Interview: ‘Mad Men’ creator Matthew Weiner previews season 5

PASADENA – “Mad Men” will return on Sunday, March 25 with a two-hour episode that the show’s creator Matthew Weiner called a “movie.” Parts of it are structured like two episodes that will air on the same night, but both hours were directed by “The Suitcase” director Jennifer Getzinger, and Weiner tried to outline it so it would work as one big piece.
That’s a splashy return for a show that’s been off the air since October of 2010, and to get the press ready, AMC brought Weiner and virtually the entire “Mad Men” cast (from Jon Hamm on down to Jay R. Ferguson, who plays sexist art director Stan Rizzo) to press tour Saturday night for a meet-and-greet cocktail party. As always, the actors were on lockdown about what they could say about the new season (Christina Hendricks flinched at the notion of even hinting about what Joan’s maternal side is like), so I eventually went straight to the source and spent a few minutes talking with Weiner and another reporter (whose questions are mixed in with mine) about what season 5 is about in terms of theme, if not plot.
Thematically, what is season 5 about?
It’s hard to boil it down, and I always preface it with that, but the things that were on my mind were a couple of things. One is one that I realized it turned out as we got through it, but it’s really every man for himself. We’ve talked about how life isn’t fair before on the show, but that realization that you really have to deal with your own problems by yourself, and other people are not interested, and that self-interest can be a surprise, especially if you’re trying to be good. And then the other thing is, and it really kept coming up – the line is in the show in episode 3 – is, “When is everything going to get back to normal?”
And it’s not.
Yeah. This is normal. And I feel like that’s the way it is right now. That’s what I feel: we are undergoing such tremendous change. Technological, social, our perception of ourselves as a country, our perception of each other. The country at one time feels like a melting pot and as culturally diverse as ever, and at the same time, I don’t know what period I’m looking to, but I don’t feel like my feet are on the ground. What you realize is, this is the way it is.
When you say “every person for themselves,” in a broader sense, what do you mean by that?
We have a show that is about people’s personal lives and about their jobs. We take that very seriously, and these are very ambitious people. But there’s a certain point where you have to start thinking for yourself, and a lot of behavior you would judge as very negative for yourself, or destructive or whatever – that is the only way to achieve what you want. If you sit there and wait for someone to give you anything in life, there’s a very good chance you won’t get it. That can be a very earth-shattering thing about understanding the world.
You take someone like Don, who we know is trying to be a better person. With the audience, I think that’s part of what they like about him. They see that there is virtue in this man. From the pilot, the fact that he’s talking to the busboy, who’s an African-American man in his 50s, he immediately cuts through everything to say, “Well, this is a human being’s opinion.” You see someone there (in Don) who has a virtue in their trust of other people, and is a bit of a chameleon, and curious and open and all these things you could talk about. Don’s maneuver at the end of last season was really, really selfish. And he may have saved the business, but that’s what I’m talking about. How long does it take to learn that lesson? That’s a big part of the season.
He seems particularly well-versed in being able to survive that, and not everybody else in the show can do it. So who suffers the most in that change?
I can’t tell you that. I can tell you one thing, which is that if you keep it on your mind, it is constantly there. And you know, I’m a composer who is writing for an incredible orchestra. It is not pre-meditated, but there are seasons where there’s been a lot of Betty, seasons where there’s been a lot of Peggy. There’s always going to be a lot of Don. But I have gotten to really feel like, even with this huge cast of characters that I fought to keep in the world – I don’t want the world to get any smaller – I think that Christina had an amazing season, Vinny (Kartheiser) had an amazing season, Lizzy (Moss). It’s all over the place.
(Note: the next question/gaffe is mine. It was the end of tour and I was brain-dead.)
You set up a lot of stories in last year’s finale: Don marries Megan…
Don does not marry Megan.
Yes, yes, of course. Don gets engaged to Megan.
Don proposes to Megan.
It’s been a while.
(laughs) Catch up! I actually have to tell you, I more than anyone, know that a lot of the pleasure in the show is the accumulation of detail. But I do think that last season’s finale was kind of the most cliffhanger-y we’ve done. It was such an abrupt shift. We’d just gotten to know Don, and then we were on the outside again. And some people felt betrayed in a way. They felt the story was honest, but they felt, “Oh! He almost made it!” But I think considering all the drama of not being on the air for the last year, I’m glad that it was that kind of episode and we left it there.
How are they going to catch up? I think more people have seen the show on Netflix than had ever seen the show before. At least, that’s my personal experience.
I imagine you had certain ideas about where those stories were going to go. Did that change given the amount of time there was (after)?
I am going to terrify everyone here: I never have an idea when that finale is over. I really don’t. I want to stay within that reality, but I think the audience deserves to not have the same thing happening for five years. I literally try and like shake it up and dump out the milkshake and rinse out the glass and start over. Whatever happens in between, and whatever happens in my life, certain success is something that everyone on the show now feels this responsibility to the audience. So you get extra pressure to please. And I am a showman and an entertainer a little bit, so I do want to please that way. But all that said, I look at it like everyone’s saying, “Oh my god, now you gotta raise the bar. How are you going to top last year? People really liked it.” And I love hearing that, but some of it makes me want to vomit, because I can’t think that way. I’m literally like, “You like chocolate ice cream? I can’t make richer chocolate ice cream. I’m going to make orange sherbet this year.”
(Brief recorder malfunction here, but Weiner is asked about all the good shows that either debuted or blossomed during the long “Mad Men” hiatus.)
You think that I’m upset when there’s good things on TV? I think it’s good. I compete with everybody, but I think the more good stuff there is, the more TV people watch. And by the way, going back to the ice cream, there hasn’t been any “Mad Men” (while we were away). What is good, what is bad? Talk about new. New has always got a little edge.
But do you feel any pressure?
Now, we are the old show. To go to an awards show and go, “We’ve been on the air longer than anything else being nominated.” I still want my special excuses: We’re new! You don’t understand us! I think we’re an underdog. We’re always going to be an underdog. The show is very specific and it’s very peculiar.
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