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Making History: A Q&A with Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner

23 minute read

In January, I spent a day on set in Los Angeles as Mad Men shot its final season, which begins its first half April 13. The result is the cover story in this week’s print TIME magazine, which looks at how Mad Men re-creates American history, and at the show’s place in TV history. As Don Draper once said of the Kodak carousel, it’s a time machine. And now it’s also a TIME machine.

You’ll need to subscribe to read the whole article–it’s easy! it’s a bargain!–but there’s also, free of charge, an excerpt of the piece and a gallery of our on-set photography, including a slideshow I narrated. And befitting this style-conscious drama, the images are absolutely drool-worthy. (The slideshow of vintage props and sets is my new favorite thing.)

[SPOILER, OR NON-SPOILER, ALERT: Though I saw some revealing details on-set about the coming season that I didn’t spill–and most Mad Men fans would not want me to–there’s very little in the way of spoilers in the piece, unless you consider naming cast members and acknowledging that the show still exists and is set in the past to be a spoiler.]

But wait! There’s more! I also interviewed creator Matthew Weiner in his office–a very long interview, only bits of which I could get into the article itself. Below is an excerpt (a long one, but still edited for length and clarity). You’ll find essentially nothing here about the upcoming season, because this is Matt Weiner and he’s not going to say anything. Instead, we talked about the series’ run, its philosophy of history, and how he feels Mad Men‘s past comments on our present. (More than you might think.)

To read the full cover story, subscribe to TIME magazine.

There was a reaction among some viewers last year that, “Oh, Don’s screwing around on his wife again. He’s hitting bottom again. We’ve seen this before.” And obviously you were building it toward something that he has not done before. Does that potential reaction go through your mind when you’re writing?

Matthew Weiner: No. When Don says “I don’t want to do this anymore,” Don knows he’s doing it again also. There was so much new story last year, I don’t think that that was what people were responding to. I think what people responded to is that they were really in a state of powerlessness and anxiety in 2012 and ’13 in the United States. And they want to see Don kicking ass and taking names. When Don said “Please” to Sylvia in that hotel room, that was hard for the audience. That’s what I think they were responding to. I have no defensiveness about it. We repeat things in life all the time. That’s part of our problem. There’s a psychological principle called “Repeat to master.”

The show is based on public Don and private Don, and some seasons are spent inside Don’s head seeing the world. And those are harder for the audience because it’s not a great place to live. Don was molested. We learned why Don picks a certain kind of woman. And to me it was a very fresh story, but this is my character.

I can’t take my cues from the audience anyway, because the one thing they hated the most was him being faithful to Megan. They were just tortured by that. People felt that we had taken the tension out of the show. But that is the story of the second wife. I’m going to do it right this time. I married for love. I know more than she does. I know more than I’ve ever known. And the minute that person expresses – the minute the object of affection expresses independence, it is a rejection. And that to me – Don’s almost like childish belief in romance was shattered and it broke his heart, it really did, in season five. So he ends up looking for someone who didn’t know him, like Sylvia. And he could take or leave Sylvia until she rejected him. It’s all very much about this guy’s attachment issues.

I do not want to repeat the stories. So if I do a season like last season where we start off with Don in an affair and married and everything at the end of that premiere, it is a story about Don realizing he’s in the same place.

In the past, Don’s reaction to bad situations like that is to run away, reinvent himself. What was it do you feel that brought Don to the point where it was like I can’t run anymore, I can’t become a new person?

One of the greatest risks in the show that we ever took was taking this wish fulfillment from the audience–that you can eat steak and drink as much whisky as you want and it won’t affect your life. [Running away] is a very alcoholic behavior, “Pulling a geographic.” But he is committed to the fact that he can start over. He realizes that he has been out of control, that his drinking has been out-of-control, that certainly his sex life has been out-of-control, that he’s not feeding himself, it’s destroying him. And when Ted Chaough tells him that he needs his family, Don realizes that he needs his family. There’s a moment when Betty calls and says that Sally has run away, used a fake name to buy beer and Betty is crying on the phone blaming herself for Sally being from “a broken home,” that the problem is their divorce and everything but Don knows that’s not what it is. Don knows that his daughter saw him having sex with a neighbor, cheating on her stepmother.

I felt that he went to that pitch and he just couldn’t lie anymore. He looked at Ted and he just couldn’t lie anymore. And once that had been broken through, once he told the truth in that meeting, the next thing that happened is he had to tell Megan that he wasn’t going to California. That was one thing, another thing he was going to lose. And then they fired him. And I think that he realized that [Sally] was the crucial relationship. We tried to set it up with Grandma Ida, the woman who broke into the [apartment], that Sally really doesn’t know anything about him. His children don’t know, and that means that he is never going to be close to them. And I think that in the spirit of confession that was the beginning of him reconciling who he was to tear down the façade for his children. Specifically Sally who never saw – it’s not supposed to look like an excuse, like “Hey, this is where I grew up, that’s why I’m a dirtbag.” He’s just saying, I want you to know who I am. I’m willing to risk you rejecting me because I’m so ashamed of this.

[Don’s identity] is the heart of the show, not just the father’s relationship with the kid. It’s the Jay Gatsby of it all. It’s an American iconographic–it’s in our DNA, these slightly picaresque figures who built this country that inspired the show for me. Rockefeller and Bill Clinton and Sam Walton and Lee Iacocca, people who came to be the leaders in this country–all of them came from poverty and none of them talked about their childhoods, or they lied about them. They invented themselves. And there’s a psychic cost to that.

It ties into this idea of America and the frontier, right? You can be a new person. You can start over.

America is freshman year of college for every immigrant. I think I’m going to go to America and pretend like I’m Italian, right? At least if you’re white. Not everybody gets to completely change their identity.

Last season, in 1968, there was so much history there that you had to address–

I didn’t have to address it. I wanted to address it. There was plenty of history every year in the ’60s. It is as they say “a turbulent time.” Some years I was into it and some years I wasn’t. But 1968, because of the vibe in our country last year, I was like “I’m going to tell this story.” Because what was really incredible to me is that the catastrophes are nonstop and the media is at a level it’s never been at. The constant communication of bad news. The spring is all about hope and then is just the rest of the year – I think by the end of 1968 people are just like it’s over. Thank God.

1968, as I researched it, I realized I cannot pretend like this is not going to have an impact on people’s lives. There is an international revolution going on that year and it starts with so much hope and so much underdog spirit and so much virtue. And every one of these things is thwarted and crushed or killed literally. Martin Luther King is killed and that’s so shameful but it could be the thing that galvanizes the movement. And then you see Bobby Kennedy is killed. And then you see these Russians roll into Prague. And then you see the massacre in a Mexico City. And you see the French students being batted down. Finally to the Democratic convention where, on U.S. soil, we see a protest that looks like it’s happening in the third world. And then what happens at the end? Richard Nixon is the President. Please bring us back order, bring us back the conservatism, bring us back, you know, bring some order into this.

I embrace that because I felt that sensation last year. I really felt that people were exhausted and terrified by the economic disaster of the last few years; that they had very low self-esteem; that we had national anxiety about our place in the world; and national anxiety about our place in our community, and that theme of anxiety last year that Don was going to be out of control because the culture was out of control.

It’s interesting that you’re so conscious when you’re writing of what we’re experiencing now in the present–not, “Oh no, I put that out of my mind.”

I’m not comparing myself to him, but Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities about 50 years after the French Revolution. Was he just interested in the French Revolution? No. He’s writing in London [in 1859] at a time of a lot of change, industrial revolution and poverty and, you know, “Dickensian” means one thing. The end of that book is not just about a man sacrificing himself; “It’s a far, far better thing…” If you read the rest of that ending, which is one of the greatest payoffs in the history of entertainment, he talks about how the Place de la Concorde where the guillotine stands, that one day they’ll be flowers growing there. All this will pass. This is a time where the streets are running with blood and then there’ll be a time when there are flowers growing here and everyone will forget it but it will be the same place.

Half of the story of the show is that history doesn’t really affect us. But when it does–you know, Martin Luther King was very famous and was talking a lot about violence in the country and the war. And no one was surprised that he was assassinated, which was even more shameful. But still, you get emotional attachment to these things. You get hope, you feel change coming.

Thomas Pynchon has this great quote at the beginning of his book Slow Learner: “There was a feeling in the ’50s that we had finally arrived as a culture. This was the way we were going to be.” And so you start seeing how great this country can be and what an amazing place it is an opportunity and start seeing it mature and equality coming along and all these very, honestly, beautiful virtues. And then see the people that are fighting for them destroyed.

It was such a crushing thing and – I don’t know how to say it without sounding too political, but I think we’re going through that. We elected a black president and stunned the world with our hearts. But the economics and our place in the world have coincidentally declined at this moment. It’s a cycle; I do believe that. But it’s been hard; it’s been really hard to be idealistic. We’re an idealistic country and there are times when we just retracted to our own selfishness and sort of say let’s stay with the virtues that got us here, which is unobstructed greed.

Is it a challenge to write about some of these historical moments in ways where it’s not like every other treatment you’ve seen?

Oh, it’s horrible. Yeah. I mean believe me, you know, that’s why I go to primary sources as much as I can. And I also just try and remember the way we experience things now. The Kennedy assassination is the hardest; it’s such a well-trod thing. And the first time you have your first hippie you’re just like, well, am I just doing Dragnet here? Are there hand-painted signs down in the prop department? I don’t want that. But in fact, when you go to the archival footage and Life magazine, Time magazine, Newsweek, when you see what was really going on – you can’t re-create that without looking like one of these clichés because it really looked like that.

So it’s a challenge, but I’m always sort of looking for the average person’s experience of it. The average person didn’t go to Woodstock. They saw the documentary a year later. I try and talk about what they were talking about then because that’s the stuff that hit a nerve. You look at Bonnie and Clyde and say, Why was that movie so popular?

It’s just like when I started the show, there were a lot of people saying oh, this is like a Douglas Sirk movie–especially Betty, she’s a Douglas Sirk heroine. And I said she’s not a Douglas Sirk heroine, she’s someone who has seen those movies. Roger Sterling and Don Draper have probably read The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit; they are not the man in the grey flannel suit. There’s a reason why those things are so popular, they hit a nerve, right?

The show is very much the story of women at the time who are gaining more opportunities, or who came along just before those opportunities were available. Did you create your main female characters with the idea that each represents a different part of that experience?

Obviously there’s some politics in it and there’s some philosophy in it. I started the series telling the network and the studio that part of the story was what was going to happen to these women. But they’re not symbols. So I was just sort of going from the gut level about what that character would be up to.

So Betty, Peggy, Joan, I try to look at what their expectations are for their life, what are the limitations, and how do they respond to them? Peggy is indestructible. She has some character flaws, certainly. She hasn’t been able to be herself in a relationship, and at work she’s very sure of herself to the point that people are constantly say to her, “Shut up!” And she’s like, “Why? How come you get to talk and I don’t?” That’s already just a very brave thing but it’s also a personality thing.

The most deliberate thing that I’ve tried to show about Betty is that she has no options, and some of that’s her fault. There are people around her who are succeeding and she’s not. She has very, very low expectations and her sense of herself almost defeats any kind of achievement outside of the home–yet she’s someone who maybe shouldn’t have had kids and doesn’t like being a mother. Not particularly introspective. And one of the great things I got to do was talk about her beauty. How much easier that made her life and how much shallower it made her life, whether she wanted it to or not.

So those are the kinds of things that, whether characters are female or not, that I love talking about. You take someone like Joan, slowly realizing that she had ambitions outside of marriage. Has it been limited by her options? Maybe a little bit, but she decided to have that child by herself.

I don’t write like, “A woman thinks this way and a man thinks this way.” People think this way. And they think in their own interests. And yes, men and women are different on some level, but the crossover is ridiculous. I mean there have been very few things that have been gender specific behavior in the show. I learned them from having a strong wife and working with a lot of women. And there are plenty of gender-specific things about men that I don’t know. I don’t play sports; I don’t know a lot of that shit. I type for a living.

How about race? Obviously you’re telling the story of what was the civil rights era, but from the standpoint of specific characters who did not have a lot of professional contact with minorities.

I’ve tried to make a statement out of it from the very beginning, the absence of people of color in their world and the way that civil rights come into their life. They live in New York–New York is not an integrated place despite people’s fantasies. The schools in California are not integrated until 1972. When you see something that takes place in the ’60s and there are black children and white children going to school together, it’s a lie.

It’s a shameful thing, but I have tried to make a statement out of it, which is that it’s again about the Other. Who were the others? Who were the underdogs? Who’s not part of we? And as we have integrated the agency the way that we have, which is very gradually and rather dramatically. I mean there was a study as recently as last year about the lack of equality in the advertising agencies. There was a lawsuit going on in 1968. The government was investigating them for no [hiring] opportunity. So as long as I’m in that world of this white majority that is insulated, that is learning about civil rights on TV, unless they’re activists, you’re not seeing a world of specific prejudice or individual prejudice. But you are seeing segregation. And I chose to do that and I chose to do that to remind people that it was real. And there is an entire parallel universe. There are black ad agencies and there are obviously so many African-Americans in New York City. But I really chose to not lie about the interaction that these characters are having with different kinds of people.

When those worlds do cross, it stands out. I’m guessing it’s not accidental that it’s a black kid who is on the stoop of Don’s old house.

No, it’s not at all. That’s poverty at that time. And that was to basically explain who’s living in the house now. And Sally and Bobby have a lot of attitudes about urban, poor, black people.

“This is a bad neighborhood.”

Yeah, exactly. And this is where their dad lived. And he didn’t say, “This was a nice neighborhood when I was here.” So yes, that was not an accident.

I agree that there is a responsibility to reflect the culture and that, you know, if the culture is – people should be represented on television and in the arts, even if it has to be legislated. But I don’t think that it limits your experience to watch a show that’s all about a woman if you’re a man.

Let’s put it this way, I’m proud of the fact that not just guilty liberal white people noticed that black people were not in the show. And not just black people also. That there was a kind of confusion about whether it was some oversight, but I’m not telling the story of the civil rights movement. I’m telling a story of the mass culture and their experience of the civil rights movement.

It was a pleasure to tell that Martin Luther King story and show two African American women, who were both secretaries, and their individual responses to the event, their individual human responses, and not try and make a statement about it. Obviously it’s a horrible tragedy. Obviously Peggy is going to never feel more white in that moment. Because there is a difference between their experiences of this, no one is going to take that away. But Phyllis needed comforting, and Dawn said I’m here to work. It’s a mess up in my neighborhood and my mother told me to go to work. What did Don Draper do during the Kennedy assassination? Dawn’s going to feel better going to work, that’s her personality. That to me is the joy of the show is that it’s like there’s no caricatures, there’s no symbols, there’s no, you know, sentimentality about what we think it was like.

The cliché now is it was this turbulent time, 1960s America, and yet a big part of people’s fascination with the show is that in so many ways it looks fantastic.

I mean I knew when we started the show there was going to be a little bit of a wish fulfillment. They’re eating steak and smoking cigarettes and drinking scotch and they don’t seem to really be worried about the implications, and their kids aren’t in car seats.

But very soon into the ’60s all of these concerns were being addressed. Silent Spring, you know, The Affluent Society, Unsafe at Any Speed, these books are still resonating today. We are screwing up the environment. We are the richest country in the world and we have poverty in it. And corporations do not care about you; you are not part of the bottom line. I mean anti-corporate mentality is is part of American culture and it’s not red and blue state either. That’s like part of our personality–that if we don’t watch out, businesspeople will have us all working 12 hours a day in a room with no windows.

So the fact that people think it’s a better time, I mean you know the word nostalgia has like a magic buzz because of the Carousel scene. But part of my intention when I pitched the show, even before I talked to anybody, was wouldn’t it be amazing to do ten or 12 years of these people’s lives, have the actors age that amount. And you will immediately, no matter how many bad things happen that first season, you see Peggy and you have nostalgia for her first day at work because you knew her then–there’s just that process of the human mind, just because it’s in the past. And that’s why I love that definition about it being the pain from an old wound. It’s like there is a pleasure in picking at that.

And it’s not good or bad, it’s just then. You’ll never get over that. I always wonder if when Don got out [of the car] and looked at that house, there was some pleasure for him seeing it again, despite all the horrible things that happened and what he was revealing?

Do you think people are usually unaware of history when they’re living through it–they have to look back to understand what was important?

I think the show resonates because of this. We are living in an absolutely culturally catastrophic moment. “Catastrophic” makes it sound negative–that’s the wrong word–we are living in a tumultuous time of change. You couldn’t stream anything on the Internet that was longer than three minutes when this show went on the air. There’s a moral loosening at the same time as there’s been incredible repression. We have the biggest porn consumption in the world and yet at the same time we’re fighting for gay rights, gay marriage. There’s a prudishness at the same time as there’s this access.

All these things has happened since the show went on the air, since 2006-07. We don’t even know it because we’re in the middle of it. I always say like it may turn out that the only reason the United States is still in business is because Obama saved General Motors. And we won’t know for 15 or 20 years where that sits in the history books; it’s an event simply passed by in the newspaper for most people who don’t work on Wall Street or in the government.

The Watts riots are always seen as like the hallmark of the beginning of the serious summers of the exploding ghetto and the civil rights movement really gaining its footing. Go look–there are a couple of issues in Life magazine about it and it was not considered to be the biggest event of 1965. It wasn’t in the New York Times for a while. It’s just fascinating. They didn’t know.

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