We’ve come a long way in 13 weeks. “Mad Men” covered an incredible amount of territory in its just-wrapped third season, weaving social, cultural and political issues of the day (mid-to-late 1963) into its tapestry of the lives, loves and ambitions of a wonderfully distinct group of characters. “Mad Men” creator/exec producer
Matthew Weiner was kind enough to spend an hour on the phone sharing his thoughts about the grand design of the season, though he was careful not to say a word about Sunday’s finale, which I hadn’t seen at the time we spoke (Nov. 5).
How did you wrap your arms around something as monumental as the Kennedy assassination?
We have an experience to measure it against. I think 9/11 is a very close experience – it’s very different kind of experience but I was definitely trying to recreate the sensation that we had on that day: The collective shock, the loss of faith in institutions.
That’s why I did the thing about the heating and the air conditioning going off in and Hildy saying ‘The building will take care of it.’ Right there it was a way to say that (Sterling Cooper) is an institution. Marriage is an institution, the wedding is an institution, work is an institution, family is an institution.
Dramatically I wanted to hit the audience by surprise. We were going to do it in (episode) 11 originally and then we had enough story to push it into 12. It was never going to be the last episode because I wanted it to hit the characters and the audience in the way that it did. The episode starts out as a regular episode and then it takes a left turn.
You telegraphed it through the glimpse of the invitation for Margaret’s wedding on Nov. 23.
It’s kind of a ‘Twilight Zone’ move. (Alerting the aud that) this is going to happen this year and these people don’t know it.
And it seems that the jolt will have a profound effect on the personal lives of some key characters, just as it changed the course of history.
I knew that the assassination would be important and the Oswald assassination. Oswald comes at a time when the country is just starting to accept the fact that (JFK) is dead. In another country JFK would have lied in state for a week and everything would have been shut down. (The Kennedy family) made a decision to get us back to work after a day of mourning and move on. Because this country can’t wallow in it. We have to keep busy.
It’s part of our national identity. It’s who we are. It’s like what Don tells the kids: Everyone will be sad for a while and life will go on. And then out of nowhere – on live TV – there’s the assassination of Oswald. Which meant there would be no closure. There were questions that would never be answered. And it meant that institutions had failed in a way that was incredibly infantilizing to the public. That was the thing that drove (Betty) to question everything. And Pete too. And in this country it established an attitude about our institutions that makes a lot of social change possible.
But the story here is also that your life is your life. Don’s problem with Betty far exceeds anything to do with the assassination.
You wove a lot of historical headlines into your storylines this year. But you’d expressed some reticence in the past about tackling the JFK assassination.
When I started doing this show, I really didn’t know how to deal with it because I have very mixed feelings about what it actually was. …But part of the first two seasons was revising people’s concepts that Kennedy was a politician of that time. People were very hard on him and said a lot of negative things about him and treated him like a human being. … So am I going to go into this sentimental loss of innocence when the whole point of view of the show is that we were never innocent. But the more I thought about it I knew that this is an event that is going to affect these people’s lives. And as I really got into the details of the weekend and what was going on that year.
It’s a devastating year. Kennedy makes that civil rights speech and that night Medgar Evers is murdered. The four little girls (in the Birmingham, Ala., church) were murdered three weeks after the “I have a dream” speech. These were direct response to people speaking out. .. This is a shocking thing to the white middle class.
As when Betty tells Carla, ‘Maybe it’s not the right time for civil rights…’
Well, she’s also talking about her relationship with Henry. So much of that episode is about impulse: I want what I want when I want it. She got what she wanted with Henry. She was there with him and he said ‘You’re married.’ If you want this, we’re going to do this. But you had to come to me. I’m not going to do this in your home. I’m not going to seduce you.
When she gets there and realizes what it is, she says it’s tawdry. She would be having an affair. It’s not the romance she wanted. She’s not Don. The cheating is not what excited her. It’s the attention and the romance that excited her.
Did your decision to deal with the JFK assassination affect the time frame that you chose for the season?
I didn’t do it to accommodate the assassination.
I wanted to come back in a shorter time frame than between the first and second seasons because I felt that
Betty’s emotional decision to keep that baby and stay in the marriage had to have its consequences. Which were that they were having this baby to save the marriage. There’s all this expectation about this baby coming. I wanted to come back before the baby came and show what I think was for their personal life was incredible expectation that when the baby comes everything will be fine.
You made tough choices this year with beloved characters like Joan and Sal.
Because I’m trying to embrace reality on some level – that means consequences. In this case I had to say with Joan, I know the guy raped her and she knows that but you have a relationship there. This woman, who I’ve established from the pilot that her greatest goal in life is to get married, marries the handsome surgeon. That’s what she wanted and what she would leave that job for. And unfortunately, he did not deliver as advertised.
Jon Hamm. Can we find enough adjectives to describe his work this season?
He’s been doing this since the pilot. His use of silence is such an advanced concept of acting. It’s a brave choice. And he handles it better than anyone I’ve ever seen. … His face changes in ways you cannot believe. We talk about it in the editing rom. It’s like, ‘What kind of chemical is running through his face?’
I talk to the directors about it. Jon and I talk about the whole season in the beginning, but Jon knows exactly what he’s doing. Jon is as much a keeper of the character as I am. From the writing standpoint I never worry about him being able to handle anything. I don’t have to worry about anyone on this cast. He trusts me and I trust him. He does what’s written and then he just does more. In the scene where he has the confrontation with Betty, the most striking moment to me which was not in the script was when Betty confronts him about Adam, and Jon looks at her – it’s literally like someone has ripped his skin off all at once. And he did it like in three or four takes and he knew exactly what he was doing.
How did it feel for you to have Don Draper unload the burden of the big lie he’s been carrying so long?
He could not wait to come clean. One of the greatest things about writing that episode is my realization about why does he lie?’ In the end when it comes out it looks so small. But he was right when he says to Betty, ‘When was I supposed to tell you?’ … That woman saw him the way he always wanted to be seen. He got to be the complete person he was trying to be. We know from ‘The Hobo Code’ that he was told the story of his birth. He was called a whore-child.
When did you determine the specific point in the saga when Don would reveal the truth about Dick Whitman to Betty? Was it something you'd thought about for a long time or something that came out of the specific planning for this season?
I had it in mind that it would be the story of the entire season. Because once it had been revealed in the first season, everyone said well you blew it, it’s out there. Pete knows. Cooper knows. It’s out there. In the back of my mind all I was thinking was, ‘Betty doesn’t know.’ And he’s never going to tell her. But he wanted her to know. She was right. He got very sloppy -- he was with this woman a few miles from his home. He wanted (Betty) to know, subconsciously. That box symbolizes almost all of his behavior. Being caught -- that moment of relief and shame -- that’s what I was really interested in writing about.
It seems like Don and Betty’s relationship is beyond repair now?
Don against his will reveals himself to be who he is because he has to. His worst fear this whole time has been that (Betty) would find out who he was and not love him because he was not that guy that she married.
Meanwhile we realize that he really wants to be that guy, with her. We know he wants that it’s not a joke: He’s gone back to it over and over and over again. So here is this intimacy of the truth. And what is his worst fear? He tells her ‘I’m surprised you ever loved me.’ That was a story I wanted to tell from the very beginning.
So much of this season seemed to be about Don losing some of his skills as a master manipulator.
You think of Don signing that contract. That episode to me was all about how he’d fought his entire life to be that guy in the suit, and now he is that guy. And those (hitchhikers) see him, they call him Cadillac, he is that person. So what does that mean? He’s the person he’s always wanted to become.
Meanwhile, Betty’s questioning who she is, especially after realizing she doesn’t really know her husband.
When she was in Rome what was so disappointing for her was not coming back to her life but the fact that this is what this marriage is: Getting this phony injection of romance once in a while and then you’re back to exactly what it is. There is nothing there. It’s just the story that you tell. A souvenir.
Betty had her rough patches this season but she seems to be getting stronger, through adversity?
After she tells him she doesn’t love him anymore, I think she’s relieved. She breathes a huge breath and it’s like she’s saying, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I did that.’
How did you come up with the storyline for "Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency." The foot thing will surely loom large in the show's legend.
The derivation is a little disturbing. Don is from the country. Ken is from the country. I’m always writing about this urbanization process, the animal being tamed by the city. That’s why don says he’s eaten horse meat. .. John Deere at the time had just come out with the sit-down mower. I wanted to talk about the ‘Green Acres’ effect that was all over the culture. There was so much obsession with hillbillies and making fun of rural America, and at the same time embracing it as having some kind of populist wisdom. The ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ is probably the apex of it.
And so that was the derivation of the idea. People do not have respect for these things. Every city slicker in the world thinks they can tame the earth. And they’re sloppy.
Then came the idea that of this British vs. American thing which was about the cultural arrogance of the British and their need for the no-rules, no-holds-barred American ingenuity in advertising, which was a fact at that time. And then the episode became about expectation, which was not just the audiences’ expectation but every single character. It was a very hard script to crack. I literally yelled out the window when I finished the rewrite of it, ‘I beat this thing.’
Because it was all that and there was all the stuff about opportunity. Roger not being on the (organizational) chart and Don being excited about a possible opportunity and then being forced to reconcile when it doesn’t come. And then Sally and the baby and this ghost she sees. My wife gave me the line when she read what was close to the final draft. When Sally says, ‘I’m afraid of what will happen when I turn off the light.’ That feeling just ricocheted into every part of the story.
It all comes down to that scene in the emergency room (between Joan and Don) where she says ‘I’ll bet he felt great when he woke up this morning.’ It’s all about cutting people down to size, literally. And all about the sloppy drunkenness of the office -- the irresponsibility actually saved the company. People were like, ‘Why didn’t Lois get fired?' Lois saved the company. (After the accident, the Brits) had to reverse everything.
It’s a period when Peggy is forced to question literally what kind of person she’s going to be. She goes out almost like Don and becomes another person to satisfy that concept.
Does it bother you when the show is criticized for what some feel is the slow pace of storytelling?
One thing I’ve been very happy about is that with my desire to tell a certain kind of story, the show will hold it up. The show has a way of telling stories that I can take something very small in the human experience and make an entire episode about it.
That was the season that was: