Somehow the world managed to survive these eight months since Mad Men’s season-three finale. It was a divisive season that took bizarre, even surreal turns; no one on the show had a good time, except for maybe Roger Sterling, and a lot of fans weren’t having much fun either. Many fumed, a few gave up hope. But most remained committed, stumbling like dry drunks toward another round of virtual martinis. And at last, the wait is over. On Sunday night at 10 p.m. on AMC, the perfectly coiffed pain returns. Before we plunge into a refurbished world — new ad agency, new office, new fashions, new characters — Vulture talked to the show’s creator and mastermind, Matthew Weiner, about the new season, and why he revels in not giving the audience what they (think they) want.
The season starts with the new agency, Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce, up and running, and in a lot of ways it feels like a fresh start for the show. It must be a liberating device for a writer, being able to leap ahead like that.
It allows me to skip things that don’t give me much story. There will be some overlap with last season, because you’re finding out how things ended up. But some things are entirely dropped, and I know viewers can have a problem with that. There will be lots to get used to, like Peggy working with this new guy, and they clearly already have a working relationship. You’re in the midst of the story instantly, much like when the Brits took over last season; they were firmly entrenched when the show began. I think of it like a musician or recording artist you love. You go to see them in concert and you really want to hear your favorite songs, but how interesting is that for the musician?
You say viewers will have some problems with things that aren’t tied up. Overall, do you care what the audience thinks or pay attention to what they want?
Not that much. I go with what interests me.
As has been reported, the show opens with a reporter asking, “Who is Don Draper?” …
I don’t want to talk too specifically about any of that, but as far as Don is concerned, and the meta part of it aside, the new season is all about what it’s like for this very secretive man who has a dual identity to suddenly be front and center as one of the faces of the new agency. How is he going to handle it? That really interests me.
One of the most rewarding moments of last season’s finale was when Roger tells Don he doesn’t want him to go. They had a rough time of it last year, yet even more than Roger and Joan, I feel like Don and Roger need to be together.
They have a fascinating relationship. How can a person be friends with Don, who gives and reveals so little? And yet clearly Roger manages to get to him: Roger being conspicuously happy and running off with Don’s secretary made Don very angry. Roger does everything that Don can’t; he’s Don’s id — partly because he’s older and had had a heart attack and is confronting his mortality. To me, one of the great tensions in the show is that people act differently at different stages of their lives.
Speaking of Roger and Joan: Any chance they’ll get back together, as so many fans hope?
If I were to give them what they wanted, I don’t know if they would like it.
Some of the dialogue in Sunday’s episode reminds me of a Billy Wilder film — particularly The Apartment.
I’m very flattered. I’ve always felt that these characters were influenced by the movies they saw. But it isn’t so much the language that’s the same as what’s important and what’s not.
In an episode last season, Roger performed “My Old Kentucky Home” in blackface at a country club. It was a moment — along with the John Deere tractor accident — that felt, to some fans, egregiously over-the-top. Did you get much flack for it?
I was surprised it didn’t polarize people more. That episode was all about class — decline and fall of the Roman empire, the decadence that goes on with the idle rich, with Roger being completely oblivious. The idea of shooting it was terrifying. And it was horrible to watch in person, in front of a crew. But we researched it and that stuff happened — the word “darkie” wasn’t even taken out of the song until 1986! We always have that on our side. [Laughs.] Viewers realized that it was in the realm of reality. And I just felt that if Roger did it with earnestness, and for his new wife, it would be okay. John [Slattery] was very brave to do it — thematically it meant so much for the show.
Given the world we live in, it surprises me sometimes how scandalized viewers can get over some of the things your characters do — even divorce between a couple that clearly has nothing in common will inspire backlash.
People believe in love in the most duplicitous circumstances — they believe in it even for Don and Betty, who have the worst marriage on the show, possibly of all time. Our concept of sin is in the Ten Commandments, and was always there. But the thing that’s strange to me is that when people turn on the television, they want to judge the bad guys and love the good guys. When you fall in love with characters, when they do crappy things, or are cruel to each other, you feel a sense of betrayal.
It’s funny how that never changes, no matter how many salacious scandals we’re exposed to.
In terms of the whole culture, I think there’s a tremendous pleasure in moral superiority. Mad Men depends on you, at some point, admitting that you have these feelings of superiority. You can’t be too sanctimonious. If you are, you’ll be repulsed by the show.