This interview contains spoilers for the mid-season premiere of Mad Men.
“I forgot how fast time moves when you’re not working!” laughed Matt Weiner, easing into a plush sofa in the lobby of the L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills. Time may have passed in a flash for Weiner, who long ago wrapped production on his landmark series Mad Men, but fans of the show have had to wait a whole ten months in between episodes, since the show’s final season was split in two by AMC. The first of Mad Men’s last seven installments, “Severance,” aired last night, and it’s a bright return to business for the suddenly flush folks at Sterling Cooper & Partners, featuring old flames (like Don’s deceased former lover Rachel, who appears to him in a dream), new developments (Ken Cosgrove is fired, though he soon gets his revenge), and all sorts of groovy new facial hair as the series finally enters the 1970s. Read on as Weiner dissects the premiere and teases what’s to come in the show’s final episodes.
Tell me about the decision to bring Rachel back.
I love the cosmic coincidence of Rachel coming into Don’s life. I do believe that she’s been on his mind.
And certainly the audience’s mind.
Certainly the audience’s mind. Yes, maybe the idea of putting the pantyhose in department stores made him think of her, but maybe he’s also been thinking of her while he’s been indulging in all these carnal delights. We don’t know if that dream of his happened before or after she died, but honestly, I believe that people have dreams about people when they die. If someone tells me they had a dream about me, I get really nervous. I’m not kidding!
The women that flit through Don’s life this season—and I’m including the first half of the season in this assessment—are often quite literally femme fatales: Neve Campbell’s character was a widow, Rachel has passed away, and the waitress in the new episode has a nickname, Di, that’s a phonetic match for … well, you know.
That’s true! Don’t you think Don Draper has a type? And if you’ll recall, when he was on drugs, he said to Moira, “Don’t I know you?” Because she looks a lot like Sylvia, who looks a lot like that prostitute he lost his virginity to. What does that sort of woman provide for him? Is it love? Is it comfort? Is it like All That Jazz, where it’s death itself that he’s in love with? I think that he wants to live, and he’s afraid of his mortality, but I’m glad you brought up the scene with Neve Campbell’s character. When you see the season as a whole, without ten months stretching out between episodes seven and eight, that encounter will seem very important. And it’s important because that woman has everything that Don Draper loves, and his resistance of her shows his attempt to recommit to his marriage, and his attempt to become a better person in some way.
He’s notably uncommitted in the new episode, though.
But at the height of that particular sexual revolution, he’s contemplating more things than just the ocean of cash that they got [from the McCann Erickson deal]. It’s a lot of money, and I’ve gone out of my way to show that, like with the comparison between the $11 check and the $100 tip.
That would be a huge tip even today. Back then, I can only imagine.
I can’t even explain to people how much money it was. I mean, ham and eggs, in 1969, was 25 cents. They all have so much bounty now after the McCann deal; one of the greatest concerns of all of our lives has been removed for them. Material security has been provided for these people, and Don seems to be the only one who’s wondering what else there is. That’s what the song is about.
How long have you wanted to use “Is That All There Is?” on Mad Men, Matt?
I’ve been living with that song! [Laughs.] I actually thought about using it for the theme song for the show, but then when I looked at the dates, it was one of those things—like with “You Only Live Twice”—where I was surprised to find it came out in 1969. But the sentiment is very symbolic of the end of a decade that saw material success coupled with life and death.
I felt the cash windfall most acutely in Joan’s scenes. Obviously, it’s clear how rich she’s become when she goes shopping and buys every dress in sight, but Peggy also brings it up in the elevator confrontation, after Joan’s been humiliated by the men at McCann Erickson.
I want to pat the director, Scott Hornbacher, on the back for really pulling off a great episode, but I also have to compliment our guest actors. The guys who are at the McCann office are so good. The joy they got out of embarrassing these women … I applaud them for making it that much more uncomfortable. But I think it’s important to make the distinction that it’s not a ghetto mentality when Peggy and Joan are turning on each other. What is Joan supposed to do? Is she physically not allowed to be a businessperson? On the other hand, why is she doing it? That’s what Peggy’s attitude is. Peggy’s not doing it for money—gimme a break.
Elisabeth Moss killed me in this episode. She’s so good, and I think that Peggy might be the thing I miss most when this show goes off the air.
I cannot weigh in on that, because I love all my children, but I do enjoy writing for her, and I thought she was really funny in this episode. I particularly like her commitment to being a wet blanket. That scene with Mathis, where he’s trying to do her a favor by setting her up … she’s a pain in the ass! And that made me really happy.
Obviously, the last scene with Ken is enormously crowd-pleasing …
And I loved that. I don’t think we get a lot of fist-pump moments on Mad Men.
… And yet I couldn’t help but feel this pang of regret even as he gets his revenge. He was so close to getting out of that world entirely to pursue his dream of becoming a writer, and then he ended up taking another soul-sucking corporate job.
Can I tell you how happy it makes me to hear you say that? Especially because it’s so satisfying to hear him say, “Screw you,” I was worried that the audience would miss the fact that he had completely given up on his dream. And it wasn’t as though he was forced into it, either: His wife supported his dream, and he chose revenge. But maybe he wasn’t meant to be a writer. If you can be talked out of it so easily, why are you doing it?
Writers can be talked out of a lot of things. Writers can talk themselves out of a lot of things, too.
That’s true. But in the end, you don’t end up writing because someone begs you to. You just have to do it. People have a lot of excuses as to why they haven’t achieved their dreams, and from what I can tell from the outside, a lot of times they are very close to it and yet still have some sort of excuse. I’ve even worked with people who are unwilling to take the risks associated with being embarrassed and failing at something. But I’m not judging anyone who has to make ends meet and cannot pursue their dream. Lots of dreams are given up for financial necessity, and believe me, I know that: I lived off my wife for the first five years of my career.
I want to talk about all the mustaches. I about died when Ted came in with one.
Do you know what? Someday, someone will be looking at the pictures from 2015 and laughing at all the beards. The insanity! I’m talking about spectacular, hillbilly, hipster beards—and even your obstetrician might have one.
The mustaches are a reminder of how much time has passed since the last episode …
… Although they practically sprung up overnight. I don’t know if people are aware of the time passage between episodes, but we made it exactly the amount of time we were off the air: We left off in July of 1969, and we come back in April of 1970. What’s happened in the culture during that time is that the hippie aesthetic that’s been going on since 1966 has reached its way to the masses.
How did you decide which characters to give the mustaches to?
Well, we’ve toyed with Roger’s mustache a couple of times, but we had to wait until there was a mustache that looked good on him. John Slattery doesn’t look good with a white, trimmed mustache—it’s just too Larry Tate. This soup-strainer thing that’s going on is much more appropriate for him. And I just felt that Ted, who’s newly single with a bachelor pad, will do everything he can to appear hip.
And yet Don remains steadfastly immune to all that facial hair. He won’t even cop to sideburns.
His hair is longer. And he’s wearing a colored shirt! To me, this is not a symbol of Don being out of touch, it’s a symbol of timelessness. I also love Pete’s look, with the comb-over. He looks like he works for John Ehrlichman. The cowlick, the fat tie—I love it.
I continue to be impressed by the lengths Vincent Kartheiser will go to for the diminishing physical appearance of his character.
Although I’m not sure if anything’s worse than the bangs Peggy wore for the first few seasons.
I’m sure Elisabeth Moss doesn’t miss those.
You know what? She was so onboard with those! The actors love it. Every time there’s something that we find embarrassing, it’s juicy screen time and story for them. Like, aside from the fact that it was his last episode, the one where Joel Murray [who plays Freddie Rumsen] pees in his pants was something to pee his pants about, you know? Jared [Harris] was the same way. He loved his suicide story line—it’s just that leaving the show was hard. It’s actually been a bit of a lesson to me: A lot of these actors are in each episode and they have a few scenes, but it’s not the same to them as having a real story.
That’s interesting. I felt that while watching Ken’s story line in the new episode: This might be the last time we see him on this series, but at least he’s going out with a bang.
You know what, I did not know the hierarchy of who would be appearing in the finale, at all. Everybody knew that they were gonna go eventually, and as people started to have their last episodes—and I’m not going to reveal to you whether Ken’s has even happened yet—I never told anybody unless I was sure [they weren’t going to appear in the finale], so that we could have a ceremony for them. Everyone wanted to be in the finale, everyone wanted to be in the last shot, but … well, that’s not my problem. [Laughs.]
Was the last shot of the series the last thing that was filmed?
Was it something incredibly minor, then?
It wasn’t minor. It wasn’t minor at all. But there were scenes that weren’t even in the finale that were being shot during those last few days, because before I lost all my sets and actors forever, I had to make sure I didn’t need anything extra. I directed the last two episodes, too. I just wanted to be there. I wanted to be on that set as much as possible, and I wanted to be in the writers’ room as much possible. Looking back, when all of those milestones happened—particularly finishing the first draft of the finale—I was like, “I’m gonna sit here and enjoy this for a second,” because it’s hard to really experience a lot of that stuff when you’re busy working every day. Some of the actors had their last scenes together and didn’t even know it, you know what I mean? I didn’t want them to play it.
What did you learn about yourself as a showrunner after all these years?
I want to point out one thing: The term “showrunner” is really foreign to me. It just feels like an agent term. I’m a writer-producer, and the “showrunner” thing takes away the creative part of it, to me—it sounds too managerial. But I did learn about being a boss, which might sound worse to some people but sounds better to me.
The term “showrunner” might have noncreative connotations, but that’s exactly why I’m curious about it: What is it like for a creative person to run an entire enterprise like this?
I had so much help running the enterprise. I could never sign a check to the studio for $300,000, you know? That would literally keep me up at night. Signing off on a budget, having a conversation with the studio where you promise this is what it’s gonna cost … that’s a scary job. But I think there was a bit of maturity for me, in the end, in realizing that the show always wins. With my emotions, I’m a soft touch in a lot of ways, but I wasn’t as easily manipulated in the end to give people everything they want.
Are you talking about the audience?
No, I’m talking about in the workplace. It’s hard to be the boss. I’ve written a lot about it! It’s hard to fire the first person you fire—it’s hard to do that every time, actually. That is one of the worst parts of your job, and if I could give it away, I would have, but then I realized you’d feel horrible if someone else did it, because you’d have deprived someone of a lot more than a job. I learned to be patient, and not just with people finding their way. This is not a mark of intelligence, this is a mark of information: I am extremely ahead of a lot of people in conversation when we’re working, because I know a lot of stuff they don’t. And not just about story or logistics—about everything! You work on a script or story for three months and then you hand it to somebody and they have 24 hours with it, and you’re like, “Why don’t they get it?” Well, guess what! A) You might not have achieved what you want to do in terms of clarity, and b) why don’t you wait and see what they find on their own?
And then they might surprise you with their interpretation.
A perfect example of that is the scene with Peggy and Mathis, where she says, “I will go out with him.” Mathis’s entire attitude of disrespectful admiration, and her attitude of prissy wishy-washiness, where she’s the boss but she’s lowering herself to go on this date … that was the dynamic of the scene on some level, but I didn’t write any of that. I wrote a thing where she egged him on and he tried to please her, and the actors turned it into something real. If I had been impatient, that never would have happened.
Obviously you know these characters inside and out, to a degree that’s formidable. But did you ever have actors telling you things like, “I don’t think my character would do this?”
Never. Never, ever, ever.
That’s a rarity.
It is a rarity, and you know what? I’m not gonna say nobody ever felt that. What’s interesting to me is that Jon Hamm—the leader on the set, No.1 on the call sheet—led the way by not ever having any problems with what I wrote. And I don’t mean that he liked everything or enjoyed playing it or thought it was the best place for Don to go, but yeah, no one ever said, “My character wouldn’t do this.” It reminds me of something that was attributed to David Chase: Apparently, one of the actors on The Sopranos said, “My character wouldn’t say that,” and he replied, “Who said it was your character?” [Laughs.] I never had that attitude … but I never had to, and that’s miraculous. And I think the actors would agree. They definitely thought I was picky and vague, I will say that. I was frustrating to work for because I don’t talk this much when I’m directing, and I’m not always articulate about what I want. “Just do it again” is not something that an actor wants to hear. That’s a criticism.
The last time we really talked, it was on a very fraught weekend. Your movie Are You Here had just come out. You had just watched the first cut of the series finale. And your oldest son, Marten, was heading to college in a few days.
I survived that, yeah. I had one of the characters on the show quote Balzac once: “Our worst fears lie in anticipation.” It was totally okay! It was all right. It was also Emmy weekend, and I was pretty sure how that was going to go down. You go to that party and you’re kind of treated like royalty, even though the awards don’t necessarily lay out the way we want. We’re always treated as if we’ve won, which is very nice … although there is a big difference. [Laughs.] But dropping my kid off at college was really hard. It totally hit us by surprise.
What part of it surprised you?
Just the emotional thing of it. The college really just wants you to dump them there. They’re like, “You can start unloading at eight, and you have to be off campus by four.” We held on to it for a long time, and then we went on vacation to New York for the next few days with our three remaining children. It was very emotional—there was a real sense of loss and change, and we didn’t have any communication with him for about three or four days. Other people’s kids were texting them, and we had to hear about it. That was worse, in a way. But he’s always been like that—very independent—and he’s doing well, he’s got a girlfriend. And he came home for Christmas for a very long time. That was interesting, because I had just left my office, which was the most emotional part of this entire [final season].
I thought you’d convinced the studio to let you keep your office!
They told me I could stay there indefinitely, but then I didn’t want to live in a Mad Men museum. I thought it was best to pack it up and make a clean break, but now I know that whatever experience the actors had on the last day of shooting, I did not have until I moved out of that office. Part of it is that you go from having hundreds of people working there, and by the end of it, it’s me, my assistant Heather, a friend of mine from college, and a couple of P.A.s packing up my stuff.
That reminds me of something you said while introducing the new episode at its big gala premiere in Los Angeles. It was a glamorous and crowded party, and you took it all in and said, “Once this is all over, I’m a writer alone at his computer again.” I thought that was awfully poignant.
Look, you’ve seen the show. You know I enjoy emotion, and catharsis, and things like that. But saying that at the premiere, while it might have been depressing on some level, was not an expression of desperation or sadness … it was about the beauty of it. Writing is free, and you can think something up that could generate seven years of employment for a thousand people. So for me, it was more like, “Look what you can do with a seed! You can grow a forest.”
And you certainly did.
And now, with the show over, I’m a seed again. But maybe now I’m a seed with a better idea of how to germinate.