The “Mad Men” season four finale airs tomorrow night, and while I had hoped to talk to creator Matthew Weiner after seeing it, his travel schedule meant he was only available for a 15-minute conversation this morning. If you’ve read some of my past conversations with Weiner like this one, you know the answers tend to be long (but always interesting), so I could only hit on a few topics from this season, and threw in the Joan one at the end when I got the one-minute warning from the AMC publicist.
Still, we talked about Don, and Don and Peggy, and the great child acting of Kiernan Shipka, and because I haven’t seen the finale, and because Matt so obviously hates spoilers, you don’t have to worry about any finale details being revealed.
The first question of the season is “Who is Don Draper?” And it seems as if the way you’ve chosen to answer it is through his relationships with a lot of different women. Betty’s out of his life, Anna dies, but here comes Faye and Megan and Miss Blankenship and even Bethany and Phoebe. Peggy has changed and Sally’s become a woman. Is that the key to figuring out who Don is?
The question isn’t for the audience to figure out who Don is. It’s for Don to figure out who Don is. Thematically, that’s what it’s about. You take away the institution of marriage, your fatherhood, your home, car, the corporate environment that is way safer. Took away every aspect of his life like that, for a guy who is all about this contrived identity – knew he wanted to be the man in the suit with the wife and the car and all the stuff that the writer talks about in the first episode – that he doesn’t have anymore. To me, that leaves Don with a moment of saying, “If I can’t define myself with that list of attributes, who am I?”
He was struggling with that, I think, and throwing himself into work, as you would do. He’s thrown himself into work in many crises during the show, and a lot of Americans, male and female, identify with that behavior. It was said in episode three, “I can’t fix that, but I can fix this.” Him corrupting Lane is him throwing himself into the things he can control. And he was out of control. The idea to have a relationship with a woman, it’s a lot easier to sleep with Bethany Van Nuys if you’re married than if you’re available and have to put in the work of a relationship. And he’s getting older.
Every character, the question writers ask each other is “What do they want?” Actors ask you that. And I think that’s what you’re seeing, is that Don is trying to establish some kind of normal life in the midst of this, familiar to him kind of freefall. There’s no coordinates, no institutions to hold onto. It’s completely up to him. He doesn’t have the security of having that complete life here. Even if he’s abandoning it or ignoring it or violating its tenets by cheating on his wife or whatever, it’s not there. He did what he does: he worked too much and went from being a heavy drinker to a problem drinker, and I think he screwed a lot of stuff up in his life. But to me, it was a kind of purification. That included losing Anna in there, the only person who’s really known him. He’s trying to build these institutions. Is he replacing her with Peggy in some way? I hope so. But then he doesn’t have to hide who he is anymore to most people. We think that.
So here’s Don with a chance to put his name on the firm, put his name in the paper, become some union of Dick Whitman and Don Draper. It’s all there. And he doesn’t have to worry about the family. There’s a freedom to it, and he doesn’t respond well to it. And then the shit hits the fan and you see, what is he really made of? Once the North American thing happens, and the Lucky Strike thing starts falling apart, I think you’re starting to see whatever journey whatever journey he was taking to become a more enlightened person, I think he’s becoming sidetracked.
Yeah, the move with the New York Times ad is the sort of thing he might have done before this journey of self-discovery.
It is, exactly. And it’s really necessary. We talked about the Kennedy assassination and how Don’s reaction to it, even as Betty’s telling him she didn’t love him, was, “Take a pill. It’ll be okay.” He is a survivor. He doesn’t dwell on things too much. I think the powerlessness that went along with what had happened with Lucky Strike and losing all that, you see a survivor. You see someone who is turning their emotions, and their feelings of hurt into a kind of ingenious weapon. Whether it succeeds or not, Don definitely felt better.
I want to get back to what you said before about the notion of Peggy maybe replacing Anna, because that’s the thing I took out of “The Suitcase.” That, to me, was one of the best episodes you’ve ever done.
Thank you. It’s a big payoff.
Exactly. Three and a half years to build up to it.
I love that they have these conversations about things in there, and there’s no nouns in the conversation. “You know about that thing where my mother thinks you were the one.” We know it, and they know it. Of course they know it! They know each other. They’ve just never said it.
There’s no relationship quite like Don and Peggy on TV, in terms of a male/female thing, where it is strictly platonic, professional, mentor/mentee in this way. Other than in the pilot where he quickly rejected her, it’s never gone there. Where does that relationship between the two of them come from in terms of your inspiration?
I’ve been both those people, luckily, in my life. Especially the mentor/mentee thing. I write these episodes, so anyone who thinks I’m subconsciously revealing some side of myself to the audience by Dons’ behavior is nuts. I know exactly what parts of me are Don and what parts of me are Peggy, and I love the idea of embracing the gray area of authorship and creativity. But really, I love how they feel about their work and how similar they are. To me, it comes from a desire to really really have a respectful bond with another human being, and the discovery of that is a joy. It really is. And it’s an expression of love. To me it’s always been a fake thing on television that everyone who works togther loves each other, and they’re friends and they all go out to the local bar together. It’s a wish fulfillment that’s sold by television. And I’ve had a lot of jobs and a lot of TV writer friends, but I’ve still never really experienced that, at least on a deep, deep level. It takes a long time.
We were joking about this, that on a normal TV show, Joan and Peggy would’ve been living with each other after the first episode. We’ve maintained this working relationship between them is somewhat contentious, because Joan knows what she’s doing has chosen a different kind of life, and Peggy has chosen her kind of life. When you look at Don and Peggy, how much of a relationship can they really have? Here you have something that’s not complicated by sex – maybe it is on some level, because Peggy perceives that Don has rejected her – but it’s almost like Don respects her too much to blow her out of his life with this kind of behavior. Don does not have any equals. It’s not just ego, he just has such a peculiar sense of himself. And what we are seeing with Peggy is an equal. Whether it’s male/female, mentor/mentee, or whatever else it is we haven’t seen it with any of the girlfriends, we haven’t seen it with his wife, with any of the men in his life. Maybe Pete is becoming an equal, but he doesn’t do what Don does.
It’s just a great feeling, to me, to see emotions that are earned. Peggy had gained Don’s respect, but she’s gained our respect. We’ve seen her do more. And Don has been kinder to Peggy, but it’s not this magnanimous, paternalistic kindness. It’s someone who says, “I love that you know me.” Have they ever talked about Betty? Have you ever heard the name Betty mentioned between them?
Maybe in season one, when Peggy was his secretary it might have come up?
Oh, right, when she had to cover for him with the Christmas card. But what is their relationship based on? Talk about, “Who am I?” Whatever the pure thing that is Don, when you strip his power away as her boss – because she said, “You don’t have any power over me. I’m either here or I’m not.” – you’re really getting Don. She’s really getting Don and he’s really getting Peggy. That’s really what the relationship is about. They’re not super expressive people, or confiding people, and you’re getting all of that when they talk to each other. And it’s done through work, and there’s something pure in that.
When did you realize, over the course of the series, what you had in Kiernan Shipka? That she was going to be able to do all these things you’ve asked her to do this year?
Honeslty? You never know with any actor, that they’re going to be able to do that much. I know all these people, and I never let my imagination be limited by what I think people can and cannot do. I let the characters do what they’re going to do. With Kiernan, she’s a minor, has this great mom and dad who are not stage parents. She’s kind of like a piano prodigy. When did I realize that?
Well, early in the series, she didn’t do a whole lot, and there had to come a point where you gave her some material and said, “Oh, wow. Okay.”
I think if you look back, you’ll see stuff where, for people who work with children, they’d be surprised by how much a human being’s in there. Just her doing ballet at the family dinner, or her creeping in and listening to the parents fight, or talking to Don. I realized right away that there was somebody special in there. I tried to put myself back at that age. I have kids, and my son’s in the show, but he’s older than her. And at that age, I couldn’t talk to an adult the way she does, I certainly couldn’t have walked on a set, I never could have memorized anything. Plus the fact that she has this ability to separate who is Sally and who is her and to really get into it. And you know what else? She’s been going to this amazing acting school for four years. She’s on the set with these people. Every scene she has is with Jon Hamm, or January. She has great natural ability. When we cast her, I hoped she could do what she was doing. Last year, I said, “She’s so important to the audience that I do want to start telling stories from her point of view.” We had this episode last year with Grandpa Gene dying – she had a big story last year. She just completely delivered for me. This was an extension of that.
There’s been a lot of speculation ever since the episode where Joan goes to the abortion clinic over whether or not she actually did it. Obviously, you don’t want to spoil it if it comes up in the finale, but did you intend for it to be as ambiguous as many people have taken that storyline?
No. I really didn’t. But you have to watch the show. I don’t have control over what people see. That is a perfect example of people bringing what they want to bring to the show. And Joan is so strong that we know that whatever decision she made, she made that decision and it’s good for her. But you do have to watch. I’m not going to say there is no ambiguity to the event; I just didn’t know that people would interpret it the way they did.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com