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"Mad Men" fans know the deal: We won't be getting any spoilers from creator Matthew Weiner, the most notoriously tight-lipped showrunner in the biz. (The detailed letters he sends to critics every year listing everything we can't tell you are a running joke at this point.)
But Roger Sterling must have slipped a little something into Weiner's coffee this morning, because he was downright chatty in a conference call with critics. No, he didn't reveal what fates await Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, and the rest of the Sterling Cooper crew when the new season starts April 13 — the AMC drama's seventh and final season, by the way.
But he did drop a few big hints about the challenges those characters are facing going forward, which is more than we expected. Plus, he addressed the splitting of "Mad Men's" final season into two halves, laughed off some of the crazier fan theories, and even named some of the TV shows he's been obsessing over lately.
Here are the highlights from Weiner's chat with critics:
* Season 6 ended on a down note for Don Draper: The ad-man alpha male is out of a job, and (maybe) out of another marriage as well. But Weiner doesn't see it as all that dire: "We definitely had a finale last year that was hard on Don, but some things are good in his life at the end of that finale." Besides, he said, it'll never be smooth sailing for Don because (duh) he's a TV character: "People's lives being good is never good drama, so we're always looking for more problems for these people."
* This season, "Mad Men" is going bicoastal, with Ted Chaough and Pete Campbell opening up a West Coast branch of Sterling Cooper in Los Angeles. And that's no accident: Weiner has lived in L.A. since he was 11 years old, and he has always set out to spin a Tale of Two Coasts, "to tell a story that started in 1960, where New York was the focus of not just the United States but the world, and to show the rise of California," which "certainly became, by the end of the '60s, the cultural center of the United States."
* Weiner offered a few generalities about the upcoming season, characterizing the overall theme as "the consequences in life, and if change is possible." His description of Season 7's emotional core sounds a lot like Don: "When your needs are met, you start thinking about other things. There's a real growth over the course of this last season from what are the material concerns of your life to the immaterial concerns of your life. That's really what the ending of the show is about."
* He also addressed the elephant in the room: the decision to split "Mad Men's" final season into two halves. He made it clear it was "not my idea," but he doesn't mind the change of pace: "Honestly, 92 episodes into the show, anything that breaks up the pattern and gives me a new challenge is very exciting." Plus, he and AMC have a solid blueprint to emulate: "They had success doing this with 'Breaking Bad.' It was so good for the growth of the show, and the way the ending was received."
* So how far in are Weiner and his staff in terms of the writing process? "I've finished writing nine scripts," he said, and with 14 episodes in the final season (7 now, and 7 next spring), "there are five more to finish." But even at this point, Weiner said he and his writers already have a good idea where Don and company will end up when the series wraps: "We have a pretty clear road map."
* Who will stick up for Pete Campbell? Weiner will! "Pete has very good politics, I think," he said, adding that Pete "is truly in the seat of the underdog. He hates injustice." Weiner recalled the Season 6 episode "The Flood," where Pete has an oddly humane moment following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. "He's selfish and petty and bitter for no reason, and doesn't appreciate what he has, but he very clearly is not a racist, and he's offended by it." So put that in Pete Campbell's "plus" column: not a racist.
* Ever-quotable playboy Roger "has undergone a bit of an education" over these past few seasons, Weiner said, but "he's starting to have a bit of an existential crisis. Even Roger Sterling is seeing a little darkness in the repetitive nature of hedonism." And Roger's transformation into a LSD-loving flower child doesn't surprise Weiner, either: "Everyone at the beginning of the show was like, 'Are we gonna see Don in love beads and a Nehru jacket? I was like, 'No, but Roger will probably get there.'"
* As for Peggy, Weiner said her ongoing story "is a constant mix between what is good for Peggy as a person, and what's good for Peggy's career — and they have not gone together at all. She only knows how to pay attention to her job, and that may become a story for this season." Last season ended with a scorned Peggy snapping at Ted for dumping her to go back to his wife: "Well, aren't you lucky to have decisions?" But Weiner sees that turning around for Miss Olson: "Hopefully, she's reaching a point in her life where she's gonna start to actually have some choices."
* Joan has evolved a lot over the course of the series, too, per Weiner. She started out as "the person who was watching Peggy with almost pity," and then became someone who "stopped caring a little bit about how things look. … She started the show with a very clear philosophy: Have a lot of fun, and then find a husband, get married and have children, and move to the country. And we see now that her interests are very different than that."
* Don's estranged wife Megan is "a classic second wife," according to Weiner, who noted that "the power has shifted as Megan has matured." Don originally saw Megan as "a fresh start for him, and it didn't really turn out that way," Weiner said. That fracture in their relationship culminated in last season's finale, when Don first offered to take Megan to California, then gave his spot to Ted, infuriating his wife: "Are there repercussions for that? Yes. That is the story of the season for me."
* Weiner put on his thinking cap when asked to draw comparisons from Don Draper to characters from classic literature: "I like to think of him in the context of a lot of the literary characters that have this past," i.e. a "man who has this dual identity and is striving to establish himself." Weiner cited influences from the Bible (Moses and Joseph) to American businessmen like Lee Iacocca, Sam Walton, John Rockefeller, and William Randolph Hearst, and even Bill Clinton, as characters with "similar origin stories to Don."
* Megan is dead! Bob Benson is a spy! Pete will be mauled by a bear! We all enjoy a good "Mad Men" conspiracy theory, and so do Weiner and his staff; he seemed genuinely tickled when one critic mentioned them. Although Weiner said they don't intend to spark these theories: "No one in the writers' room anticipates any of this." And he dismissed the wilder ones as "so much beyond the tone of our show… time travel or murder, it's just not what we do on the show." (Should we consider that a spoiler?)
* If you want to hear Weiner gush, ask him about Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne ("Chinatown"), who joins the "Mad Men" writing staff as a consultant this season. Weiner compared the hire to "if you're running a baseball team and someone says Babe Ruth wants to come in one day a week and show people how to hit." Calling Towne a "sage advisor," Weiner admitted the biggest advantage to having Towne in the room is "he makes me work harder, because I'm always trying to impress him."
* Finally, Weiner told us what TV shows he stays home to watch. His busy schedule doesn't allow for a lot of couch time, and with four children, "I really do not have control over what I watch." But he likes "Top Chef," "Chopped," "Project Runway," and because of his sons, "I've seen more 'Doctor Who' than most people can imagine." He watches "Boardwalk Empire" "whenever I can"; he recently binge-watched two seasons of "Downton Abbey"; and he watched all of "Orange Is the New Black" ("I love that show"). Plus, "I haven't seen 'True Detective' yet, but I will." Just don't spoil it for him, OK, guys?
"Mad Men" Season 7 premieres April 13 at 10 p.m. on AMC.