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The most iconic moments for Mad Men's 7 most important characters

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

To discuss the series finale of Mad Men , culture editor Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by several of Vox's other writers. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here.

Todd VanDerWerff: So where will you leave Mad Men?

This is a question I think about every time a show I love ends. It's one I took from the great screenwriter William Goldman, who write Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men, among others. He postulates that when you really love certain actors, you freeze them in your memory at a certain point in one of their movies. (I wrote a little bit more about Goldman's theory here, if you're intrigued.)

I think we do the same thing with TV shows and with TV characters that we've enjoyed. The first time you think of a show you loved that went off the air, you'll inevitably think about it in a certain scene or moment or episode. For me, for instance, The Mary Tyler Moore Show is always that climactic hug with all the characters involved, while The Sopranos is that final image of Tony looking up as the bell dings.

But it doesn't have to be the final image, either. Buffy, for me, will always be about the hero pushing her boyfriend into hell to save the world. (Yes, this happened. It was awesome.) ER is forever George Clooney standing in the swollen river, bearing up the body of the young boy he's going to save, no matter what (possibly because NBC ran this promo image into the ground).

So all of that said, here is where I leave the characters of Mad Men, as we say one last farewell to the show. I don't have the time to write up every single character, so I'm sticking with the main seven. But I hope you'll share your own thoughts with me on Twitter.

Roger's post-heart attack vulnerability

As I was compiling this list, it was amazing to me how many of my moments were from season one. One of those is for Roger. When I think of him first, I always think of his raw vulnerability in the wake of his heart attack way back in the first season. All of that cool and bluster falls away when he thinks he might be dying, and it was key to what Weiner was doing with that character.

Roger doesn't die on Mad Men.

After his heart very nearly fails, Roger gains some brief vulnerability.


Sally drives a car

For me, Sally will always be first remembered at the moment when I realized just how gifted a young actor Kiernan Shipka was — the scene in early season three when she drives her grandfather around in the car. Shipka's expression here says so much about how long Sally has been waiting for somebody, anybody, to notice her, and if it's an old man who verges on dementia and lets her drive a car, well, why not?

Sally drives a car on Mad Men.

When Grandpa Gene lets her drive, Sally gets a brief taste of responsibility.


Betty guns down her neighbor's birds

I mean, could it be anything else? This is one of the all-time iconic Mad Men images, so famous that we've stripped almost all of its context from it.

Betty Draper shoots a gun on Mad Men.

Betty takes aim and fires.


Joan is in control

Here's another season-one image, and another where it seems hard to divorce the character from this moment. In the episode "Babylon," Joan handles a focus group of office secretaries for a lipstick account the agency is hoping to land. It's a pivotal moment for Peggy, too, as she'll offhandedly say something that launches her advertising career. But it's a key indication of just how aware Joan is of how in control she is of so many workplace situations, as she is very cognizant of the men who are watching her. The series would spend most of its run simultaneously undercutting that image — and building Joan up into someone even stronger than she was here.

Joan looks back on Mad Men.

Joan's expression in this moment conveys so much about how she feels about her role in the office.


Pete never gets what he wants

For a lot of people, this is going to come down to Pete sitting alone with his gun. And I thought for a long time about that. But if push comes to shove, my favorite Mad Men episode might be season five's "Signal 30," a Pete-centric hour that's all about how far short he's fallen of what he imagined he might be. As such, the final image of that hour — Pete sitting in a driver's ed class, thoroughly demoralized, as Beethoven's Ninth rises on the soundtrack — is the definitive take on Pete, to me.

Pete in class on Mad Men.

Pete sits alone at the end of driver's ed class.


Peggy goes to work

Mad Men didn't lose its power to create memorable images even late in its life. Indeed, the definitive Peggy Olson image might have come from the third-from-last episode, "Lost Horizon," when she, hungover, headed in to work. It was as cool and badass a moment as the show had ever conjured.

Peggy arrives for work at McCann on Mad Men.

Peggy shows up for work at McCann.


Don confronts what scares him most

There are, of course, so many great Don images I could place here. Simply the image of this perfectly sculpted man is much of what Mad Men sold itself on. And the series also gave us a solid final image of the man, sitting cliffside by the beach, thinking up a great ad.

But for me, Don will always come back to a more obscure moment, in season five's "Lady Lazarus." At the office, Don calls an elevator, but when the shaft opens, one isn't there.

There's no elevator on Mad Men.

There's no elevator there!


The expression on Don's face says it all. On some level, he's been expecting this. On some level, he knows it's coming. Mad Men is all about ignoring your mortality in some ways, and in this moment, Don gets to see his up close. He doesn't like it.

Don looks into an empty elevator shaft on Mad Men.

Don stares into the empty elevator shaft.


This is the kind of show that invites this sort of discussion, isn't it? It's always straining — sometimes too much — to turn itself into iconography. And yet it so often succeeds that it's hard to hold those moments when it doesn't against it. If Mad Men is all about the creation of a perfect image, well, these are the ones I'll take with me.

Read the recap.

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