With the endless social media chatter around television shows with devoted followings, it was only a matter of time before the peanut gallery discussions found their way into writer’s rooms. Based on Sunday night’s Season 7 premiere of “Mad Men,” it looks like that time may have come.
Anyone invested in the AMC hit “Mad Men” will recall the macabre theory that erupted via social media in Season 6: Megan Draper was doomed to meet a violent demise similar to that of actress Sharon Tate, who was brutally murdered by Charles Manson's followers in the summer of 1969. (For those just tuning in, Megan wore a distinctive T-shirt identical to one that Sharon Tate modeled in an Esquire photo spread not long before her death.)
And it certainly looks as though the “Mad Men” writers don’t want us to forget it – despite costume designer Janie Bryant’s insistence that the wardrobe choice that started it all “wasn’t about Sharon Tate.” It’s as if the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, and his writers deliberately wrote in contextual cues that would force viewers to draw parallels between Megan and Sharon Tate. Is it possible that the foreboding means an early, bloody death for Megan Draper? Or were the references written in as a direct, mocking response to what bloggers Tom & Lorenzo referred to as the “Tate hysteria” of last season?
Notably, filming for Season 7 began after Season 6 had aired and all the breathless recaps and so-called conspiracy theory stories had made the rounds. The new season opens sometime in January 1969; the Manson murders were in August of that year. Megan Draper is living in the Hollywood Hills, continuing to pursue an acting career with some success. Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered in Benedict Canyon, also in the Hollywood Hills, in a home rented by Tate and her husband Roman Polanski, who was working in London at the time of the murders.
When Don visits Megan in her new home, he says it reminds him of “Dracula’s castle,” and worries about how isolated it is. As Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter pointed out, Tate and Polanski first met on the set of “The Fearless Vampire Killers.” When Don is startled by the sound of howling coyotes, Megan assures him the wild animals are not as close as they sound: “It’s just what happens to the sound in the canyons,” she says. This sharply echoes the second line of “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders,” which reads, “The canyons above Hollywood and Beverly Hills play tricks with sounds. A noise clearly audible a mile away may be indistinguishable at a few hundred feet.”
The Megan Draper-Sharon Tate theory drove “Mad Men” fans down the rabbit hole but ultimately wasn’t taken very seriously by critics. Weiner has frequently drawn from real-life political and cultural events of the 1960s, but so far he has never rewritten history. The idea that he would replace a person who existed in real life with one of his characters is indeed far-fetched. Another argument against the theory is that the clues are too obvious and heavy-handed; Weiner is known for far more subtle surprises. (Then again, there were hints in Season 5 that Lane Pryce would kill himself, which is exactly what he did.)
Weiner has said that he’s known how “Mad Men” would end since the middle of Season 4. But would he stick to that script if the “Mad Men” theorists correctly predicted how the series would close? That’s a question we asked last year when we wrote about Lindsay Greene’s very compelling theory that Don Draper is actually D.B. Cooper, a mysterious hijacker who parachuted from a Northwest Airlines flight in 1971 with $200,000 tied around his waist; he was never found or heard from again. Though Greene’s theory didn’t gain as much traction as the Sharon Tate theory, there’s no doubt Weiner and his writers were aware of it. In one scene from the premiere, Don, with his wife sleeping next to him, is watching the Frank Capra film “Lost Horizon,” about a group of passengers who survive a plane hijacking and live in a utopian valley called Shangri-La. This is a far more subtle reference than the coyote line, but it nonetheless feels like a direct nod to the D.B. Cooper theory.
Knowing how important it is to Weiner that he stay one step ahead of his viewers, I’m inclined to agree with those who think the writers are messing with us. And while it’s fascinating to imagine that we’ve entered a new chapter in scripted television that has blurred the line between the creators and the viewers, it will be disappointing if it turns out Weiner has been intentionally misleading. As Amy Sullivan of the Atlantic said, “If he is going to drop all of these Sharon Tate hints …Weiner damn well better pay it off.”
And if he doesn’t, Weiner might find himself with a legacy similar to that of his former boss David Chase, whose “Sopranos” series finale was deeply polarizing. We may not forgive a red herring any more than we did a cut to black.