Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner on Hell and Anxiety in the Show’s Season 6 Premiere

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC/AMC Copyright 2012

[Spoiler alert for those who haven’t yet watched the two-hour premiere.] In the very first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper was revealed to be living a double life. Last season, he tried living just one with Megan, but it ended with him alone in a bar being approached by a pretty stranger, with Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” playing in the background. In Sunday’s season six premiere, Don found himself spiraling back into old habits. “I think him walking away was like, ‘I gave this a try, I was not good at it.’ Or, ‘The world disappointed me.’ Or, ‘Here I am again,’” series boss Matthew Weiner said. “A lot of the issues in Don’s life are right back where he left them, and it’s hard to believe that he has gone through all of this, and he is right there again. He doesn’t want to be that way.” Last month in Los Angeles, Weiner spoke with Vulture about Don’s inertia – and how Betty feels similarly stuck – and that very Sopranos-esque problem of not being able to change your rotten self.

The first face we see in the episode is of Don’s neighbor Arnold, who later tells him people will do anything to alleviate anxiety. That’s how we were first introduced to Don.
Yes, but Don’s relationship with Arnold sets something off in him. He wants to be Arnold’s friend. He admires him. He wants to be him. It’s so self-destructive, [being with Arnold’s wife], but it’s what’s alleviating his anxiety. He is a fraud. The vibe of the show right now is so close to the vibe in our world. Arnold’s statement also has to do with where we are now. It’s technology. It’s loss of the familiar. It’s a powerlessness about the environment around us. It’s rapid change. It’s isolation. That’s all going on in the show under very different circumstances; they were in the middle of an economic boom, but it makes you turn inward.

At the end of the episode, Don acknowledges he’s stuck. He tells Arnold’s wife, Sylvia (Linda Cardellini), whom he is revealed to be sleeping with, “I don’t want to be doing this.” Is it now that Don doesn’t know what he wants?
This whole season is about an attempt to deal with returning to your basic problem, which is that you are you. We don’t repeat things on the show. I have a very broad definition of what is repetition, and there are all kinds of stories that get thrown out because they feel familiar to me. Even last year, when we decided that Don and Pete had switched places, I really was like, “I can tell every Don story I ever wanted to tell with Pete,” but of course I won’t because Pete is Pete. When people say they are like each other, they are as much like each other as you are with someone you admire. You would like to be them, but it doesn’t turn out that way. I feel like this season is about that poster. You feel that other you. Here you are having the same problems you’ve always had – and now you know that it might be you. Are you capable of changing? What is the anxiety that creates? What are your options? Run? Fight back? Try and control the world? Are you capable of changing yourself?

You put a fine point on this in last season’s finale, “The Phantom.” The ghost of Don/Dick’s brother Adam tells him, “It’s not your tooth that’s rotten.”
A lot of that episode is about these ghosts haunting him about how selfish he is. I mean, Lane was all over that episode. It’s Lane’s eulogy.

Even Dinkins’s lighter seems to haunt him in the premiere.

The kid and that lighter bring shame to him, remembering his own service and the way it ended. And, by the way, how great that we have a show that people are expected to know that?

Did you feel while writing last year’s finale that Don backsliding was inevitable? That he would not be able to retrofit a new life?
I came up with the question, “Are you alone?” before episode one of last season. The central tension for a lot of people was, “Is Don going to cheat on Megan?” Of course, it’s meaningless on some level. It was frustrating to people a little bit, but Don’s fidelity is very low on the list of the things that define him: we’ve seen him cheat on his wife, we’ve seen him cheat on his mistress, we’ve seen him single and he wasn’t great at it. What I loved from [the season four finale] “Tomorrowland” was him committing to this almost schoolgirl fantasy of what this marriage was going to be like, and then having it dissolve not because of infidelity or anything but because this woman had a will and a plan and was a fully developed human being. It’s kind of the most period thing we’ve ever done on the show. He didn’t mind her working, but he wanted her to work under him in his job. She rejected his profession, which is a lot of who he is. She’s an idealistic artist. There’s a lot of criticism and a lot of wounding going on with her pursuing what she does.

And now he feels like he’s in hell.
That was not an attempt, by the way, to educate my audience. The quote from Inferno stands on its own. This is the descent into hell: “Midway in our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” That’s a great sentence for a story and it’s the first sentence of this season. We see Don in some kind of hell, and I want you to worry that he’s dead.

By the time we get to the Hawaii pitch, certainly.
When he talks about heaven, and later that something horrible has to happen to go to paradise… I mean, he is shocked in that Hawaii pitch at what he has actually said. I do hope there’s no discussion about him losing his mojo or something like that, because that is an amazing ad. I determine whether the client likes it or not, so it’s rigged, and I will let you know when Don is doing a bad job. You’ll know when he’s lost his mojo. In this case, the clients have failed to recognize. I was talking to one of our advertising consultants Josh Weltman about it, and I go, “Am I wrong? This is a great ad, right?” And he goes, “They’re going to pitch that work for five or six years, but by 1975, someone will do that ad.”

Betty also seems to be embarking on a journey of self-discovery.
What I was really interested in is, okay, the Summer of Love just happened, so what happens when it gets cold? When the kid says, “I’m going to learn how to play violin,” and she says, “Because it’s so easy,” it’s the idea of this impulsiveness and this youthfulness. So much of the episode is about, “How am I perceived?” She is uncomfortable being seen as a mom, as a suburbanite, as someone who doesn’t care… Betty’s very childlike. She identifies with Sandy, and that moment when she decides the futility of her attempt to rescue that girl and preserve her innocence is just very touching to me. [It’s] her daughter closing the door in her face. I feel like her changing her hair at the end is her answer to the guy saying, “I know who you are,” and her responding, “You have no idea who I am.”

Mad Men’s Matt Weiner on the Season 6 Premiere