By the time Mad Men ends next year – the final season, which debuts on Sunday April 13th on AMC, will be split into two Breaking Bad-style runs – there will have been 92 episodes of unmatched TV, covering the entirety of the 1960s. Though the series has focused on an advertising agency and the people who work there, according to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, the show has always been more about the lessons of that era, from the British Invasion through the crashing of the counterculture wave with the election of Richard Nixon. But we still want to know: Did Don Draper really lose his job? What’s happening with Peggy Olsen? When does the new season even take place? In the run-up to the premiere, Weiner called in from his Los Angeles office to break down where the show’s been and where it’s going.
The last season ended in the Autumn of 1968, and you’ve said the new season takes place in the late 1960s. So there can’t have been a very big jump between the end of last season and the beginning of the new season, can there?
Well, I mean, what’s a big jump? The longest we ever went was a year. So…yes, it takes place in the late Sixties. It’s not, like, going into the Eighties. [Laughs]
You’ve also said two other things: That you have very little idea of what’s going to happen at the beginning of the writing of the season, but that you know how the whole series will end. So how much of the writing of Season Seven was sort of turning the show to the place that you knew it was going?
Well, I don’t have any idea when I end a season what the next season is going to be. But I generally start the season knowing exactly how it’s going to end. That is all I have, usually: a kind of trajectory of, “We’re going to start at this point, and it’s going to get to this point. These are the last images for each of the characters.”
That’s usually how we start a season, and then I have this amazing writing staff that helps me get there. So this season, I did have one of those images that I’ve had, basically, since between Seasons Four and Five. And it’s there, we’re doing it. [Laughs] But it will probably be like it always is: I’ll get to writing the finale, and I’ll try and back out of it. And then the writing staff will say, “We spent the entire year working up to this, you better do it.”
Did the fact that AMC is airing it in two parts change the way you thought about the shape of the season?
Yes. But what I discovered was that I wasn’t that worried about it. Because we always have the season split into two pieces, in our mind. There’s always a climax at the midpoint. Last year, the seventh hour of the show was the merger. So if we had stopped and gone off the air for a year in between the merger and the next episode, I think that it would’ve been a sufficient cliffhanger.
But what really happened is…let’s put it this way: I realized that the 10-month gap between Episode Seven and Episode Eight meant that Episode Seven better have a little bit of a finale to it, and Episode Eight better be a bit of a premiere.
It was more work, and challenging, but I think, creatively, it was kind of invigorating. I hope the audience feels that way, but from our end of it, it was definitely a good thing to have. A good shake-up.
Did you pay attention to how Breaking Bad handled the same thing?
No, because they did it very differently. They had a year off [of shooting] between each half, and I’m doing all of this at once. But I did, obviously, pay attention to Breaking Bad; it’s a great show, and Vince is very talented. But the whole reason we’re splitting the season like this is because it was tremendously successful for the network.
And were you ever resistant to the idea?
No, it’s not really up to me, believe it or not. I have a lot of control, and I certainly am given a lot of freedom creatively. But that was not up to me, and when I saw what happened with Breaking Bad, how could you argue with them? Honestly, part of me thinks, as a viewer: Let it go on a little bit longer.
One new thing that happened this season is that Robert Towne, the legendary screenwriter of everything from Chinatown to Mission: Impossible, joined the writers’ room. What did he bring to it?
He’s brought a lot to it. He’s one of the greatest living screenwriters, if not the greatest, and he has a lot of story to contribute. Everyone in the room works harder, because we want to impress him. And you have someone in the room who, like all great writers, can think on a very personal level. It’s not about flash. And when we get down to the nitty gritty of what we’re writing about here, when Robert likes it, I know it’s good.
Did John Slattery or Jon Hamm direct any of the last episodes? Or will they?
No, they won’t, actually. Jon Hamm has decided not to. He had a project that led right up to the episode that he could direct. Because, you know, Jon works 15 hours a day on set, so carving out a time for him to direct is tough. And John Slattery, I think, was scheduled [to direct], but I think that his movie premiere is going to interfere with that. He just made a feature film [God’s Pocket] that we’re all very excited about.
At the end of the last episode of Season Six, you have Don basically lose everything.
But it ends on this slight hopeful note. So where is he? Are the epiphanies and insight that he gained at the end of last season different than the other times in the show that we’ve seen him seem to get some kind of self-knowledge — and then forget about it very quickly?
Well, you know, life is like that. But it was such a journey through last season to get him to earn that moment of him being honest with his daughter, to earn that moment of him coming clean in that Hershey meeting. It was definitely a puncturing of his façade to the world, which is kind of the definition of Don Draper, that confident façade.
I hope that last season reflected contemporary anxieties about the façade of the United States being punctured, and certainly used 1968 as an example of that kind of challenge to the image of the country and the world. But when we got to the end of it, the part of the story that I was telling was that after, the revolution did not take hold. Nixon ended up the president, the Russians rolled into Czechoslovakia, the students in Paris were struck down, the Chicago convention resolved the way it did. Mexico City ended in bloodshed. This international revolution sort of went back to whatever it went back to.
So for me, to put Don into this personal moment of reconciliation, it was a big moment for him. And we…the writing staff and myself enjoy treating every finale like it’s the end of the series. So we paint ourselves into a corner, and we commit to these disasters or resolutions.
You can look at all of the finales, they all have that air of, like, “This is the end of the story.” What was interesting about this one is that when we came back to do the new season, it was, “Okay, we have all of these problems. We know we’re going to take them seriously.” Part of what’s interesting to me about this story is that it’s about the consequences of all of that, you know? Don may have had this moment of change – and I won’t say how much it stuck to him, but it was real. What are the repercussions of his activities? What are the consequences? Is it irrevocable, what he’s done? That’s a great place to start a story.
One of the other things that the last episode seemed to be saying something about is family and children. There are these unusually tender moments with Pete saying goodbye to his daughter, and Roger becoming part of his son’s life, as well as Don’s moment with Sally. Is that one of the themes of the next season?
I’m not going to tell the same story that I told before. We did end those people in those places for a reason. You know, the chaos of that year is going to…we’re going to move forward in time some amount. There is a product of that chaos, and what I’ve been interested in is we’ve kind of alternately told the story of Don Draper from inside Don’s head – from his point of view – to also seeing him moving through the world. And it’s almost worked that way by the season. Some seasons are very internal, and some seasons are very external.
What I was interested in this season was the sort of contrast between the material and the immaterial world. The world of ambition, success, money – love, to some degree, for Don Draper – and the immaterial world, the things that we can’t see. That internal-external story has really taken precedence in these last 14 episodes.
In the past, Don’s drug experiences, for instance, haven’t exactly resulted in the doors of perception opening for him. Like during his hash overdose, he sort of had this really retrograde fantasy.
So is he capable of catching up to the world? Despite the fact that a lot of the counterculture’s gains seemed to be washed away in 1968, were they really? A lot of progress continued to be made.
I take issue with the fact that I don’t think Don is out of touch at all with society. I think that society caught up to Don. What I was trying to show about 1968 was that the carnality, the violence, the insecurity, the anxiety — that’s Don’s wheelhouse. That is what Don has been trying to avoid in himself his entire life. Yes, he’s getting older, and he may be learning something and having a different relationship with a lot of things that got him to where he was, to the bind that he’s in.
But the story of the show is not about Don growing out of touch. To me, Don, creatively, is always going to be in touch. Is he aging? Yeah. Are young people running the world? But Don is not someone who is riding social trends. It’s kind of the secret to his genius, that it comes from him, and what he wants, as opposed to jumping on what the latest thing is.
Has the world become cruder?. Has it fallen apart from the apparent order that existed before that? You know, that’s the suggestion the Baby Boomers make. But I feel like it’s a part of the whole premise of the show, that this kind of social chaos and subversive mentality is part of the American culture.
Ok, sure, like the McCarthy hearings. It’s not hard to think of many awful chapters in even pretty recent history.
And Don is, you know, riding on one side or the other. That said, his personal life has been a disaster, and that is the story, that he definitely has gotten more in touch with himself, if anything, as the show has gone on. I don’t…the times are changing, and all of the things that go along with it. It definitely came to a head in 1968. And the world has been altered by various events that have happened in that 10-year period that we’ve tried to show on this show, whether it’s the missile crisis or the JFK assassination or the riots or the Texas shooting, in Austin.
Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy being shot within months of each other, and reading in the paper at the time about this huge move for gun control that could have been printed yesterday, and nothing happened. Here we are, our episode airs and Sandy Hook happens, like, the next day. Those kinds of things are kind of what I’m telling on the show, is that we live in a violent country. That cyclical nature of history, and how human life, being a person, doesn’t change. That’s been a lot of the story of the show.
Just as a practical matter, now that you’re finishing the show, how do you handle having so many more characters than you started with? Do you have to return the focus to the original characters?
That’s a great question. It’s exactly what you’d think. Whether we liked it or not, we have really focused on the main characters this season. There’s still digressions – I reserve the right to tell the story the way that we tell the story. But it really brings our main characters to the forefront. Somehow, 14 hours didn’t seem like that much when we started talking about everything we had left to do.
Just thinking about some of the story that’s left, it’s interesting by the end of last season everybody’s secrets are out in the open, with the exception of Peggy’s. Is that secret still left to be deployed in some way?
That’s an interesting thought. I’m not going to talk about the show, but it’s interesting, because it’s exactly what I was saying about consequences. It’s like, Don has told his secret over and over and over again, and it doesn’t seem to change anything. Look at what happened when he told the truth last year, you know? So that’s definitely some place that we get conflict from.
So was he fired?
[Long pause.] He was put on leave. It happened to Freddy Rumsen.
You know, the recent New York Magazine cover story posits that the show is in some way Peggy’s story. How much do you agree or disagree with that, and what do you think is interesting about that idea?
It’s very interesting to me. She’s a very important character. She’s introduced in the pilot as “the new girl,” and is sort of there to bring the audience into this world. She’s so important, and so much of Don’s story and her story are told in parallel to each other.
But the story derives from Don, for me, still. I mean, her growth has been incredible, and I love that she’s become a symbol, in a way. Because I don’t see her like that – she’s a person and a character.
Is there any other character who’s surprisingly important to you?
I always kind of see the world as being Sally Draper’s story in a strange way. We see so much of it through her eyes. And in the most abstract sense, that’s where I live. Because I wasn’t even born until 1965.
So is Sally going to run off to Woodstock in the final episode?
Is Sally going to go off to Woodstock? You know what, I’m just going to go on record as saying no. But when she grows up she’s going to tell everybody that she was there.