In conversation: Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner on identity and symbols

In the first half of our Canada-exclusive interview, Mad Men’s creator discusses the magnetism of Don Draper and the show’s literary allusions

Matthew Weiner and Canadian actress Jessica Pare discuss a scene on the set of Mad Men's sixth season.   (Jamie Trueblood/AMC)

Matthew Weiner, left, and Canadian actress Jessica Pare discuss a scene on the set of Mad Men’s sixth season. (Jamie Trueblood/AMC)

In 2007, Matthew Weiner was a writer who had just wrapped up work on The Sopranos, taking a risk by bringing the first show he ever created—a little niche period piece about advertising in the ’60s—to AMC, a basic-cable channel known for airing classic movies that had not, to that point, been the home of any original TV dramas.

Oh, how things have changed. Eight years later, AMC is a big part of what many see as television’s golden era, and that’s in large part because of the remarkable success of Weiner’s Mad Men, which has won a slew of Golden Globes and Emmys over the course of its run. Far more than a show that celebrates the glamour in boozing, smoking, and womanizing—though there’s hedonism in there, to be sure—Mad Men has been an intoxicating brew of cerebral, tense storytelling about a remarkable cultural moment in America, made-to-measure with immaculate attention to style and historical detail. And its impact on the culture has been significant: We have Mad Men to thank for, at least in part, the increased popularity of men’s fashion, a return to ’60s-era grooming, and a renewed interest in cocktail culture.

But it all ends on May 17. What will happen to Don Draper, the show’s brooding ad man with a dark secret?

In this, the first half of our Canadian-exclusive conversation with the showrunner before the show’s third-last episode, Weiner told Maclean’s why he’s been using the show to play with the idea of identity, why Don Draper is so compulsively watchable, and why the books on the show may not hold the clues to the ending, after all. You can read part 2—where we pin him down on the ending—here. Some spoilers follow.

AMC’s been billing the series finale as the end of an era. Is it starting to really feel that way for you?

It’s certainly the end of an era for the characters. I don’t want to get too grandiose about the show, but it’s the end of a period in my life, for sure. This has been a 14-year journey from when I wrote the pilot. So I’m starting to feel—from the fans anyway—that people are recognizing the time that’s passed while the show’s been on the air, which is kind of interesting.

Your position is kind of purgatorial right now. You wrapped a few months ago and you’re seeing it on the air only now.

The strangest thing is that—and I was warned about this by other showrunners—we said goodbye about 20 times. We stopped shooting in July, we stopped post in October, and then I moved out of my office in December, and then we started the launch of this thing, had our last premiere. But still, the realization that the show is actually over and that the last episode is going to show, it’s emotionally surprising to me, believe it or not.

Did you actually talk to showrunners about how to handle a series ending? AMC also was home to Breaking Bad—did you talk to Vince Gilligan at all?

I did a round table and they all offered advice completely unsolicited. I lived through the end of The Sopranos but I wasn’t there the last day because my last episode was the second to last episode, and I went to L.A., finished on a Friday, and opened the Mad Men offices on the Monday. So I kind of missed it. But people have been telling me about it.

What was the best piece of advice you got?

I think the best piece of advice was from Carlton Hughes. He said, “People are going to ask you what you’re doing next all the time,” and it’s sort of like, “How are you?” in the sense that they are asking it socially and they’re not expecting an answer anymore than they would to “How are you?” Don’t be overwhelmed by it!

I’m currently scratching out that question from my list.

My kids ask me as a joke at this point, in the morning. “What’s next?” [Laughs] I might get coffee probably.

Related: Jessica Paré on Mad Men, secrets, and fan theories

For people at large it actually kind of feels like the end of an era. When the show first started, no one was wearing a tie clip, and now everyone is running around with tie clips, for instance, superficially.

It’s flattering to think the show had an effect on the culture. It’s given us a lot of material in a weird way, the amount of change that happened in the past seven years. When we shot the pilot, I had an invitation in my email box to join Gmail, which had just started. There was no Twitter, there was no iPhone, there was no iPad, there was no streaming, there was no Netflix, really. Netflix was a mail service, you know? These things changed so rapidly and not really rapidly at all. We had a giant recession in the middle of this, Obama was elected—it’s been a lot of change.

Even specifically in your own industry, at the time Mad Men came out, the idea of prestige TV was a glimmer in our collective eye. It was AMC’s first original drama. Now everybody’s talking about the golden age of TV with all these amazing shows.

I felt that the minute The Sopranos went on the air, everything changed. To be something that was that artistically ambitious and that commercially successful and had such a niche but lucrative audience was a beginning of a wave of opportunity for people to do a different kind of television. There’s just so much more television and it’s sold to smaller and smaller audiences and they’re still able to make so much money. I think it is a golden age of television economically for sure, between all the multiple platforms and every time you pay $1.99 on Amazon or iTunes or your Netflix subscription or Hulu, not to mention that HBO now has one of these services, all of these things, it’s a $50-billion international business. That is definitely not what it was when we started.

Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper on Mad Men, on the set of the show's sixth season. ( Jamie Trueblood/AMC)

Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper on Mad Men, on the set of the show’s sixth season. ( Jamie Trueblood/AMC)

Can you explain why Don Draper has been so compulsively watchable? Why have people proven to care so much about a guy who has proven himself to be on a number of occasions just an unlikeable guy?

I don’t know that I agree that he’s unlikeable, and part of his appeal definitely has to go to his portrayal by the incredibly likeable Jon Hamm and what he’s added to it. But I think the show offered a unique psychological position in entertainment in that he’s a regular person and his problems are very much familiar to us even if we haven’t led as exciting a life.

He is a sign of our id, and we know he has a conscience and he’s fighting to do the right thing and doesn’t always come through, and that’s an unusual kind of realistic character—he doesn’t solve crimes, he doesn’t have a gun—and I think that reflection of real life has been kind of a unique position in entertainment. I think he’s very identifiable, and I think most of the characters are. Flaws or not, it’s not based on a wish fulfillment about how people should be or how you’d like them to be. It’s sort of designed to say: this is how they are.

Well certainly, I agree with you, he is an everyday person—but not every person has this war secret and this million-dollar condo—

Yeah, look: every person for the most part who has access to TV, when they think deeply about it, knows that they have a lot, a lot more than they should to be still wanting more. And we also all have at least more than one self, and it’s as simple as the way you are when you go into a meeting versus the way you are when you step into the hallway. You go to lunch with your spouse and then you get in the car, you’re a different person. That first-person experience for all these characters, but especially for Don—what’s going on in his mind and the different kinds of people that he is, and who he wants to be versus who he is—that is a universal.

That’s my theory on it. I have to be honest with you, I don’t know how it works. Myself and the writers, we wanted to make a show that we wanted to watch and the dramatic stakes have to be a little bit higher than real life. It is a little exaggerated, but the dynamic between him and the people in his life, whether it’s work or home or strangers, it is at times disappointing and then at times very heroic, and we’re rooting for him to do the right thing and sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t.

I used to joke that the two major questions of the show are, “Is this it?” which is, you know, we’re all mortal so that’s definitely a question on people’s minds. And then, “What’s wrong with me?” which I think, you know, I’m not alone, this is not just a neurotic dynamic. Most people walk away from every social interaction saying, “I wish I hadn’t said ‘something.’ ” Some aspect of it.

Related: Follow Maclean’s Mad Men panel as it recaps and analyzes Mad Men‘s final episodes

Let’s talk about identity now, because it’s very clear over the course of the show and certainly this season, it’s really about the tensions between identity and what an identity even means. Was there an early conscious decision to say, “Hey, this is what I want to write, I’m going to be running this show, and this is the topic I want to really get into?”

I was inspired when I was writing the pilot to address this very issue. At the time I thought it was uniquely American but then I realized that even places where there isn’t the kind of social mobility we have here, or economic mobility, that it’s a constant question. “Who am I,” at least in Western culture, is the central thought behind everything. What was unusual was trying to address that in the dramatic form or in a film form or in a TV form because that internal struggle or that internal question is usually reserved for literature because you can describe what people are thinking. Here you have to actually dramatize it and physicalize it.

But in America, the 20th century in particular, most of the most influential figures are people who constructed their identity. They are frequently from rural poverty, a lot of single mothers, a lot of evangelical backgrounds or whatever—immigrants, a lot of times—and they come here and they construct this identity that is palatable to us but also they’re living with the scars and the reality of who they actually are. Some of them just hide it and lie about it, and some of them … You read biographies of some of the giants of the 20th century and you can’t find details about their childhood. They’ve just blotted the story out because it’s shameful to them. That’s where I started, and picking this apex of American influence, especially in New York in 1960 and saying what happened during that period. Who were these adults? I think that we have been going through a big change right now and people recognize that and want to see other people going through it.

You just brought up the idea of literature, and I can’t remember the last time I watched a show that had so many very clear literary references, whether it’s Frank O’Hara or the Dante that Don was reading on the beach, and so on. What was the intention behind that, drawing on all these very specific literary allusions, wearing them so heavily on your sleeve?

Hopefully they’re not worn that heavily on our sleeve! They’re not always related—I mean, you’ve got to pick something. We’re in a slightly anti-intellectual period right now where it’s kind of like, “Well, why are you…” I’ve read blog posts in the past where mentioning any kind of book is sort of seen like a pretentious conceit.

But I’m not comparing Mad Men to Inferno. I’m saying that for a middle-aged man to get a book gifted by his mistress that’s about a middle-aged man reconsidering his life is two educated people having a conversation about their situation, which is rooted in sin. That’s the literary allusion, that it’s in their life. It’s kind of like the movies that they watch. I can pick any movie, and I do want it to be thematically related to the story, but sometimes it’s just a part of pop culture and I think a lot of times it reflects what’s going on in the society but also what’s going on in their mind.

Don is in the pop-culture business, so he has to read Portnoy’s Complaint, we know that he loves James Bond, but these were bestselling books at this time. You say, well, “Why were they bestselling?” Part of the story of the decade is about the kind of crudeness that pops up, the change in the language, the explicitness; you know, a movie like Midnight Cowboy that would be completely unacceptable by Hollywood codes and gets an X rating is an Oscar winner. So you have to really embrace all of these literary references as part of people’s lives.

I’m fascinated that you mentioned that these allusions are not always related, because for so many people on the web, everything means something, everyone’s hunting for clues, and I can’t remember a show like this since like Lost.

I love that people are interested in the details. I think some of it is that the show has a lot of subtext, but I do not work in a symbolic universe. I work in a referential universe and sometimes it’s important to note that if you’re doing a spooky story and the little girl is reading a bestseller that’s inappropriate for her, Rosemary’s Baby, when someone breaks into the apartment, it’s a symbol of a kind of social milieu that is a little bit more graphic and inappropriate for her at that time. I’m not saying that these things don’t have any meaning, but they’re not… Don’s reading a book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It’s not because he just came in from a cold place or something or that he’s a spy, it’s because he’s on vacation and John Le Carré is on the top-10 bestsellers list and he keeps up with the culture and it’s a bestseller, you know, it’s a great book.

In the second half of our conversation with Weiner, which will be published on on Wednesday, he goes on the record about the D.B. Cooper theory that’s galvanized the Internet, and why the show’s ending has never been truly important to him.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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