Don Draper is not D.B. Cooper. But don't tell that to "Mad Men" fans online.
The latest theory swirling around "Mad Men," which will return in April for its seventh season, is that the show's protagonist is the infamous plane hijacker who got a $200,000 ransom in 1971 before disappearing into the Pacific Northwest -- that the show will end with Don Draper entirely abandoning his identity and hijacking a jet. The theory was first put forth last summer in an essay on Medium and gained purchase on Reddit, that bubbling cauldron of half-complete notions. The fact that the first images of Season 7 have depicted Draper stepping off a plane add fuel to the fire.
And yet this all looked a bit familiar. Last season saw the Internet go absolutely ape over the theory that Megan, Don's wife and a rising actress, was meant to be Sharon Tate, the real-world wife of Roman Polanski who was killed by the Manson Family. This was largely due to a particular T-shirt Megan and Tate both wore. At the end of the season, Megan was still alive.
Theories about what's going to happen next on a TV show are, of course, nothing new: Leading into the final season of "Breaking Bad," fans had all manner of notions about what would happen to Walter White. And, of course, the recently concluded "True Detective" disappointed some fans by failing to do much with the Lovecraftian symbols seeded throughout the season, presenting a fairly straightforward conclusion that confounded the wild theorizing happening online.
But time and again, "Mad Men" has shown its viewers that its baroque attention to detail means little more than itself; period detail is invoked not to draw parallels between characters and historical figures whose fates theirs will resemble, but simply to show what things looked like in the 1960s. Don Draper's hold on his identity seems uncertain not because he's preparing to literally become a famous hijacker but because he's a protagonist who, we're thuddingly reminded again and again, is unable to cope with the seismic changes the 20th century is wreaking.
Theories about "Mad Men" are fun to make because without them, it's a (very good) show on which little functionally happens week-to-week. If Don Draper's slow collapse from bon vivant to non-functional alcoholic is leading nowhere but further ruin, what has been the point of watching? If Megan isn't a piece of a larger puzzle, why should we care about her sudden marriage to Don and their largely (though not entirely) chemistry-free union? The answer is because it is, on its own, interesting -- if it is indeed interesting to you -- and not because it adds up to some grand reveal. What twists there have been on "Mad Men" have largely been underplayed or minor-key: second-string character Lane's suicide, for instance, during a season when many had predicted a larger star, like Pete Campbell or Don himself, would die. Why should anyone believe that a larger twist is in the offing, for any reason other than wishful thinking?
Perhaps the greatest trick "Mad Men" has pulled is not any of its plot twists but in its convincing a few million people to obsessively follow the twists and turns in the life of a fellow plodding his way through the 1960s. Its finale, even if it's uncharacteristically bombastic, will of course disappoint many, if not most, fans, because it finally closes off the aura of possibility that surrounds "Mad Men." A finale will foreclose that sense that even though the little details in the scenery and air of mystery haven't added up to more than a portrait of a tortured soul in history yet, they will soon.
Little wonder that AMC is putting off the finale until 2015.