"Mad Men" finally returns to television next Sunday, March 25 at 9 p.m., but because creator Matthew Weiner is so paranoid about spoilers (and has a much broader definition of the concept than almost any other showrunner), the "Mad Men" panel at PaleyFest spent virtually the entire time looking back, not forward. Fans got to watch last season's finale, "Tomorrowland," and though moderator Elvis Mitchell tried to prod Weiner for a few details about the upcoming season, the biggest tidbit the show's creator revealed is that (spoiler alert!) Lane Pryce will become a Mets fan.
But with almost the full cast on-hand (Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks had other commitments), there was plenty of time to reflect on where we left the characters when "Tomorrowland" aired 17 months ago, to learn a bit about how the actors see their Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce alter egos, and to get a few amusing anecdotes along the way. Among the highlights:
* Because the crowd had just watched "Tomorrowland," there was a lot of discussion of Don's impulsive decision to propose to Megan, what that means for him, etc. Jon Hamm said he was glad that the season ended on a note of hope after Don had been in a downward spiral all year. Weiner said when he directed the scene where Don told his co-workers about the engagement, he filmed the reaction shots first, and the other actors mostly seemed frozen. Then he turned the camera around to see what they were so stunned by, and it was Hamm smiling as broadly as he ever has playing the role, which unnerved everyone. Hamm also enjoyed last season's "The Summer Man," where Don keeps a journal of his attempts to drink less, because, "It was refreshing to actually get to say those things and go through those emotions as a character who had really been wrung out."
* Speaking of reaction shots, John Slattery got a lot of laughs recapping the filming of the blackface scene from the season 3 episode "My Old Kentucky Home," and how he wishes they had filmed the reaction shots first, as his co-stars and the extras were all suitably horrified at their first glimpse of him. He also admitted that he couldn't exactly ask Weiner to take it out of the script: "You can't ride the girl in her underwear singing cowboy sings and then say, 'No, I won't do the blackface.'"
* Rich Sommer introduced the word of the night when he said his reaction to "Tomorrowland" was to ask, "When, exactly, did Harry become such a douchebag?" Various other actors would try to seize the douchebag mantle for their character (Jay R. Ferguson thought "the douche torch had been passed to Stan"), but it kept coming back to Sommer, who said he didn't actually think Harry had changed all that much from the first season. ""I think if you took Harry Crane from episodes in season 1 and put him into the situation he's in now," he said, "I don't think he would've been any different. He was just under a thumb before. He just has freedom to be who he truly is." Weiner said that Harry had become incredibly important to the agency, but Sommer has no illusions about his own position within the series: "I still think it'll be a show about Don Draper. Harry just might have more important places to go when he leaves a scene."
* Kiernan Shipka, who plays Sally Draper, once again proved herself to be more composed and articulate than many actors twice her age or more. When Weiner asked whether she felt Sally was more like her mother or father, Shipka observed, "I think she's more like her own person." The crowd applauded, and Sommer interjected, "If you guys are going to applaud every time Kiernan says something smart, then you will be applauding all night. She'll definitely say the smartest things out of everyone."
* As for Sally's mom, the audience Q&A brought up how much fans dislike Betty, and January Jones quipped that "People run away from me on the street all the time. They're worried about me being a mother now." Weiner defended Betty, insisting that her open-handed slap of Sally's face last season wasn't that unusual for the period ("Oh, she's a monster! Lock her up!" he said sarcastically), and said that Betty had just cause to fire Carla for letting creepy, older Glen be around Sally despite her orders not to. (Though he did admit that Betty should have let Carla say goodbye to the kids.)
* The contract Weiner negotiated during the hiatus should take the show through the seventh season, which he confirmed is their current plan of when to end the show. "My whole thing is, I don't want to overstay our welcome, and it's really hard to do (the show)." He said that he and writer/producers Marie and André Jacquemetton had discussed what they want to do over the final season, but "there's no master plan." With each season so far, he's tried to end it in such a way that if the show didn't continue, that finale would feel like a good ending. Noting that people ask him about the ending all the time and seem anxious that he has something specific in mind, he joked, "I know everything, exactly how it's going to go."
Again, "Mad Men" is back on the 25th. It sounds like the premiere is the only episode AMC will be sending out in advance this season, so future episode reviews will come sometime on Monday, but you should have my thoughts on the first one that night.