Sweetheart, take a memo: Mad Men‘s Sterling Cooper & Partners will close its doors for the last time later this year, when the AMC drama comes to its long-heralded — and long-planned, series creator Matthew Weiner says — finale.
“I knew what was going to happen [in the finale] from when I pitched the show, and that was with the delusion that it would go on for a while. I had no idea we’d do 92 hours of it,” Weiner tells TVLine. “Between Seasons 4 and 5, I figured [the finale] out, and it stayed true to that.”
When Mad Men premiered in 2007, it was a talky period piece starring a bunch of relative unknowns bowing on a cable channel that had never before had a scripted series. In the space of seven seasons, the ongoing escapades of Don Draper and his ad-firm co-workers made stars of its cast — Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss among them — and earned Weiner a reputation as a detail-focused, secrecy-valuing show boss.
Along those lines, the genial series creator declines to talk specifics about the episodes ahead — just like he has since Mad Men‘s start —and whether people will still be discussing the finale long after its credits have rolled.
“I don’t know. I hope that they are,” he says, smiling. “I’ve been doing history, on some level, in the show for the last 10 years, and reading about how things get metabolized over time. One thing I’ve learned is, it’s stupid to even guess.”
Read on as Weiner talks Don and Peggy’s complicated history, his insistence on auditions and his reasons for the show’s Pentagon-like levels of secrecy.
TVLINE | Mad Men‘s action always has unfolded — for lack of a better word — slowly, where big things happen over the course of a season but within an episode you might not see much change.
I remember reading a review for Season 5, which is where Lane killed himself and Joan had a relationship with the Jaguar guy. So much happened in that season, and someone was saying like, “Well we got to the end, and I guess nothing happened.” I don’t even know what people think something happening is — and when something’s negative you’re always on the defensive— but I like to think that there is no formula, and each episode stands by itself.
People’s favorite episode of the show, [Season 4’s] “The Suitcase” — it’s filler. What’s moving the story and what’s important are two different things. There’s no formula, so I like to think that every episode stands on its own as a little movie, but the story’s being moved, and hopefully, when they get to the end, they’ll see that there was a plan. We do want those endings to have a kind of [feeling] like, “This is the end of a long story, and there were things that were important that you didn’t know.” What I’m proudest of is that even if it’s incremental, where do you start in Episode 1 and where you end in Episode 13, or in this case 14, aren’t very far from each other. Maybe the magic trick is too good, or took too long. I don’t know. Some people are binging and watching these seasons in like an afternoon. I have no control over that.
TVLINE | Is it frustrating, though, when —
Do you know what’s frustrating? The only thing that I could say that’s frustrating is that I feel like the conversation that happens immediately after, when people are writing about it while they’re watching it — and I know you have deadlines — but they are not always experiencing the show. They’re just writing down what happens, and what happens is not as important as how it happens… As someone who’s such a stickler for detail, I’m reading these things, and I’m like, “Your evaluation, and your letter grade that you made within 15 seconds of finishing something that we spent a lot of time on,” I can’t control that, but it’s frustrating.
And what’s more interesting is to see the pattern of saying, like, you know, “This was terrible. Who cares about Pete? It’s another blah story, or whatever,” and then getting to the end of the season and someone saying, “Wow, I guess it was worth it in the end,” and then the next season they start off and say, “This is terrible. Who cares about Pete? Remember last year? It was so much better.” Go back and read your review. Whatever it is, the process of being in a constant conversation with the audience is amazing, and people’s investment and desire to have a conversation, whether it’s digitally or in person, that’s kind of what you’re in for. Television still has that immediacy. It’s happening every week, and it’s happening all at once. You can see everything ever made at this point. That’s pretty good —and I’m saying this a viewer
TVLINE | You mentioned “The Suitcase.” Tell me something about that episode that most people don’t know.
The thing that people should know about the show, as a whole, is that my name is on that script, but that was the work of a lot of people, and I don’t just mean the cast and the director and production designer. The story was a harvest, in a way, of [Don and Peggy’s] relationship, of all of the unspoken things. I made a list, along with the writers, of all the things that have happened between them that have never been addressed, and tried to look for opportunities to let these things be spoken. [There’s a scene of] Don and Peggy at the bar, when the boxing match is going on, and it was Peggy’s moment to say, like, “How come you never hit on me?” Especially that season, when he seems to have really not have any rules. [We mirrored it] in the [Season 7] episode called “The Strategy,” where they both have come this far. Peggy is the one, now, with the responsibility of having to decide the work, and what that means as a person… [and] for them to bond over the similarities of their problems, not just, is one person modeling their life on the other?
TVLINE | I found it interesting how you deal with physicality between the two of them. In “The Suitcase” and in “The Strategy,” you have Peggy and Don touching in a way that doesn’t feel weird, even though they don’t normally do that.
No, but they’re at work… and even though Don visited her in the hospital [after she gave birth], what is that relationship? I love that it feels real to me. It is a very gray area. He has affection for her, she has affection for him. She’s gotten to know him better, he’s done horrible things to her, she has hurt his feelings deeply, and it’s the grey area of what romantic feelings are. She’s his best friend, but she’s also his worst judge. She’s a mother. She’s a sister. She’s a daughter. She’s a wife. That combination, that is something. That’s the advantage of doing 92 hours of something. That’s a real person.
TVLINE | You’re one of the few people in TV who can say to an actor, “I want you for a role, but I’m not going to tell you anything about it. Are you in?”
I think that hopefully we earned it. I was like that from the beginning, and some people are like, “Who is this guy, and who gives a crap?”
TVLINE | You were like that even in Season 1?
I was like that from the pilot. There are a lot of people who never got considered because they wouldn’t come in and read. I understand now that that is a point of status, that actors, of a certain experience, deserve the right to be cast based on their previous work. But I always feel like the show is unique, and the words are unique, and I’m auditioning the material, as well. It’s not like, “Prove it to me.” It’s like, “Why would you want to take a role that you haven’t read?”
Every single person who has been on the show has auditioned, and in as respectful and gentle a climate as possible. There is not one person who has spoken words on that show who did not come in to read, except Talia Balsam, who is John Slattery’s wife, who I had the experience of being in three auditions with her at The Sopranos. I knew exactly what she did, and I wrote the part for her, and I knew it would work.
TVLINE | My last question: Why the extreme secrecy about the show, even down to details like the year in which a season begins?
It’s a commercial decision. There is very little out there, in the way of entertainment, that is a surprise. We have carved out a corner of the marketplace, where we are promising something, an experience that is completely without foundation. All you have is what happened before, and you’re going to sit down and have no idea what’s going to happen, and some people don’t like that.
I’m not being cute about it, or anything like that. I’m preserving an environment where you have to enjoy that tension, and my hope is that you would watch it twice: that you would watch it not knowing what’s going to happen, and have that visceral gut experience of the suspense, and then the second time watch it and have the thematic thing overwhelm you. That’s a big demand, but we put that much effort into it.