The phrase “Television is the new film” has always been a lazy way to frame the emergence of strong cable programming, but over its seven seasons Mad Men has made it easy to understand the impulse to differentiate these shows from the rest of the medium. It simply doesn’t look like TV, or at least like TV once did. Every episode has contained immaculately composed shots in which lighting, framing, and performance combined to tell a whole story in a single image. That’s fitting: After all, Don Draper traffics in a world of signals and semiotics, and it stands to reason that he should exist in one as well. Here are 10 amazing images from the show that illustrate how Don and his colleagues were always a product of their environment.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Season 1, Episode 1) directed by Alan Taylor
The penultimate (and defining) image of the pilot episode, this hauntingly ethereal shot continues to loom over the series like a flashbulb memory from a previous life. The delicate lighting is just a touch too perfect to make you believe what you’re seeing, and knowledge of Don’s rampant infidelity isn’t necessary to recognize that the Drapers’ relationship is more an advertisement for marriage than it is an honest attempt at one.
“The Phantom” (Season 5, Episode 13) directed by Matthew Weiner
Every once in a while, Mad Men likes to call some attention to itself. This symmetrical wide shot, which appears towards the end of the fifth season’s final episode, finds Joan showing the boys of SCDP around their new digs. The men stand there, gawping at the promise of tomorrow, and the most powerful woman in their company takes her rightful place between them. (The contrast between the red of her dress and the yellow of the pillars almost makes the silhouetted men fade into the background.) But gender subversion isn’t the only thing at work here: The gravitas of this image speaks to the self-importance of the people in it, as the five of them stare solipsistically at the city beyond their windows, each isolated in his or her own, uh, pane.
“Shut the Door. Have a Seat” (Season 3, Episode 13) directed by Matthew Weiner
You could go through all seven seasons of Mad Men with a magnifying glass, and you’d be hard pressed to find a single hair out of place. Each of the characters is convinced that they’re keeping a secret hidden in plain sight, but most of the show’s images are so carefully arranged that they lend the characters’ lives a steady undercurrent of dramatic irony. Don, the master of his own destiny ever since the day he said goodbye to Dick Whitman, is blithely oblivious to the fact that he can’t even stand in a hotel room without being posed. This image, from the Season 3 finale, strikes a peerless balance between casual and composed. Roger’s half-eaten donut does a lot of the heavy lifting.
“Hands and Knees” (Season 4, Episode 10) directed by Lynn Shelton
This image comprises the entire scene, a choice that’s emblematic of the degree to which Weiner and his show’s directors have always trusted visual information to convey the kind of crucial character detail that other shows would feel the need to spell out. Joan rides a bus upstate in order to secure an abortion for the pregnancy that resulted from her latest liaison with Roger. She’s insisted that it could be a grave social risk for him to accompany her, an argument she knows will buy her the flexibility to change her mind on the way to the clinic. The chiaroscuro lighting makes palpable the collision between private trauma and public spaces while Joan’s solitude speaks to the capability of her character. Joan lies to Roger about doing the deed, but we know that we’ve seen the birth of a strong single mother.
“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” (Season 4, Episode 5) directed by Lesli Linka Glatter
Better known as “that episode where Sally masturbates at her friend’s house,” the fifth hour of Season 4 illustrated that even the show’s most uncomfortable moments could be shot in such a way as to reward close viewing. Moved by The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Sally experiences the first stirrings of her sexuality while cast in the glow of a television, the scene lit and cluttered like an unusually polite Gregory Crewdson photo. Sally’s innocence is overwhelmed by the fluorescent seediness of the room around her, the impressionable young girl transfixed by the hypnotic allure of whatever strange force is beaming into her world.
Then again, when it comes to Sally Draper, there’s no shortage of indelible shots.
“At the Codfish Ball” (Season 5, Episode 6) directed by Michael Uppendahl
Mad Men has always treated its boardroom meetings and client dinners like works of theater, and the show’s compositions have reflected that from the very beginning. There’s an undeniable pragmatism to shooting these scenes as if they’re set on the proscenium of a stage; in this Season 5 sit-down with Heinz, for example, each of the six different characters bring something valuable to the table, and they all need to squeeze into view. But that doesn’t diminish from the feeling that everybody here is following a script, interacting more as performers than people.
“The Wheel” (Season 1, Episode 13) directed by Matthew Weiner
“In Greek, nostalgia literally means, ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again … to a place where we know we are loved.”
“Far Away Places” (Season 5, Episode 5) directed by Scott Hornbacher
Mad Men’s glaringly obvious use of rear projection has always been endearing as a throwback, evoking a time when such terrible artifice wouldn’t seem out of place on a major television show. (These days, network programs are keeping that spirit alive with cut-rate CGI.) The fakery can be distracting, but it never disrupts the hermetically sealed atmosphere that real exterior shots tend to violate. This saturated glimpse of Megan playing navigator may not be as ridiculous as the backdrops Weiner busts out whenever Ted Chaough takes his plane for a spin, but the bright green foliage helps it run a close second.
“A Little Kiss” (Season 5, Episode 1) directed by Jennifer Getzinger
Season 5 begins with Pete Campbell’s ambition being stoked like never before, the slimiest executive at SCDP successfully lobbying to usurp Harry Crane’s old office so that he can better impress potential clients. Of course, the only person that Pete is really intent on impressing is himself. He’s never looked so relaxed, and the office sprawling into the distance behind him only serves to reinforce the feeling that he’s finally earned his place in the foreground.
“Person to Person” (Season 7, Episode 14) directed by Matthew Weiner
The last shot of the series—at least, the last shot that wasn’t filmed more than 40 years ago—is inevitably a direct reflection of the image that started the series so many seasons ago. Mad Men was always going to be the journey from the back of Don’s head to the front of his face; the only true mystery about the finale was the context of that last look, not its content. What Don does after his enlightening cliffside yoga session is left up in the air (though this writer would argue more fiercely than it’s worth that our beloved antihero flew back to New York and became responsible for that epochal Coca-Cola jingle); the only truth that really matters in that moment is that he does something. Once upon a time, Don was a guy who could look people in the eyes and tell them with the confidence of the world’s greatest salesman that they could blot out their personal history. By the time Mad Men cuts away to one of the most famous commercials ever filmed, the last decade of Don’s life is still mercifully without a clear verdict, but it’s safe to say that it will shock him how much it actually happened.