An interview with 'Mad Men' creator Matthew Weiner doesn't always follow the classic question-and-answer format.
Invariably, it ends up being more of a conversation, with the interviewer bringing up points about individual episodes or storylines and letting the Emmy-winning producer and writer just go through all of his thoughts about the characters he's created. He talks about them like they're members of his own family, and in a way, they are, as he's likely lived with Don Draper and company in his head almost as long as he's lived with his wife and kids.
I had been trying to pin down an interview with Weiner since before the fourth season of the show began, and we finally were able to sit down and discuss the season earlier this week. What follows is a long, but pretty extensive, overview of season four, and while Weiner doesn't give any details about this Sunday's season finale, he does hope that "people will see the finale and understand the journey that they went on for the season."
You're a hard man to pin down this season.
You know what? I was really busy and very behind. And I literally just finished the finale last Wednesday. And it's airing on Sunday. That's what's been going on.
At the beginning of the season, you told a lot of people about this season's change and how people deal with it, and everything involved in that. But really, it seemed to me that the big focus has been about how Don is dealing with changes in his life, and how not everything he touches turns to gold anymore. And it was very evident in last week's episode.
Well, you know, I don't know if I agree with that completely. First of all, the change thing is sort of what I was talking about with last season, but the show is sort of always about that. But I was talking about, from the premiere this year, is that it was going to be about "Who is Don Draper?". And that the idea that Don had lost his coordinates: he was no longer married, he had been rejected by his ex-wife, and was in a space where his identity was basically completely up for grabs, and he would have to look at himself over the course of the season and ask that question, because all of those things were gone.
And they've got this new business. From the beginning, he sort of accepted the business challenge that it was going to be resting on his shoulders, and then if they wanted him to have it, he's going to have to do it his own way and take ownership of that.
That said, I am a little bit surprised that the audience thinks that he's not on his game, in a way. I mean, he's always had challenges, and they've had plenty of losses. If you remember, season 2 ended with him walking out of that, the buy from Duck. It's not like he made a big grandstand or anything like that. He had a contract, and that was it. I obviously read some of the stuff that's written about, and of course I talk to people who watch the show. To me, he has not really lost anything. Part of the story is that he's getting older. Part of the story is that he obviously was drinking too much.
Just a little bit.
Nobody seems to really acknowledge the difference between the way Don was drinking before and the way he was drinking this season. I've never seen the word "alcoholic" used in anything that anybody wrote about it, but I think maybe part of it was people feeling like it was taking the fun away from the show because there were consequences to his drinking. And I tried to sneak it up on the audience, you know, in the episode where he won the Clio. Like here, this guy blacked out.
Right. A lot of people used the words "rock bottom" with that episode.
That is probably true. And you know, obviously, I had him making that pitch where he referenced the carousel when he sort of saw that he was going to his bag of tricks. To me, I definitely don't feel that he's been rejected by women. The idea that Bethany turned him down in that first episode, and that he had lost his mojo or something, was shocking to me that people felt that way.
What I was trying to show was that this is a new world for him. Because as a married man going out with another woman, he had a chance of sleeping with her on the first date. But as a single man, there's an investment that has to be made with people that requires a relationship. No one's going to just jump into bed with somebody that they think they have a future with. So that's what was new about it. That's why he was going to prostitutes, basically, for the guarantee.
That's kind of what the purpose of Faye has this year, to give him that stable presence. She's not quite the same person he's looked for either as a wife or as a mistress.
No, no, she's a different kind of person. And there's an actual possibility for a relationship there, and there's a level of equality there. She was not jumping into bed with him. It was required that they have a relationship. And in the episode 'The Summer Man,' you saw him ... he says in the journal, which was actually based on a real journal, that he doesn't want to be that man. He wants a modicum of control over his feelings.
I felt that (with) the letter (in 'Blowing Smoke'), the unintended consequences of Faye getting fired and (Don) having to liquidate a lot of the staff at the company aside, he did make a bold move. Certainly, the Bobby Kennedy thing was humiliating, and I don't know if people have to see it is that "Don saved the company," the way Pete says it, but there was nothing else to do. So I kind of felt that even though he's not making a moralistic stand against tobacco, he is making an advertisement for that agency and trying to reposition them. And that to me was like a pretty amazing move.
He never really liked the way the tobacco companies did business to begin with, like when Lee Garner Jr. humiliated Roger in that previous episode.
Absolutely. I don't think that's just the tobacco company. I think that's about clients in general and how bad it is to be a company that's dependent on one client. They were constantly trying to get themselves out of that, and then their worst nightmare came true, which is that they lost it.</b> And now their whole new company was based on that and he's just trying to find a way to salvage it.
I don't think it's anything particularly about tobacco, except for... To me, even though he says all these things about tobacco, I hope it was clear in the episode just from the statement of Stan saying to Danny, when Danny says "Is he going to quit smoking? and Stan says, "You're an idiot." Or Megan saying, "They didn't dump us, we dumped them."
And whatever the positioning of it is, it's like a moralistic charge against tobacco. It's an attempt to, as he says, to change the conversation and rebrand the agency.
Is this Hail Mary that Don is making not received well because he's the only one who seems to be okay with the firm getting much smaller and laying people off?
I think he was doing what he did at the end of episode one, which is just thinking about himself and trying to operate from his own point of view. A lot of the accusations that were made to him were true. It was impulsive, and he really didn't think about the consequences necessarily, but he made the Hail Mary. And it couldn't go through a committee. That's not the way partners behave, but it is the way Don behaves.
The theme of episode 12, to me, is really about doing the right thing for the wrong reason. And you see it with Betty moving, basically to destroy the relationship that her daughter has with this boy. And you see it with Midge, basically bringing him over there to buy a painting. For her art. But it's really just a hustle, you know? And you see it with Don writing this very, to me, inspiring and substantial tirade against tobacco, when really all he's trying to do is save the company.
And he's smoking up a storm while he's doing it.
Absolutely. It has nothing to do with that. I think it's not being well received as sort of, "Okay, so who is Don Draper?" Don Draper's a guy who is a risk taker, who probably isn't a team player, and he really never has been. Everyone has said this constantly, throughout the existence of the show. As a creative, you could see that he couldn't close the deal with Heinz. That's not the job for creative people. He can't get a meeting with the tobacco company, so he can't go in there and find business unless the account people get him business, get him meetings.
He basically was forced, because there was nothing else to do. What I love is that the fallout is hard on him. It's hard on him to see that they have to fire all those people, and that the partners are mad at him, and they're sort of caught with hypocrisy and also that Faye got fired. But that's an opportunity, also. As she pointed out, it's an opportunity for them to be out in the open and have a relationship.
The two most interesting departures in that episode were Cooper leaving with his shoes, saying "It's been nice working with you all," like he's giving up. And then Don very respectfully shook hands with Danny and said "Hey, it's been a pleasure."
No one enjoys what they had to do there. No one enjoys that. Pete and Ken were like, "We better stay in here." Anyone who's been in a company and seen this happen... in advertising companies, it happens all the time. Because you're a service business, you have no assets. When a client leaves, everyone who works for that client goes. And you see how much money they need to keep going for six months... I mean, it's $300,000.
It's a lot. It's like a million dollars that they need to keep going for a year, to cover half the staff and the rent on that super-fancy office that they shouldn't have gotten, that they couldn't afford a conference table for, just to keep up appearances for the clients that exist. Because as the Heinz guy said, and as the guy from Glo-Coat said, no one wants their account to be at the place with the business that's going down. They don't want to be stuck with someone who goes out of business. Don, of course, can always just go somewhere else. And he proved it again that he can go somewhere else, because creatively, he's a step ahead of everybody.
Is there a potential that the firm might be reshaped because of this?
Well, I mean, I think you've seen the firm being reshaped over the course of the season. Think about where Pete was in the finale last year, and even where he was in the first episode -- you already saw things were different. Him fucking Don up in the first episode, bringing in the Japanese thing, standing up to Roger, and saving Don with North American Aviation. Seeing Roger try and work, and not know how. The tragedy of Roger Sterling, that was a big part of the season -- just to see Roger go from being the most important person there to the least important person there.
That's definitely a restructuring of it -- the addition of Ken, who has all this business. I'm just trying to keep the story of the season being about the struggle, Don's relationship to his work and to his life, and who he is. He got to a place this season, certainly in the middle of it, where he was very close to being a different person and sort of accepting who he was and saying, I'm tired of...and then the shit hit the fan. Now we're seeing this person is come out. Is it the same person we met at the beginning of the show? I don't know.
Did a lot of that transition happen when Anna died, and he spent that night with Peggy? That was after the rock bottom, but it was still not a great night.
That is the bottom, to me -- fighting with Duck, and Duck saying "You're no different than me." That's the bottom.
Why do you consider that the bottom, and not blacking out the bottom?
Well, blacking out is like horrible, drunk behavior, and it's definitely not good, and it's definitely a bottom. But I think the bottom to me is the emotional bottom of losing everything. Let's put it this way: you're not wrong to say story-wise, certainly, alcohol behavior-wise, and self-destructive behavior-wise... (episode) six is the bottom. But I always felt that -- I don't know if it's a purification by fire, or what it is -- he turns the corner when he loses her. I don't know if Peggy's going to replace her in his life, but he's alone.
That'll likely be the episode everybody is going to key on when they think about season 4. It was a bottle episode, and it seemed to turn the story a bit.
Certainly it's a very special episode -- and I don't mean it in the network TV "very special episode" (sense) -- but it was definitely a point of deep honesty on the show. I think people crave that, and I want them to see that... it's a very interesting thing with the show, because I've heard the same thing every single season, including the first season. People, no matter what happens in the first episode, no matter how exciting or how dynamic it is, there's always this sensation by the time you get to episode four or five that the beginning of the season was slow.
I look at it and say that Christmas party, and (Don) sleeping with his secretary, there was so many gigantic events. They may not like what Don is doing, but the story of going out to California and finding out that he was going to lose Anna, and coming back and corrupting Lane, I mean, that is all what makes that episode... It takes work, having that emotional investment in these people.
Maybe people think it feels slow, though, because the first ones always feel exploratory, even though they're eventful. They're not quite sure where everybody is at the beginning of the season, where they're headed.
I think that yeah, they don't know... they're not ready to accept the fact that there's a new story happening. But I think when you see the season as a whole, you see that those events are gigantic, and that you're learning huge amounts of things about Don, huge amounts of things about the agency, and Roger's relationship to the agency.
And I loved learning about Lane this year.
Yeah. (Jared Harris) is such a great actor, too. It's so much fun to write for him.
It had so many layers, from the interracial relationship, to the fact that he wanted to stay in New York, to this relationship with his dad.
It really explained a lot about who he was, though, didn't it? I mean, that one hit in the head and you're just like, "Oh that's who Lane is. I get it." Because his wife said it last year, and we had it in the lawnmower episode too -- he's someone who does what he's told. He seems so strong, and so bull-headed, and so detail-oriented. He was the Colonial Governor of Sterling Cooper, very powerful. Just looking at the first episode last season of him giving Pete and Ken the same job, you're just looking at a powerful person.
But at the same time, he never really becomes a power-mad person, or a brutish force. The interracial relationship, to me, is about Lane being in love with America. And it was sort of a mislead in the story to think "Oh, this is going to be all about the fact that his father doesn't want him with a black woman." And it's what he assumes also. But it's not about that. It's about the fact that he is not doing what he's supposed to be doing, that it's dishonorable in some way, and that he is behaving like a child. His father basically orders him to not behave like a child anymore, and he listens.
Do we know if Joan has actually gotten an abortion or not?
I think you're gonna have to watch the episode. I mean, I don't know how you could think it was anything else, but I'm not gonna weigh in on that.
Are you surprised that people question that, then?
No, no I'm not. Because a lot of it makes sense. And it's Joan, and she's had a few procedures before. But I'm not gonna weigh in on that. I just want people to watch the show. I'd rather not even... you know what, my answer to that is no comment.
Obviously, your concentration on characters shifts as the seasons develop. When did you guys realize that this year we'd see a lot of Peggy and Sally?
That's a decision I make at the beginning of the season -- deciding that the story was going to be about Peggy and Don's relationship, since he had basically said to her, "We have a new relationship, if you come to this agency." And being about Peggy trying to deal with her ascension very early in her career, but also her powerlessness and how she navigates that, and her sort of detaching herself from Don maybe, sort of becoming independent in the business sense. Does she really have what it takes? Does she really understand how it works? Also being Don's person at this very small agency, and how tough that is to deal with. And her personal life, you know.
She's also a good contrast to Joan being the old style professional woman, as opposed to the new style professional woman in Peggy.
It's always a contrast. That story was set up for Joan also -- Joan and Roger were going to get together underneath these dire circumstances. And you realize from early on in the season that Joan does love her husband.(Ughhhh) She does have a very old-fashioned attachment to that relationship that's very complicated, and may be hard for the audience to deal with, but it is what it is.
And Roger is a child, and wants what he wants, and acts on his impulses, but he does love her. It's a very complicated thing. I wanted to tell that story from the beginning. We talked about Roger's story, we talked about Joan's story, we talked about Peggy's story, and in terms of who we're focusing on or who gets the most attention or anything, it's never really perceived that way. I knew that I wasn't telling as dramatic a story with Betty as I did last year, but I never say how many episodes anybody's going to be in. I just want the audience to always feel like they're not getting enough of anybody (laughs).
That's true. But we're mostly seeing Betty through Sally's eyes at this point.
Well, the Sally thing was a decision we made too. I know that the audience, a lot of them, their entry point to the show is through (Sally's) eyes. They identify with her, and they're the same age as her, and she's in this divorced family and she's trying to... she's got a lot of Don in her, and a lot of Betty in her. She could be a pawn but she's trying to assert her independence and see where she belongs. She's a symbol of the discord among the parents. She also has her own consciousness as a human being, which has been fun to look at.
Last week, you really saw that there's a personality that's emerged there. I always felt like okay, it's one thing to have a kid on the show and then they get thrown around -- when are you watching the kids and Daddy why aren't you home -- but we've been able to build something with Kiernan and with Jared (who play the older Draper children), to say these are two children from these particular people. So many people identify with their lives that we get a chance to look at the truth and say okay, this girl has her own personality. She has her own hopes and dreams.
She's a child. You see when she runs away, she wants to be Don's wife, she wants to be his mother, she wants to be his lover. It's all there. And everyone who has a dad like Don understands that.
You have no problem shifting the perspective and shifting the concentration every season, though. And it doesn't seem to cause any problems or issues with the cast.
I'm very lucky to have this amazing orchestra. They're all into the show being entertaining. They all want to work. They all want to get good stuff. I don't really think of it in terms of who haven't we seen and what are we doing. We have stories for them for the season, and then we sort of accelerate them when we need to. The actors, they're my partners on this. I've never heard anybody say "I'm not getting enough." I mean, everybody wants to work more. But they all are like, "This is so interesting what's happening to this person. It's so true."
What you have to know is, from our point of view -- and this is from the writing room, producers, and the actors -- we're always trying to tell a story. We're trying to tell a story that we don't get bored with, and that will surprise the audience what we're going to pay attention to. But I want to have the freedom to do an episode about Sal and Ken. I want to have the freedom to follow Peggy home, and see her and her boyfriend. I want to have the freedom to take these people that we know and investigate them.
You can't do an episode like 'The Suitcase' every week. It's referencing so many things that happen between them. It's just nice to acknowledge that all that happened every once in a while. But to me, it's always about like, here's the overarching story: Don is confronting himself, Don is losing all these things, Don doesn't know who he is.
And there still may be potential that he could be found out for being a deserter and for being an impersonator.
I think that that's there, but what I was trying to say, and certainly it was a big deal with the clearance and everything, but he's starting to realize that it's just so exhausting to try and be that person. Who is he? We learned last year when he got the contract offer that he became this guy in a suit that he always wanted to be. Inside, there was somebody who still -- whose father thinks he's nothing.
That's what I'm always trying to do. If you give yourself over to the show and sort of take the events away from it and say, "Well here's a guy now who is living in this apartment that people don't think is very nice." Anyone who's ever gotten divorced will say, "That's the apartment where that man would live." He moved to the Village, and he's working all the time, and focusing on the things he can control in his life. Every part of his personal life does peek into his job, but they're so closely related to each other that, to me, writing that letter last week is an assertion of the fact that he still is who he is -- whatever that is.
He's confiding in Faye, he's letting dribs and drabs of his old life out to Peggy. So he is opening up more, it's just he hasn't opened up all the way to everybody yet.
Right. Yeah, who knows if he can? Forget about the worry of getting caught and everything. I mean, I don't think that ever goes away, but what is the value of it? His name is in the name of the firm. That's what episode one was about to me. Here's a guy who's lived his life as a secret and has not enjoyed the spotlight. A, he wasn't raised that way and B, he can't, because he doesn't want the scrutiny. He threw himself into that and said, "Okay, well here I am, this is what I'm gonna be." That was a big moment for him. His family knows, and the job knows. So who's he hiding it from? Just himself.
Somehow Betty still protected him, which I thought was surprising. So there's obviously something still there.
I know. There is something still there. And also, you know, those are his kids. I mean, really, you gotta think about it. I know people think she's a monster. I don't. And I can't imagine that she would ever, ever risk the scandal and the confrontations that go with him going to jail or whatever comes along with that. There was also self-preservation.
Anything you can tease at all about the finale?
Ah, no, I really can't. I just hope that...what I really hope for for the finale is that people will see the finale and understand the journey that they went on for the season. They've been looking at it week by week, and they've sort of been on board with it, and I think they've enjoyed learning so much about Don and seeing him pushed to the end, and seeing him either rise to the occasion or, as you're saying, not rise to the occasion. But hopefully they will see at the end what the journey that he's been on.
I wanted to ask about how things went at the beginning of the season with the the issue of screeners and leaks. Is this the type of thing where you've decided that you just don't want to take the chance anymore?
You know what, it's a tough call. Obviously, with the limited amount of pure publicity, of pure advertising dollars, that a channel like AMC has, we have depended on the generous coverage of the show. And I love that people are interested in it and so forth.
But I think the show came along at a time when these newspapers were disappearing and the blogs were on the rise. Your blog's been there longer than anybody's, actually. As I felt from the beginning, the commercial value of the show, there's very few things out there like this that offer this particular aspect, which is, you don't know what's going to happen. And there was always kind of a tacit agreement that no one would share that. I worked on 'The Sopranos,' and we had the opening episode one season, Tony Soprano was shot by Junior, and everyone kept that a secret.
I don't know what it is, if it's just the environment or the desperation of the press environment, but people could not keep this stuff a secret. The embarrassing part of it was all the people who did keep the secret basically looked at me like "Oh, so they can do it and I can't. " And I just wanted everyone to know that I didn't want anyone to do it.
I don't know if it's Lucy and the football, but I would hopefully try again to try and keep things the way they are. But at a certain point I was like, I don't want to be in this position of talking to journalists who've been so generous to the show, and been so interested in the show, and promoted the show because of their enthusiasm, and have them think that it's okay for The New York Times to reveal whatever they want, but that they're held to a different standard. That's really what it was about, believe it or not.
It's also a fine line, too. Because when you're reviewing something like that, you have to talk about it, but what details do you reveal, what details do you not?
I can tell you that I was upset at seeing how much was revealed, and how lackadaisically it was revealed, and how factually incorrect most of it was, which is kind of disappointing. I'm prepared. I steel myself for the fact that something is going to get out and that they have to talk about something.
I would hate to have to write a review when you can't say anything. "What can I tell you... I really liked it, you'll like it too?" That's not a story. But there was so much revealed that what I was feeling was, all of these people, all of these journalists who I talk to year in and year out -- this is the fourth season of the show -- looking at me and saying, "Well." And it just happened that it was The New York Times, which makes it look like it is something else. I really wanted to express to everyone that I asked everyone not to do that.
That was the thing that I really heard -- all these people saying like, "Hey, they're getting a million hits on this thing because they revealed all this spoiler information, and we couldn't say anything... And we listened to it and we're suffering for it."
The other thing is, I actually think that there is a bit of the turning of the tides that doesn't have to come from me. I don't think the audience does want the thing spoiled. I think they were very excited about the premiere coming, and very excited about having their show back. And that whatever the logic is, and it goes to film trailers and everything, that you can tell the whole story and that people will enjoy seeing a story that they already know all the details to...
I think that that, at least in the case of this show, and certainly in the case of 'The Sopranos,' it's not true. The audience doesn't want to know. They want to sit down and they want to watch it the first time with a pit in their stomach and not knowing what's going to happen. And they want to watch it again with the full knowledge of what's going to happen, and see what's in the show. You know what I mean?
So that experience you've heard me talk about a million times. And almost everybody seems to agree with it. But it wasn't like some tantrum like, "Well guess what, I'm not letting anybody see it anymore." It was literally like, if we can't all do this, then I basically have two standards, especially people who I've been talking to forever who have found a way to write about the show. You know? So that's really the answer.
Well Matt, I appreciate you giving me the time, and it's been a great season. And good luck with the finale.
Sure. Oh, I'm glad you liked it, and I hope you enjoy the finale. I hope you felt like you went on a journey, and when you see all 13 episodes together, you see that this was another chapter in the story of these people's lives.
Post your favorite gifs from this season plz, guys. Also I hate that there's only one episode left :(