'Mad Men' Creator Matthew Weiner on the Final Season, and Happy Endings

It's the end of an era, literally, figuratively and creatively.

As “Mad Men,” a television series often ranked among the greatest ever, brings the story of Don Draper and the 1960s to a close, viewers are eager to see how the narrative crafted by creator Matthew Weiner and his writing staff is resolved, while simultaneously dreading the separation anxiety that inevitably follows.

If that's a sensation both thrilling and daunting for the drama’s admirers, imagine it from Weiner's perspective. Actually, you don't have to, as Weiner recently sat down with a a group of journalists to reveal the emotional road he and his team traveled as they finished the story of Sterling-Cooper on their own terms.

Which character’s growth or arcs did you, were most interesting for you to explore, and were there any that you wished you’d had more time to focus on?

Matthew Weiner: We had 92 hours, three stories minimum per episode. I had lots of time to focus on everything I wanted to focus on. I will say at the very end, there were some stories that fell off the map. There were some stories that we had tried a few times and got rejected by the script or time or expense, but I have four children in real life, and playing favorites is – I can’t explain it to you unless you know it. I don’t have that sense of valuing anything more than anything else. Some of them are harder than others.

It’s been great to commit to the age of the characters from the beginning, and their origins, and say, “Well, if Pete is, if Betty is 10 years younger than Don, right? Let’s just take a male and female, and she’s come into this world with these expectations from her class and everything like that, and she’s going to be the age that Don was when we met him, when the show’s over.” There’s things like that, things that you’re kind of like, “I get to comment on human life, and maybe being 30, back then, is like being 50 now.”

But I am proud of the fact that with the writers, we’ve all been able to use our life experience in it, and find different ways to tell all the stories. But there’s been a lot of it. I have to say, I don’t feel like there was anything that we wanted to say that we didn’t get to say. There’s some things we didn’t figure out, maybe, but that’s life.

“Mad Men” is largely credited for launching the new golden age of television --

That’s not my words, those are yours.

It comes up over and over again, how things changed – like how drama moved to cable and auteurship became very important and that sort of thing.

I have a very, very convincing argument that says that that’s not true, but if you want to say that, that’s fine. … I felt that “The Sopranos” being so artistically magnificent and making billions of dollars for people was what changed the TV business in the most recent past.

You were there, too.

I was, I got to be there. I worshiped it from afar, and then got to sleep in that bed for a little bit. It’s not my show. I was a soldier in that campaign, but being able to make money off of a smaller part of the audience … and let’s not forget what really happened in television in terms of basic cable and why it is right now, on today’s date, the most profitable part of the entertainment business, is a lot of sacrifices made from unions: lower script fees, smaller residuals, all these other things were designed to encourage the basic cable business when it was in a fledgling period. And now that the ad revenue exceeds network TV's, you’re seeing a windfall and the sacrifices made from [before], in terms of expenses – we could never have afforded to make “Mad Men” on network TV, because they wouldn’t have been able to get their money back from the audience. And they didn’t have this model of basically the old agreement - "I’ll watch the commercials if you give me the programming for free" – doesn’t apply, because you’re paying for the programming no matter what.

So all of that contributed to "Let’s take a risk. If we can get three million people to watch this show live and get enough recognition that people ask their cable company for it, ask for our channel …" We were the only thing on the channel. They had two hours of programming that was not old movies, and like, infomercials, for the first two seasons we were there. We were definitely part of that, and the willingness on their part to go with not conventionally commercial material, and put someone not particularly experienced in charge and allow us to do this incredibly weird show that the taste of which was based on, “Do we like it?” – and I’m including the network and the studio.

That was an attitude about content that came from HBO, which is not ad-supported, and then an attitude about business that came from basic cable, which is, like, "if you can bring it in for this amount of money per episode …" and I’m talking about shows that precede us that really broke things open, like “The Shield” – getting a big star like Michael Chiklis on basic cable was huge. “Nip/Tuck” I always talk about: the dollars-per-episode that they were able to turn into a style. I mean, it’s very impressive.

So four or five years into it, I get to meet Ridley Scott, and he says, “I love your show, but I wish it wasn’t so cheap.” And I was like, “I don’t know who that says more about: him or me,” but I love Ridley Scott, and all I thought was – like, I just said to him, I go, “That’s a very nice thought, but the show wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t so cheap.” We had to figure out how to do that. You know, we couldn’t use a lot of things they could use on basic cable. I could not have the nudity, the language, all of this sort of, I hate to say it, the commerce of pay cable, we had to do it without that, because I had commercials.

But you were applauded by many for avoiding some of those elements.

I don’t know if I was applauded for avoiding it, but I felt particularly proud of the fact that the show was just as dirty and carnal and I mean, I sold it to the network. I said, “The sex will be the violence,” and to not have a genre – that’s the part that I will claim some novelty in, and I think the show still exists that way, despite people’s attempt to imitate it. And when I say imitate it, I usually mean imitate and improve. They’re always like, “We’re going to do the popular version of ‘Mad Men,’” or “We’re going to do the network version of it.” And they don’t really understand what it is – and I don’t know that I do, but I do know that the show has no murder, has no genre. It is a period piece, but everyone is recognizable as being around right now. There’s not a lot of abstraction to it, and it changes from week to week. And there’s no formula.

And that humanly scaled mini-movies, that’s something that we did that I didn’t say "I’m going to do it different than everybody else," but I do think that it’s one of the only places that you can go and you can get recognition of the internal state of people. And you share it with them, with those characters. Everybody in every scene has a reason for what they’re doing, and it’s not very judgmental. I mean, people have loves and hates of the characters, but I don’t know if you can tell, the writers are not judging them. Well, Lou Avery – no [laughs].

Going into these final episodes, had you long since locked in on what everyone’s, final fate was or how you were going to wrap up their stories, or was that changing as you were writing these episodes?

It’s always changing. It’s always changing. I had images in my head sometimes, and I sort of know what I want the resolution of the story to be, and it’s part why I’m so spoiler-phobic, because telling somebody what happened on “Mad Men,” that’s like a sentence. How it happened is the part that people are, like, “No, you don’t understand. Pete said, ‘I know who you are.’” And that’s all that happened, and then Cooper said, “Who cares?” That’s not what it’s like watching that episode. That episode is, honestly, like being pulled over by the police and dragged into jail. You have a knot in your stomach, and it’s 15 minutes. I don’t know. That’s the way it worked.

So were there any early ideas you had that you still circled back to?

Well, I think I’ve said that when I pitched the show, I didn’t not know where we were going beyond the pilot, but I did have an idea that we would cover eight or 10 years in these people’s lives, and wouldn’t it be amazing to go back and look at the pilot – the thesis of the pilot of which is that this time is not as innocent as you think, stop being so rosy, stop thinking it’s “Leave It to Beaver.” These people have sometimes more dramatic [lives] and they are more sin-filled than we think they are, because we think they’re living in “Leave It to Beaver.” That was the thesis, on some level, of the pilot. But I knew that if we went for seven or eight years in their life, you would look back on it and say, “Oh, my God, look how innocent they were.” The meta-experience of Sally Draper – you do not have to be a parent to look at Kiernan Shipka and feel like, “Is this the little girl I carried,” right? It’s beyond the show.

As a general question: do you believe in happy endings?

In life?

As a writer, in life – whichever.

I will quote Don Draper. We’ll say it’s him. “Happiness is the moment before you need more happiness.” I mean, he starts off at the beginning of the show saying happiness is the smell of a new car, and then he ends in Season 5, I think, he said happiness is the moment before you need more happiness. It’s the minute you stop and look at whether you’re happy or not, it evaporates.

I don’t think it’s my job necessarily to weigh in on that question, but I do want, as an entertainer, to have people walk away with some sense that it was worth spending all your time with them. Look at the end of “Breaking Bad,” you know? That was very satisfying for the audience. You do think about the beginning of the show, and what it would be like for someone to go and watch the show knowing what happens at the end. You do think about that, and you got to commit to it.

So with the actual writing of the final set of episodes, how do you not psych yourself out? Some people do consider this the greatest TV show ever made. Can you write without, can you forget any pressure people might put on that?

Every single person working in TV is hoping to hear someone say that they’re writing the greatest TV show ever made. Every season end is a series finale. Everybody is trying their hardest all the time. I’ve only worked one place in 17 years where everybody knew it was crappy and was like, “What are you going to do?” Seriously. You’ll never guess which one. You won’t.

But I do think that there’s always pressure. I’m pressured by the episode. I’m pressured by the scene. I think that one of the things I wanted to do was stay with the show to the end, because the shows that I loved, that person was there all the time. David Chase was there for every episode of "The Sopranos." If you get greedy and all of a sudden you’re … I shouldn’t say that. I should say “creatively greedy,” because I don’t know that it’s always money that motivates it. And some people can pull it off, you know. I’m not Shonda [Rhimes]. I cannot do more than one thing at a time, but I wanted to stay with my show. I didn’t want to just start an empire of multiple TV shows. I can’t, I don’t have the attention span.

So keeping that, and not working alone, with all these great writers and having them change over the years and committing to the change in the characters’ lives, those are things, the whole show could have taken place in some nebulous spring of 1960. Once we committed to that and committed to not repeating ourselves, that was a huge burden, but it’s also the part that I think is the achievement – that is my answer.

”Mad Men returns Sunday on AMC with the first of its final seven episodes.

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