‘Mad Men’ Creator Matthew Weiner on the Season Finale
The AMC series’ season ender offered upheaval in the lives of SC&P’s employees. Jace Lacob speaks with creator Matthew Weiner about the finale and what’s next. Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Not since the end of Season 3 has AMC’s Mad Men—created by Matthew Weiner—ended a season with as much physical, emotional, and psychological upheaval as it did in Sunday night’s episode (“In Care Of”), which closed out the period drama’s sixth and penultimate season.
Written by Weiner and Carly Wray, the final episode restructured some of the show’s key underpinnings: Don Draper (Jon Hamm) spilled the truth about his awful childhood in front of his partners and clients; Megan (Jessica Paré), Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), and Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) decamped to California; Don was told to take a break from the agency; Betty (January Jones) pondered the consequences of “a broken home” on her children; Joan (Christina Hendricks) allowed Roger (John Slattery) to form a relationship with their shared son; Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) sat in Don’s office, cleaning up his mess; and Don took Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and her brothers to see the house in which he grew up.
Alternately shocking and elegiac, it could have been a series finale, but instead set up compelling and invigorating new possibilities for Season 7 of Mad Men, the show’s final outing. There is a deep and tangible sense that the characters’ relationships (or lack thereof) with their children are hugely significant, as several storylines examine the ramifications of our actions upon our offspring and the cost of remaining silent. Given our workaholic contemporary society, there would seem to be enormous implications at play here for those who prioritize their professional lives ahead of their familial ones.
The Daily Beast spoke with Weiner about the season finale, Don’s unforeseen departure from SC&P, the murder of Pete’s mother, whether Megan and Pete will be back next season, and much more. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
At the start of Season 6, you said that the opener was about “how [Don is] seen by the outside world, and how we all are seen by the outside world.” How does the finale complete that exploration?
Matthew Weiner: This season was about the identity crisis going on in the culture, the chaos that’s being brought on the United States, the revolution that’s underway, and the turning inwards that happens that, for Don, is hopefully the beginning of kind of a reconciliation with who he is. He says, “I don’t want to keep doing this,” and we see him acting impulsively, struggling through—with worse consequences than ever—his demons. And what I wanted to do was show, at the end of 1968, the revolution is stopped, mostly by force and by votes and people turning to what they hope is a gentler time. Which we know it isn’t. Don, Pete, Roger, and Peggy to some degree, all of them are facing what they can control in their life and what’s good in their life, which is their children. And the children were a big part of the season.
This episode offered perhaps the most upheaval since Season 3’s “Shut the Door, Have a Seat.” Was there any concern on your part about not saving some of this for the final season?
Weiner: Oh, of course. That was a decision made early on with Maria and Andre [Jacquemetton], who are the other executive producers here and second in charge of the writers’ room. I started saying, “Well, why don’t we wait for that, why don’t we wait for that?” and they were kind of like, “You have to do the show the way you’ve always done it. Just put everything in there and we’ll paint ourselves into a corner and we’ll deal with it later.”
I feel like I owe it to the audience to not have to stall, to not have a filler season, and to continue the journey for Don. It just seemed like the perfect backdrop, with what happened in 1968, to tell that story of the decay in the society, the decay of their family, the decay of the city, and that he would hit bottom to some degree and come clean.
That speech to the Hershey people is really from someone who is not willing to preserve that image that he has from the outside world, talking about the premiere again. It’s literally destroying that. He gives the first part of the pitch, which is exactly what he’s been doing his whole life—this fake childhood—and he does it so well. And we, of course, know that nothing he’s saying is true and then when that man says, “God, weren’t you a lucky little boy?” and he looks over at Ted, he knows that he’s had it. He has to face it, and now he’s told the world, to some degree, probably in the most inappropriate place. He has to tell his children. Hopefully, that moment with him and Sally, which many of us have never had with our parents, is the beginning of something. Just looking at Kiernan’s face, it’s a very emotional moment for me and it’s what we were aiming for the entire season.
That final scene when he takes them to the house he grew up in was such a beautifully captured moment. Is Don desperate that his children finally know him?
Weiner: He realizes, whether he’s desperate or not, that it has to happen. He made that choice, the same way he made that choice in the meeting. What he says to Megan at the beginning of the episode, when he hits rock bottom after the drunk tank, is “You know, it got out of control. I got out of control.” That’s a big change for him. You’re seeing somebody who is looking in the mirror and saying, “What do I do? I don’t want to keep doing this, what do I do?” The whole season we’ve been showing his relationship with his children and how distant it is, and him reaching out to Betty again, and him trying to find solace in places. It’s right there the whole time. [Sally] doesn’t know anything about him. “It’s time for me to be who I am, as much as I can.”
Is that final look that passes between Don and Sally a sign of understanding emerging?
Weiner: I hope so. I shot it without dialogue and Carly Wray and I, we wrote it that way so that we wouldn’t have to necessarily say it. I hope a picture’s worth a lot more words than that.
One of the most shocking moments was Don being asked by the partners to take a break from SC&P. How long had you known that you would close out the season on that note of uncertainty?
Weiner: That was something that was pitched to me by Maria and Andre, so I don’t know where it came from in the room but the idea was: how much are these people going to put up with? With him impulsively drawing them into a partnership with another firm and then firing Jaguar impulsively, making them merge, and then going after his partner in the worst way, and withdrawing himself from the business? You can be a creative genius and people will only tolerate so much. We just felt that it was unrealistic to suggest that they would continue to tolerate these things. The Hershey pitch itself was, to use a modern term, a tipping point.
How much of that tipping point goes along with the fact that he’s in withdrawal at this point, from alcohol?
Weiner: It’s a big part of it. He does have a drink to get through the meeting, but a lot of it also has to do with Ted and this whole discussion of whether or not Don is a good man. Don makes a sacrifice. He sacrifices himself, but it’s a very, hopefully, cinematic way to show him looking in the mirror.
At the end of Season 5, Don is left with the question, “Are you alone?” Here, Megan says that Don wants to be alone with his booze, his ex-wife, his messed up kids. Is this the consequence of Don’s actions? Are we seeing everything catch up to him?
Weiner: He definitely got caught up in a lot. One of the good things about the show is that we try to see each of the scenes from the characters’ point of view. That’s certainly how it looks to Megan. He really had come home with the idea of recommitting himself to Megan and knowing what she is. When he says, “I love you,” he means it. But he has just pushed her too far. That’s her analysis of what it is with him. But who knows? The truth is in his actions and him taking his kids to where he was [raised], he didn’t have to do that. He knows that he’s got to take this a step at a time, and maybe that tiny revelation is the beginning of some sort of change in him.
Peggy has been trapped between Don and Ted all season. How should we view that moment of her sitting at Don’s desk? Is it a moment of freedom, finally?
Weiner: Like a lot of things on this show, I hope that it has a bittersweetness to it. The story for Peggy this season was that she didn’t have any choices. She didn’t have a choice about her apartment, she didn’t have a choice about her romantic life, she didn’t have a choice about her business life. She was dragged along and—not just between Don and Ted—but literally being forced into so many of the key things in her life that should have been decisions, which have not been up to her. What you get is that she’s fallen into a place of professional success, if nothing else. Hopefully, there’s some irony in the fact that she is cleaning up Don’s mess. I never miss a chance to make an allusion to their similarity. They’re very different people, but there’s something really tandem about their journeys.
Can you state definitively if Pete’s mother was murdered by Manolo?
Weiner: It doesn’t look good. I would say that she was, yes.
We learn that Bob Benson is a Patricia Highsmith–type Talented Mr. Ripley figure, a social climber who can really be anyone he needs to be. How does that reflect the struggle that Don went through to reinvent himself?
Weiner: They are obviously related to each other. What I really liked was the opportunity in Episode 12 to show that Pete had grown. That Pete Campbell, out of everybody, had learned something, which is not to mess with this guy. It comes off as merciful, but I thought it was just a really brave moment to see that he knew that he couldn’t do this again and that he had learned that. Of course, he ends up losing his temper and getting punished for it anyway. This whole character of the malleable personality and the climber with the invented past, this is not just a literary tradition in America: these are some of the people that really succeed in our culture.
Sometimes, I’m with Bert Cooper when I say, “Who cares? He isn’t dangerous.” The guy is not a murderer as far as we know, right? It’s one of these conundrums of American culture that it is a meritocracy on some level. He is doing his job. How he got in there? Who knows? Bobbie Barrett (Melinda McGraw) said in Season 2, “This is America. Pick the job and become the person that does it.” And I think we do live by that.
I love that he’s speaking Spanish on the phone. There are just some great little details there that are part of a bigger picture.
Weiner: It was really fun to see him do that. And James (Wolk) speaks Spanish. He’s such a gifted actor. When he came in for the part, he really didn’t know that much about it. He obviously has great chops for comedy, but there’s a mysterious positive attitude that he has. His enthusiasm, which James brought to it, is part of why the audience has been so interested in him and it’s also an essential part of succeeding when you are that kind of person.
California and a clean slate beckons to quite a few characters, including Ted, Pete, and Megan. Can you say at this point that Mad Men will continue to feature these characters next season?
Weiner: I think that you will have to take my word for it, judging from the mystery of Don and Betty’s divorce [back in Season 3]. I have not cut anybody loose, I really haven’t. I am interested in this world and I think that it’s a really, really fertile ground with great actors and great opportunities for the writers and directors, so we’re going to keep things where they are. People have to tolerate that it can’t be a Joan story every week.
As much as we might wish it.
Weiner: I know, believe me. I thought Christina [Hendricks] had an incredible season, too. You’re starting to see somebody who is really dealing with her responsibilities. The title is not enough, you know? It’s her ambition. She has changed a lot since the beginning of the show. There’s no doubt about it.
We saw a real thawing of the dynamic between Don and Betty this season. Has their moment in the cabin softened their relationship and has their distance allowed her to see the real Don?
Weiner: She definitely seems to have gained some wisdom about their relationship. On the other hand, one of the things I love about the finale is that conversation between the two of them, where she basically feels that Sally’s behavior is related to the fact that she blames herself for the fact that they got divorced. Of course, Don knows that that’s not all of the story. They still have secrets from each other, but she doesn’t seem as angry at Don. A lot of that has to do with issues of rejection. She rejected him and then he got to reject her back. I think she has gone through this journey of finding herself again and she seems to have matured.
Anytime you want to break my heart, you can just have Don call her “Birdie.”
Weiner: That’s the pleasure of doing the show this way. Just like the scene between Pete and Peggy in Episode 11, we never forget the history between people and get to have these moments of honesty. Hopefully, it mirrors real life to some degree. It’s not like people just evaporate from your life.
Season 7 will be Mad Men’s final season. How does it feel knowing that you’re now that much closer to the end and what freedom is there in being able to plan out the final arcs for these characters with that foreknowledge?
Weiner: You know what? I’m not thinking about it. I don’t know that it’s freedom. It’s very intimidating, and it’s going to be an emotional journey that I’ve never experienced. I’ve got the classic response to it: I’m not thinking about it. It’s been a magical experience in everyone’s lives who have been a part of it. We can’t believe it’s happened and it’s a very peculiar show. We are still this strange genre-free underdog and the great thing is that we’ve been afforded the luxury, through our modest success, that the network and the studio have let us do the show as honestly as we want.
If you’d told me that I would have 78 episodes of this show when I started, I would have run away. I would have never thought that it could happen, or been scared of even trying to make it happen. To me, this whole thing is just a dream. We’re really thrilled that, this deep into the show we can continue to surprise and interest people, and the level of interest this season has been so positive. I hope that they’ve enjoyed the journey.