A year ago, all anyone wanted to talk about was the T-shirt. In the midst of Mad Men’s grim, occasionally frustrating sixth season, it stood out like a beacon, or maybe a threat. “The Better Half,” an episode that featured Peggy accidentally stabbing her way to a breakup and Don cheating on his second wife with his first, ended with a chilly conversation between Don and Megan on their balcony. Soundtracked by police sirens, Megan drew a bright line around their foundering marriage. “I don’t know where you’ve gone,” she said. “But I’m here.”
The words had their usual effect on Don Draper — apologetic hugs followed by multiple episodes of booze and betrayal — but the Twitter takeaway from the scene was Megan’s wardrobe. She was clad only in panties and that very memorable T-shirt: white, with a bright red star on the chest. If it seemed slightly familiar, that was the point: It was a design made famous by Sharon Tate in a 1967 Esquire pictorial. Like Megan, Tate was an aspiring actress married to a problematic creative genius. In 1969, Tate, eight months pregnant, was murdered along with three others by members of the Manson Family. After the admission by Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant that the doubling was “no coincidence,” the Internet reacted like Ken Cosgrove shot up with butt-speed.
All at once, a dispiriting season was enlivened. Powered by what some called the greatest Mad Men theory ever, the show was suddenly tweaking on the same strain of fan intensity/obsession that once made Lost appointment viewing and would, half a year later, turn the Yellow King into a household name. It was a heady, unfamiliar spark for a show regularly praised for its slow, deliberate burn. Thanks to a few yards of cotton, Mad Men’s sixth season now appeared to be building to a loss even more stunning and catastrophic than it had suffered a year before. Megan, it seemed, was doomed — the youth, beauty, and hope she represented nothing more than collateral damage. A show about the gathering darkness of American culture appeared finally ready to be consumed by it.
Except it wasn’t, not exactly and certainly not like that. Rather than stoke the flames of fan engagement with the de rigueur showrunner mix of winking encouragement and shrugging credulity, Mad Men creator Matt Weiner didn’t even wait until the end of the season to kill the conspiracy theories dead. Though he usually reacts to fans the way an elephant reacts to mosquitoes, the famously secretive Weiner went out of his way in early June to deny any intentional foreshadowing in Megan’s shirt choice, telling the Los Angeles Times, “It’s just not part of our show. No one is going to die.”
The disappointment that followed didn’t stem from any particular bloodlust, but rather from the implied reminder that Mad Men, unlike other, more interactive shows on the air, belongs to one man and one man alone. Fan theories don’t have to be right, but they are increasingly indulged by producers as a key part of the overall experience. When properly stoked and curated, these flights of fancy help keep series alive in the long hours between original airings and the even longer months between seasons. Yanking the creative reins away from viewers, Weiner maintained his firm control over Mad Men while at the same time revealing something rather telling about it: A show about a man losing touch with his era appeared to be slowly losing touch with its own.
To be clear: Keeping Megan alive — and, specifically, not having her murdered in a Benedict Canyon bungalow — was absolutely the right decision to make creatively. After all, Mad Men’s brilliance lies in the way it portrays history as a long sigh, not a series of dramatic gasps. But the flash and fizzle of the T-shirt incident hinted at a disconnect that has been growing ever wider as Mad Men has aged. When the series launched in 2007, Mad Men was rightfully hailed as the successor to The Sopranos. It wasn’t merely the best show on TV, it oozed quality and vision, two traits that had long been considered lacking on the small screen. What’s more, Weiner, who had cut his dramatic teeth working on the last few years of Tony and Carmela, seemed particularly suited to the radical ways the so-called Golden Age of Television had changed the once anonymous job of showrunner. Unlike his former boss, the more retiring David Chase, Weiner wasn’t just ready for the spotlight, he sought it out: giving expansive interviews, posing for dictatorial photographs, even promoting his children as actors and fashion plates.
For a time, this behavior seemed to match viewers’ desire to see the creators of their most fiercely beloved shows as auteurs and geniuses, doling out scraps of scripts from on high.1 But if the Internet had transformed fandom from passive to active during The Sopranos’ reign, the hyperactive, hashtagged scrum of the past few years transformed it again into something downright predatory. Viewers knew what they wanted and now had a means to demand it. Because of this, showrunners could no longer pick and choose their availability, and their work could never be left to speak for itself. Now they were expected to be present 24/7, answering fan questions, giving season postmortems, and, in extreme examples, live-tweeting episodes right along with the diehards. Their participation in the conversation about the shows became almost as important as their work running them.
When done right, this sort of access can benefit everyone. Vince Gilligan’s smiling face was a beacon during Breaking Bad’s final twists and turns; his generosity with fans bought him unprecedented patience and goodwill. In interviews, Gilligan never missed a chance to thank the audience; onscreen he rarely passed up an opportunity to reward the faithful with inside jokes and Easter eggs. All told, it was an aw-shucks media blitz that helped turn Bad’s last season into a victory lap. Walter White’s fade to black felt shared and celebratory in spirit, even if it wasn’t in tone.
As time has passed, however, Matthew Weiner has grown more stingy, not less. He never glad-hands. He doesn’t tweet. His distaste for spoilers has been known for years — it’s why those “On the next Mad Men” teasers are as reliably inscrutable as a koan2 — but if anything, Weiner’s obsession with secrecy has gotten more extreme in inverse proportion to its usefulness. Learning ahead of time that last season took place in 1968, for example, would only have whet appetites, not ruined them. And with the seventh season debuting in the midst of a particularly busy month for TV, chock-full of flashy debuts and heralded returns, a taste of what’s to come in Season 7 might actually make people hungrier for it. Instead, with just two days before the season premiere, not a single frame of footage from the new episodes has been released into the world (a few context-free publicity stills and a pretty, if vacant, photo shoot at an airport are all that’s on offer), and Weiner has perfected the art of giving exclusive interviews without saying very much at all. Those of us who have seen the episode have been sworn to an absurd degree of secrecy: no revealing the status or geographic location of any character, no teasing of any sideburns, no spilling of any milk shakes. Snitches, it is implied, get stitches. The more mysterious Weiner becomes, the more frustrating it all feels. It’s as if he’s throwing an elaborate surprise party but neglected to invite the guest of honor.
You could make an easier case for this sort of parsimony if you were in charge of, say, Game of Thrones: It’s a show that lives and dies (OK, usually the latter) on the sort of world-shaking events that, if spoiled, can cause the air to leak out of a series like air from a punctured balloon. (This is true even though the most extreme spoilers are bound between covers and available for sale at most major booksellers.) And yet Thrones goes out of its way to be user-friendly: doling out bits of casting news like Halloween candy, stitching together elaborate trailers that are juicy enough to drink. Though this sort of outreach can seem excessive, it’s actually necessary to ensnare a fluid and fickle audience that requires a lot more than shared history to stay loyal. Just because Winter Is Coming doesn’t mean everyone is compelled to stick around to see the first flakes fall. You have to give people a reason to keep coming back.
It’s on this last point that I think Mad Men gets stuck. Despite its fabulous period setting and its initial interest-grabbing mystery — who is that unmasked man? — Mad Men has never been building toward anything concrete. It’s never been about anything other than the slowly twisting lives of its characters as they are buffeted by the shifting tides of time. As TV has gradually tightened its belt, placing a newfound emphasis on resolution and audience reward, Mad Men has unbuttoned its pants and relaxed. In a landscape dotted with flashy, finite projects like True Detective, Mad Men suddenly seems as square as Don Draper at a Stones concert. If AMC was planning on a Breaking Bad–like audience surge when it split Mad Men’s final season into two parts — seven episodes this year, seven next — it’s likely to be sorely disappointed. Unlike Breaking Bad, Mad Men isn’t going to give you what you want. The finale, when it eventually comes, is more likely to ask more questions than answer them. As opposed to nearly everything else on the air, from the spy games on The Americans to the bloodsport on Game of Thrones, Mad Men isn’t hurtling toward a tangible destination. Its final resting place is wherever Matt Weiner’s imagination takes it.
On the eve of a season premiere that feels absolutely unremarked upon — perhaps because no one has any idea what is permissible to say — it’s worth noting how rare and remarkable that is. Weiner’s arrogance about his show is increasingly insufferable but, ultimately, it’s also earned. He’s the last of a vanishing breed of pampered showrunners. The enormous contract he received a few years ago is both validation of what he’s accomplished and a warning to other networks never to centralize creative power in one person like that again.3 And Mad Men, idiosyncratic and internal, forever marching forward to the beat of its own psychedelic drum, is the last of a vanishing breed of shows.
Even so, the series that returns on Sunday night bears almost no resemblance to the one that captured the national attention in 2007: The colors are brighter, but the themes are much darker. (Change may be impossible for Don Draper, but it’s a constant for his show. Lest you forget, the sixth-season finale bore almost no resemblance to the premiere: Don was forced out of the office; Megan, Pete, and Ted were bound for California; Bob Benson for Detroit; and Manolo, like Don’s mojo, was MIA.) There is a very human abyss yawning beneath these characters — of loneliness, lust, and loss — that can’t be categorized. It’s a show without villains – and most assuredly without heroes. The real danger is never going to come from a long-lost relative, a vengeful client, or a killer cult going helter-skelter on the West Coast, just as the real problems aren’t going to be fixed by a new hairdo or the promise of a new decade. Mad Men’s seventh season begins with the end close at hand, but it feels tragic, not triumphant. “Resolution” is a business term, and we all know Don’s not welcome there anymore.
If it feels strange and discomfiting to give yourself over to something so mysterious and unpredictable, just imagine how the poor saps at Sterling Cooper feel. For them, too, the desire to latch on to something — anything! — that might give their frustrating lives some meaning is overwhelming, be it LSD or a neighbor’s wife. But with just 14 episodes to go, I urge you to resist. The obsessing over Megan’s T-shirt was a fun distraction, but a distraction nonetheless. The lesson of Mad Men is what it’s always been: Don’t pay attention to the clothes. Pay attention to what they’re covering up.