Interview: ‘Mad Men’ creator Matthew Weiner talks season four

Senior Television Writer
07.25.10 11 Comments


“Mad Men” is back for another season, and you can read my review of the season premiere, “Public Relations,” right here. I also spoke with the show”s creator, Matthew Weiner, about the premiere, some leftover business from last season (for instance, the shift in Betty”s attitude towards Don between the end of “The Gypsy and the Hobo” and the events of “The Grown-Ups”) and his latest thoughts on how long the series might go, and that”s all coming up just as soon as I lift a shadow off this evening…

I”m curious, both from a chronological standpoint and in terms of the story of Don and the firm, why you decided to land here in Thanksgiving of ’64.

It’s always hard for the fans of the show to get used to the idea that the story’s gotta start on page one every time. I did not want to just pick up the next day and say, ‘Okay, we”re going to go through the trials and tribulations and details of the divorce and finding office space, and them getting up and getting started.” I thought wouldn’t it be great to go to a more settled period, or an apparently settled period, so Don is beyond the immediate trauma, everyone is beyond the immediate trauma of this big change, and can start to deal with the more serious issues of the impermanence of that situation? To start at Thanksgiving of ’64 when the holidays will be coming up, that’s the tenderest spot for a divorced family. Even with someone like Don, who missed Thanksgiving at the end of the first season, it”s where all the logistics came into play and we get to see how his life is being dealt with.

And equally with the business to say okay, they survived, they have had this tremendous creative success with Glo-Coat, Don is triumphant but now with a new set of rules. Because as reticent as he was to be the center of attention, now the business is depending on it. So is he going to come out of the protection of being the creative genius and take responsibility for the business. And also for his life. He’s lost his coordinates. The reporter with one leg, I didn’t have to do that, it wasn’t just for laughs. The idea was that Don has a phantom limb. His toes are itching, but he really has one leg.

To me, it was the best prism in which to see how much had changed for him and where he was. I try to pick a point where the story is already underway for the characters and let the audience in on it. Just open the curtains and say, ‘This is where they are.” It was the same thing with the British last year. It”s like, why bother seeing the British take over and see how that goes? Why not just start on the first day of the last firing?

And it occurs to me that if you”re going to keep the kids playing Sally and Bobby, you couldn”t go a whole lot further than this, could you?

I never think that way. I could have gone further than this. I was in love with the idea of that Thanksgiving, how Don was going to deal with his family. He has more intimacy with Betty since they’ve broken up. They have more frank conversations, you know? He has more, on paper, responsibility to his family – it”s legislated, basically – than he ever did when he was a part of the home. Yeah, I guess so, I didn’t think about that, but you”re right that if I said we were going to start in ’67, someone would say, ‘The kids don”t look it.” But in the time that we”ve gone, Kiernan Shipka is not a little girl anymore. It blew my mind.

The reason I ask is because – and I know plans change and you were never entirely committed to this to begin with – but at one point in the series you had said the idea would be to do five years, and to make it to the end of the decade by the end of that fifth year. And now things have slowed down considerably.

What happened is, when we talked, it’s so hypothetical. But I was going to skip 1963, and I decided not to do that. I was going to have it come back every two years, but then I thought, ‘Why have a formula? Why not let the story dictate when we”re going to open up the curtains every year?’

In terms of how long it goes, who knows? I don’t want the fans to feel insecure. I don’t know. I have plenty of story to tell. One of the great things about committing to the changes at the end of last season is that there”s so much life to the show. There”s so much new story in this whole beginning.

It seems that with the shift from the old firm to the new firm, everyone has finally entered what”s more commonly thought of as the 1960s.

I guess so, yeah. It depends on your level of education and understanding. Some people will not feel like we’re in the 1960s until they see the long hair and the Army jackets. 1964-65 is, like 1962 was, still a pretty calm period in comparison to what’s coming. It’s really, really very genteel to what”s coming. But definitely, I have kept track of the calendar and I wanted to show that the world has moved on, for sure. Roger Sterling has moved on more than Don has, right?

Well, Don is having some struggles in this episode. He struggles to connect with the client, he can”t really close the deal with Jane”s friend. Is it a case of Don being off his game or perhaps the times changing more than Don is ready for?

I don’t see this as struggles at all. There are obviously conflicts. To me, if Don was married, he probably could have slept with that girl in one night. That was the reality of the fact that as a single man who is a legitimate possibility as a partner, you don”t just jump into bed. He was not shut down; he is in a normal relationship. He”s in the courting process, and that”s a surprise for us to see. Don is going to have to put in the time like everyone else. When he was married, there was no future, and it would be what it is.. Equally, I think with the client, it’s a matter of he has fought for independence on some level, and the level of compromise he has is directly related to the level of responsibility he”s willing to take for the company. What the first episode for me was about was him realizing that this private person, probably because of his background and because of being from Midwestern rural poverty, because of his fear about his identity, he’s never stepped to the forefront of everything. He”s just been comfortable being in the creative realm, and what they”re telling him is that with the success of Glo-Coat, which is a considerable success for the company, he”s going to have to be front-and-center, and he is going to have to start behaving that way. Roger says it to him: the reporter didn’t find his modesty to be appropriate considering how successful he was and he didn”t believe him. Don didn’t give him any information because that”s who Don is. But guess what? It can”t be that way anymore. That, to me, is Don accepting his new role. By the end of it, you see that he’s on his game and he”s being less reactive and committing to the idea that he has to be this other person. He”s putting his foot down with his family, he’s frustrated.

I don”t like to think that he”s off his game. I do think that whatever fantasy people had for him about the single Don and how much fun it’s going to be, they realize that, like this phantom limb, this man has lost all his coordinates and really, having fought all this time to be the guy in the suit at the corporation with all the money and the wife and the kids and the house in Westchester, that that”s all gone, and he may not know exactly who he’s supposed to be. He certainly isn’t going to go back to being Dick Whitman. So who is he, actually?

And, obviously, he”s feeling a bit of self-loathing in terms of his relationship with the prostitute.

I don’t think anybody’s going to see that and think it’s out of character. He’s certainly paying for it because it gives him control. And in terms of what their activities are? Yeah, he may feel that he needs punishment.

I was re-watching “The Wheel” the other night during one of AMC”s marathons, and Betty has the line to her therapist about how sometimes in bed, ‘He”s doing what I want,” and sometimes…

‘…it”s obviously what someone else wants.”

And now that he”s paying for it, we”re seeing exactly what he wants, unfiltered through anything.

He wants different things at different times, but we certainly saw with Bobbie Barrett that he had an S&M streak in him. Anyone who is deriving so much of their identity from their sexual life, that”s going to be a big part of it. He is a seducer by profession, so it makes sense that all of the power relationships in sex would be part of his desire – to me, anyway.

In terms of writing the Betty scenes in the premiere and going forward, did you find it easier, harder, or about what you expected in terms of keeping her part of the story now that she”s not married to Don, given that when other people split apart from the firm, they have fallen out of the narrative?

She was an incredible focus of the show last year, more than she was either of the last two seasons. I feel that it’s a lot like it was the first season. First of all, I am very fascinated by why she made that choice and how that’s going to work. Second of all, only on TV would a guy divorce someone who lives in the same state as him who he has three children with and never see them again. That”s a huge problem. And for someone like Don, his relationship with his kids, no matter how good or bad a father he was in terms of face time, it’s very important to him. You can see it in the Glo-Coat ad that he has a relationship with childhood and with his own children, and he doesn”t want to repeat the mistakes of his family. To me, that power struggle between the two of them and how that relationship works with a divorced man in this period, at this age – I honestly couldn’t find stories about it, anywhere. I couldn’t find movies, I couldn’t find anything. I could find widowers, I could find people who were divorced three times, people on their third marriage. But in terms of someone who is a single person who is not the uncle to be dealing with a new structure in their family within the constraints of that time, that was a great story to me.

So it wasn’t that hard. I was shocked that people thought she wasn’t going to be in the show anymore. She’s got his kids! Their relationship was not about him handing her money every week. They stayed together for that baby. It obviously, at least as a symbol, was very important to him.

Well, you said a moment ago that you want to get into why she made the decision that she did. And there was a sense at the end of “The Gypsy and the Hobo” that, once the walls came down and she saw who she was really married to, they were at least going to give it a try. And by the next episode, she gave up on it. Are we going to go into that a little more?

I think we will. I hope that people understood that the way “The Grown-Ups” worked, to me, that was like 9/11: a time when people had a realization, some of it nihilistic, but certainly profound realization about their life situations. And people make life decisions based on that. I think that her knowing who he was was not good for their relationship, even though it was the truth. I think she was embarrassed and also kind of stunned, because him being a mysterious figure was a lot easier to take than who he actually was. On some level I think she thinks he”s way below her. Especially when you see that Henry is probably much more what she hoped Don would be.

But we’re going to deal with that in the show. That”s part of the story.

I noticed that Allison has found her way over to the new firm, but I didn”t see any other familiar faces who weren”t there at the end of last season. In terms of writing the finale and then going into this year, how did you decide who was going to stay and who was going to go and who was maybe not going to be part of the show anymore?

I give full credit to David Chase for this. To commit to changing the players is something that keeps the audience believing in the universe. So I knew that there would have to be some changes and I couldn’t just reconstruct Sterling Cooper in a new office. Especially since we”d always been playing with the idea that this place was much bigger than the 10 people that we saw. That said, it was really tough. I felt with all the trouble Don had with all his secretaries, she was a really good secretary. I loved the actress (Alexa Alemanni). She started off in the first season with one line. People don”t give credit for these things, but to come in and nail one line in a scene with a bunch of people that (the audience knows), it’s very impressive when people can do that. That was one decision, the producer decision in my head. And the other part of it was that I felt that there was no reason for Don not to bring her into the new firm. They were all going to go to McCann, and she was the best secretary we”d seen him have.

in terms of the actual employees, well, what’s believable? They downscaled it tremendously. Part of the fun of the new office is, you can see how compacted the hierarchy is, you can see how Peggy deals with him and how Pete is bucking them up. You can feel how much smaller it is. Advertising agencies have no assets, so when they get more work, they can hire more people. But for the time being, the people they took are the people they took. That was really hard, believe me. But it was a decision that I made at the end of last year.

When it happened, everyone loved “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” but there were definitely some expressions of, ‘God, if he doesn”t come back, I”m going to miss Kinsey.” Or ‘I”m sorry Sal didn”t come.”

(sighs) I know, I know. But you know what? I don’t have a lot of murder or action in the story, and even when you do, there has to be consequences. I want people to believe that things are on the line and that jobs and lives are on the line. There has to be consequences. Who would dissolve between the two main characters? Who abandons a set that made the show famous? This is all for the purposes of entertainment and invigorating the show, that people would see we”re committed to a kind of reality that you”re not used to seeing in this environment – usually, because it costs so much money.

I really like the look of the new office.

They really did a great job. I have a weird feeling that in some way, when people read the pilot, the show that they’re watching right now is probably the show they expected it to be at the beginning. And it”s kind of fun for me to have earned our way into that.

How do you mean?

Just, where their survival is on the line, and where Don is amazing at his job but he is also trouble. When you start the pilot, you think he’s a bachelor.

It was great to basically create a pilot with characters that I already knew and change the premise to “Okay, you know everything about these people,” and even if you haven”t seen the show before, you have an entree where you can say, “Here’s the situation: this person is going to be dealing with a whole new set of problems, and it”s not related to politics.” We’ve made a habit of taking things away from him. And it’s part of being a survivor that he has endured. So here’s a new challenge, a totally different challenge.

In terms of the new staff, we see that Peggy and Joey have this running gag between them where they quote Stan Freberg”s “John and Marsha,” but that was not all that new by 1964.

All I can tell you is that was done in my home as late as 1985. It had a very deep impact. It’s perennial. You’re not meant to think it just went on the air yesterday. It just shows those two are really in advertising. They’re still doing it. Stan Freberg is still the measuring stick of humorous advertising. It shows their relationship to me.

It feels like Peggy has gotten some thicker armor when dealing with Don. It hurts when he attacks her, but she”s ready for it and has coping mechanisms that she didn”t before.

Like I said, the hierarchy has collpased. He promised her a certain level of responsibility and she is taking it very seriously. That means that she can give it back a little bit without being terrified. But he’s still Don, he’s still a little scary. I”m glad he”s not my boss!

Pete also, you see at the beginning of that, Pete’s a real account man. Pete has a real relationship with Don that”s very different. Him bucking Don up and dividing their job at the beginning there, there”s less people so everybody has more responsibility. So that means they are closer, and more intimate in a way. And that”s something you”ll feel in the show as a new dynamic.

It also seems like, at least for now, whatever issues Pete had with Peggy have gone by the wayside.

Yeah, I think they have. We talked about it, even for the second season, he slept with this woman the first week she worked there and then had one more time. It’s not impossible to be in a life with people like that and Pete has his own life. I think Pete is happier with his own wife, so that”s maybe on the backburner for now.

Joan does not get a lot to do in the premiere, but she seems much more content than she was for most of season three.

Season three, she made a very traditional season and had to pay the piper. You”ll see as it goes on. She has a lot to do this year, but she never had an office before. She has a job. That’s already financially different for her, and psychologically different for her. As with everyone on the show, as we go, we’ll start to go home with her and see what”s going on.

Well, the scene where Harry comes into her office and she completely owns him – she seems to have more of a feeling of equality with some of these people that she did not before.

Yeah, because she has a position of power. She’s not in charge of the secretaries anymore, she’s in a different job. She”s running traffic for the agency, which is sort of what she did before, but, yes, her career has risen. First of all, they all know her, so they know being deferential to her will be better anyway, but she has more of a position of power. I think it’s also worth noting that Harry has succeeded in his pursuit of being the show business side of Sterling Cooper.

Harry says “tsuris.”

I know! There were some comments, “Is he Jewish?” I said, “No, he’s in show business!” David Chase was stunned; he”d been working in TV for 30 years and he knew more Yiddish than I did.

(Our allotted interview time up, we say our goodbyes, and then Weiner pauses to offer this thought.)

We’ve done episodes that have started the season that have been about Don being bored or Don being scared or Don being non-plussed. For me, this is, “Okay, he got everything that you thought he was going to get. What is it like to live with that? Can he step up and actually live with it?” “Who are you?” Well, everything’s been taken away from him, and he”ll get a chance to ask that question.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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