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Stop Trying to Solve “Mad Men.” Just Stop.

Stop Trying to Solve "Mad Men." Just Stop.

At Slate, Julia Turner interviews Geoffrey Gray, an expert on D.B. Cooper, about the fan theory that “Mad Men‘s” Don Draper will eventually be revealed to be the mysterious 1970s skyjacker. “The idea that Don might turn out to be Cooper,” Turner writes, “makes a certain amount of sense.”

Allow me to make a counterargument: No, it doesn’t, unless by “a certain amount,” you mean zero. This theory, like the one that Don’s wife, Megan, might end up being murdered by the Manson Family, is, to use the precise term, crapola. But it’s a popular, or at least, persistent brand of crapola, and one with troubling, or at least depressing, implications.

In a canny sendup of the subgenre, Ali Arikan at claims to have discovered proof positive that “Mad Men” will end with Don helping Richard Nixon fake the moon landing.

Don’s ad firm Sterling Cooper Pryce has already links with the Nixon administration: they practically ran the new president’s campaign against Kennedy back in 1960. So it’s obvious that Nixon will turn to his old cohorts to help him stick one in the eye of the hemp-and-sandals brigade. This is not conjecture. It’s obvious! Just look at the facts: The “moon landing” took place in July 1969. Season seven takes place in 1969! Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” was released in April 1969. The first episode of season seven, “Time Zones,” debuted in April. And what happened the day after the episode aired? Blood Moon! A penumbral eclipse occurred April 2, 1969. Don’t make me spell it out for you, because it’s late.

What’s great about Arikan’s piece (beyond the fact that it’s very, very funny) is how it sends up the underlying tendency of such essays to treat their subjects less as a work of art than a puzzle to be solved. This kind of superficial sophistry used to be the domain of renegade nutters like the ones depicted in Rodney Ascher’s “Room 237,” but online communities — Usenet groups, message boards, and now Reddit — have provided fertile soil in which these theories flourish. Shows like “Lost” and “How I Met Your Mother” have played into and encouraged the phenomenon, sometimes at the expense of, or at least as a substitute for, the more substantial exploration of character and theme. With ever-greater competition for viewers’ attention, building ever-unfolding mysteries into the show was a way of ensuring a dedicated audience — who wanted to miss the episode that might finally explain the nature of the Dharma Initiative? — and kept fans humming through the dead space between episodes, poring over screencaps and sifting through obscure references in an attempt to uncover the truth they were implicitly promised lurked behind it all. And if they found themselves unable to trace a path through all the breadcrumbs they’d scattered, the show’s creators could always punt and say they were more concerned about “the characters.”

Some shows play into this approach, which has its roots in the late-’90s vogue for puzzle-box movies like “The Usual Suspects” and “Memento.” But some viewers, at least, seem to have lost the ability to distinguish those shows from the rest; they’re always looking for Easter eggs, even if it’s the middle of July. There are liminal cases, like “True Detective,” which encouraged its audience to take on the paranoid perspective of Matthew McConaughey’s obsessive investigator and then turned to a conclusion that revealed most of its suggestive details — and some it apparently hadn’t meant to suggest — to be red herrings.

And then there’s “Mad Men,” a show that, unless you count the vague prefiguring of a major character’s death in the fifth season, has never shown much interest in leaving clues for viewers to pore over. One of the more compelling theories about why creator Matthew Weiner is so obsessive about critics spoiling minor details is that it’s a way to create an air of mystery around a show that otherwise doesn’t generate much.   Weiner prefers genuine surprise to an elongated tease. When “Mad Men” takes a sudden turn, with, say, the abrupt end of Sterling Cooper or Don’s marriage to Megan, it does it with little or no warning.

There are many different ways to watch a TV show: for the story, for the visual style, even for the costumes. At best, those approaches inform and enrich each other. But as closely as the clue-hunters pore over “Mad Men” — or, for that matter, “Toy Story” — they miss what the show is really about, and more to the point, willfully misunderstand the kind of show it is. It’s not only counter-productive but tone-deaf, a way of scrutinizing the subject without actually engaging it.

My colleague Zack Handlen suggested on Twitter that “the reason people try and ‘solve’ ‘Mad Men’ is that slow ambiguity can be immensely frustrating — it’s portent without resolution.” But it’s distressing to see clue-hunting take the place of more insightful analysis, especially when it crosses over from Reddit threads into mainstream publications. Like the Expert Review, it’s a cynical way of milking one more post out of a subject that’s otherwise exhausted (which is not to say that I’ve never done it or never will). It’s true that “Mad Men” began as a show built around the mystery of Don Draper’s past, but Dick Whitman’s secret has long since been revealed to nearly everyone that matters. The questions that “Mad Men” is asking now are not ones that can be answered through simple detective work. It’s possible they can’t be answered at all.

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The D.B. Cooper theory is spot on. In fact there are more clues for it than not. Perhaps some people just don’t want it to be so and that’s fine – you can always find something to disprove any ‘theory’. And while we know only a bit of D.B. Cooper’s history AFTER the hijacking, we know nothing of it before so it’s a free license to make up his life and the whole Draper persona fits perfectly. If this is indeed the Mad Men ending Weiner is a genius and right from the beginning. I hope this is the ending – if it’s anything less it will be very anti-climatic. Perhaps I’m simple but I like the theory.

D. Watts

I think there's a lot to be discovered beneath the surface of Mad Men and I think Weiner does leave a certain amount of bread crumbs which one can follow if one so chooses. I read recently on another site that the line "You're My Favorite Couple" was an allusion to the film "they shoot horses don't they?" And that makes sense and can provide a viewer with a richer experience if they so choose to pick up on it. What bothers me is when people turn it into some kind of cryptogram. Just because it references the film doesn't mean Don will shoot Megan, and just because Megan dresses like Sharon Tate doesn't mean she's going to be killed by Squeaky Fromme (or however you spell it) First of all this isn't Inglorious Basterds, Weiner doesn't rewrite history; and secondly even if it is meant to somehow associate Megan with Tate, which it most likely is, it is by way of some kind of poetry or metaphor that Weiner has not yet let us in on. I agree with the author in that sense: If that is how people are watching this show, they are watching a very different one than me, and they are missing out.


Lighten up, Francis.

Scott Beggs

It lives next door, but I've always been frustrated by interpretive solutions to stories, like The Wizard of Oz being "about populism." Like conspiracy theories, all the elements lock into place without really meaning anything.

My only response to the clue-hunting is that it doesn't necessarily stop someone from also enjoying the art as art. It's an added bonus that's easy to engage with, but I doubt people who dug deep into Breaking Bad were missing how great the show was while theorizing.

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