Sunday’s gripping season finale of AMC’s Mad Men embraced both bitter endings and bright, new beginnings, even as its characters were recovering from the tragic events of November 1963.
For a series that has thrived on exploring the subtle nuances of its characters and the unspoken subtext that hangs in the air like the curls of smoke from one of Don Draper’s cigarettes, creator Matthew Weiner ended the third season by removing its central settling—the Sterling Cooper office—and ripping apart its romantic leads, all while giving the enigmatic Don Draper (Jon Hamm) a new outlook on life and the future. In a single hour, Weiner, who co-wrote and directed the installment, offered a stunning set of reversals for the ad men and women the series revolves around, not only shattering the Drapers’ marriage past any hopes of mending but also giving birth to a new advertising agency, which rose up out of the ashes of Sterling Cooper and set up shop in a hotel room. (The Pierre, to be precise.)
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The Daily Beast spoke to Weiner about the end of the Drapers’ marriage and Sterling Cooper, new beginnings for Don and Betty, the Kennedy assassination, and real-life figure Conrad Hilton.
The Daily Beast: We witnessed the birth of the new agency Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce last night. What was behind your decision to remove the series’ central setting, and hit the reset button?
Matthew Weiner: My intention from the beginning of the season was to accentuate the corporate nonsense that is unrelated to work: the acquisition by the British, which was done for money… and the fact that the British company acquired them with no understanding of why they were doing it… I felt that Don Draper would get sucked into this thing because he wanted his whole life to be that guy in the suit… in the end, the work is what mattered. That firm was not fully taking advantage of Don’s talent… if we believe that Don is as good at what he does as he says… he could not continue working in the place. And to me, that meant him being in a new place and the rest of that was working backward from there.
“I am proud of the fact that I use it all up… [Getting rid of Sterling Cooper] was very scary but I knew in my heart it was what I had to do.”
The Daily Beast: The formation of the agency left a lot of characters in the wind. Have we seen the last of Ken, Paul, and Sal?
Weiner: I am going to say something that I don’t always say: I don’t know.
The Daily Beast: While there have been cracks in Don and Betty’s (January Jones) marriage before, their marriage appears now to be well and truly over; is there any hope for the two of them to mend the wounds they’ve inflicted on each other?
Weiner: It’s so unambiguous to me that this marriage is over, but the audience seems to cling to the idea that they should be together because we want to believe in those things. The marriage was not good. It was built on a lie and the lie was exposed. In the end, Don coming clean really damaged his relationship with her, more than the lying, her seeing who he actually was. I do believe when he says his mother was a 22-year-old prostitute that Betty is looking at something that is very far from what she had planned for herself... That was the whole story of the season. When Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) came on to her… a switch went off in her head of what was missing in her life, which was a true, romantic attachment. In the end, that combination with her gut feeling that something wasn’t right in her marriage and finding out the truth, they don’t belong together anymore, kids or not. You’ve got to take it pretty seriously when someone’s flying to Reno to get a divorce.
The Daily Beast: You could have withheld Don telling Betty the truth about his identity for several more seasons; why was it crucial that he come clean to his wife now?
Weiner: I think, as does Betty, that he wanted to be found out. I think that’s why he had a relationship so close to home, I think that’s why he left the keys in his pocket… He was not comfortable with the way things were going and I think that… in his heart, something about having to live as this other person, it was too much for him.
The Daily Beast: Has Betty grown up from learning the truth about her husband?
Weiner: Yes, she has grown up on one hand because she’s taken control of her life and is not just taking what’s handed to her… I knew from the beginning that this would be the end of their marriage and I worked my way up to that. I didn’t want the marriage to end because she found out who he was; I wanted the marriage to end because she didn’t love him anymore. Her concept of what love is is a lot of what the season was about… I think Betty Draper is an impulsive person and she may have an arrested state in terms of what she was taught to expect from her life, to be taken care of by a man, to be loved and worshiped and adored… Has she grown up or is she just so frustrated with the status quo that she can’t take it anymore? I don’t know, but she definitely put her foot down and I’d like to believe, not just as a dramatist but as a human being, that that is growth.
The Daily Beast: What does Henry Francis represent to Betty? Is he, as Don suggests, her life raft or is there something deeper there?
Weiner: Betty married Don because he was the whole package. He looked good on paper and that’s what she wanted. I think that Henry Francis does but in another way. Being put on a pedestal, being worshipped and adored, being accepted, in a way it’s almost more flattering to have a man be that attached to you who doesn’t know you. I think she’s very susceptible to that. Don has not given her any of those things, as far as she’s concerned. He said that to her: “I’ve given you everything you ever wanted” and Henry said, “I don’t know what you want.” She might not even be able to express it, but what she wants is for all of her needs to be met, with anticipation.
The Daily Beast: What was behind your decision to set the Kennedy assassination in the season’s penultimate episode?
Weiner: I had an opportunity because people knew these characters to really recreate the experience. Originally, I was going to do it in the third to last episode but doing it [here] was really about catching the audience by surprise. I wanted [the characters] to be going about their lives and have it stuffed into the middle of everything and see how an event like that heightens the reality in all of our regular lives… The powerlessness and the family tragedy, which a lot of people really identified with, all of that personal drama really comes into focus. No one can control anything and it makes people nihilistic and it also makes them take action.
The Daily Beast: One of the season finale’s most touching and revealing scenes was between Don and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). How has their relationship changed this season and what did Don’s tearful plea to Peggy mean for him?
Weiner: It was hard to write [that scene] because Peggy doesn’t get to say a lot. Don does identify with Peggy; she’s more like Don than anybody else, whether she realizes it or not… Don is hard on her the way he’s hard on himself… That speech to me is about him—about losing his marriage and the way he saw himself—it’s about her and her past and it’s about the assassination and Don, if nothing else, is attuned to the zeitgeist, even if he can’t put it into words.
The Daily Beast: Is there any potential for a rekindling of romance between Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Roger (John Slattery) then?
Weiner: Whatever Roger’s true feelings are for Joan—and whatever they are, they are deep and we’ve always known that—he sure as hell welcomed the opportunity, not just because of her skills, to have her back in his life in that way. I am not big on giving the audience what they want but I am big on giving Roger and Joan what they want, if they can get close to it.
The Daily Beast: Did you know that Conrad Hilton (Chelcie Ross) would end up being such a pivotal character this season?
Weiner: I definitely knew I was going to introduce him in Episode 3 because his character served the story, whether anyone knew it was Conrad Hilton or not. Until I met Chelcie Ross, I did not have the confidence to make him as important as he was. We haven’t seen Don really face [a] nightmare client… Conrad Hilton is not a lunatic, he’s not crazy, he’s not a fool; he is a formidable, respectable businessperson and cut from the same cloth as Don. Whether Hilton really did want to have a hotel on the moon or he didn’t, he wanted to use that as a symbol of the limitlessness of the American dream.
The Daily Beast: Looking ahead to Season 4, what’s next for these characters?
Weiner: I don’t know what I am doing next season; I’ve just finished! [Laughs.] I’ve made a habit—and I’m proud of it but it's very scary—of committing to a story for each season and starting on page one and leading people through and they may think it’s slow at the beginning or may not understand what they are supposed to be paying attention to. Betty Draper lost her father this year, Sally Draper might have lost her innocence and realized that her parents might not be there for her, and Don realized that living his life as that guy in the suit came at a tremendous cost and it motivated him to change his life. I am proud of the fact that I use it all up… [Getting rid of Sterling Cooper] was very scary but I knew in my heart it was what I had to do. I have to believe that if Don is as good as he says he is, there’s no way he’s going to go through the '60s working at a firm like Sterling Cooper. It’s got to be something different… Life is change. I am thrilled that I delivered it to the audience in a way that they are very excited about it…They are worried about Sal, Ken, Paul, Hildy, and Allison, the Draper home; they’re worried but they are also excited and it was my intention to put them through that experience.
The Daily Beast: It worked so effectively that we all want the first episode of Season 4 now.
Weiner: I heard that! Oh, Jesus Christ, you’ve got to let me get some Gatorade.
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a Web site devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.