The sixth season of AMC's Mad Men, which premiered April 7, jumps forward in time a few months from where the fifth season concluded. The first episode of the season comes to a close on New Year's Day 1968. That date was designed to set the tone for the entire season.
That year, says Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, is, "as far as I can tell, in the top two or three worst years in U.S. history."
"That's what it was about for me," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Let's get to the destruction. Let's get to the loss. Let's ... express the idea that people want to change, and change is afoot. Because as far as I can tell, 1968 is a year about change, about revolution, about violence, about people turning inwards as community breaks down.
"So I really kind of wanted to get that into the personal story of Don, which is, 'I don't like the way I am.' Where will that go?"
Weiner says that, just as 1968 was in some ways a low-water mark for the United States, he sees the year and this sixth season as Don's darkest moment. The question at stake is how Don will or won't make it through.
The season opens with Don reading aloud from Dante's Inferno on the beach in Hawaii. On a meticulously scripted and painstakingly designed show, that's obviously no coincidence.
Weiner, who's famously careful not to reveal spoilers, suggests that the show's fans have "an investment in the fact that this man is in his worst state — the way 1968 is — because it is overrunning his life and it's page 1 in the story: He's going into hell. This is the descent. Maybe he'll come out on the other side, or maybe he'll just take up residence there."
Looking beyond the salvation or damnation of Don Draper, Weiner says he's beginning to think about the way the show will ultimately end.
"You know the show is going to end on an ambiguous note," he says. "My God, people must be prepared for that."
He knows, however, that that will be difficult for those who have come to care deeply for these characters and who will be craving resolutions.
"Honestly, I can't even tell what closure is to this audience. I had an ending of [a season] where they were starting a new agency. Don had moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village; his wife is on a plane to Reno with her lover and her baby, and people are like, 'I wonder if they're going to be married next year?' I was like, 'I don't even know what more to say: She is going to get a divorce.' .... There is no closure for an audience that is invested in characters."
On Don as an existentialist
"I feel like Don is like a lot of existential characters: brave in the face of death but more deeply, deeply afraid of it — and trying to find some purpose and some control over it — because he is aware of the sort of meaninglessness of life. ... Let's say existentialism is a young man's game. As he's getting up there, he's saying, like, 'Why do I keep repeating this? Why am I in this process?' The situation he's in is very much where he [could have been] ... right before the pilot."
On whether he knew if Don would sleep with the woman who picked him up at the bar by asking "Are you alone?" at the end of last season
"Yes, I did. Because to me, that was not literally as much about him sleeping with other women. That was about the fact that his fantasy — and men have romantic fantasies as well as women — and his fantasy of his marriage had been dissolved over the course of the season, as his wife expressed her independence.
"And so whatever fix that he wanted that we saw at the end of season 4 when he proposed to Megan — of having a woman see him the way he wanted to be seen; of [getting] a chance to transform himself into the person he wanted to be; of having this romantic, satisfying, carnal relationship with someone who truly loved him despite knowing everything about him, because Betty didn't — he's told Megan everything. That has dissolved, and so, 'Are you alone?' to me, was really not just about the fun of the plot. I mean, I deliberately — obviously — wanted it to be like 'Are you alone? Are you going to sleep with me?' but also 'Are you alone?' in a deeper sense."
On Megan's decision to leave the ad agency to pursue an acting career
"Her expression of herself was the enemy. That was the part that was really the hardest on the relationship. ... When she said she wanted to be an actress ... I thought it was this great dichotomy, because she really has an idealistic idea of being an artist, which is a real rejection of Don's advertising career. ... It's like she's going to reject the part of him that is him, and my joke is always that Don and Megan are soul mates, and they're one person — and that one person is Don."
On the scene in which the elevator doors open for Don but there's no elevator there
"It's the [episode] where Megan quits, where Megan rejects Don's way of life, and Don doesn't even know how painful it's going to be. ... [My wife] pitched this idea that he opens it and sees that elevator is not there. And to me, yes, it is really physical danger — 'I almost dodged a bullet.' But what it was really about to me is, how do I convey to the audience that this man — because we've seen him react to things: he's going to drink, he's going to go and bang some stranger, he's going to medicate in whatever way he does — how do we express the deep feelings of loss that he has as he says goodbye to his wife, to his idealized version of his romantic relationship?
"He's trying to be a good guy. He's trying to be a modern man on some level. It's a very period story we were telling, that he could not deal with his wife going off and pursuing her job — the most period one we've done, in a way. And looking into the elevator was a cinematic way to feel the abyss. Is he literally going to step into an elevator shaft? I think the audience would hunt me down and kill me if that happened."
On the teasers at the end of each episode
"The network, when we first started, wanted to show those scenes from next week, and they have a very different definition about what teasing is: They think people enjoy things more [when] they know exactly what it's going to be. I think that the commercial identity of the show is related to not knowing what's going to happen. And I stole that from The Sopranos.
"It was harder to find out back then, and you'd watch these trailers that were really very deceptive on The Sopranos. They'd show an explosion, but you didn't know what it was. So I asked them to start constructing stories like that. And they're very hard to do — and, more importantly ... it is my belief that the audience's relationship with the show and their desire to come back and watch it the next week happens in those moments as the credits are rolling, and they're listening to that music and thinking about the episode.
"So I didn't even want a commercial for the show there. And then these commercials would come on that might ruin the next episode, and so I eventually just — through negotiation and haggling and such ... we got it down to 'Could you tell a deceptive story with these things?' And I think it's ... I wrote them one year, and it's very difficult. And the promos department basically arrived at this to satisfy me. ... I have 26 seconds which we have carved out of the end of the show where they are not allowed to do anything but let the credits roll, and that's the part that I was protecting. So I apologize, but I really don't think you need scenes from next week. I think it would be great to just roll out and go to the next TV show."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "MAD MEN")
JON HAMM: (As Don Draper) (Reading) Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.
GROSS: That's a scene from the beginning of the first episode of the sixth season of "Mad Men" with Don Draper reading from Dante's "Inferno," bringing darkness to the sun-drenched beach in Hawaii where he's lying in the sand alongside his current wife Megan.
They were brought to Hawaii by the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, whose ad campaign Don is developing. I've got a lot of questions about where this season is heading, especially since next season will be the final one. Here to answer those questions is the creator and executive producer of "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner.
We're going to talk about a lot of plot developments that have happened so far this season, but we won't give away anything that hasn't already happened. If you're not caught up with this season and don't want to know what's happened, you can always Podcast our show or listen on our website when you're ready.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "MAD MEN")
HAMM: (As Draper) I think we're not selling a geographical location; we're selling an experience. It's not just a different place; you are different. And you'd think there would be an unsettling feeling about something so drastically different, but there's something else: You don't miss anything. You're not homesick.
(As Draper) It puts you in this state. The air and the water are all the same temperature as your body. It's sensory, the music, the fragrance, the breeze and the blue. Stan?
JAY R. FERGUSON: (As Stan Rizzo) It's just a sketch.
HAMM: (As Draper) Hawaiian legend has it that the soul can go in and out of the body but that it usually leaves from a leeward point, into the waves. Hawaii, the jumping-off point.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Sheraton Rep) So what happened to him?
HAMM: (As Draper) He got off the plane, took a deep breath, shed his skin and jumped off.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Sheraton Rep) And I assume this is a photograph?
FERGUSON: (As Stan Rizzo) Four color, and that water is transparent.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Sheraton Rep) Well, I suppose it reminds me a little of the cinema. But mostly I see James Mason at the end of that movie walking into the sea.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Sheraton Rep) What is that movie?
HAMM: (As Draper) I'm not sure I know what you're talking about.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Sheraton Rep) He's killing himself. I don't think they show it, but he's going to swim out until he can't swim back.
HAMM: (As Draper) That may be a personal association for you, but that's not what this means.
VINCENT KARTHEISER: (As Peter Campbell) We looked at this. None of us thought of that.
JOHN SLATTERY: (As Roger Sterling) "A Star is Born."
HAMM: (As Draper) The copy is all about the Hawaiian legend: Aloha means hello and goodbye.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Sheraton Rep) I'm sorry, but this is very poetic.
HAMM: (As Draper) Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Sheraton Rep) Where is our hotel? Where's the pink palace and Diamondhead? You've got to have Diamondhead in the shot.
HAMM: (As Draper) Anyone can do that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Sheraton Rep) I don't agree.
GROSS: Matthew Weiner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I am really enjoying this season.
GROSS: Thank you so much for being here and for bringing back "Mad Men."
MATTHEW WEINER: Oh, that's great to hear, Terry.
GROSS: So before we pull back, let's talk specifically about this Royal Hawaiian ad that Don has pitched to the hotel people. He's managed to work into his ad the basic desire for a transformative vacation and his death wish.
GROSS: And that's a lot to get into one ad. I don't think he's aware that he got that...
WEINER: And he's unaware of it, yeah.
GROSS: Exactly. So can you just talk about how you came up with this ad?
WEINER: Sure. Well, the way that the ad came about was trying to express this desire to get away, exactly what's there. You know, it's called "The Inferno," and it's a descent into hell, but it's really about a guy who's having a very complex midlife crisis. And the transformation involves becoming a new person.
And I'm very interested in Hawaii. I always have been. Maria and Andre Jacquemetton, who are my executive producers, also have a fascination with it, and we love this myth of what part's your body and what part's your soul, this duality. So the whole idea of coming up with the ad was can Don become another person.
He's lost his way. Can he become another person? And for me it was really about a symbolic death. I have to confess that like Don, I was not really aware that the episode was so much about death. For me it was more about transformation, you know, aloha means hello and goodbye. You have to lose something to gain something.
Not to sound too bizarre, but the Tarot, which is older than the "Inferno," has this card that is basically about Judgment Day, and it has this scary image of people getting out of graves, and you think oh my God, what does that mean. And historically that image is some kind of, you know, semiotic signal for rebirth. Something has to die for something to be born.
That's really where it came from. The funny part is that Josh Weltman and Bob Levinson are our advertising consultants, but Josh Weltman, I was saying to him, like, I think the audience can tell that this is a really good ad. And he said - you know, because for me it felt like a mid-'70s ad, even though it's 1967, it's, whatever, Christmas '67 when they're doing it.
And he said that is the kind of work that they will be pitching to a client for eight years, and finally someone will buy it.
GROSS: No, I will tell you what I think is wrong with the ad.
GROSS: I think it's a brilliant ad for the Bureau of Hawaiian Tourism but not such a great ad for a specific hotel because you can go to Hawaii and have that transformative experience and stay at somebody else's hotel.
WEINER: You sound like a client, Terry.
WEINER: I think when you see the words Royal Hawaiian on there, they get to, they get to own that idea.
WEINER: And when something - seriously, when something - maybe it is more of a tourism ad. I don't know. Well, eventually the hotel is going to be in that ad is what the client asks for. But you really sound like a client.
WEINER: You're not impressed enough with the groundbreaking idea.
GROSS: Did you study...
WEINER: Where is our hotel, says Terry.
GROSS: Well, I love the idea of the episode starting with Don reading the "Inferno," reading this classic book about hell while sitting on a beach that's a Hawaiian paradise. Have you read - I have never read the "Inferno." Did you actually read it?
WEINER: I had to read it in school yeah. We were supposed to read all of it. I will admit that I only read the "Inferno" part of it. We were supposed to read the entire "Divine Comedy," and of course, you know, like most higher education, we were given three weeks to do it. I did not get through it. I sat through a lot of seminars on the entire thing.
There are a few books that have, you know, these incredible opening sentences, and there was something about telling this story when you see, like I said, this midlife crisis. This is a man who says he's midway through life's journey, and he has lost his way because he has gone into a dark wood. I felt that just sad where Don was to me.
And then of course you find out that the book is a gift from his mistress, and you start to realize, okay, well he's somehow repeating - he's really lost in terms of how he feels about himself.
GROSS: The whole first episode is immersed in death. Don's reading the "Inferno." He meets a soldier who's worried about death because he's going back to Vietnam in a few hours. Don and Megan's doorman has a heart attack and nearly dies but is revived by the heart surgeon who lives in the building, the person whose wife Don is having the affair with. Roger's mother dies. The man who shines his shoes dies.
GROSS: Why is there so much death in this episode? And I think it's, like, it's so perfect because Don has this death wish, and he's so kind of trapped. His soul has become dead. But you said you were unaware about how death obsessed the episode was.
WEINER: Well yeah, I mean, for me, I didn't realize - well, I mean, I think it's - obviously I use death, I mean to say death is a theme or it's more of a topic than a theme. And for me, now that it's out, the show takes place in 1968 this year, and it is, as far as I can tell, in the top two or three worst years in U.S. history. And it is completely seeped in destruction.
And in addition there's a kind of cyclical sense of, like, one generation passing on to another, which literally means dying. You know, Roger's mother is in her 90s. There's - you know, when Miss Blankenship died, I tried to sort of convey this idea of this generation that was basically born in barns and then, you know, dies in skyscrapers. That whole thing is sort of being passed on.
And what I really interested in is you can start your story with the idea that this is going to be about an ending, which is also a beginning, you know, what do they call it, commencement at the end of graduation. That's what it was about for me is, like, let's get to the destruction. Let's get to the loss. Let's see what is - to express the idea that people want to change and that change is afoot because as far as I can tell, 1968 is a year about change, about revolution, violence, people turning inwards as community breaks down.
So I really kind of wanted to get that into the personal story of Don, which is I don't like the way I am. Where will that go? And the doctor is a man who deals with life and death all the time. I always feel - you know, you say Don has a death wish. The death wish is something that I know about from my education. It's in the pilot of the show. It's talked about as, like, a way sell cigarettes.
I feel like Don is like a lot of existential characters: brave in the face of death but deeply, deeply afraid of it and trying to find some purpose and some control over it because he is aware of the sort of meaninglessness of life.
So I think he's looking on how to - let's say existentialism is a young man's game. As he's getting up there, he's saying, like why do I keep repeating this, why am I in this process. This situation he's in is very much where he was, you know, this could have been the episode right before the pilot.
GROSS: So when you say you learned about the death wish from your education, what do you mean?
WEINER: I mean I read, you know, Freud, "A Civilization and Its Discontents." It's really his theory. It's a very lean book that expresses a strange idea that human beings who will fight - even involuntarily our bodies will fight for life, you know, when we're trying to end our own lives, even though we have that power. But there still is this idea that we are somehow seeking our own demise.
That's a very confusing idea, but it does seem to be part of human nature.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Weiner, he's the creator of "Mad Men." I want to play another scene.
GROSS: And this is the opener of the season, the two-hour opener. So in this scene it's New Year's Eve 1967. We're about to hit 1968. And Don and Megan and the heart surgeon and his wife, and the wife is the person Don is having the affair with, but of course, nobody knows, are all together in Don and Megan's apartment. So, you know, celebrating, almost celebrating the new year.
GROSS: It's not terribly celebratory. But anyways, their evening together is interrupted when there's a phone call about an emergency, and the doctor has to get presumably to the hospital. But there's a snowstorm outside. There's no taxis. It's going to be impossible for him to get there. But he has skis in the storage room of the apartment building, so - you know, of the high rise where they live.
So Don comes with him down to the storage room where they look for the skis, and they have a conversation as they're looking for the skis. Don's the one who finds the skis.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "MAD MEN")
GROSS: And with that the doctor goes off on his skis, into the snowy, desolate streets of Manhattan on New Year's Eve. What a great scene. I even like the music behind it, whatever it is.
WEINER: That's David Carbonara. That's our composer. He's so gifted, and we really get a really sophisticated score for each episode. And it's very spare, you know.
GROSS: No, it's really good. So talk about - a little bit more about why the doctor, this heart surgeon who saves people from death, and Don, who's kind of, you know, death, despair, we've talked about, or his wish for life but his still, kind of, existential despair. Talk a little bit more about why they're fascinated by each other.
WEINER: Well, I think, you know, Don introduces this man to his secretary as - this is my friend. And there's almost this, like, needle scratch experience for the audience and for his secretary. Have we ever heard Don say this is my friend, ever? He admires this man. He saw him bring someone back to life, and I think he is looking at someone who seems to be very fearless and confident in their control of life and death.
And there was an interesting conversation in the writers' room. Tom Smuts, who's one of the new writers on the show this year, knows a lot about the heart transplants in the early - the heart surgeons, you know, that was all happening right at that moment in December of 1967.
You know, I was raised by a doctor, and there's this sort of - the pat answer, which says it's an honor privilege to have someone's life. And then there is what we assume could be the real answer: this man has a big ego, and you have to have the strength to cut someone open and risk killing them. And a lot of times you have a bad result.
So Don is dealing with someone who is in the maw of life and death all the time. Don, a man who ran away from the Korean War when he was faced with his own mortality, you know, took someone else's identity and has lived on the run in fear because he was fighting for his life, that cowardice in the face of death is something that he carries around with him.
And I think as we reach - get older and older, we sort of wonder, like, well how do people go to sleep at night. How do you not think about that? And Don is in the consumer products world, where he is really helping people with their diversions. How many times has Don said over the course of the series well, just don't think about that whenever something painful happens?
But what I really wanted to capture was this idea that Don and a lot of people's bad behavior is just a response to anxiety, and you will even give your power over your own life to another person to not feel that anxiety, that anticipation of demise.
GROSS: My guest is Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Weiner. He's the creator of "Mad Men." And we're talking about the developments this season. So when you were figuring out this season...
GROSS: Did you say to yourself: OK, but we need to progress Don's anxiety about death, his fear surrounding his cowardice in the face of death. What we need is a cardiologist as somebody to compare him to?
WEINER: No, no, no.
GROSS: Like how did the cardiologist come into being? Why did you think...?
WEINER: The cardiologist came into being because we started - this was Tom had written this pilot about the heart surgeons at that time, which I think will one day become a great TV show. And, you know, this was his writing sample. And, you know, I was like I want to use that because Don's relationship with this man's wife is really about admiring this man and admiring his control.
Who does Don look up to? And this guy, of course, has this attraction to Don, too, which is an admiration for the fact that Don is whatever Don looks like on the outside. The episode was really about what kind of person we present to the world versus who we are, which is what a lot of the show is about. And when I started talking about the season and progressing the season as a whole, and I'm not going to reveal anything, what I really was interested in is: How did Don end up exactly where he was?
What will make Don face himself in the mirror? Can he face himself in the mirror? Don's anxiety, whether it's about death or whatever it is that is driving him to this consistently self-destructive behavior, to shun the closest relationships he has, to express disloyalty to the people who love him the most, what is causing that?
And so we start in a place where we talk about Don's problem in the most profound way that we can, which is that Don for a moment at the beginning of this episode is in a state of death, as far as I can tell, and his problems are gone. And then by the time he runs into this kid who's going to Vietnam, you start to see him - that there's no escape, that there is no paradise on Earth for Don and that he identifies once again with risking his life, which the fact that his youth, maybe, is passing him, the state of the world is passing him.
And this is not about being out of touch. This is literally about what we're always struggling with on the show, which is what is our relationship to the world, the political world, the social situation, and what is our feelings about ourself - what are our feelings about ourselves. And Don's life is a mess.
And it's a mess again, and something about the doctor's confidence in the face of the biggest challenge of life, which is dealing with your own mortality, is exciting to Don. And I think he wants to touch the hem of his garment. He wants to know what his secret is.
GROSS: Well, and the patient, the doorman that the cardiologist saves, the doorman is having a heart attack, and Don's there when it happens, and he's there when the cardiologist saves him - later, on another day, when the doorman comes back to work, Don says to him: What was it like when you died? Because you really died before they brought you back to life. What did you see? What was it? And he so much wants to know what is death.
WEINER: And he's so drunk. He's just come from this funeral, which is colored by the fact that he got this kid's lighter. So this kid is like a ghost of Christmas past for Don.
GROSS: The kid is a soldier who he met in Hawaii who's about to go back to Vietnam, yeah.
WEINER: And he's just - and obviously marked for tragedy in some way or another.
WEINER: Don has his lighter. Don has his lighter.
GROSS: I figured that.
WEINER: I mean, he's - you know, I mean, I don't think anyone running into this kid would think that he's got a shot. And it was great. That actor is really wonderful, Patrick, and you really do sense, as you would, that somebody who is in this thing is - could be doomed.
And then Don goes to Roger's mother's funeral and hears this incredible expression of love from Roger's mother. You know, Don's mother, he keeps getting asked about his mom. Don's childhood, we know, the rest of his world doesn't know, is a very painful and strange experience.
So Don throws up at this funeral and is dragged back drunk. And so to me, this is a moment where you really find out what's on Don's mind. That's better than a diary, you know, to see that he is curious about this experience. Did he have that experience? So - and of course the doorman, you know, says I don't want to think about it.
GROSS: Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Matthew Weiner, the creator and executive producer of "Mad Men," which started its sixth season three Sundays ago. We've been talking about this season's plot developments and the reasons behind them.
So let me briefly go back to the end of last season.
GROSS: Because I want to talk about Don's relationship with Megan. The very end of last season, Megan had gotten a role in a commercial - one of Don's commercials - and was a step closer to fulfilling her dream of becoming an actor. Don was unenthusiastic about her having a life as an actress, her life independent from him. So she's really thrilled. She's, you know, in front of the camera. He goes to a bar and a seductive woman comes up to him and says, are you alone? And that's how the episode ends. So the episode ends at the end of last season without us knowing whether Don - who has been faithful to his wife - his second wife - will end this brief period of monogamy and start sleeping with other women...
GROSS: ...or whether he's developed some kind of like willpower and commitment that will keep him, you know, committed to his wife. I did not know the answer. Did you know the answer when you wrote the end of last season?
WEINER: Yes. Because to me that was not literally - as much literally - about him sleeping with other women. That was about the fact that his fantasy - and men have romantic fantasies as well as women - and his fantasy of his marriage had been dissolved over the course of the season as his wife expressed her independence. And so, whatever fix that he wanted that we saw at the end of season four when he proposed to Megan of having a woman see him the way he wanted to be seen, of a chance to transform himself into the person he wanted to be, of having this romantic, satisfying carnal relationship with someone who truly loved him, despite knowing everything about him - because Betty didn't, he's told Megan everything, that has dissolved. And so are you alone to me was really not just about the fun of the plot. I mean I deliberately obviously wanted it to be like are you alone? Do you want to sleep with me? But also are you alone in a deeper sense and that's where I knew I was going to pick up because Don did not get what he wanted out of that - maybe his expectations are unrealistic or maybe he's just so deeply damaged that change, at that point, was not possible. But, yeah, I knew that.
GROSS: Last season when we spoke, toward the beginning of the season, I said to you that I suspected that the marriage wasn't going to last because it was such a kind of sexual relationship that they had, in part, you know. I figured either he'd become bored or Megan would be pregnant and he'll lose interest in her sexually and then they'll have a child, then he'll want to get away from the family again. And you said to me, that what's wrong with the relationship? All I can say is that you know already. You've been told. But it's not what you think.
GROSS: So throughout last season I kept thinking OK, Matthew Weiner said it's not what I think. So what is it? What is it? And now I feel like, OK, now I know the answer. Like, he doesn't want her to be independent. He doesn't want...
WEINER: And she wanted to do something else with her life and he had her working with him and forced her into a profession that was not...
GROSS: In the advertising agency.
WEINER: Yeah. And I think that her expression of herself was the enemy. That was the part that was really the hardest on the relationship and that's what I sort of meant. It's like I think when you found out, when she said she wanted to be an actress, I guess it's taken les seriously somehow because it's acting. But I thought it was this great dichotomy, because she's really has an idealistic, you know, idea of being an artist - which is a real rejection of Don's advertising career. So that's what I meant is like, she's going to reject the part of him that is him. And he is, my joke is always that Don and Megan are soul mates, they're one person, and that one person is Don.
WEINER: So when she said what she wanted to do, that was what was playing right in front of you all the time.
GROSS: So there's a couple of flashbacks so far this season, where we see Don and his stepmother - who is pregnant - moving into a whorehouse that seems to be run by his stepmother's sister? What exactly is her role in...
GROSS: She's running it.
WEINER: The way - boardinghouse, it's a house of prostitution. It's in the mid-to-late '30s and Don's mother, you know, his birth mother died giving birth to him and he was brought as a foundling to this woman who was married to his father, who was his actual biological father and his father is dead. So he's really with a complete stranger on some level, who doesn't want him. But what you're seeing is the next sort of, you know, we are the experiences that make us up and drama is based on that.
GROSS: Yeah, the experiences that make us up. So one of his experiences, so he's being brought to live in this like real rundown, cheap whorehouse. And his stepmother's sister says, this is the man I'm with now. His name is Mac. You should call him Uncle.
GROSS: And then we see that the uncle - Don is looking through a hole in the door where his uncle is having sex with his stepmother.
GROSS: And he's just, kind of, transfixed by this. And I assume you're telling us...
GROSS: ...that this experience has, you know, profoundly shaped his obsessions and anxieties about sexuality.
WEINER: Yeah. That's definitely, that's exactly what it is. But there's also this man Mac, who've heard about before in the series who he describes as being good to him. Even like the fifth episode of the series we hear about Uncle Mac. And when he tells Betty finally who he is, he says Mac was good to him. But Mac is the rooster and what I think you're really looking at is his concept of like male power. This man is a pimp and this is his role model. And this woman is his quote "mother," but she's not a mother to him. So I mean a lot of it's about Don's lack of innocence. But, yeah, I mean there's a - I like to feel like sometimes we get to go into the basement or the attic of Don's life and see backstage and find out who, why he is the way he is. Yeah.
GROSS: So I want to skip to another scene...
GROSS: And this is Megan has told Don that she's gotten her first romantic scene; they're expanding her part. She plays and maid...
GROSS: ...and the husband and a couple that she works for, she's about to have an affair with him. And Don is very upset that, you know, Megan's going to have this love scene. He's very possessive of her, even though he's cheating on her....
GROSS: ...because he's Don Draper.
GROSS: So he's never been to the set before, but on the day of the love scene, he shows up on the set. And, you know, he's there like watching the love scene, and, of course, watching him and one of the actresses on the set comes up to him and says, oh, you love to watch, do you? And, of course, we're reminded of this scene where he's watching through the peep hole in the whorehouse when his stepmother is having sex with his Uncle Mac. But anyways, so after he watches the scene with Megan - and Megan has no idea that he's watched the love scene - she goes back to her dressing room and they have this big fight there. And here's the fight.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")
GROSS: That was a reference to two people who invited in for a foursome - two people from the soap opera. So, you know, he's really talking about himself here. He's the one who grew up with prostitution and he's the one - he says like oh, you're going to brush your teeth before you come home. I mean he has sex with their neighbor and he never seems to shower before he goes home.
WEINER: He - well, he does shower. This episode was written by...
GROSS: How do we know he showers?
WEINER: Sometimes we see his hair is wet. The...
GROSS: We do?
WEINER: Yeah. I think so. I mean I don't know. I mean...
GROSS: How can we tell the difference between his wet hair and the kind of Brylcreem that they use?
WEINER: I know. That's a great help for us.
WEINER: This episode was written by Erin Levy. And one of the things that she was doing in this and that we were trying to do with the episode, is Don has had a client cheat on him in this episode. He has cheated on the client and then client has cheated on him. And these issues of pride and his possessiveness, and honestly, yes, he's a hypocrite. He's the one who was reading into this, there's no doubt about it.
GROSS: How much...
WEINER: But I think he goes...
WEINER: I think he's OK with her kissing this guy on the show on some level, but once he sees that Peggy has stolen his act. Peggy uses a phrase that we've heard Don use about changing the conversation when you don't like what's being said about you, and Don has to sit out there and here it and realize that his protege has basically stolen his act. And that he's been lied to and that they've lost a client because they went behind their back and cheated on this client and then the client cheated on them. That rejection is the thing that make him go and want to stick his finger in his wound. And he doesn't like to watch. He can't help it. Like most of us, he would rather know than be made a fool of. So you're just dealing with all the issues of abandonment, rejection. I can't - you'll have to watch to see what this is about on some level, but I think emotionally everybody feels it - whether they're sickened or not, they know what it's like to have this irrational jealousy that has nothing to do with your own behavior.
GROSS: How much do you want us to hate Don Draper, because as much as - speaking for myself, as much I, you know, to some degree, empathize with his existential crises and, you know, sympathize with it, as well, he's such a hypocrite, he's such a louse. He so mistreats his wife...
GROSS: ...that I just get so angry with him. And I just want to know how angry do you want me to be with Don Draper? How much do you want me to dislike him as opposed to feeling some sympathy for his existential crisis?
WEINER: I'm going to sound like an idiot here. I don't want you to dislike him at all. I don't dislike any of these people. I am not judgmental when I am in drama or in life. And I think that you are suppose to identify with the dark parts of yourself and yes, you can reject them the way you, you know, people have incredible morality when they're watching other people do things.
WEINER: You know, it's kind of like staring in the mirror and seeing something you don't like. This is human behavior. The 10 Commandments, whether you believe they were handed down from God or written by human beings, are a reflection of our worst qualities and most of us break a bunch of these. So Don has a reason for why he's doing what he's doing. He is not an evil person. He has - like all these characters - a lot of darkness in him. And he is, what I want you to do, and I'm not going to reveal anything more, is to have an investment in the fact that this man is now in his worst state, the way 1968 is, it is overrunning his life.
GROSS: OK. Like...
WEINER: And it's the beginning. You know, it's page one in the story so, you know, he's going into hell. This is the dissent. Maybe he'll come out on the other side or maybe he'll just take up residence there.
GROSS: Oh, you brought up what the end is going to be. You know, I think about this every episode.
GROSS: Like how is it going to end? What happens to Don? I keep thinking well, he's got to either die or go through this utter transformation and maybe even shed the Don Draper identity. It's too late to return to Dick Whitman, but maybe there's a third identity. So, you know, I keep and I know you're not going to tell me and I'm not going to ask you to. I mean I'd want to...
WEINER: Next time.
GROSS: I don't even want to know.
WEINER: Next time you can ask me.
GROSS: Next time. Exactly.
GROSS: Exactly. Exactly. But I'll tell you something that I keep thinking about. In the previous season, there was an episode in which Don's in his office, he presses for the elevator, the door opens and the elevator itself is not there, there's just a big drop in the shaft. And had Don stepped into the elevator without looking first, he would have just fallen kind of like he falls in the opening graphic in the credits sequence of "Mad Men" every week. And I keep thinking like what was that about? It's got to have an echo some place. Like I keep...
WEINER: Well, you know what? My wife went...
GROSS: And there's so many elevators this year. He's always up and down in the elevator because...
WEINER: Well, you know, the elevator - we don't - the elevator is a great place to tell a story in New York City and it's also a great place to tell a story when you don't have a lot of money to make a show.
WEINER: I must really have to figure out like how long the ride is and what elevator are they on, and are you going to push this conversation longer than it could possibly be? But, you know, 16 floors, whatever.
My wife, Linda Brettler, is a big contributor to the show. She reads the scripts and so forth and really weighs in on things. And later and later in the process each year, actually, it's gotten more helpful for her to see, like, what I'm trying to do and then weigh in on it. And she had a dream or whatever. That episode is called "Lady Lazarus."
It's the one where Megan quits, where Megan rejects Don's way of life. And Don doesn't even know how painful it's going to be. And she pitched this idea that he opens it and sees that that elevator is not there. And to me it's, yes, it is real physical danger. I almost dodged a bullet. But what it was really about to me is like how do I convey to the audience that this man - because we've seen him react to things.
He's going to drink. He's going to go and bang some stranger. He's going to medicate in whatever way he does. How do we express the deep feelings of loss that he has as he says good-bye to his wife, to his idealized version of his romantic relationship? He's trying to be a good guy. He's trying to be a modern man on some level. It's a very period story we were telling, that he could not deal with his wife going off and pursuing her job, the most period one we've done, in a way. And looking into the elevator was, you know, a cinematic way to feel the abyss. Is he literally going to step into an elevator shaft? I think the audience would hunt me down and kill me if that happened.
GROSS: You mean in the final episode?
GROSS: My guest is Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men." Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men." We're talking about the new season. You know, you're very good at preventing spoilers. You're very careful about not letting anyone know what's going to happen in the future. And you have, I have to say - forgive me for saying this - you have the worst trailers for the next episode that I have ever seen.
WEINER: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: ...the trailers are always like you see the character and the character says I don't know why I'm so surprised. And then cut to: Don't do anything stupid. And then somebody else in another scene says: That's disgusting. And you have no idea what it's about. You have no idea why anybody is saying anything. You've given away absolutely nothing.
So the point of a trailer is usually some kind of tease, like, oh, I can't believe that happens. I wonder why. I'll tune in. Why are your trailers so totally empty of any kind of clue?
WEINER: They're void of content of all kind.
WEINER: Honestly, this evolved. The network, when we first started, wanted to show those scenes from next week and they have a very different definition about what teasing it is. They think people enjoy things more when they know exactly what they're going to be. And I think that the commercial identity of the show is related to not knowing what's going to happen.
I stole that from "The Sopranos." It was harder to find out back then and you would watch these trailers that really were very deceptive on "The Sopranos." They'd show an explosion but you didn't know what it was. So I asked them to sort of start constructing stories like that and they're very hard to do.
And more importantly, if a show pays 35 - now sometimes more than that - thousands of dollars for that song at the end of the show, and it is my belief that the audience's relationship with the show and their desire to come back and watch it the next week happens in those moments as the credits are rolling and they're listening to that music and thinking about the episode.
So I didn't even want a commercial for the show there. And then these commercials would come on that might ruin the next episode and so I eventually just through negotiation and haggling and so forth, just basically eventually said you can only do the first 20 minutes of the show. And finally we got it down to like, could you tell a deceptive story with these things?
I wrote them one year and it was very difficult and the promos department basically arrived at this to satisfy me. I would prefer not to have any scenes from next week and just let the credits roll and let people listen to the song. I have 26 seconds which we have carved out of the end of the show where they are not allowed to do anything but let the credit roll. And that's the part that I was protecting.
So I apologize, but I really - I don't think you need scenes for next week. I think it would be great just to roll out and go to the next TV show.
GROSS: Thank you so much for that explanation. I'm with you on that. Yeah.
WEINER: I do like that people think it's funny, but it's my fault, is all I can tell you. They have talented people over there who do incredible promos and I have literally stripped it down to that because I don't even want it there.
GROSS: Right. OK. So where are you now in terms of thinking about how is it going to end? Because there's this season and then there's one final season. And I'm not asking you to give away anything.
WEINER: No. I...
GROSS: Obviously you wouldn't. And I don't want to be coy about that or anything. But I'm just kind of curious as a writer - are you already thinking about that? Do you know yet? Did you need to know before completing this season?
WEINER: You know what's funny, is I thought that - because I had these and I knew it was going to be two seasons left, that I would save stuff for the last season. I don't want to do that story yet. I don't want to do that story yet. And Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, executive producers, they're like you are going to screw this season up. Just put in everything you have; that's what you've done every year.
So I try to make episode 13 every season feel like the end of the series. Not the season, the series. So I did that. I threw everything in. I just finished shooting. I'm going to be editing the last few episodes of season six, and then I will take a mental vacation from this thing and come back and deal with the very ending of the show. And there are some things on the wall that I've always wanted to do that maybe we might do.
I don't know. Usually stories get rejected by the show and they are never to be. But I have an image, the way a lot of things come to me, a sort of dreamy concept of what the very, very end - it's not a dreamy scene but it comes to you sort of in a dream - of where I think that the whole thing will actually physically end.
But I really don't know what's left to do. You'll see where this season ends and you'll say, oh my god, boy, did you paint yourself into a corner.
WEINER: I can't think about it. I'm in denial on some level. I mean, I'm the one who picked the end date but I just don't it to overstay its welcome. I don't want someone walking up to me and saying, is that thing still on?
GROSS: It seems to me there's a very fundamental question you're going to have to answer for the final episode.
WEINER: Tell me.
GROSS: Well, you know, you say you write the end of each season as if it were the end of the series, but the end of each season, it usually ends on an ambiguous note. You know, Don being asked...
WEINER: You know the show is going to end on an ambiguous note. My god, people must be prepared for that.
GROSS: Really? OK.
WEINER: I mean, you know what? There is - honestly, I can't even tell what closure is to this audience. I had an ending of the show where they were starting a new agency. Don had moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village. His wife is on a plane to Reno with her lover and her baby. And people were like, I wonder if they're going to be married next year.
WEINER: I was like, I don't even know what more to say. She's going to get a divorce. I guess when we come back I could've backtracked on you. I don't - there is no closure for an audience that is invested in characters. And I'm the same way when I watch TV. I'm like I wonder - I know the car blew up. Maybe he survived. Because anything's possible in drama.
GROSS: Well, there's always the thing where, like, Don dies. You know, that would not be ambiguous.
WEINER: Yeah, I guess it would be except for, you know, maybe - believe me, Elvis died. It's ambiguous. I'm telling you, people think Elvis is still alive.
WEINER: People could say, well, maybe it was a dream. Maybe Don's really alive. Trust me. The human mind cannot be outguessed.
GROSS: Matthew Weiner is the creator and executive producer of "Mad Men." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Matthew Weiner, the creator and executive producer of "Mad Men." If you're writing a movie you have, like, an hour and a half or two hours, maybe three hours at most, to keep track of in terms of storytelling.
GROSS: But when you're doing this continuing series like "Mad Men" and there are through lines - I mean everything is so interconnected and the past is always alive within the characters, you don't forget about - you as the creator don't forget about things that happen.
WEINER: Oh, I do. Oh, I've had - I've forgotten some things. It's been tough.
GROSS: Yeah. But so many things keep coming back. Like even the carousel, that famous Kodak carousel slide ad that Don did in season one...
GROSS: ...where he waxes poetic about how this carousel slide for Kodak will kind of preserve the most beautiful memories of your life and what you're selling is, like, memory and not slides. And blah, blah, blah. And in this season Don has to sit through, like, and here's the slides from our vacation...
WEINER: I know.
GROSS: ...that Megan's doing for their guests and for their dinner guests, and there's a slide in there at the wedding in which he was, you know, ensnared into being the best man that he didn't want to be at. And it's like this is the last slide he wants to see.
GROSS: And so it's like that whole carousel ad coming back to bite him.
WEINER: It - definitely.
GROSS: So you're always thinking, like, what happens in season one that I could connect to what's happening now.
WEINER: I just feel like the audience has witnessed a few hours of these people's lives and I don't want to ever lose track of it. Those ideas are thought up as thematic elements to telling a story. And so those themes are still there. And they resonate because we keep track of that. But I mean there are things like motivations that I forget about.
I mean the whole idea that you know that Don dropped that lighter and killed the real Don Draper, you know, that's - I'm counting on that when we get there. We had this - when they were doing the scenes from next week, they'd have a little recap at the beginning of each episode and they showed it to me and it had the clip of Don saying from season two, if you don't like what they're saying about you, change the conversation.
And Peggy then said it in the episode. And I said please take that out. I know that the audience will remember it. And if they don't, it still works. You know that Don is - they can just hear that the campaign's good. So - but, like, for example, Jared Harris reminded me - who plays Lane Pryce - when Pete and Lane had their fistfight he said, how dare he treat me this badly, I'm the one who told him to get this job. I laid the groundwork for him to be the head of accounts. And I'd completely forgotten that. And then I added this line where he says I helped create the monster you came to be. Because I had forgotten it. And it was just like this great, like, continuation. The actors keep track of their characters and it's very helpful.
GROSS: Well, Matthew Weiner, I could ask you questions for hours.
WEINER: I appreciate it, Terry.
WEINER: I love talking to you. It makes me think about the show in a way, you ask such great questions. And you know, some of these things I never get asked so I have to really think about it. And I hope - that's why my answers are so long. I'm literally trying to figure it out while I'm talking.
GROSS: Well, it's so much fun to talk with you and it's so much fun to hear your thoughts behind the episodes that I so enjoy. So thank you so much for coming back. I look forward to our next conversation.
WEINER: Me too. Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure to be here.
GROSS: Matthew Weiner is the creator and executive producer of "Mad Men." He also has a movie coming out later this year called "You Are Here." If you want to hear more about "Mad Men," we have some extras with Weiner answering more questions about the show on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.