Interview with Mad Men creator Matt Weiner on the show's death focus and his battle against spoilers
It isn’t long into a conversation with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner that you realize he is particularly skilled at talking a lot without revealing very much.
That’s likely a convenient habit from years of explaining his masterwork drama to critics like me without giving away details before new episodes air. That also led to awkward moments during interviews a few weeks ago about the show’s new season; despite the fact that journalists had seen the two-hour debut airing Sunday, Weiner and his actors declined to discuss much of anything which hadn’t aired already.
That, combined with a letter sent to critics laying out four pretty broad areas they wanted us writers to avoid, has led to widespread grousing about the increasingly rigid handcuffs Weiner places on mostly-adoring writers who just want to tell their audience how cool the new episodes are.
“I’m always worried people are going to hate it and everybody’s going to turn against us,” said Weiner, explaining his attention to detail and insistence on preserving surprises for the audience. “This season was really a lot of work. It felt like really high stakes; that we treat it like it was the last season of the show, rather than dragging things out over 13 episodes. If we have a theme, it’s that every season finale must feel like the end of the show. I don’t count on (the audience's) patience. No one should have to endure something or stick with it. I’m fighting for their attention.”
I have a wonderful feature story in Sunday’s Lattitudes section based on a talk with Weiner and co-star John Slattery. There’s also a sidebar looking at each character’s reaction to the approach of the ‘70s in fashion (one of the things Weiner doesn’t want revealed is which year the show takes place in, though I do provide a clue).
I note: “Mad Men begins its sixth season with a two-hour film, "The Doorway," which at times feels less like an open passageway than a darkly uncertain destination, especially for Jon Hamm's Draper — an Americanized James Bond working Madison Avenue instead of the French Riviera. It has loads of subtext and table-setting for longtime fans, and is a surprising, compelling journey for those who know the show well.
A suave impostor who took the identity of his commanding officer when that man was killed in Korea, the restless, driven Draper always seems on the verge of vanishing inside his own lies and bottomless need.
He's no different this year (we first see him on a beach in Hawaii, next to a beautiful woman, ignoring her to read Dante's Inferno), picking up after a season in which one partner in his advertising firm committed suicide and his wife decided to leave the business for an acting career.
"The characters are always looking over their shoulders at themselves (and asking) 'Is the problem that it's me?' " said Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, trying to explain the melancholy vision which, once again, seems to motivate every character here.
"I hate to say it like this, but a lot of the story is, 'No matter where you go, there you are,' " Weiner added, speaking specifically about Draper's quest. "Some of it is concrete things; he's a deserter. But really what it has to do with is, 'How do you feel about yourself?' It's the anxiety of being a fraud."
Weiner had some other interesting observations I couldn't fit in the piece, starting with his take on the end of last season; where Draper is sitting at a bar and is approached by a beautiful woman, leaving the audience to wonder if this notorious womanizer will fall off the wagon. Again.
“We had this whole season where people were waiting for (Draper) to cheat on this woman and were almost disappointed in his fidelity,” Weiner said. “Which is surprising, because we saw him single. He didn’t deal with it well. So we’re saying ‘Here I am again; what has happened? How have I not grown?...Why would we think anything is better?”
On whether a character’s adoption of ‘70s fashion shows their acceptance of changing times: “Here’s the thing I try to replicate in the show: ‘What are changing times? If you’re 40 years old and you start dressing like Li’l Wayne, you are part of a style that’s of that time. The story is that the uptight world of the advertising agency has eased up for some people. There is a radical change in fashion…We had a president with mutton chops. I’m always trying to figure out ‘At what point does that filter down.?’”
On the idea that every TV show and film set in the past in really about the time when it is made: “What going on economically now is not related to that period, but there is a societal sense of insecurity (thatis similar). Our self-esteem has been challenged.…I just feel a vibe right now, which is ‘What is my relationship to the group? Do I have any control over the future?’ That powerlessness creates a lot of anxiety. It all depends how excited you are by change.”
When it comes to Mad Men, change might be the most delicious pain of all.