We did it to ourselves, but it still feels petty and cheap.
Sunday’s “Mad Men” episode, “The Runaways,” provided the strongest evidence yet that Matthew Weiner is trolling his fans with references the 1969 Manson murders. We’d already suspected Weiner of forcing viewers to draw parallels between Sharon Tate and Megan Draper after the Season 7 premiere, but things spiraled out of control in the fifth episode of the season as a nearly-forgotten character reappeared looking like a down-and-out version of the doomed actress.
Even if you were (somehow) unaware of the fetching but implausible theory that Megan Draper will meet a fate similar to Tate’s murder at the hands of Charles Manson followers, you may still have been reminded of Sharon Tate when Don’s “niece” Stephanie appeared with her long blond hair, hippie headband, and very pregnant belly under a flowing bohemian dress. Stephanie’s circumstances are not at all like Tate’s were – Stephanie is broke and quasi-homeless, looking like she hasn’t bathed in a while - but the resemblance is undeniable. And her description of her baby’s father, a musician who is serving jail time for a drug-related offense, fits the profile of Manson himself. Later in the episode, a guest at Megan’s party is a dead ringer for the madman cult leader.
And the Manson murder references don’t stop there: As in previous episodes, coyotes can be heard howling in the canyons, and Don is stuck working in New York while his wife entertains friends at home, as Sharon Tate did while she was waiting for her director husband Roman Polanski to return from filming overseas.
But more telling are the conspicuous avoidances of Manson murder references. Much has been made of Megan’s secluded house in the Hollywood Hills, but in “The Runaways,” Don tells Stephanie that Megan lives in Laurel Canyon; the Manson murders took place at a house in Benedict Canyon. And in another scene, the camera follows Megan as she prepares a pot of coffee; her hand lingering on the cabinet door we expected to have a can of Folgers behind it. But that can appeared to be Chock Full ‘O Nuts.
There are a number of ways to interpret these cues, but it seems most likely that the obvious deviances from the Sharon Tate-Charles Manson narrative are Weiner’s way of admitting to viewers that he had been messing with us. And I can only hope that means he is going to stop.
There are no laws that govern how writers should interact with their audience, and Weiner has every right to have a little fun. It must have been hard to resist the temptation of teasing eager fans with a whiff of ritual murder; taunting them for getting so wrapped up in a gruesome, far-fetched theory. But Weiner is dangerously close to tainting his creation’s legacy if he continues to alienate his fans. There are only two episodes left in the first installment of Season 7, and the second half hasn’t begun filming yet. Since Weiner obviously pays attention to the fan and critical response to “Mad Men,” let’s hope he hears this: Enough already.