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Cracking the Mad Men code — cigarettes, plaid and peeved Pete

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After a long Don Draper-free hiatus, Mad Men is scheduled to return on April 13th. Eager fans are already analyzing the upcoming season, using only a single poster, some stylish still photographs, and one absolutely inscrutable 15-second trailer.

It's not much to go on -- lots of airplanes and polyester and enigmatic, middle-distance gazes -- but never mind. Mad Men followers have been obsessively sifting through this sparse material for signs and symbols, patterns and clues. You'd think we were breaking the Enigma code and defeating the Nazis or something. But no, all this compulsive cryptography is devoted to cracking the secrets of prestige TV.

The co-dependent relationship between TV watching and Internet theorizing is seductive and addictive. Audiences get particularly overthinky during final seasons. (It's a wonder we made it to the Breaking Bad finale without the Internet exploding.) As we say a long goodbye to Mad Men -- the seventh season will be split into two and run into 2015 -- the situation is becoming desperate.

All this feverish fan action comes despite the notorious secrecy of Matthew Weiner, Mad Men's creator and showrunner. Or maybe it comes because of that secrecy, as Weiner's spoiler-hating ways feed into viewer neediness.

It's a dysfunctional dynamic. Weiner refers to hardcore Mad Men theorists as "Kremlinologists," while critics and fans complain about his Soviet-style lockdown on information. Those "On the next episode of Mad Men" previews have become a sticking point, mostly because they're not previews at all. They're basically anti-trailers, constructed from significant silences and comically cryptic cross-talk, like tiny little Pinter plays.

Season seven's teaser-trailer, so brief as to be passive-aggressive, shows Don Draper framed against a blue sky, getting off a plane. (And no, he's not "deplaning," because people in 1969 didn't use stupid words like that.) Then he puts on his hat. That's it.

For this season's poster, Weiner actually commissioned a work by the 84-year-old Milton Glaser, one of the most influential graphic designers of the Mad Men era and beyond, the man behind that trippy Bob Dylan album cover and the "I heart NY" campaign. In this psychedelic image, Don is still the same old mid-century man, with his sharp black-and-white suit, but it looks as if the world has gotten considerably groovier.

The season seven photo gallery is set at a cool modernist airport. Peggy is looking confident, Roger is ogling mini-skirted stewardesses, and Harry is trying too hard with a paisley ascot. There's a bicoastal vibe, which suggests that the story's centre might be shifting towards Los Angeles. Reading even more into these images, we can see characters in transit, lots of metaphorical journeys, and loads of emotional baggage. (Betty has about nine suitcases.)

But Weiner, characteristically, warns us against getting carried away. "This gallery shoot is not necessarily infused with meaning," he has told journalists. Weiner claims he was just playing around with the contrast between the lost glamour of yesterday's air travel and today's ordeal of sweatpants and slow-moving security lines.

Weiner will say that the final season "is about consequences." The Internet wants this to be something big, really big. A couple of the more outlandish theories involve Don Draper turning out to be D.B. Cooper, the man behind a notorious 1971 hijacking, or Megan Draper being caught up in the Manson murders.

But it could be that when Weiner talks consequences, he means hard-won self-knowledge, late-found maturity, challenges, changes and loss. You know, the usual run of human existence.

As we move to an increasingly interactive model of pop culture consumption, TV-land is becoming contested territory, with writers and viewers clashing over expectations, and shows like Sherlock and True Detective becoming battlegrounds of exhaustive analysis and elaborate predictions. At this point, any final television season seems destined to be anticlimactic.

In the face of all this pressure, Mad Men continues to be opaque, enigmatic and emotionally withholding, rather like its handsome protagonist. Any viewer attempting to parse the possibilities of its last episodes should keep in mind that Weiner also wrote for The Sopranos, the series that seriously messed with fans' heads in its famously "open-ended" final minutes.

Weiner just doesn't seem like a Big Twist kind of guy, and those complex Internet theories about Mad Men's direction seem bound to end in disappointment. We know this about season seven: Cigarettes will be smoked, plaid will be worn, Pete will look peeved. Beyond that, who knows?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 D12

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