The Mind Behind "Mad Men"

Will Sterling Cooper move to L.A.? Are Don and Betty unraveling? Creator Matthew Weiner on what's in store for TV's best show

By |

Season Two of TV's hottest show ended with Betty pregnant and Don taking off for L.A. as Cuba took aim at the U.S. So where will Mad Men go next? Creator Matthew Weiner tells Rolling Stone about Season Three and the inspirations behind the show's twists and turns. Plus, check out the rest of the shows hitting the small screen during Cable's Bold Summer.

You've talked about how Season Two took place during this bubble of optimism and prosperity — that 1962 was Camelot. And then, during the season finale, the Cuban Missile Crisis bursts that bubble. Is this the beginning of some kind of great unraveling for Don and Betty?
Yeah, it was Camelot, but we didn't know it at the time. Here's what our cultural history has done with that year: Hairspray, Animal House and American Graffiti were all set in 1962. Our cultural history sees that year as this innocent time, right before the JFK assassination. Aside from the assassination, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the defining moment of the Sixties. There was a cultural realization of mortality. The response I got from people who saw the show, was that people remembered how overwhelming it was. I do a lot of revisionist history in the show where I go back and talk to people who were there. You find out that the individual experiences of what's going on in history are very different from the way history is told, to the point that people actually remember details wrong. It really was a time of panic. Some people responded to it like, "I don't care, there's nothing I can do about it." And other people were like, "Oh my God, we need more canned food." And some people were like, "The world's gonna end tomorrow, so let's just live it up." So for Don and Betty, it's like, here's this solar eclipse, the rules don't apply, so I'm going to finally tell the truth for this moment in time. And on a show like this where people never really get to talk to each other in a direct way, it was a great device.

How would you characterize how the culture of the Sixties changed after the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK's assassination?
I'm still figuring that out. I'm not going to give a history lesson. I look at it like this: What are you going to say about what happened on September 11? We don't even know what impact it's had on us yet. All I know is that I expected everyone to be drawn back to the substance of life, and to cherish their existence, and instead we got a 10-year shopping boom. I guess at the end of the day, the historical perspective of the show is that September 11 was a devastating moment, but if you were going through a divorce at that time, that's what you're going to remember.

Right, like Betty in the season finale. The world is ending, and all she can think about is how she's going to deal with being pregnant.
Yeah, when she and Francine are in the beauty parlor, talking about getting an abortion, everyone else is talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Betty's like, I don't care, I have a real problem. I think personal problems always supersede everything else. But I do feel like all of that helped her sleep with that man in that bar. She's pregnant, and for someone who's dealing with the reality of birth control back then, being pregnant actually makes her somewhat free. Her husband has cheated on her and now wants her back. And she's without her kids. And the world is coming to an end. And she's drunk. It's a perfect storm.

But she also knows Don is coming home. Don is an existential hero. He's the kind of American that many of us recognize in our dads but also comes from a very specific literary tradition. He has an ambiguous identity and he's a self-made man and he went out there and confronted his past. He has this realization that he really does want that life with Betty and the children, that he's been striving his whole life to have that. He wants to assimilate into the culture and that's strong enough to bring him home.

Don gets a Tarot card from Anna Draper, and she tells him he's not alone in the world. Is it true that you got the same Tarot card reading once?
Yes. A friend gave me that reading in real life, but I also do Tarot readings online sometimes. Whenever you talk about Tarot cards and psychics, you sound like a nut, but I use Tarot cards as a kind of Rorschach test for my life. I do believe in fate and I do believe in coincidence and I find that when something's on my mind creatively, it tends to explode all over my life. So when I got this reading that said, "You are trying to be strong, but the truth is, you are pushing everyone away," I looked at the cards and I said, This is me, but this is also Don — it's a lot of men. Then there's that moment afterward when Don goes into the ocean and is baptized. I put that George Jones song in there, "A Cup of Loneliness," which is really an evangelical song about finding Jesus through the pain in your life. It felt very much like Don, who comes from this rural poverty. I'm not part of that evangelical tradition, but I really identify with it. I think everyone wants a second chance and sometimes you have to go to the bottom to get it.

When Don finally goes home, the house is full, which mirrors the first season when he goes home and the house is empty.
That wasn't an accident. You know, I directed that episode and there's a shot when Don comes in through the kitchen door, you can hear the kids say, "Daddy!" It's a direct echo of that moment in the first season. And he sits down and Betty gives him this little look, and it's like, Has he been there all along? Can he just sit right back down as if he's been there all along? I wonder.

It's also interesting that both seasons end with a baby, the first with Peggy having a baby and the second with Betty getting pregnant.
Yeah there's also irony there, because they made that baby in a moment of weakness for Betty, and yet she is the one determining whether or not this relationship will go on by whether or not that baby will be there.

Was it also intentional to have her get pregnant at her father's place? There is so much emphasis on the idea that Betty is a child in the first season and a teenager in the second.
That moment at the father's place, she regressed to her childhood home, and she makes Don sleep on the floor, and then she realizes that at this moment she needs to be with him. For me, that's a story about Betty growing up.

So much of Mad Men is about growing up, how that's all about what our relationships are to our parents and our children. Kindergarten and play dates have existed for a long time, but as wealthy people started raising their own children more, and as children didn't have to work all of the time, there was a shift to modernity that included a greater focus on child-rearing. It was huge in Victorian times. Even with the waves of infant mortality, there's Halloween and birthday parties and all of this stuff as children become more of a focus. By the early Sixties there was so much more attention that was allowed to be paid to children. They were the main focus on television, commercially, with the Doctor Spock books. And all of the child-rearing focus that went on in the United States was a really big part of the rebellion of the late Sixties.

That's interesting for Peggy, who gives up her baby and goes back to work. In that speech she gives in the season finale, she talks about losing a part of herself, but I don't think she's talking about the baby.
You know, that scene was something that my wife wrote, and when she gave it to me I thought, Don is going to say this when he's in California. And then I thought, no, it's female, Betty's going to say this before Don comes back to her. And then I thought, no, Peggy's going to say this. The thing about loss, yeah, it has nothing to do with the baby. Peggy had once been so in love with Pete — you look at the first season and she pulls his postcard off the door. But he treated her very badly and she had to deal with this baby the whole time on her own. So when he comes to her and tells her he loves her, that time for that had passed.

You know my original intention with Peggy was to tell this story about this woman gaining weight at work. And that stress of that, but also how it meant that she wouldn't be sexualized, so that she wouldn't have to deal with that shit — she could be one of the guys. And now the second season, she's ready to be one of the guys, but she's also got this horrible scar of having that baby.

Tell me about the Mad Men logo. I have this theory about Don's silhouette: you see him from the back, and he has his arm over the chair. And then you see him in one episode watching a foreign movie in that position, and it made me think, This is a show about watching people play roles, like in a movie.
Alan Taylor, who shot the pilot, his opening scene was the back of Don's head. I'm not sure if it was Wong Kar Wai who influenced him or what, but Alan Taylor is really into the backs of people's heads, even more than the fronts of their heads. The graphics people who did the opening titles, they're the ones who said this is the image. It's the iconography of Movie Hero or Leading Man, but Don Draper is a disaster inside. And that's what that pose was about and that's what the show was about. You'll notice that in "The Jet Set" when Don's figuring out who he really is out in California, there's a shot that's a mirror image of that iconography, except Don is naked, sitting on the couch.

Speaking of California, as the Sixties go on, obviously the nexus of culture is moving from New York to San Francisco. Will there be an L.A. office of Sterling Cooper?
I can't tell you if we're going to go to California in Season Three, but as a show, we're following how the Sixties were about the rise of Los Angeles and the decline of New York. People talk about San Francisco but it was really Los Angeles, and I wanted to show that. In 1960, New York is the center of everything, and by 1975 New York is bankrupt and by 1977 it's the most dangerous place in the United States. In Los Angeles, there were the Watts riots and obviously a lot of economic turmoil there, but at the same time, every cultural aspect that dominated the United States in the Sixties was coming from there, whether it was hot rods or roller disco. Also, I always want the audience to be worried that I'm going to pick up and move the show somewhere. Because, you know, I might.

So, the Beatles will be on Ed Sullivan in 1964 and this English company is merging with Sterling Cooper. Will Season Three be the British Invasion season?
Well, I know it's been leaked that I've hired some British actors, but remember, no one ever said that that merger went through. That meeting didn't go that well.

We picked the British because that was the rising tide at the time. America's dominance of Europe lasted until very recently and even though there was the British invasion, what was going on in business all over the world was an imitation of what was going on in America in the 1950s. British advertising was much softer and more genteel, so as companies became international, they created these international divisions to learn how to sell American-style. Which is ironic because the most self-promoting and famous advertising man ever is David Ogilvy, who's from Great Britain.

But it immediately brings up what I'm interested in thematically: what it means to be an American. Whether it's in literature or art or business, we always have this insecurity about Europe. Ralph Waldo Emerson even wrote about it. But someone like Don, who's this self-made man with the American dream, he doesn't exist anywhere else. And we love people like Don.

If you move things to 1964, you'll have a lot to deal with: the Gulf of Tonkin, the Civil Rights Act.
I can't tell you what year it is in the next season. All I can tell you is that I'm interested in how our successes turn out to be failures and our failures turn out to be successes. And the next season to me is about change. They're all about change in a vague way, but the change I'm talking about is how people respond to a changing world — there's an energy of chaos. We're living through this right now. The past and future are existing at the same time. We're in a Great Depression and we're going to have to depend on the government in a way that reminds me of the New Deal.

Are you more compelled to write about smaller, forgotten historical moments that than, say, Vietnam or Civil Rights?
Well, we had this thing where we wanted to have Bobbie go to Jack Kennedy's birthday party at the Garden, and we wanted to end the episode with Marilyn singing to Kennedy, because the episode was all about how Don and Bobbie not getting caught having an affair. But then we had to figure out, did people know that Jack and Marilyn were together? People joked about it and gossiped about it, and two weeks later, Jackie wore the same dress that Marilyn had on, just to mock it. But the party was not on television, so I couldn't use it. No one saw her singing Happy Birthday! They read about it in the paper, but it wasn't even a scandal. Famous events are more about how they're perceived than what actually happened.