Over the course of its last six seasons, AMC’s period drama Mad Men has taken the audience into the inner lives of the damaged ad men and women who glide through the 1960s often on a volatile mix of booze, self-loathing, and bad behavior. In the hands of its creator, Matthew Weiner, the show has offered a window into the souls of these characters, offering up their flaws and their virtues, their successes and their losses.
With the show concluding next year, it does feel as if it’s the end of an era, both for its network AMC and for the television landscape as a whole, as well as Weiner, who will have spent 15 years of his life developing, writing, and bringing Mad Men to fruition. “I feel very lucky and I feel, at times, overwhelmed,” Weiner told BuzzFeed. “There’s so much work to do that it hasn’t really hit me, but I am overwhelmed by this sector of my life coming to a close. It’s pretty gigantic. I feel a lot of responsibility — no matter what the reaction is 24 hours afterward — that these 92 hours will fit together as a whole. It’s a big piece of work done by hundreds of people and I’m proud and surprised that I’ve gotten to this point. And also, I feel really lucky that I get to end it on my own, without having the plug suddenly pulled or something. What a luxury. I keep talking about what a responsibility it is, but it’s a luxury to be able to end the story how you want.”
As the Emmy Award-winning drama approaches its final season — with two seven-episode arcs set to air in April 2014 and April 2015 — Weiner spoke at length to BuzzFeed about Mad Men’s seventh season, wrapping up the show’s narrative, and what lies ahead for Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), and the rest of Sterling Cooper & Partners. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
When I spoke to you last year about the final season, you said that you weren’t thinking about it. Now that you’ve had to confront it, what were some of your feelings about tackling the final season?
MW: I mean, I’m nine episodes into it. We’re beyond confronting it. I’m in a full-contact embrace with it! I don’t think about it because I just want to treat it like a regular season on some level, and that’s what I do in between. I’m so exhausted at the end of one, that I just gotta recharge and see what’s on my mind.
The interesting thing is that we came back with this split season, and I had this 14-episode story to tell, but what I didn’t realize is that I would have to do two premieres and two finales in one season. On the one hand, you look at last season and say, “OK, the seventh hour of Season 6 was the merger. That’d be a great place to stop.” We’ve always organically had a midpoint in the show. This has required a little bit more focus. What it really comes down to is the responsibility of where we’re going to leave everybody, and what we have to say — not just about these people’s lives, but about the entire experience of the show on some level.
Along those lines, Mad Men has been such an iconic show within the broader pantheon of television. Do you think about the footprint that it’s going to leave once it ends?
MW: Of course. It’s not something you can think about while you’re working, but you do wonder if people will watch it for a long time. I think that the way the TV business is — the fact that my kids are watching Columbo with me — it is possible to watch everything ever made. Whatever resonance it has — and it could go in style or out of style — it will, I think, be available, and that’s the way to think about things.
It seems as if the series will end sometime in 1969. Did you always foresee Mad Men wrapping up before 1970?
MW: No, and I’m not going to say when it ends — you have to watch — but in my fantasy of the show going on this long, which I did not believe it would when I started it, I did want to cover a long period in these characters’ lives, and unlike a lot of TV, not make it an abstract… and keep doing stories and never have it move on. The intention of the show starting in 1960 was to reframe or revise people’s concept of what it was like to live then, and show how similar it was to now, or how different it was — and all of the sex and all of the reframing of that, and not being Leave It to Beaver. Still, I would hope we would look back on the show and look back on the people with nostalgia. And that is kind of satisfying to me, to have a long journey in the characters’ lives where all these things happen to them. Their lives are very dramatic, granted, but there is an accumulative effect to it. That was my hope, to ask, What is life? I’m interested in the entire passage of time in these people’s lives. When we started the show in April of 1960, it was clearly the height of the ’50s. Growing up, I graduated high school in the mid-’80s, and drastic differences between the late ’70s and the early ’80s are not apparent until much later.
You’ve spoken before about the Beatles’ Abbey Road and specifically the song “The End.” What do that album and that song — besides the title in that overt sense — potentially signify here?
MW: Well, I mean, the Beatles are just an incredible story, one that will be told over and over again, and we’re not really telling that story. But to think about them, all the work they did before they came to the United States, and that they are gone by the end of this period. The leaps and bounds of creative expression that went on is pretty impressive. Looking at that last album, even though it’s not the last album released, there is something about that medley that is, to me, the apex of the collaborative experience that they had as a band, the differences that they had as a band, and I just always loved that the album actually ends, almost like The Sopranos did, in the middle of a song. It’s just, “Cut!” You know, that last note of “Her Majesty”? So I just admire it in artistic expressionism, looking at wrapping up the show. I’m writing an ending, and it will, whether I like it or not, frame the entire 92-hour experience of the show in some way. So, I was impressed with how the Beatles dealt with that responsibility.
The first half of Season 7 is subtitled “The Beginning.” Is it the beginning of the end or the start of something new?
MW: I’d like to think that every season is the beginning of something new. Sometimes it takes a while for the audience to get used to that. But this was the beginning of the end. These are the last 14 hours of the show. They’re pretty dense. We’ve found that the desire to focus on the main characters is palpable because there’s not a lot of real estate. Suddenly, 14 hours doesn’t seem like that much. But it is a new story, as we do every season, but that story is our life story.
When we met Don Draper in the pilot, we learned that he was a fraud in many different ways. Last season, he started to tell the truth about himself and his past to Sally, to his colleagues, and to the Hershey execs. Has Don been freed by his honesty, and does that trajectory perhaps play a role in the end game for Mad Men?
MW: Well, that’s the state of mind I want you to have when you watch the premiere. (Laughs) Obviously, we take the events of the show very seriously. They did happen to those characters and they do affect their lives. And a lot of what we’re writing about in this final season is about consequences. That was a dire circumstance for Don professionally, a drastic situation for him personally, and it seemed that perhaps, that is the beginning of something. Or perhaps that’s just an event, but it is a kind of reconciliation. And one of things that I’ve been interested in this whole time is, OK, so what are the consequences of that? Not just, What happens next, but just because you feel different doesn’t mean that change is going to happen to everyone else. The other thing to look forward to, I think, is a new story, which is about our relationship with the material and the immaterial world. There is the reality of ambition, money, these things in our life that are material, and then the other part of our life: the internal world and the immaterial world. We’ve sort of investigated that on some level in the past, but this last season is really, really about that. We’ve seen the world through Don Draper’s eyes and we’ve watched Don Draper and that tension is something that we are really investigating in this last season.
There’s that psychedelic key art that came out last week. Can you comment at all on how that image is perhaps related to the season?
MW: The poster is derived from the story. We always have a conversation — Linda Schupack at AMC and myself — about what the next season is going to be about and this is the poster for half of the next season. Asking Milton Glaser to give us an abstract representation of something that is both psychedelic and art deco and Milton Glaser… It was the creation of an ad for the show. It was the first time we used the icon of the character and it was a great way to say, “OK… Don’s in this world now.”
Peggy is last seen in the Season 6 finale literally cleaning up Don’s latest mess. The two of them have always been in tandem, more or less, throughout the series. Do you see Peggy finally being able to go her own way?
MW: They certainly ended in a bad place and Peggy’s personal life — like Don’s — remains a disaster: She stabbed her boyfriend; she had an affair with a married man, who dumped her; and she has work, and, you know, that’s important to her. As for what’s going to happen, you have to watch. Her story last season was really about not having any choices. She went out on her own to the new firm and the next thing she knows, the agencies have merged. And she has this relationship with Ted (Kevin Rahm), who respects her creatively besides being in love with her. And there’s Don, who won’t stand for it and does not have that relationship with her. We put her through that because we felt that’s where she was. Professionally, she’s OK. Is that enough? That’s part of the story.
Last season seemed to almost clear the decks, as it were, with several characters heading out to the West Coast. Are we going to continue to see characters like Ted, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), and Megan (Jessica Paré), the latter of whom seems to be in the gallery photos (below) at least?
MW: If they’re in the gallery photos, they’re gonna be in the show.
What should viewers be thinking about going into the final season?
MW: I think they should expect, as much as they can, to see our version of resolution. But what I’m really interested in is the last chapter, not in these people’s lives, but what we know about in these people’s lives.