Inside 'Mad Men': A Fine Madness

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Jones, 32, grew up in South Dakota, acting out plays she wrote with her cousins and sisters before moving to New York and L.A. to try to make it as a model and an actress. "What else am I gonna do – waitress?" she says. "I can't even make toast!" But until Mad Men, her career wasn't going anywhere. "I was just disenchanted with the business," she says. "I'm auditioning for all these crap girlfriend roles, with nothing to do. There's no creative freedom, I'm not feeling fulfilled artistically – I'm done." That, she says, is why she and her cast-mates appreciate how lucky they are. Like Weiner, the man who sees himself in each of their characters, they know what it's like to go for years without a sliver of hope.

"For this to happen was a fluke," she says. "Every once in a while something like this happens magically, and we get to thrive from it. But especially in our case, no one is taking it for granted. And the reason for that is Matt's enthusiasm. When he found out I got an Emmy nomination, he ran up and picked me off the ground and said, 'Oh, my God! Are you excited? You better lie excited!' No one around here is at all jaded by what's happened – least of all Matt."

It's almost noon in Los Angeles, and Weiner is just showing up at the office. He stayed up late the night before to cut the script for Episode 11 – "It was huge," he explains – and he has already run the streamlined version by a woman in accounting. "I had to share it with somebody who didn't already know the story," he says. "That's how you know if it works."

He leads the way to the writers' room, which is connected to his office by a reception area. At the height of production – this week, the crew is editing Episode Eight, casting Episode 10, revising Episode 11 and working out the plot for Episode 12 – Weiner spends only an hour or two a day with the writers, though he seldom wanders out of shouting distance. The writers' room has a long table, a ratty love seat and three giant whiteboards covered with plot points and themes. The components of each episode are laid out on a system of colored index cards, each featuring a single word: SUBWAY, LUCKY STRIKE, SEX. "The cards are in code, so the actors don't know," Weiner says.

Weiner is obsessed with keeping the plotlines secret until they air. Each page of script that a writer brings home at night is stamped with their name, and they are required to shred them the following morning. When actors come in to audition, they are instructed to leave their "sides" – the script pages they read from – at the door. Fake character names are written into scenes, and contextualizing details are kept so scarce that even the actresses reading for the part of the black cocktail waitress can't tell which character will be addressing her as his "chocolate bunny."

"We realized that all the leaks happened whenever we would cast an episode," Weiner says. "The actors would immediately go update their IMDB page. But a lot of our commercial value comes from the audience having no idea what's going to happen." It's one of the rare times that Weiner sounds more like a suit than like a guy in creative.

Weiner likes to say that Mad Men is an exploration of identity – the gap, as one character puts it this season, between "what I want, versus what's expected of me." Yet all his characters manage to discover who they are only by slipping into disguises. They get paid not just to fulfill the greediest aspirations of American consumers but to feed them whole new fantasies, to put all sorts of desires into their heads. The current season's essence is summed up in the very first episode, when Draper mocks a couple of prudish swimsuit-company executives with an ad showing the lower half of a bikini babe and the slogan "So well-built, we can't show you the second floor." It applies to Don himself, and to the startup firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, an outfit that is all front and machismo. But it also applies to America. Mad Men's protagonists inhabit the forefront of the New Frontier and the Great Society, enjoying the era's emerging freedoms without facing any of the struggles or recriminations that lurk around the historical corner. The show's subtle confrontations with race, drugs and the still-nascent war in Vietnam hint at massive changes in American culture – changes that Mad Men's dream merchants are the last to see coming.

"A good advertising person is like an artist, channeling the culture," Weiner says. "As consumers, we think of advertising as this noise that gives us messages we don't want to hear. But the people who make it they're holding up a mirror, saying, 'This is the way you wish you were. This is the thing you're afraid of.' Don is just reflecting an idealized version of ourselves."

This season, Weiner has taken a step back from the broader themes, placing less attention on the world around Draper and more on his new life as a divorced man. "Don is getting older," he says, "and there's suddenly his inability to close deals" – with nosy reporters, with his ex-wife, with the nurse who lives across the hall from his dreary Greenwich Village bachelor pad. "It adds a layer of poignancy. I wanted to explore what it's like for a man my age to go through a divorce. I was really interested seeing how internal 1 can take the story." For the man who sees a reflection of himself in every character he has created – in Peggy's hesitancy, in Joan's confidence, in Betty's narcissism-Mad Men is ultimately an attempt to document the intimacy and desires that even a man as confused and divided as Don Draper discovers in the most unexpected places.

"Whenever people talk about movies, they ask how big a story has to be," Weiner says. "I'm like, 'How big is a story about two people? It's gigantic."

This story is from the September 16th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone

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