Hawaii, hell, and heart attacks! Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner discusses Sunday’s sixth-season opener (‘The Doorway’), Don’s quest for paradise, Betty’s transformation, and more. Warning: spoilers abound!
“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”
Mad Men’s sixth season started with a bang, with the season opener (”The Doorway”) offering us a look into the psyche of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), flitting between a doorman’s near brush with death, the weight of mortality, and the bliss of paradise, in this case the hot, white light of Hawaii. Throughout the two-hour opener, a jumping-off point for issues of life and death, characters took on complex examinations of identity and perception in an installment that managed to be lyrical and darkly existential.
The Daily Beast spoke to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, who is currently directing the season finale, to discuss Don’s quest for peace and his relationship with Megan (Jessica Paré), the transformation of Betty Francis (January Jones), the new role of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), that bizarre rape joke, and more. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
The episode begins with Jonesy (Ray Abruzzo) suffering a heart attack, then shifts to Hawaii, where Don doesn’t speak aloud for eight minutes. What was behind your decision to open the season this way?
The idea was that it opens up with this heart attack, and its point of view is that Don is dead and that he is in some kind of state of paradise or maybe hell, or wherever you go—limbo, purgatory. I wanted to show him experiencing life around him and trying to get the mood of what paradise is, what Hawaii is. The idea was that you don’t know what state he’s in. It’s not mystery for mystery’s sake. It’s supposed to create a mood, actually paying attention to the ocean and the people having the party, and Megan with all of her joy.
The whole point of the first episode—and I’m calling it the first episode, those two hours together—is a lot about is how he’s seen by the outside world, and how we all are seen by the outside world, but particularly him and Betty. You approach him from the outside, and you slowly get into his mindset as you watch him. But you’ve got to have someone like Jon Hamm, who can hold your attention when he’s not talking.
Well, we have 13 episodes to explore that, but hopefully the first episode answers the question, not whether he went home with that girl at the bar, but we watched him, last season, trying to make this domestic and romantic fantasy.
Like, “I’m going to do it right this time. This is my second try.” He has had another wife, but they didn’t have a romantic relationship. This is Don’s “second try,” and he has this experience, and she became independent of him, pulling away from him. At the end of last season, when he looks up into the camera, you see the guy that we saw right before he proposed to her in Season 4, and you know that that man has issues about whether he’s alone or not.
Now you see much more from Don’s point of view what that relationship is like for him and where he is. Which is, on some level, back where he was maybe before the pilot started: in a traditional relationship with someone who obviously loves him, and it’s not enough for him. That’s not because he is a sex addict, but it’s because he is missing something. He has everything, and something is still not right inside him.
What we learn by the end of the first two hours is that he has strayed, and that’s not making him feel better either. When you get to the end of the premiere, you might think back and say, “Well, was part of what he was experiencing in Hawaii that he missed Sylvia?” There are 13 episodes that explore this, so hopefully it’s not completely answered.
Don is continually in search of that “electric jolt,” whether that comes from illicit behavior or romantic entanglement. What does Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) offer him that he’s not getting from Megan?
We’ll find out. There’s a statement in there where the doctor says people will do anything to alleviate anxiety. Obviously, a lot of the premiere is about our feelings of mortality and how anxious they make us. If Sylvia is providing some kind of medication, it’s obviously not working for him.
I always look at the show—and life on some level—as this conflict between our expectations and reality. And some of our expectations are socialized: this is what you will get out of your marriage. This is what being in love is like. This is what you’ll get from your children. This is what you will get from your job. There’s not just disappointment, but a disconnection between what the experience feels like and what you’re told it’s going to feel like. Don has done as much as he can, from his obviously very dramatic beginnings, to alleviate that anxiety that’s created in who he is. From the premiere, we can see that this relationship with his neighbor is not doing it for him. The thing that’s extra complicated is that he really admires her husband.
When he introduces Arnold (Brian Markinson) to his secretary and says, “He’s a friend,” there’s almost a strange moment, because I don’t think we’ve ever heard Don say that before. He admires him, and he admires what he thinks is his comfort with mortality, and the doctor assumes that Don has the same comfort, but we see that Don doesn’t necessarily.
Sylvia gives Don a copy of Dante’s Inferno to read while he’s in Hawaii. Is the juxtaposition of heaven and hell there intentional? And is it relative, what we see as heaven and hell?
You can see from the pitch that Don has a complicated relationship with what’s heaven and what’s hell and what paradise means. He’s caught off guard by the idea that dying will somehow take you to heaven, and that’s what he’s saying, that there’s something positive about it. Because he felt that, when he was in paradise, he had no needs, he didn’t want anything, and “aloha” means hello and goodbye, and it’s very complicated. Everything he says in that pitch is true. You’ve got to die to go to heaven.
[Dante’s Inferno] has one of the greatest opening lines ever, which is part of the reason I loved having it there, because it really did seem to launch the season and what I think we’re going to be talking about, which is that Don may have lost his way or found himself in the woods. Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” It’s a very complicated idea for someone who’s looking for happiness, which most of us are.
Should we feel that Peggy has in many ways become Don? And that perhaps Bob Benson (James Wolk) is attempting to become him as well?
Peggy is surprised herself that she has become Don. We’re seeing her managerial style is closer to Don’s than what we would have imagined. I’ve never hidden it on the show, that everyone who sees Don wants to be like him. Part of it is that he’s handsome and that he seems confident and seems in control. And we, the audience, the people who are intimate with him, and the characters who are intimate with him, know that there’s something underneath that. From the outside, it looks like the right way to behave.
But there is this moment where you should also see how different her relationship is with her new boss, when he says to her, “You don’t have to behave that way,” and he also says to her that she’s “good in a crisis.” I don’t think she’s expecting that compliment or even knows how to handle it. She’s probably hard to work for, but we’ll see what happens during the season.
The most important thing is that the audience can see that she is good on her own at what she does, and that she has a new position of responsibility and she seems at least to be delivering the work. But she might have been trained by someone who is not great at dealing with people.
It’s clear that Peggy is now entrenched at Cutler Gleason and Chaough. How soon can we expect that she and Don might cross paths again?
All I can say is that you hopefully will see that there is a way for her to be in the show now, which I think was a mystery to people how I was going to do that. You’ll have to watch.
There’s a lot of transformation in the episode, the most physical of which is obviously Betty dyeing her hair black. What is she looking to accomplish here and what has she perhaps left behind?
Like with Don, a lot of this episode was thematically about how you are perceived by the outside world. She is identifying with this girl who she can bond with much more easily than her daughter. She identifies with this girl as a friend and sees herself still as a young person and a person with all these choices to make in life and has advice to give and doesn’t have to be a mother to her. Then the girl does what she wants, and Betty goes after her to help her. She has a kindness in her heart, and what she finds is that she’s perceived very differently than she imagined.
There’s a lot of hostility, judgment, and mistrust. She is an adult and just a housewife from the suburbs to these people. Her changing her hair was basically saying, “I’m not who you think I am. I am someone else. You think I’m just some dumb blonde housewife. Now I’m something else.” Betty is very much into her physical self, and we’ve made that a part of the show. She’s a former model, and then she’s had this weight gain. Her physical appearance is a big part of her personality, and I think that was a drastic change for her. That was literally like, “What can I do? I can’t lose 30 pounds. What can I do to not be seen the way that I’m being seen?”
How should we read Betty jokingly telling Henry (Christopher Stanley) to rape Sandy (Kerris Lilla Dorsey)?
Betty is—as we have always perceived—a perverse person with a sense of humor, and Henry is a straight arrow. As creepy as what she’s saying is, you’re getting someone who is playfully perverse. She’s not a bland, distracted human being. She is teasing him in a way that shows the force of her personality. I’m aware of the fact that that will make some people uncomfortable, but I also felt it was Betty Draper being playful. She is being herself with him. I also love it because it just felt very much like a slight scratch beneath the surface of what we always assume is the most bland and TV-ized relationship. But these are people who are in a relationship for a long time, and that is Betty Draper. It was, believe it or not, in my own way, a symbol of the health of their relationship and her confidence in it, honestly.
Given the issue with Peggy’s ad campaign and Don running into the GI in Hawaii, how much of a role will Vietnam play this season?
I always talk about how one of the biggest lessons I’ve gotten from the show is how history and world events infiltrate our actual life. There is no denying that this is the biggest issue in the country at that time. It’s constant. There’s absolutely no conversation. It’s forbidden to be talked about socially, but of course it is, all the time. You cannot even scratch the period without realizing that that is a constant, constant conversation, and it probably will be in the show.
This is the penultimate season. In looking at the overall narrative structure of the show as a whole, how does this season fit in to that? Do you see this as the beginning of the denouement?
God, I don’t know. I don’t want to destroy the audience’s confidence in me, but I’ve been doing this a piece at a time, and I’ve never known which piece was going to be the last piece, and I started off this season saying, “I can’t do that this year; I want to save that for the end; I want to save that for the end.” André and Maria Jacquemetton, who run the writers’ room, basically said to me, “What are you doing? Are you suddenly going to make this like a two-season arc?” And I was like, “You’re right,” so we just used everything we had.
Episode 13 this year will feel just like every Episode 13 has, like it’s the end of the series, not just the end of the season. So I wish that I could say I had a seven-season plan when I started, but I didn’t. I literally just take it a season at a time and try to find what is the next step in their lives. The thing that’s been great—and you’ll see this as the season goes on—is the writers are really amazing at finding a place to delve deeper into some of the mysteries of the show. Concrete answers that come out about why people are the way they are, and there’s a sense of resolution, only because we’re visiting a condition in these characters that has been there since the beginning.
But in terms of the life of the show? All I can tell you is I’m directing Episode 13 right now, and this could so easily be the end of the series. I can’t even tell you. I think the audience deserves it. I don’t want to string them along because I don’t have enough story. We just use everything we have, and then I’ll be freaking out when we have to start Season 7.