entitled to indulge in. (“But I want everything I want,” he tells an escort.) We know Roger’s own marriage bores him and that he’s cynical about the institution in general. But his understandable longing for romance and companionship gives his hedonism depth, even pathos. And then there’s Peggy Olson, who’s made her way out of the steno pool (and her outer borough upbringing) and into a job as a copywriter. She spends “Three Sundays” excusing herself early from Mass and Sunday dinners in Bay Ridge to escape to Manhattan, in pursuit of an existence more worldly—and with infinitely more possibility—than what she’s been born to.

Mad Men can be stingy about the details that might give us a full understanding of each character—a stinginess you may find frustrating or delicious, depending on your taste in television. “Three Sundays” demonstrates just how well the show manages to reveal and conceal at once, making us feel like we know these people both better and worse than before. And in true Mad Men fashion, after 48 minutes of quality time with the characters, it ends with an enigmatic moment, this one involving a priest, an egg, and Peggy Olson on Easter Sunday. The sooner you watch, the sooner you can start guessing what it all means.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 6:23 PM Bryan Cranston Reenacts Baseball’s Best Moments to Promote the Upcoming Postseason
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.