TV Club

Mad Men writers: Pete, Don, Richard Speck, and Charles Whitman

Two Mad Men writers on the origins of “Mystery Date” and “Signal 30.”

Hi Patrick, Julia, and John,

Thanks for inviting us. It’s a pleasure for us to contribute to this venture, even though we’re not avid readers (see answer No. 2).

1. With regards to Patrick’s first question, when the Mad Men writing room opens at the start of each season, we go into research mode.  That means we spend a good chunk of time digging in to the historical events of the year and the cultural trends. Matthew Weiner always has a solid idea of the emotional condition he wants to put Don and the other characters in, so we learn everything we can about the psychological and sociological realities of the time with respect to that. It’s a pretty gargantuan task, as you can imagine, and at this point we have staff within the writers’ office to help. In early seasons, it was all on the writers’ shoulders. 

This process continues through the story-breaking, for several months, and it influences how we form the season arc as well as the individual episodes.  But: History in no way dictates what any given story will be.   First, we’re making entertainment, not a documentary, and second, we always start with character: What’s Don feeling, why is Peggy unhappy, what does Pete need? Then, we will look at the historical events around the time period of the episode being broken, and if something has occurred that can thematically resonate, we’ve struck gold. We would say it’s mostly planned, part serendipity.

Mad Men.
Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) in Mad Men

Ron Jaffe/AMC.

The stories for “Mystery Date” and “Signal 30” morphed out of the repressed anger and violence our male characters had been carrying. Matt was very interested in the concentration of evil that happened in America during the summer months of 1966 starting with race riots and escalating with the Speck murders and the Texas tower shooting. Those events spoke thematically to the emotional condition of Don, Pete, and Lane—also to some extent Joan, having been victimized by her marriage to Greg. So, the violence men have within themselves became the thematic link between the fictional storyline and the real-life events of the time period.  It’s part of the joy of our job in building the season.  We get to re-examine historical events, not only the big milestones but also delicious small events, and repurpose them to serve the stories we want to tell on the show.

2. The great thing about working on a show like MM is that it’s a purely selfish endeavor.  Our “handlers” allow us enough freedom that we actually write our stories for our own gratification. It’s a very rare and unique atmosphere with minimal interference from the outside, and we know how fortunate we are.  We are all well aware that this freedom will never happen again in our careers.  Perhaps that’s why we take such care and sweat in fashioning these stories.  For all of us, it’s a work of love.  And we know we’re working on borrowed time.

Not that we don’t care about the fans. And we’d be lying if we didn’t share the fact that we do take a media pulse from time to time.  We do relish the attention, but we take care that the “critique” does not ruin our objective.  Everything in moderation. Fortunately, we are a stubborn bunch. And thankfully, as well, we benefit from the fact that by the time the episode airs, the work for the season has been done and locked—nothing can be changed.

The thing to keep in mind as a writer is that no one knows anything. There is no magic formula in this business. Abuse, failure, rejection, humiliation and, ultimately, self-loathing is part of the game. No matter how much research, soul-searching, and expert opinion goes in, ultimately, every series is a shot in the dark. There are no guarantees. The best thing is to be a pigheaded, egotistical bastard and shut the world out. Write to please yourself. The hell with the others.  In the end, you (and your mom) are the only critic that really matters.  As Mrs. Blankenship once said:  “This is a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are.”

Cheerfully yours,
André and Maria