If you’re looking for details on what’s going to happen in the Season 4 finale of “Mad Men” Sunday (Oct. 17), this isn’t the right place.
Going into an interview with series creator Matthew Weiner, who’s notoriously protective of his show, we know it’s pretty much a fool’s errand to ask for specifics about the finale. He confirms that notion at just the mention of the episode: “You don’t want to know,” he says with a laugh.
Fortunately, the interview doesn’t end there. Zap2it talked with Weiner this week while he took a break from a much longer interview with the Archive of American Television, which tracks the history of TV through interviews with the people who make it. Weiner talked about the course of Season 4, his view of the show vs. the audience’s and his hopes for the finale. An edited version of our conversation is below.
Zap2it: It’s been really interesting to watch Don Draper [Jon Hamm] get broken down some this season. It seems like his magic hasn’t worked quite as well.
Matthew Weiner: I hear people say that — I have a very different perception of Don than the audience does. I’ve never seen him as invincible. I’ve seen him face a number of failures. … I think his campaigns have been as good as ever. I was talking about the guy and the challenges of his life. So the concept that every woman doesn’t jump into bed with him — well, he’s single. And guess what? When you go on a date with someone like Bethany Van Nuys, and you’re married and you’re on a date, you have a much better chance of sleeping with someone that night than someone who’s going to make you put in a couple of dates. …
He’s also getting older, which is definitely part of the story. What I really wanted to do is just talk about the fact that he’s divorced. He was rejected by that woman, and he’s questioning who he is with this new business and everything. There are a lot of challenges, and he took a lot of it out on himself. If you get the feeling by the end of the season hopefully that this guy had his chance to look at who he was and maybe change — maybe he didn’t make it.
Is what’s different the fact that Don has taken so much on?
He has a different job. He used to work for somebody, and now he’s the guy. That’s what the first episode was about: “Hey, you want to be in charge of this thing? You’re the guy, go be the guy.” That’s a tough job. He lost his coordinates. He’s no longer in the demo, he’s not married, he’s living in the city, he doesn’t have any of that stability in his life. His children are very important to him, and he’s losing that. So I felt his lack of control would turn him toward himself a little bit — he’d have to lean on people more, be more about than he has been.
Which is an awfully hard thing to do for a guy like Don.
It’s a hard thing to do for anybody. … One of the guys in the ad game said … “That apartment is exactly where I lived after my first divorce. … I just didn’t want to have the indulgences, I didn’t look at it as an opportunity. I had screwed everything up.”
Is there a real-world analog to Don’s New York Times ad in “Blowing Smoke”?
It’s been done a few times. The most recent one, I think, is Jay Chiat when they lost Honda, he wrote a letter saying we don’t want to be part of Honda because it makes us work badly. And Emerson Foote, who I mentioned in the show — there’s some belief that Emerson Foote leaked the fact he was against tobacco right after he knew they were losing Lucky Strike. That was in . But it’s a PR move.
You say, “Oh, sure,” and I hope the audience understands that. I saw something where someone said, “I guess he’s going to quit smoking. I even put it in [the episode], this is a move, a repositioning of the firm. I think if Roger [John Slattery] had given them some warning, they could have done it before that.
When we talked to one of our advertising consultants, we told him we were thinking about this. He didn’t know all the details, and he said exactly what Pete [Vincent Kartheiser] said: “That’s insane! Why would you do that? What would your clients think?” But I felt like it was childish and impulsive, but it was Don’s response to having no other way out.”
Being bold like that has to be worth something, right?
Taking the moral stance is the part that’s craven, but being bold and saying, “We’re not doing that anymore” was a great way to redefine yourself.
It’s also been fascinating to watch Don and Peggy’s [Elisabeth Moss] relationship evolve this season.
They’re becoming more equals. But definitely, people have always seen that there are a lot of similarities between them.
They’re both people who sort of invented themselves.
Yeah. Peggy didn’t go to college, she’s from secretarial school. Peggy is an advertising natural, and she’s good, and I’ve shown from the beginning that she’s had the right instincts. But I like the idea that even without sharing any more personal details — Don knows about her baby, because he was at the hospital — but yeah, they do [get closer]. He has no one close to him in his life. No matter what terms they’re on, that relationship is going to grow. I think you felt that last season when he went and asked her to join the firm. …
And a lot of his frustration with her — when I write these scenes, I’ve been on both sides of these things. I worked for David Chase. [laughs] I’ve been her, and I’ve been him. … And I love the fact that she’s earnest and slightly full of herself, and he’s a curmudgeon and also threatened, and at the same time encouraging. It’s all the complexities of mentorship. I do it all the time, and it’s very satisfying and very frustrating at the same time. But as human beings, I love to think that without making the show too sentimental or ridiculous, that they’ve earned the right to be closer to each other.
Betty [January Jones] was obviously not going to be as prominent this season…
She could have been. I like to look at the show … and I feel like I’m entitled to do whatever I want in the show to keep it interesting for me and tell the story I want to tell. If the audience gets what it wants, the show would be the pilot every episode with Don having a big victory and the client coming in and Don giving a big speech, and it would be boring. Although it would be familiar, which people also enjoy. … There is no formula on the show, and I love being able to have people take a hiatus. Last year there were all kinds of complaints that it was too much about Betty. I told a very interesting story about her, as far as I’m concerned.
When people said to me, “How’s she going to be in the show, what are you going to do with her?” I’m like, She has his kids, they have a relationship. If you take the fabric of your life seriously, which the show does, Betty is going to be a big part of it. The episodes she’s in, she’s
in a lot. She’s not it in any less than Pete is. So I never understood what that’s about.
Watching her with the therapist in “Blowing Smoke,” you practically wanted to scream, “Be honest with yourself for once!”
She can never say it. She really counts on going to that therapist and getting that ancillary therapy. And I made a big deal in episode 5 [“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”] of the psychiatrist saying, “I won’t tell anybody” — because that’s what happened last time. But she’s still childish. She’s still jealous of her child and trying to maintain control and puzzled by the world. And she can’t say it — no one can really ever say it.
What are your hopes for the season finale?
I hope people — there’s a frustration for me always. There are sort of the same comments every year that it starts off slow and the first episodes are whatever, and once it’s there as a unit, they sort of see what it is. I’m hoping when people get to the end, they’ll understand the journey we went on this season and what it was about for Don, and what it was about for the business, and what it was about for these people’s personal lives, and they’ll see it has a wholeness to it.
I’ve loved the fact that people have enjoyed the season so much and been surprised every week and that the episodes have held up on an individual basis. But there’s a sort of confusion about the continuing storyline that I hope is resolved in some way, that they’ll feel like, “Oh, I understand what these things were about all the time.” That’s what I always hope.
The “Mad Men” finale airs at 10 p.m. ET Sunday on AMC.
Photo credits: AMC, Getty Images