Just two episodes stand between us and the end of Mad Men: no more Joan, no more Peggy, no more Don, not ever. Now deep into the second half of its seventh season (and, in the show's timeline, the summer of 1970), Matt Weiner's AMC period drama has inspired a host of conspiracy theories, especially with regard to its ending. This is one of them.
On November 24, 1971, a nondescript middle-aged man boarded a Northwest Airlines flight to Seattle from Portland, Oregon. He gave the name Dan Cooper, though a local reporter mishearing an FBI agent meant he'd go down in history as D.B. Cooper.
After takeoff, he lit a cigarette and handed a note to a young, pretty flight attendant, Florence Schaffner, who nearly didn't read it. “Miss," Cooper said, "You’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.” He asked Schaffner to sit beside him, and showed her the contents of his briefcase: a suspicious mess of wires and "red sticks." He calmly requested $200,000 in cash and four parachutes.
Cooper was polite to — even flirtatious with, some say — the stewardesses, telling one to keep the change after he insisted on paying for the bourbon and soda he'd ordered after revealing the bomb.
Cooper let the flight's 36 passengers and two of its stewardesses off the plane at Sea-Tac Airport, where his ransom was delivered, and ordered the Boeing 727's remaining skeleton crew to fly him to Mexico City. Before the plane landed in Reno to refuel, Cooper jumped. No one saw him do it, and no one ever heard from him again.
The FBI and the FAA believe he's dead (and it's difficult to imagine that he isn't), but even today, the case remains unsolved.
Could Mad Men's very own Don Draper become Dan Cooper?
Of course, there's a lot that doesn't match up here. Strictly in terms of appearance, Cooper was quite short, with curly hair and a J.C. Penney clip-on tie. Can you imagine Don, under any circumstances, wearing a J.C. Penney clip-on tie, let alone assembling explosives?
But suspend your disbelief for a moment and take it all in. For one thing, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) isn't even Don Draper. Born Dick Whitman to a prostitute who died in labor, the future ad man switched dog tags with his burned-beyond-recognition superior in the Korean War and assumed the identity of the deceased Don Draper.
You don't need me to tell you that the pseudonym "Dan Cooper" sounds like the grocery-store generic version of "Don Draper" (what Cinnamon Toasters are to Cinnamon Toast Crunch); the two names have the same meter and number of syllables. We're also well aware of Don's tendency to take the names of those around him — including Miller Beer's Bill Phillips, just last week — and that late Sterling Cooper founding partner Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) has just appeared to Draper in what may or may not have been a dream. The D.B. Cooper connection could also explain the notorious falling man imagery in Mad Men's opening credits.
More to the point, air travel and the escape that it represents have essentially constituted a supporting character throughout Mad Men. Mohawk Airlines is a Sterling Cooper client. Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) is an amateur pilot. Pete Campbell's (Vincent Kartheiser) father perishes in the real-life 1962 crash of American Airlines Flight 1. (The Campbell family should probably stick to terra firma: his mother later drowns after falling overboard on a cruise ship.) Don — who's enjoyed dalliances with more than one stewardess — shuttles between coasts after Megan (Jessica Paré) moves to Los Angeles, and it's on a plane that he enjoys an almost-romance with a mysterious stranger, played by Neve Campbell.
At Megan's house, Don once watched Frank Capra's Lost Horizon, a 1937 film about the survivors of a plane hijacking who discover that they've crash-landed in Shangri-La. "Lost Horizon," by the way, was also the title of the most recent episode.
Then there's the promotional art for Mad Men. The poster for season six depicted not only a plane, but two Don Drapers passing one another in the street. A series of cast photos set in an airport teased season seven. (For the record, after some fans predicted a plane crash, creator Matthew Weiner asserted that these images have "nothing to do with the content of the show.")
Mad Men is distinguished by a borderline obsessive attention to historical detail, thanks not only to Weiner himself but also to costume designer Janie Bryant and the show's research staff. When Bryant dressed Megan in the same T-shirt Sharon Tate wore in a 1967 Esquire photo shoot (that was "no coincidence," she said on Twitter), many wondered if Don's young wife was doomed to the same demise as Tate, the Valley of the Dolls actress murdered by the Manson family in 1969.
To date, Megan lives, and Weiner has dismissed the Tate rumors. As he told HitFix earlier this year:
I would like to think that people would know that the show’s striving for historical accuracy [and] that I would not add a person who was not murdered by the Manson family into that murder. So that in itself is the dumbest argument in the world for me.
Mad Men doesn't deal in alternative histories or the Inglourious Basterds school of gonzo storytelling, in which Peggy took down JFK with a machine gun and Pete Campbell was actually Richard Nixon the entire time, surprise! But this show is nevertheless deeply grounded in the events and public figures of the era. Though it's ludicrous to suggest that at any point Megan Draper was intended to literally take Sharon Tate's place in the course of history, it's almost equally ludicrous to suggest that any references to Tate were purely accidental.
Maybe Cooper — whose story a mid-century history buff like Weiner undoubtedly knows well — is, like Tate, a bay leaf, something that deepens the flavor but is fished out before the dish is actually served. And in contrast to the Manson murders, it's worth pointing out that because so little is known about the mystery of Dan Cooper, one could take a great deal of narrative liberties without technically rewriting any history at all.
Last year, Slate posed the Draper question to Geoffrey Gray, author of Skyjack and an expert on the cult of D.B. Cooper. Gray's not sold on the Mad Men connection, but explains Cooper's popular appeal: "He became a sort of counter-culture hero, a bad guy who even the good guys wanted to get away… he’s a very compelling criminal to root for."
Does that sound the slightest bit familiar?
In 1972, a year and one day after Cooper jumped into the clouds, Everrett Holles wrote this in the New York Times:
"D.B. Cooper" is already something of a legend. An underground radio station in Fresno has been playing "The Story of D.B. Cooper," a mournful song fantasizing him as a man dying from an incurable disease and a modern-fay Robin Hood who gave away most of the stolen money to help the poor and ease the sufferings of a mother he adored.
T-shirts emblazoned "D.B. Cooper, Where Are You?" have appeared in West Coast novelty shops.
Draper, a man who once defined happiness as "a moment before you need more happiness," is permanently dissatisfied with his career and his personal life, both of which he's responsible for sabotaging. He is not, in many ways, a good person. But it's been eight years since Mad Men premiered, and we're still watching its protagonist with rapt attention.
It's hard to speculate about the Mad Men finale without invoking the notoriously ambiguous conclusion of The Sopranos. Weiner wrote for the HBO series and eventually became one of its executive producers; he's called its creator David Chase a mentor. For antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Don Draper, a happy ending does not make a good ending. And just as The Sopranos delicately declined to reveal its uncannily relatable mobster's fate, history can't tell us what happened to Dan Cooper. He's not alive. He's not dead. He's just gone.
In case you're wondering, the title of the Mad Men series finale is about as achingly ambiguous as you'd expect: it's called "Person to Person," implying either an exchange between two people or a transition from one individual into another, or maybe something else entirely.
Am I convinced that, the last time we see Don, he'll be buying a plane ticket under the name Dan Cooper? No, but then again, I never thought someone would lose a foot to a lawnmower on this show, either.
Personally, I'm most intrigued by the timing of Cooper's hijacking: he took that flight the night before Thanksgiving. This family-centric holiday has served the backdrop for two of Mad Men's six season finales so far, and has proven to be a particularly fraught time for Draper himself, a man who's never figured out how to be anything but a bad father and a worse husband. After his emotional, mic-drop pitch to Kodak in season one's "The Wheel," he hurries home to find that Betty — having discovered that Don's been pumping her psychiatrist for information — and the children have already left for dinner without him. The sixth season finale, "In Care Of," sees Draper put on an involuntary leave of absence by his colleagues and has him drive a wedge in his marriage to Megan by changing his mind about moving to California.
Who is Don supposed to spend Thanksgiving with now? His first ex-wife and her husband? His second ex-wife and her Hollywood friends? Roger and a sweaty glass of bourbon? He could do worse than a sympathetic stewardess and a briefcase full of wires.
UPDATE: In a Conan appearance on Thursday night, Matt Weiner called the D.B. Cooper-Don Draper connection the “strangest theory” about the finale he’s heard.
“I’m not going to dismiss it, because I want people to watch the show," he says, then jokes that Lionsgate would never pay for a “plane crash” ending.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Matt, but there are exactly zero plane crashes in the Dan Cooper story.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.