Interview: ‘Mad Men’ creator Matthew Weiner on the season 5 premiere

“Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner is famously tight-lipped about what’s happening on the show before it airs, but he was willing to talk to me about the events of the season 5 premiere (which I reviewed here), provided I posted the interview the morning after it aired. So here’s Weiner discussing why the season is set when it’s set, why not every character appeared in the premiere, and more, all coming up just as soon as we all go water skiing together…

Why set the season now? I know you choose the setting more on what’s going with the characters than what happened historically, so what’s happening in Don’s life about nine months after “Tomorrowland” that made this the good time to return?

It’s about nine months, that’s right. I felt I wanted to come back after he was married and see what the dynamic of his life was, how he had integrated Megan into his life at work and how their relationship was working with work. It felt like Joan would have had the baby already. That just seemed like the best place in the story to come back.

Did the length of the hiatus – and Kiernan (Shipka) growing like a weed – give you any pause on making the in-show gap shorter than the real-life gap?

I went to work last May, so that much time did not pass for me. We were shooting in August. It really was a little bit more than normal, not much. I don’t even worry about that. Kiernan does continue to grow, and I keep that in mind, but Sally is continuing to grow. She hasn’t outgrown Sally yet. The only real-world thing I had to deal with was January’s pregnancy, and how much we could use her.

So was Betty not in this episode because of January’s pregnancy, or because you wanted to focus in the return on the new Mrs. Draper?

There’s plenty of story to tell with Betty in relation to the new Mrs. Draper. We actually shot out of order, and by the time we got there, she wasn’t really available. We shot stuff with her earlier that we feathered in to other episodes. I like to dole the story out in pieces. I don’t want to rush into something just to get it over with. I hate the idea of just “checking in” on everybody. I want there to be story.

The premiere opens with a civil rights protest –

That story about Young & Rubicam was in the New York Times. It’s a real story. All that dialogue is from the New York TImes article: “They call us savages,” all of that. I just loved it. I felt like there was a certain amount, that they were not taking any of this seriously, and had contempt for it, and that frat boy atmosphere. It’s not our agency but not that different, and whether they like it or not, that is coming into their world. Completely the same spirit of frat boy disdain, lack of seriousness, about something that’s very serious for people, that’s how it entered their lives. Everybody thinks that there’s this solemn call to attention of We Shall Overcome and the world is so unjust, and that’s how change is made, but at the time, people were not taking it seriously, they were behaving badly, and that’s what I love. It’s a comeuppance. And it’s the way things happened.

Well, you’ve talked in the past that the civil rights strugle hasn’t impacted the character’s lives all that much yet because people in their socio-economic position wouldn’t have been touched by it all that much earlier. Are we at a point now where even they can’t avoid it?

You”ll have to see. You’ll see that it has so far. It did impact their lives. Paul went down for the voter registration. I am not doing a history lesson. I am looking at the lives of the people on Madison Avenue. If you look back at this period, you’d think every conversation would be about the war and economy, and it’s not. Life is going on as it should. It doesn’t mean change isn’t happening, and that these people aren’t going to wake up in five years to realize that the world has become incredibly different from what they’re accustomed to.

We find out that Don has told Megan at least something about Dick Whitman. Exactly how much does she know?

I just want the audience to know that he’s told her that that exists and he’s told her about his childhood. If they were expecting for the tension of the season to be about him keeping a secret from her the way he did from Betty, it’s not going to happen. How much he’s told her? You can see from the judgment and their conversation. It’s everything. She jokes about it.

It’s a different relationship. It’s obviously more straightforward and honest. There are a couple of things Don says that should shock you, and one is that this woman knows more about him than anyone else.

But he told Faye about Dick, too, and you’ve said that this is one of the reasons he chose Megan instead – that he wanted someone who wasn’t touched by that knowledge. What changed his mind?

We’ll have to see. Something about telling Megan did not scare him. I think you can see it symbolized by that white carpeting, but he is trying to make his life with her. It’s integrated into the office, and that’s complex, but he’s trying to make his life with her, and that requires a new level of intimacy, beyond the relationship with the people at work. She’s both places, which is part of the story, but I love the idea that “I don’t want those people in my house. I don’t want them to see what we have. I like locking the door and having you flash me, I don’t need them to see your youthful sexuality.”

When last we saw Bert Cooper, he was leaving the agency in a huff over Don’s New York Times ad, vowing never to return. Now, he’s just back. Is this something you intend to explain later, or do you just trust that this one’s pretty easy for the audience to fill in the blanks?

I think so. I do not feel bad, or that it’s a hanging thread, that that man would have just come back. I think it’s completely within character. If anything, he is one of the most capricious people in the show. That fits the behavior.

In the premiere, we see that there are some people like Pete and Peggy who are continuing to work very hard, and then others who are just lurking around. What kind of shape is the agency in at this point?

I think you can always judge it by the amount of typing and phones ringing you hear. There’s a very specific statement made by Ken about where they are. We see that Pete is dissatisfied despite their stability. To me, the question is about ambition, and the most important thing is to look at how much work Don is doing – or how much he isn’t. Pete says, “You have nothing on your schedule,” and Don says to Megan, “I don’t care about work.” I don’t think we expected those words to come out of his mouth, whether or not he actually means them.

Yeah, the Don from “Tomorrowland” on seems very different from the man we got to know earlier.

I guess so, yeah. We’ve had this conversation many times. To me, one of the defining truths about the human condition is we are always in the process of trying to change. And one of the endearing things about Don is that despite his behavior, he is trying to be a better person. He got very far last year, and then had to write the Lucky Strike letter to save it, and part of it comes off as business genius and part as an act of real selfishness. This relationship may be selfish, but maybe it’s time for him to focus on that part of his life.

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