Think back to 2007, when AMC was a cable channel known for playing old movies. And then along came “Mad Men,” the 1960s era drama series that ushered in a whole new age of original programming for the basic cabler — and became a show that was quickly embraced by critics and viewers and lauded with dozens of awards.
Memories of that time were front and center as the cast of "Mad Men" took the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood Friday night as part of the 31st PaleyFest. They were introduced by creator Matt Weiner for a panel moderated by TV Guide’s Michael Schneider, who brought out Jon Hamm, Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, Jessica Paré, Kiernan Shipka and Robert Morse.
After a screening of the season six finale that ended with Don Draper getting booted from his ad agency and showing his children the whorehouse where he grew up, cast members revealed their feelings about the upcoming final season, which will air in two parts, with a seven-episode run premiering April 13 and the final seven to air starting in the spring of 2015.
"We're in some stage of grief. The end is coming and there’s no way to prepare for it, but we will have as much fun as we’ve had. Saying goodbye is part of life," said Hamm.
"It's terrible," added Paré, the newest cast member of the group, who plays Don Draper’s wife, Megan. "Horrible. I don't want it to ever be over. I think I cry every day about the show's end.”
"I probably started being emotional earlier than everyone," admitted Hendricks. "I'm already grieving. I'm just bracing myself — we're all just savoring every second and appreciating every moment."
"I've been on the show longer than I haven't," said 14-year-old Shipka, who was just 7 years old when the show premiered, "which is weird to think about but it's true."
As for what will happen to the characters, even if they know, they’re not saying. Their fate lies in Weiner’s hands and he’s always been known to insist on secrecy.
Hamm, who is also a producer, said Weiner may have figured out the ending between seasons four and five, after it was very clear that “Mad Men” had made it through all the uncertainty to get renewed up until that point. He noted that after shooting the pilot, everyone had major doubts about whether the show would even get picked up.
Now, fans analyze every scene and even promos to try to figure out what’s coming up for Draper and the co-workers he left behind at Sterling Cooper & Partners on Madison Avenue.
"The way the show tells the story and doles out information is very oblique," Hamm admitted. "People tend to start trying to fill in the blanks in an attempt to get ahead of the story."
With Draper’s drinking apparently out of control and his marriage on the line, the one constant in his life has been his successful career as an ad man. "He could always go to work. Now work is not there,” said Hamm. “That's going to be a big hurdle for him to have to get over somehow. If there's one overriding principle about Don, he's a survivor and generally rises to the challenges."
The show has fomented other mysteries recently, such as the character of Bob Benson (James Wolk), who became a close friend of Joan’s — to Roger’s displeasure — and a noteworthy rival to Pete Campbell, sparking an Internet obsession and some wild theories.
"Who is this guy (besides) two coffees and a lot of words?" Hamm said of Benson’s early appearances. "It's a tremendous compliment that people want to know." He then shouted out a YouTube video using “Mad Men” characters set to the opening theme of the 1980s ABC sitcom “Benson” starring Robert Guillaume. “It’s 45 seconds of your life but you’ll watch it ten times. It is amazing.”
Moss came in for some ribbing from the panel — and much applause from the audience — when Schneider displayed the March 10 cover of New York Magazine with the headline “Elisabeth Moss Has Been the Star of Mad Men All Along.”
Moss reflected on one of her noteworthy lines, “It must be nice to have choices,” said in response to her married lover and boss, Ted Chaough, telling her character he’s not going to leave his wife and that the family will be decamping to California, because he loves her so much he can’t be around her.
"I think her story is one of finding out who she is. Her battle all along is trying to figure out, should she be Don? Should she be Joan? She's finally asking the right question: Who am I?," she said of Peggy Olson. “She’s optimistic and believes in love. Ted didn’t intend to mislead her.”
As for Joan, she too is "gauging where her strengths are," said Hendricks, balancing her career and family and the role that her son’s father Roger Sterling (John Slattery) will play. Because of her "deep feelings and a lot of history" with Roger, Joan is "keeping an open mind to the possibilities" of a "more modern situation."
We last saw Megan grappling with Don’s about-face regarding moving to Los Angeles. “Feminism is bulling up and she feels that she can have everything,” Paré said. “Don wants it too but it’s not as easy for him to flip the switch.”
When it was time for the PaleyFest audience to ask questions, one audience member commented on the role that silence played, which resulted in a tense stare-down between Hamm and Schneider, with monitors showing close-ups of their faces as the laughter escalated. For the record, Schneider claimed victory when Hamm finally cracked a smile.
Another audience member asked about the possible return of Sal Romano, the former art director who last appeared in season three. Hamm responded with a laugh, "Well, he's not dead, as far as I know. I certainly wouldn't rule it out, but it isn't up to me. But these characters live in New York and can run into each other."
Kartheiser was asked about the physical changes in Campbell, particularly his receding hairline. “My hair and makeup went from 15 minutes to an hour and 45 minutes,” he said. “Balding plays into his psyche and the aging process. I once had a dream that Pete Campbell was looking at me through a window, and it was scary.”
Each of the actors was questioned about their favorite “Mad Men” moments.
“It was the first day of shooting, after the rehearsing and meeting all the people and seeing the set. I was terrified and exhilarated,” said Hamm.
“In season one, Pete had been cocky and chased Don down a hallway. That aspect of his character stuck out and was the first of many layers I’ve tried to portray,” Kartheiser said.
“After we shot the pilot and we were all looking out at the New York skyline on the rooftop of Silvercup Studios I thought, ‘Wow, that was wonderful.’ It was a simple, honest moment that I look back on with fondness. It was very special,” said Moss.
“This script with my storyline revealing things about Joan was so much fun. I started to get to know her and I remember that feeling,” Hendricks said.
“My favorite was when Pete ran in and said, ‘Don is a fraud.’ I looked right in his face and said, ‘Who cares?,’” Morse recalled.
“The finale of season four when they said they needed to measure my ring finger. I was like, yes, yes, yes,” said Paré, with great gusto.
“It was when my grandfather said that she [Sally] could do anything, and then when he passes away, that was a standout,” Shipka remarked.
Asked whether the cast talked to people who worked on Madison Avenue during the 1960s, Hamm replied, “Half of them say none of that happened. The other half say yep, all that happened. Maybe the other half didn’t get invited to the parties.”
And so the “Mad Men” party rolls on, much to the delight of everyone involved.