Sunday’s sixth season premiere of Mad Men revealed that Don had fallen back into his philandering ways, and that somehow it’s less satisfying than before. Is he alone? More than ever. Jon Hamm says it might be rock bottom for Don, but stopped short of saying his character was a lost cause. “I don’t think Don is without hope,” he said, later adding, “I think he is a genuine seeker in life of enlightenment and understanding.” At a press junket in Los Angeles last month, Vulture spoke with Hamm about his preseason dinners with series boss Matthew Weiner and Don’s surprising moves in the premiere.
You start every season by having a long dinner with Matt. What happens during that meal?
It’s usually pretty long, way longer than dinner, and we do eat a lot. It’s a bit of a My Dinner With Andre kind of thing, just talking about stuff that somehow tangentially is related to the show. He writes a lot of things down. And as you will find out or may know about me, I tend to talk. I’m very long-winded. Sometimes I make sense. But I like having an intellectual conversation. It’s an interesting way to kind of begin the process of getting back into the show. I couldn’t really tell you anything specific about it. I mean, not that I don’t want to, but I don’t necessarily remember the specifics of it. I just know that we talk in kind of generalities. Whatever ideas it sparks in him, it’s a good dialogue and it’s nice that he trusts me enough to have it and values my opinion enough to have it, I guess.
Does he come with ideas for the whole season or just the beginning?
No, not at all. Honestly, it’s so preliminary. It’s right when the writers’ room gets going, which is three or four weeks before the show goes into production. So it’s very, very preliminary and very, very obscure and kind of oblique ways into the show. We talk about art and we talk about paintings and we’ll talk about architecture. Somehow it gets around to Mad Men. I don’t mean to ... this is not like an Algonquin roundtable that we’re having. There are a healthy amount of fart jokes, too.
Let’s talk about the premiere. Don doesn’t speak for the first ten minutes or so of the episode, even though people are addressing him the whole time.
Yeah, I thought that was a bold choice. It also opens with him sitting in paradise and reading about hell, which is interesting when we have a character onscreen that’s not talking. Is he in paradise? Is he in hell? What’s happening? It’s such a departure from our normal Mad Men place.
In what way?
Well, in that I really feel like six seasons into a show you’re not necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel, but you are trying to get a different angle on it, get a different perspective on it. It was a challenge, obviously, to be in a scene and not physically, vocally say anything. It’s certainly not like there aren’t opportunities for him to say something. So it’s a very specific and curious and, I hope, interesting choice. I was happy with the way it came out.
I thought part of it, as we later find out, is that he’d just witnessed a heart attack. Did it shake him?
Yeah. I mean, the specter of death and mortality is a common thread that’s run through the show from the beginning. We’ve seen a lot of suicide on the show. We’ve seen a lot of accidental death on the show. We’ve seen a lot of ways to head out, some not so dignified. I think that it’s definitely something that we’re playing around with. And with the timeline, too, certainly.
I wasn’t quite sure what had happened at first when they run into the doorman. There’ll be more surprises like that flashback?
Yeah, it was very subtle. You are going to see a lot of that this season, I think. A lot of that stuff gets a little bit like, “Wait, did that just happen?” To be able to have that freedom to let some information go and not have to put a big bell on it, I think is nice.
Why do you think he agrees to give away the bride?
I think he identifies with a young man about to go away to war, and agrees to do a kindness for that person in a very giving, hopeful way. I don’t think Don is without hope. I don’t think Don is necessarily cynical. I think he has a healthy dose of that, but I think he also has a tremendous capacity for belief. You see it in his excitement when he talks about work and products and selling, because he has an innate understanding of how the heart works, and how the brain works, and how wanting and longing and needing work. And that’s a good thing to have if you’re in advertising. And he can be very persuasive and compelling.
I thought it was interesting that he opened up to Linda Cardellini’s character and said, “I don’t want to be doing this.” He seems more lost than ever, and worried about it.
He’s a mess. We spend a lot of time in Don’s head this season. We get a lot of insight into how messed up he is. And I keep using the analogy that Don’s house is built on a very, very shaky foundation and if you keep fixing the house without fixing the foundation, the cracks will keep showing. We learn a lot about why Don’s foundation is so unstable. He needs to fix the foundation, and I don’t know what that will take in Don. I think it will take a lot more work than maybe he’s willing to give. But I do think Don is a genuine seeker in life of enlightenment and understanding. And I hope that he’ll find some path towards, whether it’s happiness or balance or peace, something. Because he doesn’t have it now.
Matt told me he’s about to write the season finale, so you’re almost done. Having to be Don this long, are you mentally tired at this point?
Oh, I’m able to divorce it and go home, but it’s still exhausting. The hours are long and it’s nonstop and kind of every day for me, but it’s fulfilling. It’s artistically fulfilling. I enjoy going to work. I enjoy my job. I enjoy playing this guy; I really do. I love [the cast] and working with them and seeing them even at stuff like this.
Have you started thinking about how close you are to the end?
It’d probably be dishonest if I said, “No one’s thought about it.” A couple times we’ve been like, “Whoa, it’s almost over,” but that usually gets buried under the avalanche of like, “Oh my God, we have to finish this one first!” I was talking a lot with Jack McBrayer, Tina [Fey], Robert Carlock, people on 30 Rock, and they were like blind-sided and devastated by how emotional they all were at the end. I have a special relationship with that show, so I watched the finale and even I was, like, crying.
Oh, I cried.
Right? I’m totally crying at the end of that show. I was like, “Oh my God, 30 Rock. You got me.” And it was so ... and Tracy Morgan! "I’m going out for cigarettes ... " and I was like, All right, I did not just cry because of something Tracy Morgan said, non-ironically. It was amazing, and it really was because that little fucked-up family had invested all that time in that show and it really showed. I feel like we have a very similar situation in our little family as well, and when the time comes I’m sure we’ll all be an absolute mess.