Now that we’ve all had a few days to digest, dissect, and debate the Mad Men series finale, creator Matthew Weiner is ready to offer his perspective.
During an extensive talk with novelist A.M. Homes (a personal friend of Weiner’s) at the New York Public Library on Wednesday, Weiner offered his first public comments following Sunday’s final episode. And yes, he shed a bit of light on the finale’s ambiguous ending, with the sight of Don Draper meditating at a hippie retreat giving way to the famous “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial.
So did Don create that ad? Weiner confirmed he did, saying that “the idea that some enlightened state, and not just co-option, might have created something that is very pure” appealed to him. Weiner also rejected the notion that the 1971 ad is “corny”: “The people who think that ad is corny probably see a lot of life like that. Five years before that, black people and white people couldn’t be in an ad together… To me, it’s the best ad ever made."
He said he even showed the ad to 15-year-old cast member Kiernan Shipka to gauge her reaction, and she said, "That song is so beautiful… I don’t think there are people with faces that pure on TV these days.”
Weiner admitted that the finale’s big romantic pairing of Peggy and Stan wasn’t one he had been planning on from the start of the series: “That had to be proved to me.” And he defended the finale’s reliance on phone conversations; he said conventional TV writing wisdom insists that “it’s a big scene! Get ‘em in the same room!” but “I feel like a lot of the most important things that have ever happened to me have happened over the phone.”
Overall, how does Weiner feel about the finale, now that it’s aired? “I’m so pleased that people enjoyed it, and seem to enjoy it exactly as it was intended,” he said, adding that “you can’t get a hundred percent approval rating, or you’ve done something dumb.”
More tidbits about the finale, and Mad Men in general, from Weiner’s talk:
* He recalled the story of casting Leonard, the sad therapy patient in the finale who inspires Don’s breakthrough: He told the show’s casting director, “It’s probably the most important role of the series. I need somebody who’s not famous, and who can cry.” And he says actor Evan Arnold pulled it off beautifully: “We shot it a few times, but even at the table read… we felt it.”
* When Mad Men was being developed, an AMC executive asked Weiner about Don Draper, “Who’s his Melfi?” (Referring, of course, to Tony’s therapist on The Sopranos.) But Weiner “realized these guys didn’t talk to anyone… The word 'depressed’ was not part of the vocabulary. Men certainly did not express their feelings, except in bar fights.” He added, “A lot of his, what we would now call self-medication — drinking, womanizing — is to avoid his feelings.”
* While Don couldn’t confide in his loved ones, he knew how to charm people he just met. “Don likes strangers,” Weiner said. “Don likes winning strangers over. And that is what advertising is. And once he gets to know you, he doesn’t like you. I think that’s why he married Megan over Faye.”
* Weiner also defended the decision to send Don on a road trip in the final episodes that separated him from the rest of the main characters. “I want to see Don on his own,” he said. “I want to do an episode of The Fugitive, where Don can be anyone. He’s on the run… everyone has dreams of being on the run. You’ve committed a crime… am I the only one? I like the idea that he would come to this place and it would be about other people.”
* Another shocking revelation in the finale, as Weiner put it: “Don Draper in jeans? We’ve never seen that. [Costume designer] Janie [Bryant] was saving it. She got the prison-style jeans that were in style then. And that flannel shirt… He’s definitely out of uniform.”
* He revealed that Betty’s storyline, with her being diagnosed with terminal cancer in the penultimate episode, was in the works for a while: “I knew very early on. Her mother had just died in the pilot, and we felt like this woman’s not gonna live long… I think there’s a lesson to be learned about the randomness of things, and she also had a predisposition to some cancer-causing behavior.”
* One story that surprised him in the course of writing the series: Joan’s decision to keep Roger’s baby and be a single mom. In fact, “I didn’t even know Joan was a main character until I met Christina Hendricks. Then I said, 'tie her up'… financially.” He also addressed Joan’s feminist streak: “I love the fact that it’s not philosophical for her. This woman made a practical decision not to take any s–t anymore.”
* He touched on the sometimes nasty budget battles he had with AMC and Lionsgate, saying, “You come in on budget the first season, and Lionsgate cuts your budget the next year!… We’re fighting over money for the finale.” He also alluded to making his bosses “a billion dollars” due to the show’s success and AMC’s subsequent IPO, but he says they’re in a good place now: “For the most part, all the wounds have healed.”
* Weiner’s not a fan of binge-watching. If he makes another TV series (and “I hope to one day”), and it’s with a streaming service like Netflix, “I would hope to convince them to let me roll them out one at a time, so we can have that shared experience. I love the waiting. I love the marination. When you watch an entire season of a show in a day, it’s not the same.”