Now in the second half of its seventh season, “Mad Men,” which premiered in 2007, has set the standard for TV drama. As it followed the life of Don Draper, a Madison Avenue advertising executive, the show probed everything from the social tumult of the 1960s to our own relationship with the past. This Wednesday, WEEKEND sat down with “Mad Men” creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner to talk about wrapping the show, ’70s fashion, and why he loves “Broad City.” [Warning for who haven’t yet seen the latest episode: spoilers ahead.]
Q. What has been your experience after wrapping the show and now watching the episodes air?
A. We wrapped shooting in July, but I had another few months after that so I didn’t finish until October and I didn’t move out of my office until December. So I really haven’t had that much downtime. It’s probably the longest I’ve gone without writing. I’ve been working out a bunch of things, because you get itchy. But knowing what the actual experience of the show ending will be will take the last episode airing, and I am terrible at anticipating what it will be like. It’s going to be serious, emotionally. Everyone I know who’s gone through it has said, “It’s rough.”
Q. It does seem that this half of the season feels a little like an epilogue.
A. You’ll have to wait until you see the whole thing. We made it all at once, from the very first episode [of the season]. But I was consciously aware of the fact that there would be a break. I needed two premieres and two finales. But for these last seven, I really tried to channel the emotions we were having. I write from my feelings anyway, so I thought, “What, am I going to fight them?”
All the stories are informed with the concept of ending. Every episode feels like the finale. A lot of last week’s episode [“The Forecast”] is a about your perception of the future. That’s the text. The subtext had to do with retirement and the futility of planning and what you do when your needs are met. What are Don’s needs? It’s not just the same, but he’s sort of being forced into the future, which I think has been some people’s philosophy of the show the whole time, not mine. But if you’re in a position of success and somebody asks you what next year is going to be like, that’s a profound metaphysical question, because your gut instinct is “worse.” Who is Don Draper — or anybody for that matter who is lucky enough to have what he has — who are they to ask about the future? What more do they need?
Q. I found it interesting that Don, and also Joan, are at this place where they’ve achieved so much and they don’t know what they want, while Peggy still has all these plans.
A. That’s what Don was saying [in the most recent episode]. There’s a line at the end of the first season when Peggy gets her promotion and moves into her first office, right before she goes into labor [laughs] and Joan says “sometimes when people get what they want they realize how limited their goals were.” And that’s always been an interesting thing to me. There are things in my life right now where, if you told me about them, I would have said, “You’re lying,” “I don’t deserve that,” “That’ll never happen,” and then they become normal. You don’t have to be Trudy Campbell to understand that certain people’s dissatisfaction is what’s motivating them. And that’s sort of a comment on capitalism, but maybe that’s because capitalism plays into that part of the human condition.
Q. And propagating those desires, spending so much time in advertising, surely feeds into that sense?
A. Don believes in an aspirational sense of advertising. Even if he’s talking dog food, he’s talking about what is it about your life that could be fixed with this product. That is always based on a concept of need. You’re not creating a need, you’re identifying a need. He’s always offering, even if it’s a false construction, that if you have these things you will feel like the person you want to be. And that concept in itself is kind of beautiful, right? Every priest is helping people be what they want to be.
Q. One of the things that impressed me about the show was its ability to bring back this treasure trove of characters, especially Rachel Menken [Don’s love interest in Season 1].
A. You’ll see where the show’s going, but I felt like [Rachel’s return] was a great thing to wake Don up to where he is in his life and to see that door close. And I also think that when people talk about their life, a lot of the time, you get to a point where people start to give you excuses for their bad luck, and for the opportunities they didn’t get. My experience is that they do get opportunities and they choose not to do them. As much as Don missed out on Rachel Menken, Ken is going to tell his kids that he couldn’t be a writer because he had to provide for them. We know that’s not true. Peggy’s going to say, “I couldn’t meet the right guy.” And as far as we can tell, she did.
I wanted to examine that, and Rachel was the best way to think about a door that had been closed permanently. I know that was an important relationship for him.
Q. The other thing, looking at this most recent episode, was bringing in Sally and Glen, and a kid’s perspective, or at least a maturing perspective, on the show.
A. They are really kids, and they are entering into life problems based on their ideology, and based on the limited freedom they have. [Glen’s story in this last episode] was an anecdote we heard several times. If you flunked out of school, you went to Vietnam. In fact, teachers used to cut people slack sometimes for that. Lying to your parents about your reason for going to Vietnam was more acceptable than failing school. I also thought there was an emotional harvest to have there, because that kid we knew at the beginning of the show, a very short time ago in our lives, is old enough to go and serve.
Q. As much as characters come back, you’ve also had certain lines and phrases repeat throughout the show. The characters spend so much time thinking about language, and reusing lines.
A. We’ve tried to tell a linguistic story over the course of the show. We don’t always get it right, but we try. I’ve noticed that it just gets cruder, and less symbolic and more direct. There’s a drama to the language, that still is there, in a form, in polite society. From 1960 on, depending on people’s age and their location, there’s a slow decay of manners. People start swearing in social situations. Slang comes in. In between 1969 and now a lot has happened to the language, but people are talking, at that point, so much more like they are talking now. The crudeness keeps coming. It will come to Peggy; it will come to everyone. And to have the consistency to show that change in the social mores has been a gift.
Q. And it comes through in the fashion and the visual style of the show as well.
A. Exactly, we can show who’s still dressed like the olden days. Joan is definitely set in 1959 or 1960. That’s when she looked her best — maybe even 1955 or ’56, sometimes. Peggy has had a makeover but she’s still conservative most of the time. She’s not a hippy. Eventually, I suppose, she’ll be wearing turtlenecks and shells and have a funky amulet.
Q. And Roger’s still clinging to youth with his mustache.
A. Those styles get to the power center pretty quickly. You just wait and see, everyone my age is about to have a really, really ridiculous looking beard so they can look like a hipster.
Q. The Stan-style beard is coming back.
Q. Being a college senior, I know the “What’s next?” question is pretty terrible, but I do want to know what shows you’re watching now, and what you’re thinking about.
A. I just entered back into the culture, in a weird way. It was hard for me to watch things during the show. I kept up with “Breaking Bad” because I have a close relationship with Vince [Gilligan, the show’s creator]. And I kept up with “Boardwalk Empire” so that I could talk to my friends, and so no one would ruin it in the writers’ room, because they all watch a lot more TV than I do.
I love “Broad City.” I cannot get enough of it. I think they’re hilarious, and they’re doing something new. It’s very interesting to me how sophisticated the relationship is between them. In all the time I worked in comedy in network TV, there was always this desire to have an emotional core underneath it all and to have a moment to show that, even if people were insulting each other and being horrible to each other all the time, they loved each other. Somehow, they are pulling it off without any sentimentality or being maudlin. Those women are really friends.
I watch “The Knick,” because I heard it was good and because I really enjoyed it. I watched a couple episode of “Empire.” [The show’s creator] Danny Strong is a friend. I’m behind on “House of Cards.” I’m in the middle of the second season. I watch what I can.
I’ve also been watching a lot of movies that inspire me. Things I haven’t seen in a long time. I watched “Angels in America” again. I forgot how free your imagination can be. There’s no rules in that thing, visually or verbally. The talking is so good. It’s pretty impressive.
Q. And now, because there’s so much variety on TV, there’s so much more freedom than there used to be.
Yeah, I watch “Orange is the New Black.” Jenji [Kohan, the show’s creator] is so talented. I saw the second season and she pulled it off again. It’s such a good idea, because I don’t think anybody knew how you could expand that story that way. And I love Taylor Schilling. She’s fascinating to me. She’s playing the whole thing.
Q. And finally, what sort of lessons do you think you’ll carry out of “Mad Men,” after working on the show for all this time?
A. I’ve learned the major lesson of life, which is that I don’t know anything. I’ve learned to trust other people, quite honestly. I know I have a reputation for being a control freak, but the people I have, I’m their audience. I’m not their puppet master. I watch not just my writers but every aspect of it. I let people do their thing and they’ve shined.
I’ve learned about our relationship with history. We’re in it, right now, and we don’t have any idea what’s important and what’s not. That was a meaningful concept. You’re trying to recreate a period and what you’re learning is that we do not know what will end up in the history books. It’s one of the reasons why, when people ask me about the legacy of the show, I think, “That’s so stupid, how would I know?”
I do know that, in the immediate past, it was so rewarding that you could do something this personal, and without any guns, without any detective story, no emergency room — not that I don’t love that stuff — that you could do something that’s really on the scale of most of our lives and people would be interested in it.
I had a deep suspicion that was confirmed, that people don’t just care about entertainment that is directly related to them. You don’t have to make a show about 18-year-old boys for 18-year-old boys to watch it. It’s always been my theory that human beings are human beings and lots of stories are interesting to us. Real life is very exciting.