Mad Men creator Matt Weiner begs me to preview new season without spoilers
It isn’t often that a nine-time Emmy winner asks me for a favor.
So when Mad Men executive producer Matthew Weiner comes oh-so-close to begging that this story avoid revealing certain details about Sunday's two-hour return of the show, I’m willing to play along.
After all, with 17 months passed since the last season, anticipation is high and fans are ready to settle back into the show’s patented mix of retro cool and uneasy cultural criticism.
But the problem is that Weiner, a charming, sharply intelligent guy with passionate zeal for controlling many things connected to his show, wants almost everything held back.
What about the character who doesn’t appear in the first episode? “I don’t want people to know that,” he said. “I want them to be waiting to see (that person).”
Okay. What’s the significance of the gathering which starts the show? “I really don’t want to talk about that in the article,” Weiner said, firmly. “They’re gonna be shocked.”
Can we at least say whether Jon Hamm’s star character Don Draper actually marries the secretary he proposed to at the end of Season Five?
“I don’t want people to know, because there is a lot of pleasure, in the first half hour especially, in finding out where we’re landing on our feet,” Weiner added, admitting he was asking a lot, considering that AMC provided critics with copies of the two-hour premiere weeks ago.
Weiner spoke to me for a story in Sunday's Latitudes section, which you can read here. Below, I've included more of his quotes from our interview, and he's promised to speak with me after the debut airs to talk in detail about what happened.
His explanation for being so tough on spoilers: “That is a big piece of entertainment: the surprise,” he added. “I know for a fact, no matter what anybody says, even when people come to my set, they don’t want to know what they’re watching. I want their pulses to be racing when the theme music comes on and then be put in a world where they’re completely…the experience of not knowing is part of the theme of the season.”
(To remember where the characters left off, check out my review of last seasons finale right here).
What is obvious, after watching the two-hour episode, is that Weiner has captured that sense of off-kilter familiarity which makes Mad Men so special. We think we can welcome these characters back like old friends after four seasons, until he shows us how little we really know about them, even now.
I can say that the show opens in mid-1966 -- Weiner publicly admitted replacing a song on Sunday's season debut because it was released in 1967, six months after the events of the episode. The intrepid folks at ‘60s-era ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce stand in new and changing times: Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell remains ambitious as ever, John Slattery’s Roger Sterling still plays the insecure, entitled son of privilege and Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy Olson stays a bit befuddled by the new she’s living.
One subject Weiner will discuss: The feeling that the better Draper’s personal life becomes, the worse his work life turns out.
“The insecurity of the business, to me, is part of why he proposed to that woman to begin with,” said Weiner, acknowledging that a great life outside of work can seem like Kryptonite to the show’s super-talented adman. “(He thinks) ‘my business life is a mess, I’ve gotta nail down my personal life.’ I think we’re all like that.”
Here's some more questions and answers which couldn't fit in my story for Sunday's Latitudes section about Mad Men:
Weiner: I haven’t been off as long as the show has. I went back to work in May and could have been on the air in October but it’s always been AMC’s plan to have the show on in the spring of 2012. They had four shows last year. They do one show a quarter and that’s the way it worked out. I wasn’t happy about it but I’m living with it and the product of it is a two-hour premiere. (laughs)
Deggans: When you started back on the show, knowing it would be off for 17-months, what was Job 1?
W: Well, first of all, you know, the negotiations were really tough and I had to put that out of my mind and be happy that everything worked out and felt very lucky that I had the show and that I was back on it and that we were all going back to work. I suppose people would have gotten back to work without me, with or without me, but the fact that we were all together and that we’re doing it was actually kind of a kick in the pants, you know, in a good way – to say, like, we’re so lucky to have this job and so it was really kind of a great feeling to go back to it, as scared as I always am to start a season. I started writing the first episode and it was just getting longer and longer and longer, and finally I was just … seriously, it is … you can tell from watching it that it is one story. It was even longer than two hours, and we cut it down. But I asked (AMC president) Charlie Collier, how do you feel about a two-hour premiere? I think the audience deserves it. And he totally agreed, and that’s where we are.
You may dispute this, but I’m amazed at how much influence this show has, given the size of its actual audience.
W: My only dispute about it is that it actually has a much larger audience than people think. This show came along in the midst of a huge technological change. We were one of the first shows to be offered on iTunes. It actually happened around the year that we went on the air, and we were an instant hit on there. So iTunes, you know, whatever that is about that audience, is one thing. The audience goes up by close to 80 percent when you factor in the number of people who (watch on DVRs). Then there’s the video-on-demand factor, and I can tell you...I had the same experience. I was like, 'How could this be that there’s so … that this is the amount of people that are watching, you know, the show?' Is it just that journalists like writing about it? But people write about things because there’s an audience for them. So I was sort of trying to question it myself and, you know, you always question numbers but what became obvious to me and to … you know, as you can see from the profits of the two public companies that make the show – Lionsgate and AMC – is that it’s a gigantic audience.
MUCH MORE BELOW
Is it three times what the Nielsens say or …?
W: I have a sense of it. I can’t even tell you because now, with the NetFlix, and they don’t release numbers either, but it’s in … it’s in the top 10 in 44 countries in the world. It’s in 120 countries. I saw it on the air in Zanzibar, okay? (laughter) I don’t think that AMC has the reach that, like, Fox has but when I started off, a network TV show would be canceled with, you know, a six, when we started Mad Men. And now their numbers have come down and our numbers have gone up, and that’s just on the first-night Nielsen viewings, you know. I don’t really dispute it anymore because it’s really … whatever it is. I hate hearing how it’s little watched. I hate hearing that because that’s just not true. I always like being the underdog and it’s fine with me but it’s kind of preposterous to suggest that there are only 3 million people watching the show.
D: There’s this book called Mad Men on the Couch. Have you heard about that?
W: No, but I remember there was a Sopranos one that was fascinating.
D: Well, this …yeah, this psychoanalyst, I guess, wrote a book and she analyzes all the characters, and I just wanted to read you a couple lines about Don and see what you think.
D: She says, “As we will see over and over again, Don’s image is his lifeline. Psychologically it provides a means to achieve emotional well-being and survival. Sure, he looks arrogant. He appears to be full of himself every time he stomps out of meetings or hits on a beautiful woman but such actions are merely compensatory and represent a cover-up of feelings of inadequacy. The smooth veneer he has created represents an effort to remake a self that feels damaged and broken into one that others view as sturdy and impressive.” Does that sound at all …
W: I would say what Don would say: You’re the doctor. (laughs)
D: How much do you … I mean, is this …
W: I mean, is that conscious? Is that conscious on anybody’s level? Who isn’t like that? Who isn’t like that? I’m in show business. I have not met anyone who is not compensating for something. Yeah, look at you. I mean, do you really have to write something down that millions of strangers would read? What’s missing in you? Something, I guarantee ‘ya. (laughter)
D: That’s very true.
W: I’m not demeaning it in any way. I think that it’s a pretty cogent analysis but it is not … I don’t write him from that point of view. I write him in a way that he … I mean, I think it’s part of the appeal of the show is that the guy seems … look at the opening credits. There’s this guy in free-fall and then you just see him sitting there with supreme confidence. It’s definitely not drawn out of nowhere. It’s just, to me – as most analysis is and, you know, traditional criticism on some level – it’s derived from what you’re presented. It’s not where you create something from. I didn’t create something with that in mind.
D: So, I saw in the New York Times article that you have a vision of where this would end. You have an image in your head of where the series is gonna end, and I’m just wondering, when did that come to you?
W: No, no, I mean, God no. I mean, I didn’t even expect this to … it’s something that I … and I said, people have to take my word for it because it’s something that I haven’t really shared with a lot of people and, honestly, I’m not gonna. And however it ends, I could … you know, I’m a fairly honest person, so I’ll say this is not … was not my original ending, but it’s something that came to me probably last year, just out of nowhere, when you start sorta thinking about, well, where is this going, where is this going in the … it’s not even the time period or anything. It’s just sort of … what dramatically, what taste do I want to leave in the audience’s mouth, you know, in terms of like what is the last spoonful of dessert gonna … what are they gonna walk away with? And so that’s all it is.
And, you know, I do it for every season, quite honestly. Not usually for the whole show, obviously. And every season I come in and I … I got this from (his former boss at The Sopranos) David Chase, and I don’t know if I do it as well as he does ‘cause he was extremely detailed and had a lot more time off between seasons also. But I come in with what I think are the ending images of the season and, you know, last season the ending image of the season was Don in bed with Megan on him asleep, and him looking out the window and I’m sort of wondering, you know, on some level, is he looking to the future? Is this a what-have-I-done? Is this I still feel empty? Is this I’ve never been happier? But I knew that was the image.
So I have something as literally abstract as that in mind for the ending. And that’s all I can say. I am fascinated as a writer that I am being asked that question all the time, and I’m trying to figure out what it’s about but I hope that my answers are satisfactory. I mean, it’s certainly not something I would ever … I’ve gone on the record about it but I was like kind of … it’s kind of a private thing. I mean, this isn’t Lost. There is no puzzle that I have to reveal. There is no explanation that I owe the audience, so I have … and I don’t know that they did either, but I certainly haven’t set it up like there’s some riddle that I’m gonna solve. So, for me, it’s really just been, I assume that people want to proceed with the idea that there is some kind of plan for where this is all going, and I can tell you that there is, there always has been.