When we last left Don Draper on Mad Men, he … how did Roger put it in the season six finale? He “shit the bed.” After the ugly truths of his past surfaced during a Hershey’s pitch, Don went on a forced leave of absence from SC&P, and Megan walked out on him (all, perhaps, temporary situations). Where does he go from here? At the end of last season, Mad Men creator-executive producer Matthew Weiner spoke with Vulture at length about how tumultuous a year 1968 was for Don and the other characters, and today, he talks about bringing those stories to a close. As they did with Breaking Bad, AMC is splitting up the goods, premiering the first seven episodes on April 13, and the rest in spring 2015. (Weiner is writing all 14 remaining episodes now.) He tells us all about where Don is now, and why this will definitively be the end.
Last season was about Don hitting bottom, recognizing his own issues, and saying “I don’t want to do this anymore.” How will this season deal with the consequences of that?
I can just say that we take the events that happen on the show very seriously. This is the last season of the show, so it has its own story, but certainly the place to start is: What are the consequences? Just because Don’s changed, even in that infinitesimal way, doesn’t mean anybody else thinks he has.
How do you feel about Don now? Can he grow and still be “Don Draper”? He wants to see himself at the head of the cultural forefront, but he’s a lot older now than he was when Mad Men began. He’s from a different time than Ginsburg and Stan. Is he being left behind?
I don’t fault you for seeing the show that way, but he never hung with those people. That’s the secret to Don Draper’s success. The thing that has changed is the facade of Don Draper has been punctured by him saying, “I can’t do this anymore.” That was a product of the events in his life more than the events in the world. Some of that does have to do with coming of age, getting older. But his relationship with his daughter was the pure thing in his life, and he ruined it, and it obviously spurred him on to do something about it.
So, the secret to his success is in not being a fad-ist. It’s not like someone’s coming in and blowing him away with brand-new work that’s super ingenious. He operates from what he wants. His creative style is timeless. Things that have torpedoed him at work have much more to do with drinking too much and letting his anxiety overwhelm him, acting impulsively, acting selfishly. That is not a product of the times.
So you wouldn’t say he’s embittered to the culture then.
No. What I was trying to show last year, and I’m not sure the country was in the mood for it because we were in that state, was that the culture had caught up to Don. The culture was impulsive and carnal and on the brink of disaster for all of 1968. Then, just like the French Revolution ended with Napoleon, this revolution ended with Nixon back in the White House. My fascination has been about what hasn’t changed despite all those activities. I was trying to show that Don was very much aware of what was going on and, like everyone else in the culture, felt a sense of anxiety and instability and despair about the possibility of change and it being thwarted. Don’s facade has been punctured and the facade of the United States has been punctured. We had lost our confidence.
Maybe we don’t turn to entertainment for that all the time. We turn to entertainment for images of justice and revenge and power, and last season was an exercise in showing this man was a mess. [Laughs.] Maybe that’s where he had to get to to confront himself.
Just curious: Who would Don have voted for in 1968? Nixon or Humphrey?
We kind of established he doesn’t vote. Part of it is his assumed identity, but also Don has a very cynical attitude about politics. I know he’s against the war. But like a lot of people who grew up in the Great Depression, I don’t think Don’s someone who’s saying, “We have to restore order. This thing is out of control.” I think he knows things have to change. As he says in last season’s finale, “Everything’s back where Jesus wants it.” The world was in the midst of a revolution, whether it was the students in Paris, or Mexico City, or the Chicago convention, the two assassinations … all of it was gone by the end of 1968. I think Don might be a little cynical about the political process. Again, with regard to his being in touch or out of touch, being someone who probably sees himself on the outside of society, that’s probably where he wants to stay.
Elisabeth Moss is on the cover of this week’s New York. The story says she’s been the hero of Mad Men all along. How do you feel about that?
Her story has been told in tandem with Don’s. She’s introduced in the pilot, and she’s slightly a device there because it’s her first day and she’s discovering the world as we do, but she surprises us right away. To me, their stories are being told in parallel. The conflicts between them and their interactions with each other are definitely running side by side. That said, people can say whatever they want about it. Peggy is a very important character. What happens to her every season is No. 2 on the list.
You’re writing straight through all 14 episodes, unlike the writers of Breaking Bad, who took a long hiatus between the two halves of its last season. You’ve said you like to “leave it all on the table” at the end of each season. Has anything about your process changed knowing that you’d have a yearlong gap between the first seven episodes and the rest?
It’ll be ten months, not to split hairs, but it’s a little less than a year. But, yeah, I was immediately surprised to realize that they should have some independent strength to them, these two halves. It is one story running across. Much of what is set up in much in the first seven episodes is paid off in the last seven as we do traditionally, but the stories are denser and the first seven episodes are their own arc. What I realized is that this is kind of organic to how we tell the story here. If you look at the episode sevens over the course of the series, “The Suitcase,” “The Lawnmower,” “The Gold Violin,” “The Merger,” which was episode six but it was hour seven — we always split the season in half because that’s the midpoint for me. What I discovered is I better make sure episode eight feels like a premiere and episode seven feels like a finale.
That meant a lot more work. I have a lot of help. I started the season by not just asking for ideas like I always do after I tell them what I want to do, but by also saying, “Is there anything you always wanted to do on the show that we’ve never done?” It was a fascinating couple of days of conversation. What it’s forced us to do is to pay attention to the main characters. There’s not as much digression. I don’t know if someone viewing it is going to feel that way because it’s still Mad Men.
Has this show always been working toward a particular ending, or is the ending not the point here?
There’s no mystery to solve, so I’ve never had that pressure. I had an image in between seasons and four and five of how the show would end. But as you said, I’ve treated every finale like it was the end of the show. They could all be the last episode of the show. This particular ending is something I’ve had in mind, and I don’t want to over promise anything, but I’m worried only in the sense that however it ends will reflect on the entire thing. That’s why I haven’t wavered from what I wanted to do. Will it be satisfying? I have no idea. It will be for me.
Last year, you told NPR that the show was going to end on an “ambiguous note” and that we should all be ready for that. Still sticking to that?
[Laughs.] I said that?
You know, I think the context of that — and I’m not backtracking — is no matter how definitive I am with the show, it always seems to be ambiguous for the audience. For me, that’s just the nature of the show and the nature of the audience. Convincing the audience that Lane had actually died and was not coming back … I mean, that’s why we showed his body! I ended “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” with Don moving into a new apartment, Betty on a plane to Reno with her lover and her baby, and all that I heard about in the off-season was, “Are they getting divorced?” I had no idea that would be ambiguous. [When I said it would end on an ambiguous note] I was probably defensively preparing myself for all the crap you get when a show ends no matter what you do. I get it. I watch TV. Hopefully it will be a loss for the audience that it’s going away. It’s been a long relationship. I don’t think anyone’s going to be happy about it. [Laughs.]
AMC is doing a prequel of Breaking Bad and is developing a spinoff of The Walking Dead. Have you thought in any way — or been approached about — continuing the story?
I have not been approached, but I think it’s because they know I’m not interested in it. There are going to be 92 episodes of this. It’s a lot more than Breaking Bad. I feel that I’ve exhausted this. That’s not a judgment, that’s just the kind of person I am. I would like to do something else, but I also would like to leave it in its state, as a whole thing, as a work. I don’t want to tamper with what we did.
The network sent us a few pictures of Don, Peggy, Megan, and Roger —
Those are all gallery shots, or, in the language of the show, advertising.
The shot (below) of Roger and Don looks like it was from an episode.
We picked the airport partially because of the irony of the fact that there is zero glamour at an airport now, and in travel in general. It doesn’t defy analysis, because all those people will be in the show, but I would not read meaning into it. Sorry!
You were there in the writers’ room for the final season of The Sopranos and wrote the penultimate episode. What was the process of bringing that show to a close like, and how does it compare to your own?
I finished my episode and had started on Mad Men when David Chase was shooting the final two episodes. We went on the air about six weeks after they went off the air. It wasn’t my show, you know? Even though I worked there for four and a half years, I didn’t have that experience. I saw David going through it. I remember getting the last outline of “Made in America” and I was already at Mad Men, giving him my thoughts on it, which I think were completely positive and emotional. It turns out to be a spectacular episode. I got to experience the end with the public. I do remember a lot of people asking me about the ending before it aired because there were all these wagers. Like, “Hey, you could make some money. Does Tony live or die? Just tell me,” and I’m thinking, Las Vegas has no idea. I don’t know how they settled those bets. You know, The Sopranos had been on the brink of ending a few times before that and I benefited from David continuing that last season. It was still a slightly intellectual exercise when I was there. I heard the emotions exploded after that and I missed it.
I imagine many viewers are already bracing themselves for the end of Mad Men.
I think that’s one of the positive things about AMC splitting it up. There’s a little bit of weaning — for me, for sure. I will be completely done with this process when we go on the air in 2015 and I will get to not be writing the show during that time. I’ll tell you one thing: I am surprisingly upbeat about this experience right now. The show has gone on long enough. I’ve always been appreciative that this has happened. On some level, I can’t believe this has happened. But I am the person here who has been reminding people constantly that we need to savor this. It’s still really hard work that you forget sometimes, but we’ll finish a four-hour meeting and I’ll say, “You know, you’re going to miss this.” And they’ll start laughing.
There are different stages of good-bye. There’s the final day of shooting when all the actors are done. Then they start wheeling the sets away and dismantling, the writers will go on to their new jobs, the actors will be testing for pilots all during this period. Once the actors leave, I still have another eight to ten weeks of postproduction. That’s going to be really, really interesting. I’m not anticipating anything but a deeply emotional experience. [Laughs.] I wrote the pilot when I was 35, got it on the air when I was 42, and I will be 49 when it ends. That’s a huge part of my life.
Where are you now in the process?
I’m writing episode nine. Right now, I’m definitely thinking about the pilot. We had a very emotional and fun evening at the beginning of this season. I showed the cast their auditions. There’s a little bit of that going on, like, “Can you believe this happened to us? A seven-year job in television?” I’m sure I’ll be a puddle, believe me.
How did those auditions play now? It’s been many years. Anyone mortified?
They loved it. I’m sure there was some mortification, but they all got the job. As someone who’s auditioned thousands of people, these are really good auditions. I think the fun part for them was seeing each other’s. It was kind of a mutual respect thing going on. I mean, this is their bread and butter. It’s totally private. Another actor never sees it unless they’re directing or something. I think they were kind of impressed, but yeah, I was totally terrified it was going to backfire. John Slattery’s audition is for Don. Christina auditioned for Midge. Lizzie’s audition is amazing, but there’s a power drill going off in the back of it. January’s audition, honestly, was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life. It was emotional, of course, but mostly funny. Jon joked with me, “Well, which audition of mine did you pick?” because the network kept making him read over and over and over again. He was so clearly that guy. He did that Hershey’s meeting scene in one take. During the off-season, Jon’s voice was so strained, so we gave him a day off and his voice became so crystal clear for that performance. Now his voice is back, too.
I was worried when I read he was having a procedure for that.
I know, I know. Believe me, your entire livelihood is not riding on that voice. [Laughs.]