The Miami, Fla., pop culture blog Uproxx has become a destination for “Mad Men” obsessives, even more so after contributor Dustin Rowles published a story about a so-called “conspiracy theory” linking Megan Draper to Sharon Tate, the young actress killed in the Manson murders in 1969. The article immediately went viral and made a few people a little crazy. (If you happened to miss the story -- and you probably didn't if you're reading this -- it's here.)
I contacted Rowles to find out what he thinks about his newly gained Internet fame and, for good measure, what he thinks is going to happen on "Mad Men" as the season draws to a close. Rowles lives in Maine and is the publisher of another (rather fun) pop culture site, Pajiba.com. He has a law degree and coaches T-ball. He prefers email to talking on the phone and offered at least one Chekhov reference that went over this reporter's head.
He has been reading the “Mad Men” tea leaves since the pilot episode and also writes/obsesses about “Breaking Bad.” He uses endearing phrases like “reading the tea leaves” and “going down the rabbit hole” that I hereby shamelessly co-opt.
Here's a heavily condensed, edited and patched-together “transcript” of our conversation, which took place in two parts over two days. Please do not hesitate to contribute your own thoughts in the comment section; that's where some of the best “Mad Men” theories have started. (Really.)
IBTimes: It’s notable that the phrase “conspiracy theory” is almost automatically assigned to any considered interpretation of “Mad Men” symbolism. Why do you think that is?
Dustin Rowles: I know. What is that? We're having fun with a television show. It's harmless, and, if anything, it enriches our enjoyment of the show. ... When I hear "conspiracy theory," I feel like they're lumping us in with the Unabomber or something. We're not trying to tie "Mad Men" to 9/11; we're reading tea leaves and trying to predict outcomes.
IBTimes: Among obsessive fans (or rabbit-holers, as I now like to call them), I feel like we’ve reached a point in “Mad Men” similar to the Ouija-board/levitating segment of the junior high school slumber party program: We are all really eager to flirt with the dark side and are trying to look for macabre, supernatural cues where they don’t exist.
Rowles: That's probably true, but it makes it more fun to watch. The Don Draper stuff has otherwise been something of a drag. He has been so unlikable.
IBTimes: Do you think we are having death fantasies about Don because we don't like him?
Rowles: Absolutely not. I think all of the death fantasies are grounded in the series. It's Don who is fantasizing about death as much as anyone. ["Mad Men" creator Matt] Weiner himself said about season six that "death is not a theme, it's a reality" and that Don is contending with that. (Rowles had previously written: “Don Draper has developed a cough that has quietly revealed itself several times over the course of this season (and the end of last), including the most recent episode. Nobody has made a big splash about it, but Weiner wouldn't put that in there for no reason. Wouldn't it be ironic if the guy who made his name advertising for Lucky Strike died of lung cancer?”)
IBTimes: Can we talk more about your suspicions that Don has lung cancer? He definitely has been coughing a lot more this season.
Rowles: He really has. I think there have been at least five episodes beginning with the "hot tooth" episode in season five where Don has expressed a cough. It is very odd. "Chekhov's cough" perhaps.
IBTimes: I had almost forgotten about the hot tooth!
Rowles: Jon Hamm [who plays Don in "Mad Men"] has said that he has known how the series will end for a long time, and maybe that cough has been laying the groundwork. But then again, "Mad Men" is not the kind of show that will hang out in a hospital room while someone is dealing with cancer.
IBTimes: Exactly! I was talking about the possibility of Don having lung cancer with my co-worker Christopher Zara -- I just can't see him on his deathbed.
Rowles: It would probably have to be that he is diagnosed with cancer, and the series maybe ends there, with the assumption that he will soon die.
IBTimes: Or he jumps to his death, as Christopher predicted.
Rowles: Yes! And there was a hint of that in the premiere episode, when he's looking out his window.
IBTimes: Do you think we are ever going to see a falling man?
Rowles: I don't know. One of the characters was supposed to jump out his window the first season, and they decided against that.
IBTimes: So given that the possibility of jumping was already considered and then rejected by the writers of the show, do you think that the falling man portent is moot now?
Rowles: No, not necessarily. I'm sure they could circle back around to it. But with who? I don't think it's an out Don would take. I think that with Lane Pryce dying at the end of season five we're all just assuming that there will be another death this season. ... It's hard to say.
Weiner was banging the Pete Campbell death drum really hard last year. ... He threw a lot of suggestions at us that Pete (who is a partner at the ad agency on the show) would commit suicide, but I think that was all misdirection to take our mind off of the Lane suicide.
If you go back, there's some foreshadowing to suggest that Lane (another agency partner on the show) would hang himself; many of us were too preoccupied with Pete to see it. Weiner could very well could be doing this same thing this season with Megan (Don's wife). It's like a magic trick: He has us so focused on one hand that we don't see the trick he's performing with the other.
IBTimes: How did you pick up on the Sharon Tate-Megan Draper connection?
Rowles: My Uproxx colleague, Josh Kurp, alerted me to the Sharon Tate discussion on Reddit, because I'm the "Mad Men" theory guy. I added some context and provided more evidence from the show to bolster the theory, and some of the stuff also comes from suggestions by commenters from Uproxx and elsewhere who have also jumped into the rabbit hole with me.
IBTimes: What are some of the other "Mad Men" conspiracy theories that you can get behind?
Rowles: Since the season premiere, I have been predicting that the Don Draper identity would die but that he would be reborn as Dick Whitman. There's a lot of evidence, especially in the season premiere, that season six is about Don shedding his fraudulent identity, and the themes of duality throughout the season suggest, perhaps, a split. Several other television critics have come around to that theory in one way or another over the course of the season.
I also spun a more ridiculous theory, based on clues within a series of episode titles, that Don would go down in Delta Flight 723, a real-life commuter plane that crashed in 1973. There were two initial survivors, and my theory was that Don would pull another double switch, like he did in Korea, with the other survivor of that crash, and walk away with a new identity. That, of course, is a ridiculous but very fun theory. When you get heavily invested in a show, it's easy to start seeing connections that are not necessarily there. I think the connections involving Sharon Tate have stuck more than most, simply because there's more evidence to support them and it's more salacious.
IBTimes: What do you think about the theory that the whole series is based on (agency account exec) Ken Cosgrove’s memoirs?
Rowles: That's way too snow globe-y for Weiner. He may be guilty of a lot of things, but he'd never short-change us like that. Weiner wants to impress us, not deceive us.
IBTimes: Or that there won’t be a season seven?
Rowles: This one I don't buy simply because I follow and write about industry news enough to know that, if there wasn't a season seven, the cast would already be lining up additional projects. They would've been active in pilot season. You can hide a character death, but you can't hide the end of an entire series. That said, it's certainly possible, but again, I don't think Weiner wants to trick us, and that would be a huge deception.
IBTimes: I don't have any particular theories of my own, but I’ve never quite been able to shake the "fever dream" scene from season five's “Mystery Date.”
Rowles: Where Don murdered a former lover?
IBTimes: Yes. We know that Don is prone to hallucinations, but is there any possibility he actually did kill Andrea Rhodes and Megan disposed of the body?
Rowles: That would be fantastic.
IBTimes: Right? But I don't know how plausible.
Rowles: It's probably outside of the realm of the "Mad Men" universe, but it would be a really fun reveal.
IBTimes: Wouldn't one of the characters being a perpetrator rather than a victim of a violent crime be a natural climax to the growing tension and feeling of dread in this season?
Rowles: It would, but it would also turn "Mad Men" into something it's probably not cut out to be.
IBTimes: Given that Weiner came into his own under the tutelage of (Soprano creator) David Chase, do you think he feels pressure to outdo Chase in ending the series? Some “Sopranos” fans thought the series finale was kind of a "f--- you" to obsessive fans of the show who got so wrapped up in it. Do you agree with that interpretation?
Rowles: I wasn't as invested in the show to really feel burned by the end of "The Sopranos," but if Weiner were to pull a stunt like that in "Mad Men," I'd be furious. I don't think that it was an intentional f--- you on Chase's part, but the effect was the same. If viewers respect your show enough to delve into the subtext, to try and dig underneath the layers, I think you owe it to those viewers to provide a conclusion built upon the subtext and layers.
I don't expect Weiner to blow our minds with a magical narrative feat at the end of the series, but I do hope that there is a deep foundation for the ending, an ending that we could look at and say, "Oh yeah, given everything we've seen up to this point, this makes sense." That it feels like a natural progression for the characters. As far as I'm concerned, Weiner could outdo Chase by virtue of simply giving us an ending and hopefully a modicum of closure.
IBTimes: So you don't think Weiner wants to toy with us?
Rowles: No. I don't think he's interested in playing tricks. I think that, whatever happens, we can start with the end point and trace it back into the series and say, "Oh, yeah! That makes sense. There were clues all along. How did I miss those!"
Weiner more than anyone loves to talk about the themes and about the subtext and the literary devices, and I think he wants us to appreciate what he's building, and, honestly, he wants us to know how smart he is. He doesn't want to screw with us; he wants to outthink us. He wants to bury the secrets so deep that we won't find them until we know the outcome.