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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 RogerEbert.com 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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