Warning: this post contains spoilers for the first 12 episodes of the “Mad Men” season.
What does Sunday night’s season finale of “Mad Men” hold in store for the staff at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, its ex-employees that we still care about and anyone who wasn’t killed off in last week’s episode? What are the long-term marital prospects for Megan and Don Draper? Will we ever see Peggy Olson again? How is everyone at the office coping with the sad fate of Lane Pryce? Should Pete Campbell keep his distance from open windows and elevator shafts for the time being? And how’s Paul Kinsey coming along on those revisions to his “Star Trek” spec script?
As of this writing, Matthew Weiner, the “Mad Men” series creator and show runner, was willing to answer only a few of these questions: on Sunday afternoon, he spoke to ArtsBeat about everything that’s happened on the series this season prior to the finale. (And he has sworn on a box of Bugles that he’ll call us back on Monday to talk about the finale itself.) These are excerpts from that conversation.
I had a trajectory all worked out for this conversation, and then a more pressing lead-off question came up. There’s a lot of curiosity, bordering on concern, about whether Peggy Olson is coming back or if we’ve seen the last of that character. Is something that you’ll address?
I’ll say the same thing I always say: You have to watch the show. I want people to worry about it, and I want there to be stakes. I’m not going to address it. Lane is not coming back, I can tell you that.
We heard from Jared Harris about how he dealt with his exit from the series. What was it like for you to have to let him go?
It’s a terrible thing to have to deal with. You want to make sure that it’s worth it, that they’re going out with a bang and you’re not sacrificing someone who’s a great actor and a great musician in the orchestra. But also I feel like there have to be stakes. This year was filled with foreboding of violence and death, and the connection of that early summer between the riots, which resulted in death, police killing innocent people, and the Richard Speck murders and the guy on the Texas tower [Charles Whitman]. The randomness and the nihilism that was born from that was something that permeated the story. Lane’s story I thought was about someone who has undervalued themselves and that was his only way out, he thought.
His character arc this season sometimes suggested that he was gaining confidence. Was he ultimately someone who couldn’t be allowed to get what he wanted?
His rage to Don at the beginning of that scene where he’s caught – everything he says is true. And you look at it and say, it could drive you to it. It’s based on a true story. There was someone I don’t want to – suicide is a very private thing and it’s so very shameful, but there was a story about someone in an ad agency who had hung themselves in their office and they couldn’t get the door open. From the beginning, I was like, we’re probably going to end up using that.
Having Don remain married to Megan has had ramifications throughout this season. When did you make that decision that her character would play this integral role?
I made the decision last year when I cast Jessica [Paré]. For me, I was saying, Don is someone who has chosen this woman because he wants to be a new kind of person. He doesn’t want to do what Faye said, which is accept himself and move on. The attractiveness of her youth is very, very positive for him. This is the wife where he’s going to do it right – where he’s a more free footing and he knows everything. But this woman has her own life, and it’s this disturbing process for Don, of loving someone and saying, We’re one soul, we’re one person – but that person is me. I thought it was a great way to find out so much about Don and what his aspirations were.
Did you expect that audiences might resist this choice at first – that Don’s being happily married and losing sight of his work might feel contrary to his character?
The audience felt it but it wasn’t until Bert Cooper said to him, “You’re on love leave,” that anyone realized, it’s not just that we’re not seeing those scenes – he really isn’t doing anything. That allowed Pete to step in, and Pete confronts him a lot during the beginning of the season in ways that we would have expected Don to mop the floor with him. But Don backs off because he is happy in his domestic life. And how great it was for me, story-wise, when he realized that he missed [Megan] in that office and things were not the way he pictured them and finally get a fire lit under him.
This has sort of been strange to me, because it’s one of these things where my intentions and what the audience wants is thwarted by Jon Hamm’s charisma and acting. But his speech to Dow [Chemical] was supposed to be ugly. It was supposed to be a voracious representation of dissatisfaction – what does this man have to complain about? That greed for the sensation of victory is ugly, and that’s kind of who he is. But the reason Jon Hamm got this part was the way he made cigarettes sound like something to get excited about.
Now that he’s learned that Megan is an independent person who could potentially have a life without him, could that bring down the marriage?
I think it’s been a challenge for the marriage, and that’s what we’ve been seeing. It’s not being modern or not – it’s the idea of having a fantasy that this woman is there to save him. Roger says it in the first episode: “They’re all great girls until they want something.” What a condescending concept. And on the other hand, there’s a relative scale to things. One of my favorite scenes, in the episode where she quits, when Roger says to Don, “My father told me what to do,” and Don says, “I was raised in the 30s – I didn’t follow my dream. My dream was indoor plumbing.” This whole idea of getting to pursue a dream, even, is such a modern, spoiled luxury. I think the thing that was the hardest for the audience to deal with is the fact that he really loves this woman and she does bring out the best in him. They have this incredible carnal relationship that’s based on the twisting of power – it’s very animal and I would not try to put it into intellectual terms.
The possibility that Peggy could leave the office has been on the table for some time. How should we construe her farewell scene with Don?
I hear people trying to catch onto themes like there’s a right answer for it, and my intention is always a non-verbal association, a meditation on an idea. And the idea that this is how you stand up for yourself and what are the tools available to a woman? What is a woman offered, in terms of power, and how do they have to behave, versus a man? Her saying goodbye to Don, after he threw the money in her face, that’s the way we treat the people we love. They get all of that. This is not just somebody complaining that nobody loves me – this somebody saying, “Is this really how it’s going to be? Is he always going to see me that way?”
But there was affection in that scene also.
My God, he kisses her hand. He knows that she’s more than that and he knows that he would probably do the same thing and he’s regretful of taking her for granted. The people we love get to see the worst parts of us – that’s part of the job. “Don’t be a stranger” – their relationship is bigger than this job. When she says to him, “You have no idea when things are good,” she doesn’t know what he’s just gone through with Joan and the pitch, but she does know there’s a celebration going on and neither of them should have to do what they’re about to. And as she’s giving her very rehearsed resignation speech, which you know she practiced in the mirror or on the subway on the way in, hopefully the audience along with her and Don are flashing back to this person who woke him up in the middle of the day and said, “I’m the new girl.”
How long had you been contemplating Joan’s “Indecent Proposal” storyline?
People tell me their stories, ever since the show went on the air. And the stories that I’ve heard of women doing this or some form of this were in the triple digits, seriously. Over 100 stories. They did it for a lot less, that’s the part that’s fictional – Lane maneuvering her into the partnership thing so that he wouldn’t have to get rid of cash immediately. In terms of doing it on the show, I knew eventually we were going to have to do it, and I knew that she would go through with it if she were in the right situation. I really do believe that if I had not used the word prostitution, I don’t know if it would have occurred to the audience that it was anything other than something really disgusting.
Is it difficult to ask your cast members to go through with it?
No, absolutely not. God knows the actors are living in it and living with it. Everything that happens to them sticks to them as real-life human beings. But people want drama and they want to be in the story. Everybody wants to be the focus of a story, and everyone knows this world and saw how down and dirty it had gotten in success this year. To me, the most telling thing of all of it was when she says, “You can’t afford it.” There’s an absolute no, and there’s “You can’t afford it,” and “You can’t afford it” means there’s a price. And why wouldn’t there be? If there was a way to actually have this happen in life, I would love to be faced with this incredibly deep moral problem. It is one night and I don’t know that I would find it a huge moral compromise. But I don’t live in that world, and no one’s ever asked me.
But it’s one thing to imagine that this could happen to your characters, and another thing to then write it. Did you feel like some kind of Rubicon had been crossed by having Joan actually go through with the proposition?
There’s other things going into it, too. There’s a wish fulfillment. The whole “Indecent Proposal” story is based on a kind of sexual fantasy, that there’s a man who has so much money he can have anybody he wants, and he’s willing to offer everything to spend a night with somebody. That’s a flattering proposition. And then we went out of our way that there was nothing romantic about it. To me, it’s a symbol of the success of the show and the storytelling that people really didn’t want to her to do it. The fact that she wouldn’t do it is insane. She’s in a financial situation and she’s emotionally a wreck because of this rejection from her horrible husband who raped her. She had an affair with Roger for eight years and she had a baby she passed off as her husband’s. I find it satisfying that there was a debate about it, but for me, the cards were stacked and we of course stacked the cards very much in favor of doing it. And I think she’s a very powerful person for making that decision in the end.
As we go into the finale, people are anticipating something unpleasant for Pete Campbell.
Every season people are predicting someone’s going to kill themselves. Every season the show is filled with death imagery. Our second season was all about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in the popular culture there was such an obsession with the end of the world. It’s not stupid to say that Pete and Don have switched places in some ways. He has been pushing his shoulder against a door, trying to open it for a very long time. And now it’s open and he has to step through it, and guess what’s on the other side? Him.
Are you prepared now to say what that scene with Don and the elevator shaft meant?
In my mind, that actually happened. The elevator wasn’t there, which we know happens all the time. I thought that was an amazing cinematic representation of his emotional state. He still had one thing left to say to her, and she’s gone, into the abyss. She’s gone off on her own. That’s all that that was supposed to be. Is someone going to fall down an elevator shaft? No. I will actually go on record as saying that. Pete’s “Signal 30″ story, of why can’t we be friends at work, that to me is something more to pay attention to. The fantasy of his role there and not realizing how he is and what he says. And his ascendancy – Roger hasn’t had an account, and there’s Pete, very, very important.
Are you getting a lot of free Jaguar merchandise these days?
This is one of the things about product placement – there is no such thing as bad publicity. I felt bad as the weeks were going on, where they were enjoying all the stuff that they had nothing to do with, and I was thinking, “Oh, my God, this really a double-edged sword, I hope they’re ready for it.” As somebody who really believes in advertising, I don’t think people walked away from this thinking that Jaguar is a car that doesn’t work.