LOS ANGELES – The most iconic image from “Mad Men” comes in the opening credits as we watch Don Draper’s silhouette drop out the window of a tall building. Does he land softly in that comfy couch or crack into a thousand bourbon-soaked pieces on the sidewalk?
We’re about to find out.
After 92 hours of crisp dialogue, four Emmys for outstanding drama and approximately 460 fake cigarettes, AMC’s “Mad Men” is closing up shop, with the first of the final seven episodes airing Sunday.
“There’s no version of this ending that is not super-painful for me,” said Jon Hamm, a virtual unknown eight years ago when he was cast as the smart but troubled Draper. “But I’ll be happy when these shows air and I won’t have to fake like I don’t know how it ends or make up some ridiculous story about robots and zombies or something.”
No strange creatures appear in Sunday’s episode — and clues to where Draper’s story is heading are, as usual, hard to find.
Draper, whose bout with alcoholism was a major story line when we left him in May, has traded in his bar stool for a coffee-shop booth. But there’s one addiction he still can’t control: sex.
Draper, now separated from his second wife, Megan, spends so much time bouncing from floozy to floozy that the first thing he announces when he shows up late at the office is that he’s going to take a nap.
The mysterious tone set by creator Matthew Weiner often has led to wide and sometimes ridiculous speculation, including the notion that there was a friendship between Megan and Sharon Tate, a 1960s-era model and actress who was murdered by Charles Manson’s followers.
“We got into this weird situation in the first season where people were like, ‘I know Don Draper’s secret. He’s Jewish,’ ” Weiner said. “And I was like, ‘Did I ever put anything in there that said he wasn’t?’ Because he’s not. And the Sharon Tate thing is so flimsy and thin and at the same time, I’m like, ‘Wow there are a lot of coincidences.’ I love that people have conspiracy theories and that they’re bringing all this other stuff up.”
Weiner has been relatively closemouthed about the finale, but in a Q&A with comedian Jeff Garlin in 2011, he said his plan was to have the last show flash forward from the 1970s to the modern day, giving viewers a chance to see Draper in his 80s, a stunt used most famously in “The Godfather, Part II.”
Of course, Weiner could have been kidding. He also could have changed his mind.
“Obviously, the secrecy of the show has been very important and very much talked about,” said John Slattery, who plays Draper’s partner Roger Sterling. “You have all these wisps of rumors in your head and then you read the last script and focus on ‘Were they right?’ ”
January Jones, who plays Draper’s first wife, Betty, is confident that fans will be satisfied with the finale.
“It’s a beautiful story,” she said. “It’s perfect in a way, and I read it over and over. I still read it every once in a while, like on a Thursday afternoon.”
One thing is for certain: “Mad Men” has made Hamm a major star. During a press party on a Los Angeles balcony several years, a mob of reporters was so hungry for quotes that Hamm had to keep backing up and almost toppled over the railing.
“Men” was never a ratings juggernaut — 2 million viewers last year compared with 14 million for fellow AMC series “The Walking Dead” — but Hamm quickly became TV’s most magnetic leading man, who also showed he could handle comedy with memorable appearances on “30 Rock” and “Saturday Night Live.”
“Jon Hamm is forever going to be the face of ‘Mad Men,’ and it’s firmly on his shoulders to represent it in the future in many ways,” Weiner said. “He’s just got a physical presence.”
Hamm isn’t the only cast member to benefit from the show’s success. Almost the entire cast went from guest-star status to cable royalty, including Minnesota’s own Vincent Kartheiser, who plays ambitious adman Pete Campbell.
“To talk about how I’ve felt about this experience and these people, that seems sacred to me,” said Kartheiser, whose fame made him a major draw for a 2013 Guthrie production of “Pride and Prejudice.” The show also introduced him to his future wife, Alexis Bledel, who was guest-starring as his mistress. “There’s an old Hemingway line that if you talk about it, you’ll lose it. I kind of believe that.”
The most important contributor has always been Weiner, who was previously a writer for “The Sopranos,” a drama with one of TV’s most controversial endings.
And, no, that doesn’t mean that “Mad Men” will end with Draper listening to “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
“I’m extremely interested in what the audience thinks, so much so that I’m trying to delight them and confound them and not frustrate and irritate them,” Weiner said. “I don’t want them to walk away angry. But you can’t just give them everything they want. And the show has never done that. It’s strived to be original. It’s strived to tell a story that you don’t know and hope it feels inevitable when you get there.”