"Mad Men" has been typically tight-lipped about what's ahead in their final season, but one thing is for sure: The cast is already mourning the end of the AMC period drama.
"We're in some stage of grief," star Jon Hamm said at PaleyFest's "Mad Men" panel Friday night.
"It's terrible," added relative newcomer Jessica Paré. "Horrible. I don't want it to ever be over. I think I cry every day" about the show's end.
"I probably started being emotional earlier than everyone," admitted Christina Hendricks. "I'm already grieving. I'm just bracing myself — we're all just savoring every second and appreciating every moment."
"I've been on the show longer than I haven't," said 14-year-old Kiernan Shipka, who was 7 when the show premiered in 2007, "which is weird to think about but it's true."
"It definitely feels like something's ending," she told reporters on the red carpet before the panel. "I don't know if it's my childhood, but it certainly feels like a portion of my life is coming to a close. It feels like a new chapter."
The cast has plenty of time to say goodbye: Season seven will actually air in two parts: seven episodes this spring (premiering April 13) and the final seven, which they are just about to shoot, in spring 2015.
AMC's scheduling decision "meant two premieres and two finales," creator and show runner Matthew Weiner told TODAY in regard to the challenges to his creative process. "That was the biggest change. And there's going to be 10 months between episode seven and episode eight. I don't want to waste an hour of the show doing a recap, but I really tried to make (episode) seven" — which he called " a rehearsal for the end" — "independent on some level but also part of a larger story."
Most of the cast won't know the fate of their characters until they read the next batch of scripts, but Hamm, also a producer on the show, told TODAY that he and Weiner have "talked about a version of (the ending) probably since we shot the pilot."
Even before "Mad Men" was picked up to series, Weiner "had this ending worked out in some way, shape or form," Hamm added. "You don't write backwards, you don't write to an ending, because you don't know in television whether it's going to be after season three (or later). So I think he's been very consistent in his original idea, and that's impressive."
"We're all sort of pacing the trajectory of everything," Hendricks told reporters before the panel, "and looking for little clues of what this will mean for our character and that character — probably overly scrutinizing them!"
With little to go on, "Mad Men" fans often scrutinize the show's promos for clues about what lies ahead. For example, many predicted that Megan Draper would be murdered after noting the similarities between a picture of Paré's character and that of Charles Manson victim Sharon Tate.
"The way the show tells the story and doles out information is very oblique," Hamm acknowledged. "People tend to start trying to fill in the blanks in an attempt to get ahead of the story."
There were a lot of blanks to fill regarding the enigmatic Bob Benson (James Wok), who became an Internet obsession and sparked some wild theories about his character.
"Who is this guy (besides) two coffees and a lot of words?" Hamm noted with a laugh about his early appearances. "It's a tremendous compliment that people want to know."
Paré offered up another theory, which drew a huge laugh from the PaleyFest audience (especially those who attended the previous week's "Lost" panel:
"Maybe we're all dead, guys!"
Hopefully not — a sentiment that extends to "Mad Men's" supporting characters. Remember Sal? When a PaleyFest audience member asked about a possible return of the former art director and closeted homosexual (who last appeared in season three), Hamm responded with a laugh, "Well, he's not dead, as far as I know. ... I certainly wouldn't rule it out, but it isn't up to me."
Of course, fans are most intrigued about what's next for Don Draper and the gang he left behind at Sterling Cooper & Partners.
"The one constant that's always been there for Don ... was work," Hamm said. "He could always go to work. Now work is not there. That's gonna be a big hurdle for him to have to get over somehow. If there's one overriding principle about Don, he's a survivor and generally rises to the challenges."
As for his protégé, Peggy Olson, Elisabeth Moss said, "I think her story is one of finding out who she is ... her battle all along is trying to figure out, Should she be Don? Should she be Joan? ... She's finally asking the right question: Who am I?"
Joan, too, is "gauging where her strengths are," said Hendricks, balancing her career and family — which intersect in the case of baby daddy Roger Sterling.
"I think ultimately Joan is a protector and a nurturer, she's been trying to find best way to take care of her son and protect her family — fiercely protect them." Because of her "deep feelings and a lot of history" with Roger, Joan is "keeping an open mind to the possibilities" of a "more modern situation."
Although we don't know precisely what year we'll find the new characters living in when the seventh season premieres, both Moss and Hendricks are looking forward to the costumes reflecting the more modern age.
"I like them so much better this year, I have to say," Hendricks told TODAY. "Last year I struggled with the hem lengths and the fabrics and things like that. They were accurate, but I would not say my favorite. But this year I like a lot of stuff."
"They're great," Moss agreed. "The later we get it's nice. You know, less pantyhose — it's all good. A little more relaxed."
Relaxation is the one thing Weiner is looking forward to when his show takes its final bow.
"Hopefully when this is all over I'm going to take a couple of weeks off," he told reporters. "This has been a 24-hour-a-day job for seven years."
But he doesn't plan to stay idle for long.
"Television is the most physically taxing but immediately satisfying job for a writer, and I hope — as a big fan of television and someone who's gotten to tell their stories there — I hope to be involved in it again. If people will let me in their living room, I'll be back."