The final season of “Mad Men” begins on Sunday, April 13 at 10 p.m. Of course, calling it “the final season” is more of a letter of the law than a spirit of the law thing, since AMC will show seven episodes this spring, then take the show off the air until 2015, when the final seven episodes will air. Contractually for the cast and crew, it is all one season, and unlike the “final” season of “Breaking Bad” – which was split into two batches of 8 episodes apiece that aired over two summers – all of them are being produced in a row.
In talking to “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner about the show's (relatively) impending conclusion, he acknowledged that he essentially had to write two premieres and two finales within these 14 episodes, but he also said that the finished product will still feel structurally similar to a season of “Mad Men,” since he always treats the second half of a season as a response to the first.
As usual, there was no point in asking for many details from the most spoiler-phobic showrunner of them all (the closest we got was discussing whether the show's usual chronology will push the characters into a new decade before the finale), but we spoke about what his intentions are with these last 14 episodes and how much he's been thinking about the show's origins as he's worked on its conclusion.
(And if you want some more teases of the season, AMC released a bunch of new gallery photos today, including three exclusive pictures below. UPDATE: And there are six more added to that bunch.)
What did you want to accomplish, or say, with these final 14 episodes?
Matthew Weiner: It's the ending of the show, so the idea is to think about where you're going to leave everybody forever. And that's a big thing to say. So in terms of the story, it's really another season of the show. It's told across 14 episodes and broken up with 10 months in between them. It's the last chapter in the show. It's the part that leads to where they will be forever when the show's over. So for me, it's investigating the journey that they've been on, and most importantly feeling that because the show is cumulative – that the story that happens early in the show is related to what happens later. We don't ignore the details that happen in the story; we kind of commit to those things. So where we left Don off is where we start.
It's a good question: what did I want to accomplish? There will be 92 episodes of the show by the time it's done. We have known these characters already, not counting flashbacks, for eight or nine years of their life. You kind of want to take stock of that and say what was the purpose of the show on some level, and what was the purpose of knowing them for this amount of time, and also the reality of having that much time pass in their lives and where they are when it's over.
You and I have talked often in the past about how long the show might run, how you might want to end it whenever it concludes. Now all of those things are concrete. You know how many episodes are left, and you know what will happen in them. How much has changed about the ending from what you might have been thinking five or six years ago?
Matthew Weiner: I had the ending of the show, of how I knew it was going to end about four years ago, in between seasons 4 and 5. That has not changed. It's interesting, because I think you might have asked me at the first TCA how long it was going to run. I've never tried to predict the future. I know the commercial realities of trying to do a television show, and the greatest luxury is that after seasons 5, 6 and 7 were ordered, all the actors were secured, everything was secured, and I knew I was going to be able to follow through towards the end of the show. That said, every season's a new story. And I have to say that other than the fact that this is the last chapter, I've just approached it as a story . I'm trying to deal with what I think about the period, but also the period in the different characters' lives.
But my thinking hasn't changed really at all. Not everything. I didn't know how certain things would change. I didn't know Megan that well. Megan had just entered the scene when I thought of the end of the show. I didn't know a lot of the characters that well. And I don't know, so much has changed over the course of the story over the last few seasons, how some of those people's endings will be different. But what I had in mind for the end of the show, for Don, that's been there. That, I knew.
You keep saying, “It's like another season.” Given the split of 7-and-7, is it going to be structured any differently from a typical 13 episode season?
Matthew Weiner: I could say no, but the fact is, once I sat down to work on it, I was like, “Wow, they're going to be gone.” So it really involves two premieres and two finales. It is slightly different.
How challenging is that?
Matthew Weiner: It's super challenging, because we're still doing it in the period of one year. I have a great writing staff, and they've been coming up with amazing stuff to keep the stories fresh. The biggest challenge for the show will be not to repeat ourselves. And I don't mean making reference to the past, but not doing a story we've already done. And now there's so much behind us that we throw things out sometimes deeper into the process, when I'm like, 'I've written this script before. I'm not doing it again.'
So it sounds like episode 7 this season is not going to be like an average episode 7 in a season. It's going to have some kind of finale-like qualities.
Matthew Weiner: We talked about this. It is and it isn't. We have a turning point in the middle of every season. “The Suitcase” is an episode 7, “The Gold Violin” is an episode 7, last year the merger was episode 6, but I think it was the seventh hour because of the two-hour premiere. (NOTE: That episode, “For Immediate Release,” was the sixth hour of the season, but aired as the fifth episode due to the two hour premiere.) If we had gone off the air for 10 months after the merger, it definitely would have felt like a cliffhanger. I try and view the season as its own structure. But it's different. I think it's that they're denser. I think that because you're trying to do something as contained as possible, because there are things in the first 7 that are paid off in the second 7, that's all related to each other, but you definitely start advancing pretty quickly on the stories. In a way, it has made us really focus on the main characters. And I think we would have done that anyway, because it's the end of the show.
Will the second batch of 7 episodes be structured any differently from the first 7, knowing that you've got this self-contained group that will end the show with, and you can do anything you want? Or is it just going to feel like a half-season of “Mad Men”?
Matthew Weiner: I think the way that the second half of a season of “Mad Men” is the answer to the first half. I always structure it that way. So they're always related to each other. I can't say it's different. I don't really think you can take a season of a show and break it in half. There are 13 episodes, and you can break them in half and see that that's how we've been doing it the whole time. The other answer is you have to watch. It has been a challenge. The biggest challenge has been having a meeting at the beginning of the season and saying to the writers when they're bringing in their 10 ideas, 'Is there anything you want to do on this show that you haven't done? I want to think and I want to make sure that there isn't anything we leave on the floor.' It's such a unique world at this point and very detailed, but you also are saying, like, you know, what is this thing that we almost did in this world with these people that no one else can do? Do we just want to leave it there?
In one of our earlier conversations, you said that in your mind, the show begins in 1960 and perhaps ends on New Year's Eve of 1969 into 1970. But you've also established a template over the years where each episode takes place roughly a month after the one before it. So if you stick to that, almost anywhere we begin the final season means that at least some of it will take place in a new decade.
Matthew Weiner: You can speculate. Listen, I love that people ask these questions. I am going to try and entertain the audience. That has been my goal all along, and give an ending that is worthy to a story this big. That's all I can say. You have to watch. Yes, that's likely. That wouldn't be ridiculous. I don't know. I never know what will spoil it for people. I love the idea of having a devoted audience that knows the show well, and also new people that come to the show, and you can sit down and watch a story that is complete by itself. I've never engaged as much in the historical reality of the world as we did in 1968, last season. And it was appropriate because Don was in that state and because our world was in that state of deep anxiety caused by radical change. That's not something I will likely do again.
The universe of television that “Mad Men” exists in has changed an enormous amount since you started.
Matthew Weiner: It really has. We were talking about what streaming was like when we went on the air, there was still a philosophy that you couldn't stream anything that was longer than three minutes – that people didn't have the patience for it. And then iTunes happened as a broader commercial proposition during the first season of our show. It went from being college kids to everybody. And obviously Netflix happened about five years later. The idea of discussing something like Netflix streaming on your computer, no one even knew it would go onto the TV, all that stuff has happened. The technology has been the greatest change, and with that has come all of this amazing television.
Well, speaking of technology, it has struck me – and this may simply be that I'm watching the show live much more often the last few years than I did in the first few – that you may be structuring the episodes, and the act breaks, more with a thought to the show's commercial-free afterlife on these other platforms in mind than you are to how the episodes will come across when people are watching them on Sunday nights on AMC. Am I wrong on that?
Matthew Weiner: No, I'll be honest with you. It's been a credit to AMC that I have never had to pay attention to act breaks, to the things that go along with act breaks or commercials, which is a reiteration of the plot, summarizing. I think certain episodes have suffered from having something very important happening after the commercial break. But I always do the show as if you're going to watch the show straight through, and you have to pay attention to the show. I've never changed it for that. And I certainly never imagined that people would be watching it on their phone or binge-watching it, quite honestly, because it's so dense that I don't think it's the same experience. I'm not against it, because it's been amazing for our audience and I want people to be caught up and enjoy the show any way they want to. It's an incredible time of consumer freedom in terms of having access to the whole show at once, and access to everything that was ever made for television on some level. But I haven't changed it. From the pilot on, I wrote the pilot without having any one-hour experience, and I wrote it straight through, and I might have had a fade-out somewhere in it, but there was no attention to act breaks, no reiterations or reupping of the story. I just never did it. I didn't know I had to, and when I got to AMC, we started off with two commercial breaks, and the first season finale “The Wheel” was shown without any commercial breaks. I just try and make the whole thing a movie. The idea of an afterlife for the show at the beginning, that was like a fantasy. I didn't really know if it would be consumed in any other way. “The Sopranos” was like that. David was from one-hour and he knew how to do that, but it was constructed like a 52-page movie.
The final season of “The Sopranos” was another one that was made and then bifurcated. Did you take any lessons from that in terms of how you approached this?
Matthew Weiner: No I didn't. That really felt like two seasons, and one of them was short. The one thing I did say was that if they were going to do 13 episodes and do one 7 and one 6, I knew from having done that 9-episode season of “The Sopranos,” that I could not do anything in 6 episodes, that I needed 7.
You talked a moment ago about writing this pilot script back when you were working in sitcoms. If you could construct an actual time machine, as opposed to the Kodak slide projector, and go back and tell the Matt Weiner who was on staff at “Becker” what was going to come from writing this script, how do you think he would react?
Matthew Weiner: I'm still having trouble believing it happened. I don't think I could have convinced myself that it was going to happen. It's just a fantasy. It's hard to believe that something like this could have happened, and that I would be involved in it, and that I would be able to work with such amazing people. I'm not just gushing about it. I'm currently in the process of finishing the show forever, and I have thought about the beginning quite a bit. I just cannot believe this happened.
And it did. And it's been great.
Matthew Weiner: It's incredible. It's an incredible experience. It has been so creatively satisfying, and I can speak for the other people involved. We all feel so much of our lives were explored and utilized in this process. That's kind of your fantasy as an artist, to try to find meaning in all of that, and it's happened to our characters. They've had success, they've had way more dramatic lives than we have, but the story of the show has always been about – I always joke in the writers room, when I'm pitching a story, the key phrase is, “But he doesn't know it.” Like, “something happens, but she doesn't know it.” That's been the experience of the show on some level: that you can't realize that it's happened.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com