For "Mad Men" creator and show runner Matthew Weiner, the reality is beginning to sink in. The series returns to AMC for the first half of its seventh and final season in April, and Weiner is currently toiling away on Episode 9 -- leaving just five episodes until the story of elusive ad man Don Draper reaches its conclusion.
"There is a weird psychology to saying 'OK, there's five episodes left, three stories an episode. That's 15 stories left to tell in the entire show.' That's pretty overwhelming," said Weiner in a telephone interview Tuesday.
In a calculated move by AMC, the final season of "Mad Men" will be split into halves: seven episodes to air this spring, followed by seven more in 2015. The first batch of episodes have already been filmed, and production is set to begin on the back half of the season later this month.
Although Weiner says it was not his idea to divide the season in two, he "really didn't fight" the network on it because he had seen how well this approach worked for the final season of "Breaking Bad," and simply accepted it as a writing challenge.
"The interesting thing is the show is always kind of structured in halves, whether the audience notices or not," he said, noting the tendency for major plot points to emerge around the halfway point of every season -- think the lawnmower incident in Season 3, or last year's merger between Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and rival agency Cutler, Gleason & Chaough.
The last season of "Mad Men" was set in 1968, with the tumultuous events of that infamous year driving the show's narrative in a way they hadn't since the assassination of JFK at the end of Season 3. In one episode, for instance, an advertising awards banquet was interrupted by news of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
This upheaval was reflected in the life of the series' protagonist, who by season's end found himself at his lowest point ever: alienated from his wife, Megan, suspended indefinitely from his job and caught (literally) with his pants down by his teenage daughter, Sally.
"It was a catastrophic year for the United States and for Don Draper as well," said Weiner, whose film "You Are Here," starring Amy Poehler and Zach Galifianakis, is slated for release this summer. Though some fans, sick of Don's selfishness and womanizing, turned on him last season, just as many were encouraged by the closing scene of the finale, in which the protagonist revealed his true identity to his three children.
But just because Don came clean to his family -- and appears to have reconciled with his business partners, judging by the publicity images released by AMC -- doesn't mean that he has completely turned over a new leaf, says Weiner. "I definitely think that affected him, but there are a lot of other consequences that are hanging in the balance. You can say he's a survivor, he's going to start over, but what does that mean?"
Though Weiner did not disclose an exact start date for Season 7, he is willing to confirm that, by the end of the final, 14-episode season, "Mad Men" will have reached the conclusion of the '60s, meaning the final season will take place in 1969 -- another year marked by era-defining events including the Apollo 11 moon landing, Woodstock and the Tate-La Bianca murders. It's a neat way to wrap up a series that, on one level, has always been about the country's precipitous transformation from the conformity of the Eisenhower era to the chaos and discord of the Vietnam age.
"That was the intention for the show all along," he said.
Weiner promises the plot of the new season will be "extremely dense," at least by "Mad Men" standards, and will be focused on the series' central characters. As usual, the infamously secretive show runner provides few specifics, speaking in broad terms about the season ahead.
"I wanted to investigate the consequences of actions and how they stick with you, which is kind of a great topic for the end of the show. I also wanted to talk about the material world and the immaterial world," he said. "The show has always been either an exploration of what's going on inside of Don or of how Don is interacting with the world. This season I've really tried to incorporate both of them."
If that sounds like an awful lot of material to explore in just 14 episodes, Weiner promises the final season is indeed "ambitious." "But I believe in risk and I'm not just going to limp out with Don in a Nehru jacket."