Mad Men’s series finale aired on May 17, leaving bereaved fans divided over whether the series had stuck the landing or stumbled. So you didn’t buy that Peggy and Stan ended up together? Matthew Weiner had his doubts too. Lucky for anyone with other burning questions about what transpired, the show’s creator was feeling chatty last night.
In one of the final interviews Weiner gave before the concluding episode, The New York Times asked him whether he would be doing any press after the finale. Weiner responded, “I’m doing one talk. I’m going to have a conversation with a writer friend of mine, A. M. Homes, at the New York Public Library, and that will sort of be the decompression of it.” That talk went ahead as scheduled on Wednesday night, covering a wide variety of topics pertaining both to Sunday’s episode and to the series as a whole. If Weiner is true to his word, it will be the last time he talks on the record about the finale for a while. Thanks to a helpful livestream, those unable to attend could still hear what he had to say.
Here are the most interesting things we learned from Matthew Weiner’s first discussion of Mad Men as a complete and finished entity. (Must we even bother mentioning that there are spoilers?)
- Weiner finished editing the finale last October; it’d been sitting on a shelf since.
- The show barely got enough money from AMC to build an entirely new set for the McCann Erickson offices, since the set would just be used for a few episodes. In dismantling the SC&P set, the producers had to jettison extras who’d been in the background for years, and perform all-new casting. Also, in an eerie coincidence, the building Weiner and co. shot the pilot in turned out to have once been the actual creative office for McCann Erickson.
- When the show was first starting, an executive at AMC asked Weiner, ‘Who’s Don Draper’s Melfi?” meaning who would the taciturn character speak with to let the audience know what he was thinking. [Melfi is Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony Soprano’s therapist on The Sopranos.] “What came out of it was the realization that these guys didn’t talk to anybody, that Don would have to start making friends. He’d had them in his youth, but had to stop when he changed his identity,” Weiner said. “And I don’t think I realized this until the end of the show, but Don likes strangers, Don likes winning strangers over, he likes seducing strangers, and that’s what advertising is. And once you get to know him, he doesn’t like you.”
- Weiner has a long explanation about Don’s emotional breakthrough near the end of the final episode. Since the show’s creator knew Don Draper would never see a psychiatrist, he mostly used silent movie-style technique to show what was on his mind, and what he was repressing. Until, that is, the scene at Esalen, the retreat center that the usually stoic Don visits with Stephanie (Esalen is a real retreat founded in 1962). “We were watching these films from Esalen,” Weiner says of he and his staff, “and we were like, ‘These guys have had it.’ Even if they weren’t veterans, the alienation that was created by success, political and racial tension, the technology, the isolation, these guys were gonna crack. I thought that was part of the story of the ’60s.” When Don walks over to hug the crying man, Leonard, (“Probably the most important role in the series”) after his monumental monologue, Weiner “hoped that the audience would feel either that he was embracing a part of himself, or maybe them. And that they were heard.”
- One of the biggest arguments Weiner had with his staff during the final season, was that he did not want to end Betty and Pete’s respective stories in the second to last episode. Writer Semi Chellas talked Weiner into understanding that the audience would be okay with knowing part of the ending going into the finale, though, and the creator realizes now that it would have been too much story to cram into one episode.
- To prepare for writing episodes of the show, Weiner was fond of reading the journals of famous writers, especially John Cheever. Doing so confirmed his suspicions that days after the JFK assassination, people were already writing about their own personal problems again. “You cannot recreate human experience with a newspaper,” he said, “but journals really help.”
- Weiner had intended to use Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara in a memorable moment on the show, but when he learned that book hadn’t been published yet, they went with Meditations in an Emergency instead, which he had not yet read, but which has since changed his life. A last-minute decision to show Don reading the book prompted the show to quote aloud the thematically apt final lines of that book.
- The penultimate episode borrowed inspiration from The Fugitive TV show and an Edgar G. Ulmer movie called Detour. “I wanted to see Don on his own, Weiner said. “I want to see Don out there. I want to do an episode of The Fugitive, where Don comes into town and he can be anybody, he’s on the run, he’s definitely a fugitive in his life.” He also mentions that the movie Detour features a guy on the run having an inner monologue about how one day he’ll get pulled over and arrested, and he actually does get pulled over, and still continues the monologue as if it were a dream.
- Matthew Weiner didn’t know for a very long time that Peggy and Stan would end up together. “That had to be proved to me,” he said, without elaborating. He did comment on the realism of their mutual love declaration happening over the phone. Even though he’d heard early on in his career not to write characters doing big things over the phone, “I feel like a lot of the most important things that have ever happened to me happened over the phone.”
- Originally, Joan was going to go through with her abortion; she was going to miss her last chance to have a child. (Sidenote: Joan did not start out as a main character, and also apparently Christina Hendricks’ manager actually fired her for taking the role). “I definitely didn’t think Joan would end up being this single mom feminist looking for child care,” Weiner said. “I love the fact that it’s not philosophical for her. This woman made a practical decision not to take any shit any more.” Although he knew Joan’s marriage to Greg Harris had to end, someone else on staff had to suggest that she become the show’s resident single mom.
- Matt Weiner knew very early on in the series that Betty Draper was going to die. “Her mother had just died in the pilot and I felt this woman wasn’t going to live long. We loved the idea of her realizing her purpose in life right when she ran out of time,” he said. “I think there’s a lesson to learn about randomness of things, and also she has some predisposition and some obviously cancer-causing behavior.”
- Once the show made it past season four contract negotiations with AMC and signed on for 36 final episodes, Weiner had an idea of how he wanted the show to end. “In the back of my mind, I knew about the Coke ad at that point,” he said. “I felt that that ad in particular was so much of its time, so beautiful, and I don’t think it’s as villainous as the snark of today thinks it is. I did think, in the abstract, ‘Why not end the show with the greatest commercial ever made?'”
- Oh, also Don Draper totally is responsible for the Coke ad. “In terms of what [the ad] means to people and everything, I am not ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake,” Weiner said. “But it was nice to have your cake and eat it too, in terms of what is advertising, who is Don, and what is that thing?”