In the chatter surrounding “Mad Men” Season 6, disturbing questions kept emerging. Who’s going to die? Is Megan already
dead? Is she Sharon Tate? Is Bob Benson a psycho killer?
Wait a second. Is this “Mad Men” or “The Following”?
The buzz grew so loud that “Mad Men” showrunner Matthew Weiner broke his strict policy of not commenting on upcoming storylines and revealed to the LA Times that “It’s just not part of the show. No one’s going to die … this season.”
Now that there’s only one episode left, it’s not exactly a huge spoiler. But any kind of confirmation from Weiner about something that hasn’t happened yet is a big deal (even the kind that confirms what won’t happen) because he simply doesn’t talk about this stuff.
It’s not clear why Weiner felt the need to speak out — maybe he wants fans to be able to watch the finale without wondering if or when a character might kick the bucket — but there’s a bigger question to be raised: How come a significant number of fans were so obsessed with predicting a major death to begin with?
One of the pleasures of “Mad Men” is the unpredictability of its storytelling, but that storytelling tends to unfold on a smaller more intimate scale than most other TV dramas. That’s why the show is sometimes knocked as “slow” or “boring” or draws complaints for its lack of action. That’s also why the fans who love the series find it so rich and rewarding. The big twists and developments on “Mad Men” matter because of how they impact the characters, how they alter relationships and how they reverberate over time, not through the instant gratification of how they move a plotline forward or shock the audience.
But there’s no denying that killing off characters is hot in TV drama right now. Buzzy hits like “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead” do it to establish the dangerous world their characters occupy, “Breaking Bad” and “Boardwalk Empire” do it to establish the extremes certain characters will go to to get their way, and even less hard-edged series like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Downton Abbey” do it (usually motivated by external factors: to explain why an actor is leaving the show).
There’s nothing wrong with that, unless audiences begin to conflate a high body count with great drama or riveting storytelling. Death isn’t the only option. And “Mad Men” proves there are other ways to create suspense and alternative methods to challenge characters or raise stakes.
Last night’s “reveal” that Bob Benson is not secretly a murderous psychopath plotting to break into Don Draper’s apartment and stab Megan Draper to death wasn’t a disappointment. Instead, what we discovered about Bob was something far more complicated and engaging: Bob, like Don before him, walked into the ad agency with an invented past and schmoozed his way onto the company payroll. It’s a development that draws parallels between Bob and Don, echoes the contentious history between Pete and Don (with a notably different outcome), and gives some kind of an answer to a season-long mystery that’s entirely in keeping with the kind of show “Mad Men” is.
We’ve seen “Mad Men” handle death as startling (the suicides of Adam Whitman and Lane Pryce), natural (elderly parents including Betty’s father and Roger’s mother) and heartbreaking (Anna Draper’s cancer) but not as the sort of wanton act of revenge or senseless carnage that suits other shows.
If you really think that’s what needs to happen on “Mad Men” to make the drama interesting, what show have you been watching?