Mad Men pre­pares to make its se­ries cur­tain call

The man who has been the driv­ing force be­hind Mad Men talks about the show’s fi­nal se­ries

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - John Jur­gensen

WITH Mad Men poised to em­bark on its sev­enth and fi­nal sea­son, new im­ages from the show cap­ture Don Draper and com­pany in jet-age splen­dour, seem­ingly un­fazed by the nasty tur­bu­lence in the show it­self.

Con­sid­er­ing Don’s torn-down state at the end of last sea­son — wretch­edly sober, es­tranged from his wife, all but fired by the ad agency he built, open­ing up about his hor­ri­fy­ing child­hood — it’s tempt­ing to divine some turn­arounds in these sleek, sun-dap­pled im­ages. Af­ter the mu­si­cal chairs at Ster­ling Cooper Draper Pryce, is the whole agency de­camp­ing to Cal­i­for­nia? Is that flight at­ten­dant serv­ing wa­ter or some­thing stronger?

As with Break­ing Bad, AMC is split­ting the fi­nal sea­son into two seven-episode halves, with the last stretch air­ing next year. In an in­ter­view, se­ries cre­ator Matthew Weiner cir­cles the themes of the com­ing sea­son, which be­gins next month, and dis­cusses the in­evitable scru­tiny of the show’s fi­nale.

Af­ter a seis­mic end to sea­son six, here we see Don shar­ing space with Roger, his old­est ally, and the women he has been clos­est to, Peggy and Me­gan. Should we read some­thing into the jux­ta­po­si­tions in these im­ages?

You can, I guess. We al­ways take these [pic­tures] in a vac­uum. One year Betty Draper had gained 35 pounds [16kg] and we shot [ac­tress] Jan­uary [Jones] nor­mally in the pho­tos. I just want to re­mind people who the char­ac­ters are. But their cou­plings and so forth [are] some­thing you have to take with a grain of salt, I’m afraid to say. We al­ways think of an en­vi­ron­ment in which we can show all our people and bring all the crafts­peo­ple — makeup, hair, cos­tumes, great pho­tog­ra­phy from Frank Ockenfels — and add a touch of glam­our. It’s apart from the show but whets people’s ap­petite for where we’re go­ing.

Does the em­pha­sis on travel say any­thing about the state these char­ac­ters are in as the sea­son be­gins?

It’s funny to talk about air travel be­cause there were more hi­jack­ings and plane-re­lated crimes at that pe­riod than at any other time un­til the catas­tro­phes we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced in 2001, and so forth. We have a show that was bi­coastal last year, and I like the idea of hear­ken­ing back to an era where we got dressed up to travel by air.

All these ques­tions will be an­swered when you watch the show. All I want now is to re­mind people that it’s there, it is still made with the care and the at­ten­tion it has in the past, and that this is the end of it. I have ap­proached the sea­son with the writ­ing staff as a 14-episode jour­ney that is split up. That means hav­ing two pre­mieres and two fi­nales. But the story is run­ning across it, and this is the place we’re go­ing to leave these people for the life of the show. You want to have some ex­cite­ment for people to come back to. For me, some­times that means just broad­cast­ing a big ques­tion mark.

On a prac­ti­cal or artis­tic level, how did split­ting the fi­nal sea­son change your process?

My in­ten­tion was that I would just do a 14-episode sea­son and wher­ever it broke, it broke. But we al­ways split the sea­son in half. Hour seven of last year’s sea­son was the merger, and if it had ended there, with Peggy typ­ing out “for im- me­di­ate re­lease”, you would def­i­nitely have had a cliffhanger. But think­ing about that 10-month gap [in sea­son seven], I re­alised episode seven had bet­ter feel like an ad­vance­ment of the story. More im­por­tantly, episode eight had bet­ter feel like a pre­miere in some way. It re­ally was a lot more work than I thought it was go­ing to be. I said to the writ­ers: “Is there any­thing that you want to do on the show that we’ve never done?” A lot of amaz­ing things came up, some of which we will prob­a­bly never do, un­for­tu­nately. I’m writ­ing episode nine right now. That means there are five episodes left, three sto­ries per episode, for 15 sto­ries. It doesn’t seem like a lot of real es­tate. And sud­denly ev­ery story has a string di­rectly at­tached to the fi­nale.

I can’t think about how to tell a story while also think­ing: “If you don’t hit a grand slam we’re go­ing to lose the World Se­ries!” I have to go back to, “What would Don do”, in­stead of, “Do you know this is the last time Don’s go­ing to do blan­ket-blank?” I can’t deal with that! I just have to do my job, bird by bird. At the same time, in the back of my mind, I know we’re de­cid­ing where we go­ing to leave these char­ac­ters for­ever. And that is a re­spon­si­bil­ity.

In the past you’ve said you had an im­age in your mind for the end­ing of the show. Is that im­age still the same one you’re work­ing to­wards?

It is. Be­tween sea­sons four and five is when I thought of it. It’s been on my mind through these last 36 episodes. You have to take my word for that. I love that the au­di­ence wants to know that I have a plan, and I un­der­stand that as a viewer. But there’s no mys­tery that’s go­ing to be solved. What I’m hop­ing for is that they’ll have a great mem­ory of the show and it will have some com­plete­ness to it. For me, it’s about where I leave them per­ma­nently. It’s not so much about sum­ming up the ex­pe­ri­ence.

It must be in­ter­est­ing for you to see the re­sponse to other shows as they come to a close, as with the loud re­ac­tion to True

De­tec­tive and, of course, the much-de­bated

fi­nale of Break­ing Bad.

It is in­cred­i­ble to me. As artists we crave that kind of feed­back, good and bad. It’s never been like this be­fore in his­tory, re­ally. At the same time, you have to be very care­ful about what the im­me­di­ate re­sponse is. Giv­ing them what they want is not nec­es­sar­ily what got you to that point. As you can see from The So­pra­nos and the re­sponse to it im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards and the re­sponse over time as people re-watch or dis­cover, it be­comes clear that the end­ing was per­fect. Episodes are like that on a weekly ba­sis even. On our show, ev­ery­thing is in­ter­laced and things ad­vance in a de­lib­er­ately un­pre­dictable man­ner. What is im­por­tant and not im­por­tant is not known some­times un­til the very end.

I would say on be­half of all the cre­ators of these shows, what­ever the overnight re­sponse is to your end­ing, it may take the au­di­ence a while to fig­ure out what you’re do­ing. And they also may be in mourn­ing. I can say that as a viewer, when you have a re­la­tion­ship with these shows, as in­tense as they are right now, the loss it­self makes it seem like you’re get­ting dumped, no mat­ter what.

You stripped Don down to his foun­da­tion at the end of the last sea­son. Was that lib­er­at­ing, to fi­nally find bot­tom for that char­ac­ter?

My com­pli­ments to the writ­ing staff and ev­ery­one who works here for paint­ing us into a cor­ner and giv­ing us a lot to work with. Six years into this nar­ra­tive, to have that much stuff hang­ing in the air, is a lot. I’m proud of the fact that this show does com­mit to change. It was not hard to take Don there be­cause I felt it mir­rored what was go­ing on in our so­ci­ety last year and also in 1968: the anx­i­ety of the cul­ture was just emo­tion­ally overwhelming. People might not have been in the mood to see their hero in­se­cure be­cause they were in­se­cure.

The easy as­sump­tion is that now that Don has hit that turn­ing point, he can rebuild or redeem him­self.

Let’s say you do de­cide to change. Who says that any­body else wants that? There are con­se­quences that are in­de­pen­dent of you. And your ma­te­rial needs be­ing met may make you ques­tion the rest of your life. Those two is­sues are re­ally what the show is about in its fi­nal sea­son, about how to deal with the con­se­quences of your ac­tions. Are they ir­rev­o­ca­ble? How many times can you say I’m sorry, and does that re­ally change any­thing? Does it change you? Also, I want to deal with what I think is the end­ing of the show on some psy­chic level. What do we do when we have our needs met in the ma­te­rial world? Is there some­thing else? We have al­ways al­ter­nated from sea­son to sea­son, telling a story from in­side Don’s head and telling a story from watch­ing Don. This sea­son has been a play in both of those things. That con­flict is lit­er­ally what we’ve been work­ing with as writ­ers.

Is Bob go­ing to be back?

Bob Benson? You have to watch! I love him. That’s all I will say. The fi­nal se­ries of Mad Men airs on Show­case from April 14.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper, the cen­tral char­ac­ter of Mad Men, top; the show’s cre­ator Matthew Weiner, left

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