Predictions had ricocheted like pinballs among obsessed fans of AMC’s Mad Men in the countdown to the show’s Sunday finale—but it’s safe to say nobody expected Don Draper in a lotus position chanting “ohm”—or was it “home”?
Since the hit series’ inception, some viewers had speculated that it would all end with tormented adman Don Draper plummeting to his death from the skyscraper that houses the Sterling Cooper offices—evoking the fallen man depicted in the stylized opening credits. Others had dismissed such an ending as far too prosaic for the metaphorical mind of show creator Matthew Weiner. An array of online fan boards, blogs and entertainment sites, ratcheted forecasts to absurdist heights: Would Glen kill his CO in Vietnam and assume the officer’s identity? Will Don Draper turn out to be the real D. B. Cooper, who skyjacked a plane in 1971, parachuted into the forests of the Pacific Northwest and vanished forever? And the most prescient, would Peggy or Don create the iconic “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial?
Yes, even the final song prompted conjecture: Perhaps the episode would culminate at cancer-stricken Betty Draper Francis’s funeral, and fade to black amid the strains of the 1971 chart-topper: Bye-bye, Miss American Pie (farewell, Betty and all that), drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry (sorry, Roger, that Chevy account wasn’t enough to keep your company afloat), good ole boys are drinking whiskey and rye (and rum-and-Coke and gin-and-tonic), singing this’ll be the day that I die (RIP to an era, and a TV fixation.)
And now that fans know the how it all ends—with, yes, a Coke ad declaring the product “the real thing”—it’s worth marveling at the multitudes of fan commentary underway. Enter Mad Men in the search engine of any news source and pages of articles pop up, analyzing character choices, listing favorite quotes, and offering cocktail recipes inspired by the show. And Mad Men isn’t the only show with this level of fan response; increasingly, shows like Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, and Downton Abbey inspire analysis, imitation, and obsession. Does this mean TV shows take up more of our consciousness than they used to? Why else would some Game of Thrones fans find it necessary to learn Dothraki, a fictional language not even George R. R. Martin speaks? (Incidentally, Dothraki was developed for the show by linguist David Peterson, who discovered his love of language when he took a DeCal class in Esperanto while at Cal.) Why would people care whether or not Peggy Olson will wear her polka-dotted suit again? Why would a historian at Northeastern University care enough to run dialogue from several shows through an elaborate algorithmic test to detect anachronisms—such as this table tracing, by season, the number of times a Mad Men character said the word “gonna” before that usage came into conventional conversation?
Mark Sandberg, a UC Berkeley professor of film, media, and Scandinavian studies, believes that this increased focus on television minutia is a result of our ability to watch shows at any time, virtually anywhere. Since its conception, TV has had the power to help shape the way we think and view the world. The 20th century writer and critic Raymond Williams diagnosed broadcast television, with its mixture of commercials and news and narrative, as “a new and powerful form of social integration and control.” Williams emphasized the capitalistic aspect of entertainment. Back then, producers could get a wider audience by creating shows it was easy to pop in and out of; if you had a busy day you could tune in to an I Love Lucy episode halfway through and it would still be funny. Today, TV viewers don’t have to skip episodes, and they have the option to watch a program without commercials on DVD or streaming.
This freedom to choose when to watch, and even how many times to watch it, allows viewers to hyper-focus on the content of the show.
A hyperactive attention to details in entertainment is not unprecedented, but it is relatively new for television. “Cinephilia, or a kind of cinema-based student culture at the universities,” says Sandberg, “has been replaced by what we might call telephilia. People tend to be more engaged narratively with their television shows, and they tend to be the topic of discussion.” Handy access to the Internet while watching TV only enhances that focus. It’s possible for viewers to deploy a search engine while they’re watching their favorite show. If Mad Men blogs are anything to go by, its audience often checks for historical data while they watch, and shares findings on the web for fellow fans to see.
This, says Sandberg, paves the way for a different relationship between viewer and show/producer. The web is studded with posts from critics and fans calling out programs such as Mad Men for any minuscule lapse in historical fidelity. A Vulture piece, for example, pointed out that IBM typewriters used at Sterling Cooper were one year ahead of their time; that Betty Draper could not have attended a sorority if she went to Bryn Mawr; and that Gil Sans, the font used on the Sterling Cooper sign, was not widely used until the 70s. What Sandberg calls a “fetishistic” attention to details allows producers to throw in references their audience might not understand without Google; it also means more pressure on the creators to deliver a flawless historical landscape.
Mad Men certainly delivers. Two years ago, Weiner felt compelled to make a public apology when he realized that a character in a 1968 episode made a reservation at Le Cirque, a restaurant that didn’t open in Manhattan until ’74. Such a mea culpa is rare; the show’s researchers peruse old newspapers and magazines corresponding to each exact day the show depicts. So much thought goes into the costumes alone that Slate runs a weekly column analyzing what the character’s fashion choices say about how they’re feeling.
Weiner uses this meticulous attention to detail to great promotional effect, dropping tantalizing details in posters and trailers to keep viewers engaged. He seems to share some of his fans obsessive qualities; famous for refusing to reveal plot spoilers, Weiner went as far as to give his cast a script with a fake ending for their final table read to avoid possible leaks to the public. His house in the Hollywood Hills is filled with props from the show: Roger Sterling’s bar, Peggy’s stapler, and one of Don’s typewriters all found a home with him, along with business cards, newspapers, and more. His obsessiveness caused Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan to joke that a visit to the Mad Men set inspired him, and that now “I always weigh the meth on the show to the 100th of a gram.”
Although mediums change, we are drawn to narratives for the same reason we always were: the characters. But Mad Men also invites viewers to lose themselves in the details the same way they might when reading a well-constructed novel, or watching a critically acclaimed film. As Sandberg puts it, when “you feel the world around you is mostly random, and a little bit meaningless, you can immerse yourself in a show where you feel like the intentionality quotient is very high.”
Such audience immersion left even the Matthew Weiners of the world flattered, and a little taken aback. This week Maclean’s published an interview in which Weiner shot down the Draper-as-D.B. Cooper theory: “It’s not related to D.B. Cooper, I hate to say it. I love—I mean you’ll have to watch the show, maybe I’m lying to you—but I love that people care enough to posit these things. I think it’s fantastic and that’s all I can say. It’s a huge compliment to us.
“But I’m never—what’s the word—I’m never trolling the audience, I’m never baiting them to create a theory. Sometimes when I do make it clear, like after that T-shirt controversy (fans developed a theory that Megan Draper was doomed to die because she wore the same shirt as the murdered Manson Family victim Sharon Tate) then I get accused of more trolling. I don’t even know what to say.”