AMC is calling it "The End of an Era," and that's not hyperbole.
Mad Men, the network's signature show, is coming to an end. Its final seven episodes begin airing at 10 p.m. ET Sunday, April 5, which would put the series finale on May 17.
Creator Matt Weiner and the show's original six cast members (Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks and John Slattery) assembled Saturday at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour to reflect on the show's legacy—and tease its "surprise" conclusion.
The theme for the final run of episodes: "People do change, but in a lot of ways, they don't, unfortunately," Moss said.
After wrapping production on the series last spring, "I'm excited to unspool this and for people to see it," Weiner said. "There is something amazing about AMC and Lionsgate letting us do this story and letting us end it how we want to end it. ... It's close to a decade in the lives of these characters, which was sort of the intention from the beginning."
Weiner said the final seven episodes will refocus on the show's six core characters, much like the first season did. "Each [episode] feels like the finale of the show," Weiner said. "I didn't want to leave anything on the floor."
That said, Weiner admitted he also didn't want to craft a finale that would spark fan outrage, like last spring's How I Met Your Mother conclusion did.
"I'm trying to delight them and confound them, and not frustrate and irritate them. I don't want them to walk away angry," Weiner said of Mad Men viewers. But at the same time, "I don't want to pander to them. ... Sometimes, people have to be protected from what they want to see happen. You can't just give them everything they want."
To Weiner, delighting fans doesn't necessarily mean giving them a happy ending.
"Part of entertainment can be catharsis," he said. "Bad things happening are considered a good experience in entertainment."
No matter how viewers feel about the finale, the cast said they were thrilled by Weiner's endgame.
"It's a beautiful story," January Jones said of the finale script. "It's perfect, in a way. I read it over and over again."
As for Moss: "I was definitely surprised in the best way" by the ending.
Added Hendricks: "I thought, 'You know what? That makes sense.' I was very, very pleased."
For Hamm, the realization that he has played Don Draper for the last time has hit him hard. "I'm so looking forward to being unemployed," he deadpanned. "There's no version of this ending that is not super painful for me. ... I will never be able to have this again—and that's a drag."
But as Breaking Bad proved with its upcoming Better Call Saul spinoff, those characters could still have TV life in them.
Hamm's prediction? "Better Call Pete!"
Spinoffs aside, Weiner also talked about his new role going forward, overseeing and protecting the Mad Men brand. During its run, "we've tried to limit its exploitation to things that are related to the show," said Weiner, who vowed to continue that approach in the years to come. "I don't see the show participating in a Mad Men cruise." (All the actors, however, joked that they would happily attend one.)
No matter what he does for the rest of his career, Weiner knows that Mad Men will always remain with him. "I don't think I'll ever let it go," he said.