‘Mad Men’ creator Matthew Weiner on singing, dancing and writing the series finale

Senior Television Writer
05.27.14 67 Comments

AMC

On “Mad Men,” we’ve seen Don and Peggy and company work on plenty of weekends and holidays. On Memorial Day of 2014, it was “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner’s turn to spend the holiday getting things done, as he was supposed to finish the script for the series by the end of the day. He took a quick break to talk to me about the seven episodes of season 7 – including Sunday’s eventful, musical mid-season finale – and about what it feels like to be so close to the finish line. That’s coming up just as soon as an old man starts talking about Napoleon…

How long have you been waiting to let Robert Morse sing?

Matthew Weiner: Actually, you’ve got somebody with incredible talent that you really can never utilize. I was actually thrilled with whatever thing came in my mind that made me realize I could do it this way. During the first two seasons of the show when we were doing 1960 and 1962, he was such a big part of the popular culture back then, that we’d be lying if we said he didn’t have these skills. For me, when I came into the season with the idea that he was going to die during the moon landing, and had heard that song, I realized that this was an opportunity for him to break character, and in Don’s mind, deliver a fairly simple message that only a song can.

Speaking of songs, back at the start of season 3, you talked to me about how if you made it to the end of the decade, even with all the counter-culture, “My Way” would still be one of the big radio hits at the time. I take it you”ve been planning to use that song for a long time.

Matthew Weiner: My interest in history, and for the writers on the show, is always there to explore character. But there’s a lot of historical things that for whatever reason are not of interest to the audience. At the same time, I want them to be of interest to the characters. The idea is that that song had just come out, in the midst of a golden age of rock n roll. And who knows if it’s just kids listening to rock and just adults listening to Sinatra, but it had a very large cultural impact. Even at the time, people thought it was big and schmaltzy, but they did not stop listening to it, and there is something eternal to the message of it. And Frank Sinatra had a lot of hits in the late ’60s, which is not the way that the traditional depiction of that period is done. It’s really that simple.

Was that ever something you had considered as the final song of the series?

Matthew Weiner: No. For me, it was an explanation of the thesis of the show. There were a lot of people in the audience who were there, and it was their childhood, and they have a very distinct viewpoint on what was going on. And it has been cemented by the representation of the late ’60s as this revolutionary moment, of cultural upheaval, whatever the cliche. My basic statement was there were a lot of people who were adults when this happened, and they had their own lives, also. It’s just like the idea that as the hippies come along, “Oh, Don’s going to be left behind.” Well, you can read Playboy Magazine and you can see that a guy Don’s age in a suit and a tie is still at the top of the heap in 1969. It’s not like they were supplanted by people in bell bottoms and sandals. It really was a kind of acknowledgement of the fact that the way history has been metabolized is very different than the way it was. I’m not positive about the way it was, but I’m always trying to see it from the point of view of the characters.

People reacted so strongly to Don and Peggy dancing, and that relationship has become perhaps the most important one on the show. Was it always designed to be that central, and if not, when did you realize the power of it?

Matthew Weiner: Honestly, we started this season eight weeks after the events at the end of the previous season. We’d never done that before. It’s not my job to instruct the audience or anything else like that, but there is a slightly strange phenomenon to me as a TV viewer that people suggest that they would want last night’s episode to be the premiere of a season. And that’s not the way it works. This was a season about how Don had burned a lot of bridges. He had cost Joan several million dollars; I don’t think you can stay friends with someone who had done that to you. He had ruined Peggy’s relationship, he had brought her back into the firm that she had left, and through his alcoholism and his impulsiveness, his business life had been very bad for her. So we wanted to start the story, in the premiere this year, showing that he had lied to Megan, and that hadn’t changed, but that’s how important his business was, and that he and Peggy were very very far apart. The story for me is that Peggy thought she was the boss the day she fired Joey in season 4 or whatever. That’s not being the boss. You cannot give another person confidence; the same way you can’t give another person integrity. And Don, working his way up in his own business, and discovering that doing his job was more important than being a wheeler-dealer – it was the only thing that he had control of in his life. And Peggy doing it her way – the thing that Don gave her was “do it your way,” it wasn’t “this is how you do it.” And by the time the finale rolls around, you saw her give her version of a personal sales pitch that was earned. You can’t give another person confidence. He’s still the mentor in the relationship, but there is hopefully – I describe it as the joy of you’re teaching someone how to ride the bike, and eventually you let go of the seat, and they just ride off. That’s what I wanted it to feel like.

Interestingly, I”ve heard the opposite from some viewers: that they felt like these last two episodes could have functioned as the end of the show.

Matthew Weiner: You and I have had this conversation for sure before, which is that I want the end of every season to feel like the end of the series. And as much as there’s been discussion during the premiere – “What’s going on?” “What happened?” – the emotions that you feel when you get to the end of the story, hopefully is some kind of earned payoff to the story. The challenge for splitting the season up is that this is the half of something, but we also wanted it to feel like all of something. Turning these seven episodes into the sensation of a full season was a challenge, but we just concentrated on the main characters, and that’s the way it worked out, even though we had a lot of ground to cover. I never like to leave anything on the floor, but I learned a valuable lesson at the end of season 3, with “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” when we showed Betty flying to get a divorce with her baby and her boyfriend, Don had the other children and was home alone with the maid, Don moving into a new apartment, and yet I spent the entire off-season fielding questions about if they were actually going to get divorced. I never know what constitutes resolution to people. The same as Don and Sally, I always want the finale to be the end of the story we started in the premiere that year, and maybe in some way, the end of the series. Does that mean I’m going to be able to pull it off in the second seven? Who knows? I’m writing the finale today. I’m not going to have any input from anybody but the talented people I work with. You just do your best.

You always try to balance wanting happiness for your characters with what”s dramatically interesting. Things ended on a really positive note for almost everyone in “Waterloo.” How fearful should we be about what”s coming in the final seven episodes?

Matthew Weiner: I hope that people listen to the words to the song to some degree, and know that there is some bittersweetness to having all that material success. It is not really life. No one can own it. Do I want people to feel like somethin bad is going to happen? Yes, we’re always playing on that. I was laughing at the fact that the story of Don’s success in the company, is something where the tension was created because on “Mad Men,” you can’t believe that something horrible isn’t going to happen.

We do use those things for tension, but honestly, it’s so weird to explain, and I don’t know if anybody cares, but you did ask. The writers and myself, we’re always approaching the story by what would happen to the characters. And there is not as much foresight or machination or strategy as people think. It’s really all based on the emotional results of the events, and I don’t mean the historic events; I mean the actual personal events. Don felt terrible about what he did in season 6. It doesn’t mean anybody cared. That was a great tension to me. I loved that as a human story, to say, “Okay, I’m going to be good from now on. I’m sorry,” and people looking at him going, “What, you think I forgot? Okay, good for you. It’s not that easy.” I tend to hear the most brutal things from people when I’m apologizing. (laughs) There is more story left to tell. I hope the audience is anticipating that. It will all be done. I’m writing the series finale today, and that’s something that I won’t have the benefit of even the conversation of the audience beyond the first seven. We can only focus on what we think is important over here.

And how does it feel to be writing the ending right now?

Matthew Weiner: I’ve written a lot of stuff on Memorial Day. I’ve given up a lot of holidays to the show. I’m excited. Writing is the hardest part, but I don’t know. I’m kind of in it. It was certainly a nice feeling that it seems people enjoyed the half-season and the finale. I don’t know what to tell you. I live in a world surrounded by super-talented people, and all of this take this universe probably too seriously. For me, it’s more about slowly settling my relationship with this fiction that has been such a huge, lucky part of my life. If I didn’t have so much work to do, I would be crying.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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