At the beginning of this season, Mad Men creator-executive producer Matthew Weiner spoke with Vulture about the impact of splitting the final 14 episodes, and the timelessness of Don’s creative work. Where does Don have left to go from here? Is the honest progress he’s made in these last seven episodes built to last, or is his personal Waterloo yet to come? Answers won’t arrive until next spring, but the morning after Sunday’s momentous mid-season finale, Weiner talked about setting up the end by having Don earn his integrity and laying the groundwork for everything from that last dazzling vision of the late Bertram Cooper to Meredith’s ill-timed pass at Don to, yes, Ginsberg’s severed nipple.
There’s already debate online about whether Don’s vision of Bert singing and dancing to “The Best Things in Life Are Free” was a tribute to Robert Morse or an indication that something might be really wrong with Don.
It’s within the language of the show, going back to “The Hobo Code” [when Don smokes kush and flashes back to his childhood]. We use the camera to tell a story of internal feelings. [The season-one finale] “The Wheel” ends with Don coming home and having a very elaborate fantasy that his family is still there, and they’re not. All of these things are put in as storytelling. Does it coincide on some meta level? I guess. The fact that Robert Morse is one of the greatest song-and-dance men of all time and there was really never a way within the fabric of the show’s reality to utilize that, yeah. I always wanted him to sing on the show. Roger says, “The last thing I said to him were the words of some old song.” I guess that’s sort of stuck in Don’s head. Don would know that song. Don doesn’t know that Bert dances. But for me, I picked that song and Bert’s death during the moon landing from the beginning of the season to make a statement about the fact that this has been a striving for success on Don Draper’s part in a very new way. He’s working his way up in his own company and repairing his relationship with Peggy, which is where we started in the premiere, with them as far apart as possible. I wanted to add a little coda on the end of this event of selling the company. It’s Don saying to himself, I guess in some weird way, money isn’t everything.
There are people who were concerned it’s a sign there’s something physically wrong with Don.
I’m not going to pass judgment on people who have never had the experience of seeing something that’s not there or who want to define the language of the show. That is the language of the show. Don has an emotional moment realizing that he’s lost Bert. This is bigger than what they just did selling their company. That’s what that’s about. It’s not for everybody, it never is. It’s got a long history in the show and it’s not always drug-induced or anything. That’s the miracle of telling a story in film: You can express something inside someone’s mind. I think what you’re feeling is Don’s emotional loss and hopefully something bittersweet.
Don and Betty’s breakup was a hard break. Betty was done. In many of the breakups on the show, someone’s really angry and the relationship blows up. Can you talk about writing a different kind of split with Don and Megan drifting apart?
The watchword of the show is reality, and that goes to the hallucinations as well. It’s what’s going on and what would really happen. That relationship was permanently damaged when Don made her quit her job. In fact, it was permanently damaged when she decided she didn’t want to work in advertising back in season five. I’m always looking at it to say, “What would really happen?” There’s a lot of anger in some of the other breakups but people didn’t expect Betty to still be on the show even though she has Don’s kids. Life isn’t really like that. It would be great if you could just say “This is over” and hand somebody papers. That’s not how it works. They really tried. Megan really tried to hold on to him and stay close to him. When she says “It’s over,” and he has a chance — in our mind in the writer’s room, that moment of talking about the future in a very permanent way was the place where the rubber hits the road. Maybe they didn’t both know it was over until that moment and Don was about to make a life decision based on a relationship that had absolutely disintegrated. It was fun and interesting for Carly Wray and I to write that [Don and Megan] phone call. It plays a little bit longer than it was written, but it’s a very short scene. It plays to me as a harvesting of the reality we had established that she fought to keep them together. He fought to keep them together and they both lied to themselves that this long-distance thing was working.
When Don visits Peggy in her hotel room, there’s a shot where the bed is in between them. To me there’s no sexual tension between these two characters, but was that a sort of tease to the fans who think maybe they should be together?
I’m gonna admit it’s not on our mind. To me that’s more almost a cliché scene: It’s backstage, she looks awful, he comes back and says, “The star’s sick. You’re gonna go on, kid.” That’s what I wanted it to feel like. We’re in her dressing room and she says, “Did Harry tell you about my dream?” Again, it’s about how real can you make it. Don comes to Peggy’s bedroom? Maybe it’s part of showing their relationship doesn’t have that aspect to it. On the other hand, I like to think that Meredith who made a pass at Don — I was joking with the actress, “You just picked the wrong day.” If it had been any other day, or six months ago, you’d probably be pregnant right now.
Meredith’s wholly misguided attempts to comfort Don were too good, and it seems like you’d worked up to it.
We’ve built into the season that she’s attached to him. I love Stephanie Drake, I think she’s hilarious. She looks like she’s from a Dr. Seuss cartoon, and she has that incredible voice and incredible timing. What I love about the way the writers’ room works is here’s a scene of exposition where Don finds out that he’s in breach of contract and they’re trying to get rid of him for something that happened a couple of episodes earlier, but what it is is an opportunity for distraction in a way or comedy. And for her to say, “Everything’s gonna be okay, I’m going to take care of it,” and her having no idea what her importance is in his life. If anything, it accentuated how devastating this moment was for Don, that he was distracted by it and having to deal with both things at once.
Joan’s decision to vote Don out was immediate, and I’ve also seen some confusion over her anger toward him this season. Was Don dismissing Jaguar the tipping point in that relationship?
I’m stunned as someone who lives with the constant reality of the show and the fans who demand that it stays consistent that people were surprised. I guess they love Don so much and they love Don and Joan so much, but I always look at it and ask, “Are you friends with the person who lost your lottery ticket for $1 million?” It was a big deal in season six. She was there when they put him on leave, and she was quite firm about it. Don’s alcoholic disregard for her well-being — it was $1 million to go public, she slept with that guy so it would happen, and Don just impulsively merged the agencies, fired that guy, and cost her $1 million in 1968 money. If people can see it that way and wonder why Joan doesn’t want that guy in the firm, maybe it will help.
The same thing with Peggy. He forced her to come back to the agency after she was on her own, he ruined her relationship with Ted, and he threw the agency into turmoil. She said he was a monster at the end of last season. These two seasons, 6 and 7A, take place eight weeks apart on the show. We’ve never done such a short period, and I think maybe it was hard for the audience to understand that, because it was nine months between them in real time. Within the show we wanted to start Don and Peggy as far apart as possible, because that’s where we left them. Part of the story of the season was them repairing their relationship. It has the structure of a romantic relationship, but to me it was about: Don cannot give Peggy confidence and Peggy cannot give Don integrity; both of them have to earn it for themselves. We wanted to bring it back to a place where Peggy did it her way and Don did something — [giving her the Burger Chef pitch] wasn’t a huge sacrifice, but it certainly wasn’t the old Don. A lot of the tension [of the season] comes from watching Don trying to work his way up in his own business, and you don’t believe it’s going to work out, because it’s Mad Men and something horrible always happens. I wanted to take advantage of that.
2001: A Space Odyssey seemed to be a big influence this season. Can you talk about the introduction of the computer at this point in the show and is the message that technology is the enemy of creative work?
The surface interpretation that I wanted to show was that the people who are there are quite aware that this computer coming in is going to change their life, and it’s not all positive. It does the work of lots of people, and even though it’s made by people, it’s a terrifying thing. Looking back at the people at the time we think, Oh my God, they didn’t know. They knew. It’s a temptation to have everything depend on it [now]. We love our computers, we have them in our pockets, I’m talking to you on one right now, it’s 90 percent of my entertainment. But in its giant bulky form, it was something very much related to work life. As much as discovering the world was round it reframed man’s place in the universe. It made some things seem like they were happening outside of us.
The 2001 part of it … Erin Levy, who wrote that script, gave it the title “The Monolith.” She was actually thinking of it as a big rock that people prayed to and was not really into 2001. I’m a huge Kubrick fan and loved the idea, but the only other reference that’s in there is Ginsberg’s paranoia about the computer. He’s definitely seen that movie. There are plenty of people who saw that movie. It’s a horror movie, but at the same time it ends with something beautiful, which is somebody falling into a new form. I’m always interested in what makes people afraid and what they adjust to. For somebody [the computer] is terrible, for Harry it’s the greatest thing ever. What you can see so far, which I’m very proud of and was done with the help of our great advertising consultants Josh Weltman and Bob Levinson and the writers’ room, is we have told the story of the advertising business in those years between 1960 and 1969. The mergers, the boutiques, the going public and the buyout. The computer was a big part of that.
Ginsberg was very affected by this computer. Was that mental imbalance there from the beginning?
I thought so. I was surprised some people were shocked about it. I guess you spend time with somebody and you don’t expect it, but part of that story was it’s been right there in front of you the whole time. The fact that he focused on the computer is something to be investigated when you talk about the history of schizophrenia. Before there were computers, there were still people who had this disease, who were getting messages from whatever, [but] technology is definitely something that they focus on because it’s outside and it’s huge.
If you remember, right before the Manischewitz pitch, Bob Benson talked [Ginsberg] out of something. And there was his conversation about being a Martian, his behavior. I suppose it’s a cliché that creative genius is sometimes tied to this type of personality. Even if it’s not genius those of us who work in creative fields know they’re filled with people like Ginsberg, sometimes they make it and sometimes they don’t. The thing that’s the hardest to explain about the show, and I think people know on an intuitive level when they watch it, is that it’s not all cause and effect. Things happen because they’re inevitable. If you binge-watch 90 hours of the show, you will not be surprised that Ginsberg is somebody’s who’s mentally ill. It’s tied into his sexual frustration, which is a big part of him giving the “gift” to Peggy.
It feels like you’ve intentionally brought some of these stories, like Ginsberg’s, to an end. How important is it to you to give each of the core characters something big to do before the end?
The challenge for the season and ending the show is that it’s new ground for me. I’ve never done it before, the writers have never done it before. I was not involved in the end of The Sopranos; I was a soldier, not a general. Everybody does it in their own way. What you don’t want is a bunch of [scenes] checking in with people. The challenge is to continue to tell a story and hopefully people will feel that way when they see the second half of the season. All I can say is this split-season thing has made us really focus on the main characters, and there’s more story left to tell.