Mad Men is one of the most celebrated programs in television history and helped to refine AMC as a network dedicated to quality scripted storytelling. Unlike other much-anticipated TV returns this year, such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, fans of the series have little to chew on. Without much in the way of clips, ads or interviews with the cast, most of what will transpire at the office of Sterling Cooper & Partners is a mystery to viewers.
That insistence to avoid spoilers is closely tied to the tight-lipped sensibility of the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner. Weiner first broke through as a writer on Becker and received two Emmy nominations for his work on the last three seasons of The Sopranos. His work on the HBO show, which became a television milestone before the age of the “spoiler alert,” made him interested in staying mum on what happens on Mad Men, with the hope of keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. However, since he pitched Mad Men to AMC, Weiner has been responsible for writing close to 60 episodes from the first six seasons and won three Emmys for his work. So maybe keeping viewers surprised goes a long way.
Recently, we had the chance to participate in a conference call interview with Weiner and although he kept a tight lip on the show’s seventh and final season – airing its first seven episodes beginning on Sunday, April 13, and the final episodes sometime in 2015 – he did manage to shed a ton of light into how the characters have changed since 2007, when Mad Men premiered. He also spoke about the literary figures that helped to create the Don Draper persona, having Robert Towne on the writing staff, and what current TV shows he is hooked on.
Check it out below and enjoy!
Question: What is the theme for the first half of the last season?
Matthew Weiner: It’s really a theme that goes for the entire last season, even with that separation [between the first seven episodes and last seven episodes], which is about the consequences in life and if change is possible. When your needs are met, you start thinking about other things. There’s a real growth over the course of this last season from what are the material concerns of your life to the immaterial concerns of your life. That’s really what the ending of the show is about.
Q: How much do you think the power has shifted in Don and Megan’s relationship?
MW: I think Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) is a classic second wife, where Don is finding that he has an opportunity, because she’s younger than him or younger than his first wife or he’s in a different place in his life, to be seen the way he wants to be seen. The power has shifted as Megan has matured. The story of season five was about Don’s romantic fantasy being destroyed by [Megan] having a will of her own, of her own dreams. I don’t know what a power relationship is in a romantic relationship, I guess. Is it who loves who more? It’s given us a lot of fodder and a lot of story, especially because Don’s concept of what a woman can do for him, and some of that is mother figure, some of that is being the best him. If you look at his affair with Sylvia and how lackadaisical he was about it before she rejected him, you see a guy who has a really hard time with where romance fits in his life, and love.
I don’t really think that [Megan] is a symbol of anything other than a fresh start for him. And it really didn’t turn out that way. He re-committed to her in the finale last year, because he had finished with his affair and he had hit bottom in his drinking, and he had to renege on his “re-proposal” to her to go to California. It really felt like he was asking her to marry him again. But he just couldn’t follow through on it. Are there repercussions for that? Yes. That is the story of the season for me. I think he really loves her and for whatever reason — guilt, shame, the desire for love, the desire to restore that love – she is in a slightly more powerful position… in the way somebody who can bestow forgiveness always has more power than the person who’s apologizing.
Q: Which character do you think has changed the most since the first season?
MW: It’s a weird thing, because somehow they haven’t changed at all, right? I think Don has changed the most. When you talk about a guy who didn’t even want to continue on in advertising because he didn’t want his name on a building to someone who is really forced to be open about his past with his daughter… the change in that man is huge.
Pete showed a lot of growth last year. I felt just in his interaction with Bob Benson (James Wolk) alone. When Bob Benson was revealed to be similar to Don as someone who had made up his past and Pete realized that he shouldn’t tangle with him, to me that’s some of the only growth that we’ve seen on this show. But let’s be honest, the person who’s changed the most is Sally (Kiernan Shipka). We’ve had the character and the actress mature right in front of us. Getting her to change her attitudes, from precocious child to adolescent to someone who really grew up in a hurry when she lost her innocence in terms of her father… what a huge change!
Q: Have you finished writing the last season?
MW: No, I have not. I have finished writing the first nine scripts, so there are five more to finish. We’re still breaking stories for them. But we have a pretty clear road map. We know what’s going to happen this last season, but what the actual story is, we haven’t finished that part yet.
Q: The relationship between Sally and Don has really evolved. How will we see that develop in this season? And how do you interpret their relationship because they’ve gone through so much together?
MW: It’s a very important relationship in the show and I feel very lucky that I get to work with Kiernan because we write stories for her and she can handle them and she’s 13 years old. We made a concerted effort also with Mason [Vale Cotton], who plays Bobby, to show that in this world for Don, who was certainly in a crisis last year in his relationships, to be pushed toward the children as a chance to be more the way he wants to be… and then, at least in Sally’s case, ruin that. It has made everyone accountable. There is only so much lying you can do. Once somebody knows that about you, you still have to be the parent. Sally is a person who knows him in a very special way and it’s really not very positive. I don’t think she’s old enough to be magnanimous about it. It continues to be a central part of the show.
Q: Last season, Dante’s Inferno set an underlying idea of the journey that Don was spiralling into. Overall, throughout the seven seasons, which literary figure would you compare Don’s journey to?
MW: I like to think of him in the context of a lot of literary characters that have this past. It’s an American tradition and it’s a late 19th-century European tradition, for operas and things like that to have this man who has this dual identity and who is striving to establish himself. I could list off a bunch of characters that I love, starting with Moses or Joseph. There is a relationship to a lot of real American figures who are non-literary, like Lee Iacocca, Sam Walton, Bill Clinton, John D. Rockefeller, William Randolph Hearst. These people have similar origin stories to Don in a way. I love the idea that America gives these people a chance, but in the end, they’re still themselves.Next
Q: Are the late sixties more of a challenge to portray on the show, since you are interweaving the culture with the story and characters?
MW: A lot of the reason that I started the show in 1960 was because it was so much the height of the ‘50s. I felt that there was a sort of constricted social environment based on manners that we’ve watched disintegrate and erode throughout the decade. The weirdest thing about getting to the late ‘60s is that it feels more and more like today. Other than saying “groovy” once in a while… there is not, in either watching the movies [of the late ‘60s] or reading books or reading interviews or watching the news, it does not feel even slightly anachronistic. There is nothing to laugh at by the time you’re in the late ‘60s. It is very similar to right now, with the exception of, you know, technology. That stuff’s still funny.
1968, in particular, was the climax for me of the intersection of national and world events in the private lives of the characters. I think that [national events] only poke through occasionally in our lives [today]. Writing something about this period right now, you could have a scene with people talking about the Malaysia Airlines plane, because we’re obsessed with it. We’re at war, there are economic issues, [but] none of these other things really affect our lives in a conversational way on a daily basis. 1968 was a chance where I felt, OK, people are reading the paper, it was [simiar to] 9/11 for an entire year, of just being inundated with a social catastrophe. And I felt by the end of it, Richard Nixon’s election and a kind of return to a state of normalcy. It really feels like all of the radicalization of that period just retracted.
Q: As the show goes on, the stories continue and new characters come in, do you find you have any less time for individual scenes because there’s more to tell?
MW: You add more characters, you add more stories. I’m playing with this orchestra and the writers and I am trying to weave people in and out. The interesting thing about these last 14 episodes is the main characters have really surfaced to the top and we’re trying to service them in the interest of endng the series. The most difficult thing has been juggling all of the characters and trying to keep the story interesting.
Q: How has Peggy changed since the beginning of the series?
MW: Peggy has changed a lot. It’s interesting to see that Peggy is still earnest and naïve about certain things, but what a powerful person she’s become in terms of knowing her gifts and making decisions. I think she would probably still say that she’s not a political person. But, everything she does is pioneering. To see her sort of, ending up stabbing her boyfriend and having an affair with her boss the same year that she is clearly excelling, creatively and in status. Last season, she didn’t have any decisions to make. Hopefully she’s reaching a point in her life where she going to start to actually have some choices.
Q: How has Joan evolved?
MW: I think the thing that happened the most to Joan is that she stopped caring about how things look. Women of that generation, and maybe today too, men as well, they were really raised believing that that was the most important thing. Joan, we see expressing her desire to take advantage of the bad things that have happened and make the best of them, and also to be a little bit more of her own person. She started the show with a very clear philosophy, which is have a lot of fun, and we’ve all loved her sexual confidence. And then find a husband, get married and have children and move to the country. We see now that her interests are very different than that now.Previous Next
Q: What TV shows are you currently watching? Are there any shows you obsess over the same way others obsess over Mad Men?
MW: I love television and I will watch it every chance that I get, which is not that much when you’re in the middle of the job. But I also have four children and really do not have control over what I get to watch. I’m into Top Chef and Chopped and Project Runway, and because I have four boys, I’ve seen more Doctor Who than most people can imagine. I can get into anything. The last time that I really had a chunk of time, I binge-watched two seasons of Downton Abbey. I haven’t seen True Detective but I will. I watch Boardwalk Empire whenever I can. I saw all of Orange is the New Black, because it came on in the off-season. I love that show.
Q: As the show’s played out over seven seasons, does setting it in the advertising world prove as rich an environment as you thought it would be?
MW: It’s been a gift. It’s been a great environment. It’s been great to investigate all of the personalities of the workplace, because they’re all there in an advertising agency, whether it’s people who have commercial concerns, people who have creative concerns. Just what happened to advertising in this period, as a business and its relationship with the culture. It yielded more fruit than I thought it would. It’s the kind of thing where, literally, every time I would think about something that was going on, either in my own life or in the writers’ lives that we wanted to tell a story about, we would be able to find something in the advertising world that could support that story. I didn’t set out to make a show about advertising — and on some level, it really isn’t — but as an environment to tell the story, just the idea of how important buying things and selling things is as an American pastime. An identity. Living through the last eight years of what’s happened economically in this country, what a great chance to talk about just the forensics of American business.
Q: What is it like to have [renowned screenwriter] Robert Towne on the show’s writing staff?
MW: You’re running a baseball team and someone says Babe Ruth wants to come in one day a week and show people how to hit… I mean, that’s what it is. I admire him, I was thrilled that he was interested in and liked the show. Robert is exactly what you think. He is a sage advisor but he’s also a great artist. He’s in the moment. He takes the conversation down to character immediately. He makes me work harder because I am always trying to impress him. You know that if Robert Towne likes what you’re doing, it’s probably good.
Q: As you approach the end of the series, which characters are you the saddest to leave behind?
MW: Oh my gosh. All of them. I’ll miss all of them. That’s the greatest gift about this show, is that they’re so different from each other and they are so many different voices. When you are in the mood, whatever mood you’re in when you’re writing, you have every flavor there is. It’s hard for me to imagine not writing these characters any more. I can’t even imagine it, actually. I don’t even want to think about it. They’re so tied to the actors that play them that the loss is something I can’t really think about.
That concludes our interview but we’d like to thank Matthew very much for his time. Be sure to catch the final season of Mad Men when it premieres on April 13th.Previous