In anticipation of Mad Men’s final season premiere on April 5, Matthew Weiner sat down with New York’s Matthew Zoller Seitz at the Museum of Jewish Heritage Sunday night to discuss the series as a story of Jews in America coming into their own when they were seen “as other” after the war. Influenced by his own Jewish heritage, Weiner said the show — like America — tells the story of outsiders. For Weiner, Don Draper was “a hero of assimilation,” whose upbringing in rural poverty mirrored the struggles of minorities in entering the upper-middle class and passing as white on a socioeconomic level. Below, the most interesting moments from Weiner and Seitz’s conversation.
Don is a hero of assimilation.
“That family structure [of single mothers], the poverty, the evangelical Christian background — I have done everything I can to cast Don as what I believe is a hero of assimilation. Even though you see him give a lot of speeches, a lot of preacher preaches … You can see that he’s from that tradition. He’s seen that in action. You don’t learn how to talk like that without going to church, I sincerely believe that. But then there’s the rest of it, which is, I’m going to try to become the guy I saw on TV, acting like a rich, powerful white guy.”
The series reflects the new wave of tongue-in-cheek advertising and entertainment ushered in by Jewish talent.
“When people talk about the creative revolution, they’re usually talking about DDB, the Jewish agency, and they are known for honestly making fun of advertising.”
Both Don and postwar Jewish Americans faced the same class struggle to be seen as white.
“My mother-in-law’s a Holocaust survivor, my parents are from the generation before that, with a double history — my great-grandfather being a deserter from the Austrian army. That identity is the same story as Don’s identity: It’s like, how do we become white? How do I get my kid to go to Wesleyan so he can be in that law firm? What’s it going to take? Time.”
On people thinking that Don’s secret in season one was that he was Jewish.
“It was totally surprising to me; it was not deliberate at all. I love that Don is striving for the same thing [as Rachel Menken]. They’re both there with their fake success suits on. They’re both one generation from living without plumbing … I wanted there to be a correlation from the pilot that they were having a similar experience, and that Don had responded with this posture of existential bravery, and that Rachel was like huh, I know what it’s like to be disconnected. Her existentialism is rooted in being a minority: a woman and Jew, and fitting in and passing.”