Photographer Alex Majoli has for years worked in some of the world's most unsettled regions, crafting powerful portraits of the lives of men, women and children in places like war-torn Afghanistan, post-genocide Rwanda, and the poverty-ravaged favelas of Rio. But Majoli recently turned his lens on a world unlike any he'd chronicled before -- namely, the tightly managed, downright secretive world behind the scenes of an acclaimed American TV show. The photographs seen here, made on the set of AMC's Mad Men during filming of its final season, are the result of a full day spent with the show's cast and crew. That Majoli was able to spend as much time as he did documenting what happens on a set as rigidly and famously controlled as Mad Men's -- before and after the cameras roll -- constitutes something of an entertainment coup.
"The whole shoot was fascinating," Majoli told Lightbox. "[The show's creator] Matthew Weiner is so meticulous in his job that you want to be equally diligent. It's all about trust -- the more trust you receive, the more responsible you feel to give it your very best.
"It was a privilege to be there," he continues, "but in a sense I only really realized that at the end of the day, driving back to my hotel. I had been concentrating so hard on not invading 'the environment' of the set, and was working so hard to make strong photos that would not reveal the storyline for the next season, that I was sort of oblivious to how fortunate I was to even be there."
One seemingly small detail of the shoot, meanwhile -- considered in retrospect -- reveals just how open Weiner and the crew were to helping make Majoli's assignment a success.
"I work with flashes, and some people were bothered by them. But right away Matthew Weiner announced to the whole crew that I -- and my flashes, of course -- had full access. From that moment, not only was it easy for me to move around, but cameramen and others were curious about what kind of images I was making. As for the actors, they come on set when everything is ready and then leave immediately after the scene is done, so I didn't really interact with them very much at all."
In the end, Majoli's marvelous black and white portraits of Hamm, Moss, Hendricks, Slattery and the rest harken back to those long-ago years when photographers routinely chronicled the off-camera lives of the stars and, every once in a while, given enough time, came away with pure gold.
Alex Majoli is a photographer with Magnum
Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com