Another season of “Mad Men” premieres on Sunday, and with it, for the second-to-last time, has come another list from creator Matthew Weiner of things he’d prefer critics not reveal in their advance reviews — among them the year in which the season begins, Don Draper’s work status, and the identity of any new characters. (The image above, like all the ones AMC released in advance, doesn’t come from the episode; some feature characters who don’t appear at all, others in pairings that don’t occur.) Although critics have largely complied — with advance screeners worth their weight in web traffic, they can hardly afford to get on Weiner’s bad side — there’s been no small amount of grousing, as well as quite a few reviews that obey the letter but flout the spirit of Weiner’s recommendations. (Entertainment Weekly‘s Jeff Jensen writes “I won’t spoil when season 7 begins, but I will say it dotes on the ascension of Richard Nixon”; Nixon’s inauguration was in January of 1969, so you do the math.)
Spoilerphobia has reached epidemic proportions; I’ve had people complain about my revealing the identity of the killer in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a three-year-old movie based on a nine-year-old book, and one that, frankly, wasn’t much of a surprise to begin with, and that’s only scratching the surface. I come, however, not to bury spoilerphobes, but to praise them, or at least manifest some healthy ambivalence on the subject.
Let’s look at Weiner’s list of requests for the first episode of “Mad Men’s” seventh season premiere, “Time Zones,” one by one, and without spoiling them, break down where in its 47-minute running time each is revealed — in other words, exactly how much of the episode knowing them in advance would spoil. (Note: There’s an extent to which even reading the list of what Weiner doesn’t want revealed is itself a spoiler, so if you really don’t want to know anything about “Time Zones,” come back around 11 p.m. Eastern Sunday night.) They’re ranked more or less in order of spoiler-y-ness.
Matthew Weiner’s list of spoilers for “Mad Men’s” 7th season premiere, “Time Zone”:
Year season takes place
Season six took place in 1968, and Weiner has said the series will take us through the end of the 1960s by the time it’s over, so there aren’t a lot of options here. The first hint, for those with encyclopedic pop-cultural knowledge or a live Internet connection, is a reference to the TV show “Bracken’s World” at the 11-minute mark. Nixon’s televised inauguration 42 minutes in seals the deal.
Spoiler Quotient: 1
SC&P’s West Coast presence
This one’s also blown early on, at about 5:45, with a reference to “Pete in L.A.,” though the full extent of the agency’s left coast integration isn’t clear even by the episode’s end.
Spoiler Quotient: 2
Don’s work status
Don has lunch with Pete Campbell 20 minutes in, and their conversation nails down exactly where Don stands with SC&P. A further conversation in the final major scene, at 43:30, provides additional detail.
Spoiler Quotient: 2
Without having seen the rest of the season, there’s no way of knowing which of the premiere’s new characters will wind up being significant. (Don’t hold your breath waiting for a return appearance by the the tenant boy who complains about Peggy’s failure to unclog his toilet.. Potential recurring characters appear at 3:45, 10:45, 12:20, 22 and 32 minutes, with encounters three and five seeming especially significant.
Spoiler Quotient: 4
Don & Megan’s marital status
As Facebook once said, “It’s complicated.” The first one-on-one scene between Don and Megan, at the 25-minute mark, provides contextual clues, and another encounter at 37 minutes expands on Don’s point of view, but I’m not sure we learn enough about where Don and Megan stand to be able to spoil if even if we wanted to.
Spoiler Quotient: 5
Freddie Rumsen and Don’s relationship
The fact that this is even on the list is a bit of a spoiler, but you’ll have to wait until 42:30 to find out why.
Spoiler Quotient: [redacted]
Some of these details seem exceptionally minor, and I don’t think knowing them in advance would have altered my appreciation of “Time Zones” even slightly. But with a show as precisely written as “Mad Men,” we find things out when we do for a reason, even if that reason is that it didn’t fit anywhere else. On one hand, I resist the idea of treating a work of narrative art primarily as a vehicle for the delivery of information: I know what “Rosebud” meant and the deal with Norman Bates’ mother years before I saw “Citizen Kane” or “Pyscho” — thanks, Trivial Pursuit — and never spent much time regretting it. On the other hand, can you imagine seeing “The Empire Strikes Back” without knowing what happens in its climactic scene? And wouldn’t you want others to have that experience if they could?
Weiner is right to want to preserve the experience of an untainted viewing for his audience; ideally, every movie and TV show would be watched that way. (One of the perqs of being a critic is that we get do it more often than most; I’ve sat down to screenings without knowing what language the movie I was about to watch was in.) But he’s wrong to maintain that critics can do their jobs without revealing at least something of what happens an episode, or that readers and viewers can’t make their own decisions about what they’d want to know in advance. If don’t want any of what my colleague Mike D’Angelo calls “rasa spoilers” — that is, if you don’t want to know what song is playing when we first see Don Draper, or whether Ken Cosgrove still has his eyepatch — then don’t read anything. Otherwise, critics are by and large a judicious lot, and they’re not likely to reveal anything that might significantly detract from your enjoyment — the question of what is and isn’t “significant” being the outstanding issue. Any advance reading will spoil the show, if by “spoil” you mean interfere with the pristine, virginal viewing experience. (That includes watching commercials and “next on…” previews as well, so if you complain about the one, I better not catch you watching the others.) But insisting that critics refrain from even piddling specifics spoils their ability to write anything that goes beyond vague generalities, and — spoiler alert — that I can’t abide.