If Mad Men was a reality competition series, the office elevator would be the place where the often catty, always poignant one-on-ones with the contestants go down. Throughout Mad Men's run the elevator has revealed sides of our favorite characters that we don’t often see in the office, like it's some sort of safe zone. You can say what you want in the elevator and it stays there. Pete has been vulnerable. Peggy has sulked. Don has contemplated his place in the quickly changing 1960s.
The current season in particular has seen a surge in awesome elevator scenes. You’ll note that almost half of those listed below hail from Season 5, but we’ve picked our brains to come up with the best of the best from all across the board. A few of them are funny, a few are awkward, and at least one is a little bit sad, but they are all subtly telling about the characters involved in them.
The elevator is special. It’s a glass case of emotion! Wait, that’s Anchorman. Well, you know what I mean. Here we go:
This scene was literally only a few seconds long, but it set the tone for male-female relations in the Sterling Cooper offices so very, very well. It was Peggy’s first day of work as a secretary and she was in full frumpy mode with her long skirt and matching mustard sweater/hat combo. She ended up being the only woman on the elevator, sharing the ride with Ken Cosgrove, Paul Kinsey, and Harry Crane. Cosgrove made the comment, “I’m REALLY enjoying the view here,” openly leering at Peggy the entire ride up as she got more and more nervous. I’d like to see him try that on her now.
“The Beautiful Girls” was an episode that revolved around the difficult relationships that our leading ladies faced when professional and personal lives collided. Joan and Roger hooked up in the aftermath of Dr. Rapey going to Vietnam (round one) and their mugging. Abe wrote an unflattering article about Madison Avenue ad agencies utilizing information he gleaned from Peggy. Faye kinda wanted to be with Don, but not if it meant babysitting Sally so he could go be the breadwinner. The only woman in the building who wasn’t having a bad time was happily man-free Joyce, Peggy’s BFF from Life Magazine. It was fitting that she got her own elevator, while the three disgruntled professionals had to share.
Not one of the more obvious highlights from “the episode where Lane Pryce kicked Pete Campbell’s ass,” but the elevator scene after the brawl, where a battered and bruised Pete admitted to Don just how miserable his life had become after leaving the city, was a good one. It was an obvious contrast against the taxi ride from the previous night, where Don cautioned Pete to be careful, not to ruin the good things he had, and Pete basically told him to screw off. I loved that they were taking the elevator DOWN when the exchange took place.
Right before Megan quit the copywriter gig, she sneaked out of work early to go to an audition and told Peggy she was meeting Don for dinner. She told Don that she was staying late to work. When the wires crossed, Peggy ended up in the middle, as illustrated by this morning-after elevator ride up to the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices. On another note, Peggy’s spot between Don and Megan can be seen as telling of her own place in life. This was an episode that concerned itself with identity and following one’s dreams; professionally, Peggy strives to reach Don’s levels of success, but privately, she also wants a sort of stable, though not necessarily traditional, relationship with a man. Her biggest roadblock has been her need for independence, and in “Lady Lazarus,” Megan was able to act independently of Don (seemingly) without hurting their marriage. Professionally successful (though nowhere near Don levels of success) and in the process of shacking up with Abe, Peggy was somewhere between Mr. and Mrs. Draper.
All the womanizing and general office misogyny aside, there were still the textbook polite ways a man was expected to treat a woman in the 1960s. Specifically, you didn’t talk about your boss’s secretary’s wet panties and you took your freaking hat off in a woman’s presence. When two schmucks sharing Don’s elevator neglected that fact in the series' second episode, he set them straight. Forcefully. The scene gave us a look into Don’s psyche—we see him do lots of questionable things, but from the very beginning of the series, it was established through small scenes like this one that despite it all, Don Draper is a man who keeps to his principles. (P.S. The video is online but it's not embeddable; watch it on YouTube.)
Ah, the infamous Admiral TV scene—one of many examples of Pete Campbell just not getting it. In “The Fog,” Pete decided to market Admiral television sets to African Americans. Of course, Pete’s market research consisted of, well, nothing, in fact, he wasn’t entirely certain that African American’s preferred Admiral TVs over other brands at all. So Pete decided to do his own research on the only black demographic he had access to: Hollis the elevator operator. He asked Hollis what kind of TV he owned, and Hollis replied that he owned an RCA. Well that was just entirely unhelpful and in his usual oblivious fashion, Pete pushed for something that wasn’t there and Hollis got the best of him.
When viewed in the context of her first scene, it’s like the perfect bookend to Peggy’s story at Don’s firms. After emotionally quitting her job, Peggy listlessly wandered into her office to retrieve her coat, purse, and coffee mug (a good mug is hard to find). She kept her head down, except to briefly make eye-contact with Joan before exiting. It’s slow and sad and everything about the build-up implied that Peggy was, maybe on some level, regretting her decision to leave...and then the elevator dinged, that upbeat tune started, and Peggy positively beamed as she stepped into the elevator, and her (hopefully) much brighter future. Side-by-side, Peggy’s entry and exit tell a story all on their own. In contrast to the timid, modest girl who got on the elevator in the pilot, Peggy left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as a confident, comfortable, and stylish woman.
In the wake of Lane Pryce’s suicide, Don returned home to find Glen Bishop hanging out with Megan. In an effort to prolong talking about the tragedy with Megan, Don offered to drive Glen the few hours back to his boarding school. While they were in the elevator, Glen questioned why everything good in life has to turn to crap: What’s the point of it all? Admittedly, these were not concerns that anyone would want to deal with coming from a child after a friend decided to hang himself. Perhaps trying to give Glen better guidance than he did Lane, Don told Glen that he was too young to feel that way. He asked what would make the kid happy, and the cut to Glen grinning behind the wheel of Don’s car was so breathtakingly bittersweet—once upon a time, something as simple as a car probably made Lane Price’s day too.
Remember when Joey drew that awful cartoon of Joan getting banged by Lane Pryce and like the fierce lady she is, she told all the giggling male copywriters that she couldn’t wait for them to get shipped off to Vietnam? That was pretty awesome. But Peggy realized that she was in a position of power, even over Joey, and she fired him, which he totally deserved. Later, in the elevator, Peggy gave Joan the news and expected some sort of thank-you. Instead, she got a pretty insightful tongue-lashing. It even made me stop and think, and I was all aboard the "Let’s fire Joey!" bandwagon. “No matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon. So all you did was prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re a humorless bitch.” Ouch.
Right after Megan quit SCDP to follow her acting dreams, a malfunctioning elevator opened prematurely to give Don a look at the bowels of the building—that’s a long fall, man. Even though it didn't take place inside the vertical people-mover, this is definitely one of the most existential elevator scenes the show has done. Don leaned over the dark abyss and looked down, briefly, before backing away and turning to the sunny view outside the window. Perhaps he was staring down at his own failed dreams, dreams that Dick Whitman left behind when he became Don Draper. Maybe he was playing chicken with his mortality. Regardless, it was a weird moment (in an admittedly weird episode) but an interesting one in the context of the rest of “Lady Lazarus” and the unchanging opening credits that we've become familiar with over the past five seasons.
After deliberately leaving Mike’s Sno-Ball design in the taxi, effectively ensuring that his own design would be chosen by the client, Don found himself sharing an elevator with an irate Mike Ginsberg. Mike is not a guy accustomed to keeping his mouth shut, despite the fact that Don could effectively fire him in the time it would take for the elevator to reach their destination. Earlier in “Dark Shadows,” Mike quoted the poem “Ozymandias,” a poem about the impermanent nature of power. Don Draper’s fading influence and relevancy has been an ongoing theme in Season 5 as the show heads toward the turbulent late-'60s, but the selection of Don’s campaign over Mike’s cemented the fact that Don still has it, even if his underhanded methodology at least symbolized his resistance to accepting the change in the world. He may barely recognize his kingdom these days, but Don is still the king. Having taken the meaning of the poem to heart, Mike said, “I feel bad for you.” Perhaps Don's view is clouded so high above his subjects, or maybe Don never read the poem, but his response, “That’s funny, I don’t think of you at all,” was pure badass.
It’s fitting that the man who faked his way into his name also faked his way into his career. In “Waldorf Stories,” we learned the rest of Don Draper’s rags-to-riches story. While working as an in-house ad man for Heller’s, a coat shop, Don met Roger when Roger came in to buy Joan a getting-to-know-your-cup-size gift. Don tried the “right” way, offered to show Roger his portfolio, sucked up, and basically groveled. Roger shot him down. Then Roger shot him down again when Don hid his portfolio in the box with Joan’s mink. Finally, Don convinced Roger to at least have lunch with him, where he got Roger VERY drunk and sent him on his way. The next day, Don showed up at Sterling Cooper’s offices and joined Roger in the elevator. He told him that Roger offered him a job the day before, and having blacked out somewhere around the appetizers, Roger just went with it. It’s a funny exchange, all things considered, but the thing that always gets me about young Don Draper is just how happy and EAGER the man is. (P.S. Here's the scene on YouTube!)
What‘s your favorite Mad Men elevator scene? Would you have ordered this list any differently?