Matthew Weiner: I struggle with reality, which is that their closeness was affected by Don’s relationship with Megan, as we saw in “Tomorrowland.” She was not competing with Megan, but he had a person in his life that was providing what (Peggy) had provided for him, once he found someone knew. And then she is working her butt off. She is family, and he uses her as an outlet for his honesty and for his unfettered emotions, and she’s getting too much abuse, along with her success, that he’s always seeing her that way. It’s always a struggle, but the writer’s room was very clear about it that there was no way she would keep working there. So that’s the way to do it is to find an exit for her. As far as her being part of the show, you’re going to have to wait and see how we deal with that.
Matthew Weiner: We were always interested in this early Virginia Slims thing. We loved the fact that it was a small, undesirable product for everybody, and it of course became a pretty big success. But that’s such a famous campaign written by such a distinctive person that I would never do that.
Matthew Weiner: I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. Obviously, we had “723,” which is told in a flashback structure. We have Don flashbacks a lot of times that go in and out of reality. “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” has parallel stories in the present and the past. What I did feel was at this point, 65 episodes into it, that we had earned the right where I don’t want to do the same show every week. And how do you tell a story in the most interesting way? I loved the LSD episode of telling these three episodes simultaneously. It’s a very old form. There’s an old movie I love called “Le Plaisir,” by Max Ophüls, based on some separate short stories by Guy de Maupassant where you follow each character and they sort overlap a little bit. We thought, “How intense would it be to have these three relationships thematically unified?” Three relationships sort of on the rocks, being defined, these people taking a journey to another place and what that means for you, yourself and your partner.
You’re now dealing with the second half of the ’60s, which is the more famous, more chronicled, more familiar to a younger generation half of the decade. How, if at all, does that change the way you approached storytelling this season?
Matthew Weiner: It has a lot, actually. It’s something I didn’t really want to say, but you’re the first person to ask me. I’ve always been telling a story, from the beginning of season 2, when the youth culture starts to be the focus of the advertising industry and commerce in general, and then the society. And you see Clearasil and talk about Pepsi, but there’s the scene in the elevator with the guys talking and they won’t take their hats off. And the crudening of our culture, it’s a big part of the story. There becomes less irony, and as the manners disappear, there’s less hiding. That’s something that I’ve really tried to tell. That’s why Ginsberg will swear out of the middle of nowhere, that’s why more of the language becomes more on the nose. Witticisms start dropping off. It hasn’t changed for Don and Roger, but I’m trying to tell a story about how we’ve become the way we are now. And I think that being inundated with nihilism, random violence, the rise of subversion in the marketplace – which Ginsberg represents – multi-culturalism, this is not a good or bad judgment. It’s just part of how we became more modern, and what people perceive. One of my things is that human behavior doesn’t change, but certainly the manners change, and what you’re watching is the manners changing.
Matthew Weiner: I’ve heard that discussion too, except for then when I hear what people say what the theme is, I’m disappointed, because it’s so obvious and yet they’re wrong most of the time. They say how obvious it is, and yet it’s basically not what I was talking about. I’m flattered and pleased to have this unique television show that even deals with theme. If there’s any attention to the audience to look at a theme, I don’t think it exists anywhere else. It’s one of the unique things that the show has to offer. When I look at the kind of work I try and emulate and the kind of storytelling that I like – if you look at “Moby Dick” and ask, ‘What does the whale mean?” You can say, “Well, the whale means this” and end your conversation at that. But that’s not what it means. There’s a scene at the beginning of “Moby Dick” where he goes into a hotel and there’s a painting on the wall that basically tells the entire story. So people trying to guess what’s going to happen versus people trying to allow themselves to experience a meditation on an idea like jealousy or need or friendship – “Signal 30” was one where to say it’s about friendship, like there’s a test on the episode is a bummer for me. To say, “What does it say about friendship?” is something else.
It’s tough to get a question like that, because it puts you in such a defensive position. God knows, I love the amount of criticism the show gets, because it shows people’s passion for it. I don’t want them to stop writing about it, or theorizing or even every season saying it’s not as good as it used to be. That’s fine with me, because it means that people are interested in it and watching it. But I do want people to know that if they give themselves over to each episode, there’s a lot more there, and the fact that they’re even looking for a theme is a lot more flattering for me. It’s not usually the topic of a one-hour TV drama.
There was a lot of talk of science fiction this year, with Ken’s stories, with Ginsberg talking about Mars, Paul writing a “Star Trek” script, and one of Megan’s friends auditions for “Dark Shadows.” I’m curious why you wanted to hit science fiction so hard. And also, was it purely a coincidence that she’s auditioning for “Dark Shadows” in an episode that aired the weekend the movie came out.
Matthew Weiner: That was a total coincidence. (In terms of science fiction), you have to realize that we do look at the calendar and do look at what’s happening. There are certain times when I key into things. The amount of UFO sightings in New York City from 1959 to 1970 are huge. Science fiction starts in the 50s and it’s always seen as a Cold War phenomenon, but it really comes into fruition and reaches the mass culture – look at “Star Trek” getting on national TV – in the mid-’60s. It’s something we found that was everywhere. And it was a way for people to talk about very profound things. “The Twilight Zone,” I’m obviously a huge fan. I always love seeing that interview of Rod Serling saying, “Oh, I’m just telling little stories…” And he’s getting to do this incredible cultural critique every week. We’re talking about a society that is subversive and, in the midst of success, sort of overwhelmed with deeper issues, like what is our purpose and can we be a better society? That’s sort of what happened by the end of the ’60s: a lot of ideological things come into play because the financial needs are being met. Science fiction’s a part of that. It was really derived from that period. And Ken gets to tell a story about his life, or about Pete’s, the genre he picks is science fiction, because – just like the rest of his life – he can hide the deeper meaning under this fantastical story. I am a huge science fiction fan, and I loved it when I started seeing it was really, really on everyone’s mind. Once something gets on national television, it’s everywhere. When we started the show, I thought how big all of the beatnik jokes were. Oh, this is not a small thing anymore, by 1960, the whole culture is laughing about it. When you have Maynard G. Krebs on a national TV show, then my mom and dad know what a beatnik was.
Finally, I’ve seen some of the other interviews you’ve done where you answered the Joan question, so I’m not going to rehash that. But I’m curious, given how long you’ve been on, how do you decide what bits of the history of the show people are just going to understand implicitly like the previous examples of Joan’s pragmatism and what needs to be underlined more, like the connection between Lane’s suicide and Adam Whitman’s?
Matthew Weiner: I don’t even think about it. We sort of live in the world where we are. I forget things. Jared Harris reminded me in the episode where they get in the fight that he had been instrumental in Pete’s success, and that that should come up. He was particularly disgusted because he had basically put Pete in there against Roger. I had forgotten that. On the other hand, what a pleasure it is as a writer to be able to know that five years later, the audience knows who Adam is the minute they see him. Or that Joan can say something – and this is in one of the episodes that people find so unsubtle – is when Joan says to Greg, “You’re not a good man and you never have been, and you know what I’m talking about,” that the audience knows exactly what she’s talking about. That was four seasons beforehand. What a pleasure to be in a complete universe like that. I try not to think about what the audience will and will not understand. One of the secrets of doing the show – and AMC has been on board with this, as has Lionsgate – is we look at each other and go, “Do we understand this?” And if we understand it, then we just assume the audience does. That’s really the only rule. I never step back and go, “Oh, it’s too much math. No one’s going to understand a credit line.” We don’t even worry about it. We literally just do it, because we understand it, and that’s it.
I always think about the other side of it: can you enjoy the show if you don’t know what it is? I do think about that. And every one of these things has passed the test on that.