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This story contains spoilers about Sunday’s episode of Mad Men.
Matt Weiner is famous, perhaps infamous, for his seasonal message to critics about not spoiling very particular parts of his baby, Mad Men.
Now, as I noted in my review of the first two episodes of Season 6, the man has delivered five brilliant seasons of one of the best series ever created, so if he wants to be obsessive or neurotic about things, he’s earned it. And at least this year, I obliged and didn’t mention any of them. In fact, there was so much to digest in the first two hours that worrying about minute details that Weiner was concerned about never really entered the conversation.
I was just happy that existentialism – the hallmark of the series — was being addressed so aggressively this year. Believe it or not, there are people who actually think Mad Men is about advertising.
But anyway, now that this two hour “movie” is over and what will be considered the first two episodes are in the books, let’s take a look at what Weiner was so worried about by specifically addressing the five key spoilers he wanted critics to avoid.
1. “The year the season begins.” Like a lot of critics, this has just baffled me. Yes, people care, but it’s not like if you told them, “This takes place two years later than last season,” they would kick over their computers in disgust and never watch again. Why is the date so important? Well, all I can tell you is that two dates were essential to Weiner and from there this fascination with secrecy took on a life of its own and became ridiculous. First, it was absolutely vital to understanding Mad Men in Season 1 to articulate the the show started in 1960. People had started saying the show was about advertising set in the 1960s. But that wasn’t true. It was specifically 1960. Why was that important? Because 1960 was really still the 1950s. As a country, we were ages away from what “the Sixties” would come to mean. And just because the calendar flipped in January to a new year did not mean that 1960 was any different socially than, say, the mid-1950s and beyond. It helped establish exactly how pronounced the sexism was (in particularly, because that was a central aspect with Joan and Peggy on different career paths) and also about the state of racism and existing morals. It was key to know that in 1960, Don’s long-running fling with Midge was important because it meant that Midge was way, way ahead of her time. In Season 2, Mad Men jumped into the early part of 1962. Now that was a big deal. And I can remember Weiner wanting that to be a secret because, for television, it was a pretty big shift. And he wanted it quiet because he was going to show Jackie Kennedy on the TV and the leap ahead was going to be an eye-opener for people. Since then? Meh.
And this season? Well, Season 5 ended in the spring of 1967 (April, I believe) and this picks up between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. There may be Mad Men archeologists who will find that important, but most people will just shrug. Going into 1968 and all the hell that’s about to break loose? Yes, a big deal. But the actual year the season begins? Whatever.
2. “Status of Don and Megan’s relationship.” OK, now this is a big deal. The two-hour movie ends with a shocker (well, of sorts, given Don’s history): He’s having an affair with the wife of a doctor friend of Don’s. It’s New Year’s Eve when the episode ends. The woman in question, Sylvia (Linda Cardellini), is in bed with Don and asks him what he wants and he says, “I want to stop doing this.” A great, telling line. The lack of change is a major theme for Don, of course, but let’s just admit that this spoiler was one that Weiner was right to call out. However, any critic who would give that away in a review anyway should never be read again. My guess is that 90-plus percent of critics would not have revealed that in a review prior to the premiere.
3. “Whether the agency has expanded to an additional floor.” Really? Of the five demands, this is the most baffling. I admire Weiner as much or more than most people in the business but, honestly, nobody cares. And if they do care, they need a hobby outside of watching Mad Men. This is, categorically, not a spoiler of any relevance.
4. “New characters.” Now, this is too vague by half. I understand the desire not to reveal too much, but would there have been any harm in mentioning that Don and Megan are friends with a doctor and his wife? No. New characters are often essential for a review. And here’s why: Most of us are going to spend all day Monday (and probably through the week), explaining to even die-hard Mad Men fans that, no, they shouldn’t have known who Sandy was. You know, Sandy — the girl with the violin who goes to New York and Betty goes after her, running into...hippies and such. By not being able to tell people in advance about Sandy, no doubt most people were watching and thinking, “Who the hell is this?” Because the way that Betty and Sally talked to her, you’d think she lived next door for the last five seasons. So, not writing about new characters is being too protective. Unless, for example, we didn’t know that Peggy had left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and, in our early reviews, we critics mentioned her new job, new boss, or a new boyfriend, etc. I get that. Why would it be a spoiler to mention that there’s a new kid, Bob (James Wolk), who’s very ambitious? What the hell does Bob do that changes everything? It’s possible for critics to talk about new characters without spoiling something important that said character does to change the direction of the show.
5. “New relationships or partnerships.” Talk about vague. And restricting. The relationship between Don and Sylvia, as I said, needs to be protected in advance stories/reviews. I get that. Beyond that, what exactly were the new relationships and partnerships that couldn’t dare be mentioned? Listen, I’ve watched those two episodes twice. Is Megan in a soap opera a partnership? Is it about clients? Beyond Sylvia, I don’t get this at all. And I’m guessing that if Weiner himself told me why the hell it was important (and he just might), I’d have to say, “Apologies in advance, but I just don’t see the point of that remaining a secret.”
So, there you are. Those were the five that Weiner outlined to critics. Now, here’s something interesting. I know at least one critic (and there were undoubtedly others) who printed these spoiler warnings in advance of the preview (not the actual plot elements, but Weiner’s demands) and even I considered that more of a spoiler than most of what Weiner has on this list. Because if I hadn’t seen the episode and someone writes, “status of Don and Megan’s relationship,” I immediately think they’ve split or, ding-ding, Don’s cheating. So I’m not sure putting these spoiler restraints in writing is very helpful.
I understand that we don’t live in a perfect, respectable world, but the vast majority of critics I know realize that more than 80 percent of what we watch is a gigantic pile of dung. Why in the world would we want to spoil the remaining joys of actually watching quality television? I think we all deserve a little more credit. And if there’s a small group of people who ruin it, I would hope that fans of the show would just stop reading those people.
(Coming soon: Why sensitivity to spoilers has spiraled out of control and people need to relax.)
And yes, that includes you, Matt Weiner.
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