Matthew Weiner: Mad Men Ending Not Intended to Be Ambiguous.
“I’m so pleased people enjoyed it and enjoyed it exactly as it was intended,” Weiner said Wednesday night in a Q&A with author A.M. Homes at the New York Public Library. “You can’t get a 100% approval rating or you’ve done something dumb.”
Weiner had said the Q&A session would be his major forum for talking about specifics regarding the finale, which wrapped the AMC drama after seven seasons. During the 85-minute conversation, he offered insight into the development of the show’s storylines over time as well as surprises that came as a result of collaboration in the writers’ room.
Weiner himself is still coming to a deeper understanding of his creation of Don Draper, the deeply conflicted advertising genius at the center of the show.
“Don likes strangers,” Weiner said, describing it as something that only dawned on him recently. “Don likes winning strangers over. He likes seducing strangers, and that is what advertising is.”
And he left little uncertainty about his intent in using the famous 1971 Coca-Cola ad as the final image of the series. “To me it’s the best ad ever made,” he said. “That ad is so much of its time and it’s so beautiful.” He took exception to those who called it “corny,” noting that its message of racial and cultural harmony was significant in a turbulent era for civil rights and politics.
“The people who find that (Coke) ad corny are probably experiencing a lot of life that way,” he said. “Five years before that black people and white people could not be in an ad together.”
The final 14-episode season was meant to reflect the arc of the 1960s, and the nation’s pivot to a conservative culture — electing Richard Nixon as president, no less — after the upheaval of the late 1960s.
“The whole last season was the idea that the revolution failed in some way. It was time to deal with what you can control which is yourself. People were turning inward,” he said.
The final seven episodes were meant to conclude the story of Don Draper and his tortured past in a way that allowed him some release at the very end.
“He takes to the road and finally comes to terms with the worst shame of his life — taking that man’s name,” Weiner said. “We realize he has no one. He feels there’s not much reason for him to live. He doesn’t really matter to anyone he could hear.”
Weiner said he and the writers watched vintage films of group therapy sessions at the Esalen retreat in Northern California for inspiration on how men of the era dealt with depression and feelings of unworthiness.
Weiner noted that the last two episodes were hard on star Jon Hamm because he did not have the luxury of big final scenes with his longtime co-workers. “I wanted to see Don on his own. I wanted to do an episode of ‘The Fugitive’ where Don comes into town and he could be anyone.”
While there was some viewer carping about Don Draper’s remove at the end, Weiner was adamant that the setting of Don’s epiphany — at a far-off retreat in California — was important. “I liked the idea that it would be about other people — a moment of recognition for Don,” he said.
For the pivotal moment in the finale, the show banked hugely on the skill of guest star Evan Arnold, who played Leonard, the man whose breakdown sparks Don’s burst of empathy and soul-searching. When he was working with casting directors, he warned them that the Leonard role “was the most important role in the series,” he said.
Almost as exciting in those momentous final scenes was the sight of Don Draper in jeans. It was something they saved for the end of the series. When costume designer Janie Bryant told him it was time to put Don in denim, Weiner said, “Oh my god — jeans and that incredible flannel shirt — the guy is definitely out of uniform.”
Among other topics he touched on was the trajectory of Christina Hendricks’ Joan character. At the outset Weiner did not see her becoming the feminist and businesswoman that she is by the end. He was talked out of having Joan go through with an abortion by a female writer on staff, Maria Jacquemetton, who argued that she would not miss the chance to have a baby — which then greatly influenced the character’s development.
“I love the fact that it’s not philosophical for her,” Weiner said of Joan’s evolution as a feminist. “This woman made a practical decision not to take any s— any more,” he said. As indicated in the finale and the ups and downs with her love life, “she biologically loves work.”
Weiner told the crowd that his writing staff also talked him out of shoveling every bit of the final storylines for key characters into the last episode. “It would have been a mess,” he acknowledged. The writers finally convinced him “you’ll have to live with the fact that (viewers) know some of the ending” before the finale, he said.
Among other tidbits revealed:
* Weiner knew that the Betty Draper character would die at the end after the conclusion of the fourth season, and after the show secured a three-season renewal. There was a tragicness to her from the start, especially at the end when she decides to go back to college. Betty was able to “realize her purpose in life just before she was about to run out of time,” he said
* He wasn’t sure about Peggy and Stan ending up as a couple. That, too, took some work by the writing team.