The Exit Interview: Matthew Weiner on the End of Mad Men

Ahead of the critically acclaimed show's final season, Mad Men's creator talks Don Draper, Googie Architecture, and what's up next.

Mad Men changed television; it’s as simple as that. Rarely can you say the marketing department has undersold their product. But AMC’s slogan for this final season—“The End of An Era”—almost can’t do justice to the impending depth of loss all Don Draper fans will soon face. It’s an emotional moment for viewers, and it certainly must be for creator Matt Weiner. When he graciously hopped on the phone for Departures’ Exit Interviewwe expected only a few parting comments, a brief epitaph to a momentous TV series. Instead, we found ourselves pleasantly lost in a far ranging and enlightening conversational odyssey—one that simply would never fit on the printed page. Fortunately, these days we have the Internet. So, if like us, you are suffering Mad Men separation anxiety, here is the generously extended exchange to help you say goodbye.

I have to start with Bert Cooper’s singing finale from last season. It was a wonderfully absurdist yet poignant moment to send us off on. It reminded me of that Godard film A Woman Is A Woman, have you seen that?

Absolutely. I’ve definitely seen that movie a long time ago. I can’t even explain it. Filmmakers throughout time have been trying to deal with how you go in and out of song. The thing that was so satisfying was I heard that song on an old time radio show; I’d heard the song but I never listened to the words. It was sung by one of the signature voices of the song, Francis Langford. The first thing I thought about was this comment about the moon. Then I remembered I had Robert [Morse], who I already knew was going to die. And there was going to be a landing on the moon. I thought, “You know what? I have the freedom on the show!” There’s so many internal versus external moments, flashbacks in other locations. We have a language that’s ethereal in a way. I just wanted to have a moment like Goodfellas when Ray Liotta gets off the stand and starts talking to the audience. I want something that really inspires me. I was just talking to someone about Boyhood and my first thought was, “I didn’t even know you were allowed to do that!”

Right. There are all these “rules” that people invoke. Like “no voice over!”

Well, that’s totally wrong! The thing about voice over is it has to add. It has to be something you can’t see or show or come at another way. It’s for problem solving or to create an atmosphere. All the tools of cinema should be available to you. You hear people tell you this when you’re coming up: do what you want to do. I am very happy I have been in an environment, not just with the other writers, but from the network and studio, where they have encouraged me to take all these risks.

I can’t think another show that could get away with it and make it feel so integral to the story. Okay, now I have to ask you the dreaded standard question: What can you say about this final season?

I’m not going to tell you anything. What I have to say, in general, is I love that people really don’t ask anymore. But my hope was always that they would want to have the experience when they watch the show. Not that every show is like this—it’s a nice niche that we’ve carved out for ourselves, that we’re going to be the show not to have a big secret, or that’s going to stonewall you, but you’re going to experience right as it’s happening. It’s a commercial decision.

Mad Men Bert Cooper's dance number

Honestly, I agree; I don’t want to know. I want to be just as surprised as I was by the next Robert Morse song and dance.

I can tell you this much: It’s not going to make a difference. One of the things about the show, and this is the backhanded version but it’s really true: If I tell you what happens, it’s not going to do much for you. Like, if I’d told you the beginning of the first half of last season: Don hasn’t told his wife that he got fired; he’s going to try to work his way back up at the company; they’re going to sell the company and Bert’s going to die. That’s what I could’ve told you. It’s small in the way drama works, but it’s not small in the way life works. Reconciling with his daughter, having to work with Peggy, trying to behave well: We knew as we were doing it, the tension is based on watching the show. You cannot believe Don doesn’t have something up his sleeve. You can’t believe he’s really going to go along with this. When you see he’s going to get the pitch for Burger Chef, and he gets so excited about it, and when you hear he’s actually giving it up to help Peggy—if I told you that in advance, none of it is as surprising as watching it happen.

Yes, we want Don to walk into that pitch drunk and brilliant and give this beautiful take with half a quart of whiskey in his blood that makes you want to eat hamburgers forever; then that small moment just blows it away. It’s also like the moment in the Hershey pitch when Don finally tells his true story.

The thing about the Hershey pitch—when we work the entire season up to this moment where Don’s going to tell the truth in front of Roger and the client about who he is—it’s just another pitch. There’s not even anything at stake. But the meltdown of that guy, and the silent moment between him and his daughter, that was a huge thing. And that’s the thing I’m proud of and that the writers are great at setting up and executing—and the actors and directors—to turn something that small and have it ripple back through your mind. It’s a big deal for this guy; it’s a big deal the way it would be for you. Put yourself in the place of the characters. With this show, our aim was always not to make it distant. The guy’s problems, we’ve had those fights with our mothers, you know what I mean? It’s not that far off from our experience. I mean, he’s had a way more interesting life than any of us, but I’ll take my life over his any day.

Exactly: who really wants to lead the brilliant Bohemian life if it means dying of syphilis in a Paris ghetto?

Right! “Wait a minute, I’m dying! It’s happening to me!”

What you said about Don’s revelation rippling back: that’s what I love about the series, how a bizarre moment like that only makes sense in retrospect.

The funny thing is, writing the show for all of us on the writing staff, is that experience. The audience gets a lot of pleasure from being right. But I get a lot of pleasure from them being wrong.

Mad Men JFK episode

Let’s talk about how you use history in the show: What was your guiding principle in how and where you folded it into the storylines?

Anything that succeeds in making people realize that life doesn’t change in a way; that human problems are similar, that relationships are our world, that it really takes something huge to get into our lives, that there is such a thing as a zeitgeist. It’s not like there’s a plan or it’s organized; I do think it was one of my interests, not to instruct people, but to capture the idea that sometimes we all have the same thing on our minds. The most catastrophic thing so far I have lived through is 9/11—just seeing that experience in daily life. There’s an urge to remember but then life goes on. By Christmas people were out buying Christmas cards... It’s nowhere in the history books, it isn’t even in the stories that people tell about the JFK assassination, but the next Thursday was Thanksgiving. Ask people what were you doing and they don’t remember it being anything other than a normal Thanksgiving. But believe me they remember the assassination. They know how it made them feel, what it did to the society—but then it was Thanksgiving and you ask them and it’s, “My aunt came over and there was a football game.” Life goes on.

Now that it’s over, are there any world events you’ll regret not getting to—not being able to watch Don’s continuing life play out against?

It’s funny, the world events part of it was really a double-edged sword. Just like the advertising, I really only wanted to use the history to deal with the thematic aspects of the story. Take the assassination: That was there to explain the ultimate end of Don and Betty’s marriage, that she would take a nihilistic turn and realize there was no reason for anything and lose a sense of order and structure in civilization. And this institution of marriage: she does not love him anymore, so why do this? The historic events become a way to tell the story of the people, not the other way around. Like the moon landing, it was this great story thing for us that Peggy was talking about something very much in the culture, that the family was falling apart, and she’s selling this TV commercial by telling people to turn off the TV. At the same time the moon landing happens, which is still in my mind the greatest moment in the history of television. There’s a conflict there; her turning the corner and saying we all felt together at that moment should tell you how far apart we are. That’s salesmanship. That’s what the moon landing was about for me.

Then maybe it wouldn’t make sense to see Don’s life play out against anything but the sixties? His story is of that time and he is a creature of that time.

I’m not saying it’s not on the show but it’s never been on my mind, that Don is getting out of touch. To me Don is timeless. Don is a timeless persona and that American heroic cloth that he’s cut from, that archetype that appears a lot in our literature and music and movies—he’s not related to his time. He operates outside of that, because his identity is pliable.

Mad Men Final Season

But I’m sure it’s gotten back to you that many people want to see where Don is at in the 80s—how would Don deal with “Morning in America” and all that?

Right. Well, I can’t say whether that’s going to happen or they’re ever going to get to see that, but I think he does reflect his time…the rapid changes that are going on that make me feel disassociated, are more and more thematically important in the show because we [too] are living in a time of tremendous change right now. From when the show started our consciousness has changed through our use of electronics. There was no iPhone, no real Internet service on your phone. There was no willing submission to corporate involvement in our private life. That happened in our private lives. People in the sixties were going through that. We’re watching TV disappear or morph—radio was TV in such a gigantic way for 20 years and then it just disappears, by 1955 I think was the last Radio show. People moved over to TV. But some people are always left behind, making carbon paper for a living.

The show’s had such a huge influence; when you look at the culture at large, where do you see its impact most?

The clothing or the alcohol. I will give the show a starring role in the fact that it takes 25 minutes to get a cocktail now. When you go to the liquor store and they tell you there’s no old bourbon anymore, I think that’s because people started drinking brown liquor again. And the clothing. Janie Bryant really had a great way of making costumes that are…available. There’s nothing so extravagant or abnormal that a regular person couldn’t wear it. I went to Brooks Brothers the second season to buy a suit; they knew who I was because we had a promotion with them and they saw my name. And the salesman said, “I want to thank you. Before the show I’d never had a guy under of the age of 35 buy a tie.” I think a lot of it is Janie’s way of capturing daily life. Nothing was that extreme; it’s not on the covers of magazines; it’s what people were wearing. We had a philosophy about doing the period that we weren’t going to idealize it or modernize it. The furniture and everything: I grew up in Southern California and there was always this part of our aesthetic here, Googie, the coffee shop architecture—

Like Norm’s here in L.A. You know someone was about to tear that down?

I know! You know, I wrote a lot of the notes for Mad Men in that Norm’s on La Cienega. I have a long-term relationship with that restaurant.

Same here! It was where we went after high school prom. I was horrified to hear that someone had pulled a demolition permit!

We’re fighting it! I’m part of the L.A. Conservancy—I think they actually got the largest response they ever got when people heard that the family had sold it and the new owners were planning on tearing it down. You can look up the word “Googie” and see how few of them there are: it is really one of the last ones. They’re doing that thing where when they want to tear down a building, they just let it decay. It’s kind of run down: They did that to it, it’s not hard to maintain that place. Do you remember Ships on Westwood?  You might be too young.

Norm's in LA

I am too young.

It was a restaurant on the corner of Westwood and Wilshire. It was the ultimate expression of this architecture. This place was terrazzo floors. You know spaceships with coasters in them…it was really sad to lose that building. And it turned a profit, but that never seems to matter to them. But one of the biggest crimes was when they gutted Trader Vic’s at the Beverly Hilton for absolutely no reason.

I remember Trader Vic’s! That was an institution: my grandparents loved it, then my mom did; I even got in there once before it disappeared.

Yeah, it had a couple resurgences, and it definitely benefited from the show. And people noticed when it closed. They said they were just redoing it slightly and they basically left nothing. In the ’80s when I had just graduated from college, it was a big singles spot believe it or not. It was the only place where you’d pay for the valet.

As an L.A. native, I’ve loved your use of locations. It’s amazing how you can recreate New York with all these old L.A. locations.

The locations are great. Dan Bishop, our production designer, has a great way of taking a picture of a location that gives you a frame that works, and cuts out everything modern. He has an eye for that. But you know none of this stuff is in New York anymore. Right after the pilot, it was gone. We’ve benefited from Los Angeles’ lack of economic expansion and the protections of the Conservancy. I always felt like if the show only went for one season, part of the message people would get is “Stop tearing this stuff down!” Because you’re going to miss it.

Unfortunately, in L.A., it’s something of a bad tradition. For example, I live on Bunker Hill—

That’s one of the biggest crimes ever! When people realize that Bunker Hill looked like San Francisco. It’s horrible; it’s tragic!

And they just destroyed that beautiful Art Deco building on La Brea—

The Mole Richardson building! Every famous behind the scenes film person, every cinematographer in history, whether they shot Citizen Kane or something else, was in that building. I don’t know if you can tell, but my wife’s on the board of the Conservancy. In addition to the clothing and the alcohol, that has been worth it. People saying, “This place is really Mad Men” has probably saved some businesses.

Speaking of conserving, is there anything from the set you saved for yourself?

This is a tragic answer, but I took more than one thing! The thing that I live with every day in my office at home, I have the bar from Roger’s last office, which is chrome. Don’s bar is going to the Smithsonian, and that’s a better place than my house. But this bar to me—Claudette our set decorator found this bar and it’s a very happy memory from the show. I have little trinkets: Don’s Clio. I have some of the props that we made. But I wanted the actors to have the things that were significant to them. Jon didn’t want to take anything, I think for symbolic reasons, but I forced him to take Don’s chair. I think he didn’t even want to think about the ending to tell you the truth…Vincent [Kartheiser] was like, “I don’t want anything.” I said we have to make sure he has the penholder that says the buck stops here from the middle of Season Two. Kiernan [Shipka] has a little charm necklace that Don got her. I’m pretty sure Christina Hendricks has that pen she wore about her neck. They feel like real people to us, but for someone who goes to work everyday, it’s a real person they created. That’s been the emotional part of it. I’m sort of dealing with it now better than I was—I’m trying to channel that energy of loss and change into the show. It’s happening to all of us and I’m kind of oversensitive anyway but... you realize, you write a scene and you say, “This is where I’m leaving this character forever.” That’s a big responsibility.

Matthew Weiner on the set of Mad Men

And emotional.

It’s like graduating college actually, except better. I had a way better experience on Mad Men than in college—and it was twice as long.

Was it twice as educational?

I use my education every day on the show; I can’t shoot that thing in the face. I wasn’t a great student but I did read everything and I used it every day.

It shows: The show feels so textured. To craft the stories that way, you’d have to know what’s out there to begin with.

That’s true, but there’s another element to it. I was surrounded by extraordinarily smart people. People who are smart enough to argue about stuff, who care. And not just an artistic instinct to protect yourself; we’re talking about informed, quick thinking: the writers, the art department, the costume department, the actors themselves. I often found myself in the room thinking, I hope I’m not revealing that I am not as smart as you! Seriously, you could get caught a lot. It was professional but you could get caught looking dumb easily.

Speaking of the writing, I really think Mad Men has set a new standard for subtext in television. Hopefully, more and more people will pick up on it.

I honestly think a lot of writers can do that but they’re just not interested in it. If you have to service a plot that must get bigger and bigger, there is no room for that. When you stop for that stuff, the show just dies and becomes boring. But if you can explain to people that this conversation is going to be the drama and that the conflict is going to come out of the fact that every person—and I believe this in real life anyway—has their own agenda, then you’re going to get drama out of these moments. A lot of times, we walk into situations and the moment is filled with irony for us. As someone who has enjoyed that as an audience member, I felt that was a great way to capture real life and provide entertainment. Someone comes in and says the most ironic thing and they don’t know it, but the audience knows it.  Sometimes it became a challenge. We have a scene when Lane promotes both Pete and Ken to head of accounts and they don’t know that; they meet in an elevator and both are very generous with each other in what they believe to be the other person’s defeat. They both got the job and they’d be furious if they knew that! Everything had to cut both ways. We used to do it a lot on sitcoms and I love being an audience member who was in on the story.

Don Draper

What do you think Mad Men’s legacy will be, or what do you hope it will be?

I don’t think about things in those terms. That’s for other people to say. You hope that it’s around afterwards. I hope that just like my kids are watching Columbo on Netflix right now—I hope it’s like that. I feel proud of the fact that the show doesn’t have any genre and it’s happening on a pretty small human scale. And I say this as an audience member: That people realize you can make a living doing a show like that. You know what I mean? I won’t use the word “originality,” but I’ll say whatever kind of entertainment it is, if I was in film school right now, it would give me hope—that there is a way to make a living doing things like that.

Now people who come up with something that is not easily categorized but need to say something to the people who pay for it that will allow them to say yes—now they can say, “It’s like Mad Men.”

I absolutely feel that way. The Sopranos was inspiring for me that way. Even though I’d already written Mad Men, when I saw how artistic it was and how subtle it was and how visual it was and how much it reminded me of a real life—it didn’t feel as phony as most of the entertainment felt at that time—and it was a huge commercial success. That was very inspiring for me. I hope that the show is out there as a beacon for people to be encouraged to pursue things that different. I also feel very proud of that fact that it gets mentioned in this period that people regard as TV having a meaningful role in people’s lives. It’s part of this period—if you do a show about now fifty years from now, you might have to mention it.

And now the dreaded final question, the worst of all: What next?

There are things on my mind, but I have chosen to fill up the tank. I jokingly say I’ve gone back to my first love, eavesdropping. It’s actually really a hard decision to make to do that. You have to be an ambitious person to have a job in TV. But this has been in my brain—I wrote it 14 years ago—and I got to express so much I had to say, that I want to see what happens to my brain when I let it go. I’m not letting work go; I’ve decided not to freak out and worry about losing my place. I’ve decided to take care of whatever magical things happened that allowed me to think up [Mad Men] and see if there’s something else. And that requires a pause.