Just as Don Draper finally found a sense of peace in the final moments of the Mad Men finale, with a faint smile creeping onto his face as he meditated at a cliff top retreat, the show’s creator, too, is feeling rather Zen. Making his first public appearance since the finale of the critically acclaimed drama aired on Sunday, Matthew Weiner seemed to be basking in the sense of joy — and relief — that comes with letting go of a show whose pilot he first wrote some 15 years ago and a finale he finished working on last October.
“I can’t believe that it’s happened and I’m so grateful that we got to do it, and that we were allowed to end it how and when we wanted to, and not just get a call: ‘Hey, don’t come in to work ever again.’ I’ve gotten that call,” he told interviewer A.M. Homes and the crowd of hundreds at the New York Public Library Wednesday evening. “I wanted it to feel like there was a vision and a point to the entire thing, and I’m so happy that people stayed with it this long and hopefully felt rewarded by that experience.”
Apart from Wednesday’s public talk, Weiner said he doesn’t plan on doing any major press interviews in the wake of the finale, so the audience was hungry for him to help them dissect it.
Yes, the New Age retreat was supposed to be the famed Esalen Institute, Weiner confirmed, describing the Big Sur, California, filming location, Anderson Canyon, as “a very special place to end the show.” He had also known since the end of Season 4 that the show would end with Don (Jon Hamm) creating the 1971 “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial. “Why not end this show with the greatest ad ever made?” Weiner said.
He was, however, a little “disturbed” by some fans’ negative reaction to the choice of ad. “I did hear rumblings of people talking about the ad being corny,” he said. “I’m not saying that advertising’s not corny, but I’m saying the people that find that ad corny are probably experiencing a lot of life that way and they’re missing out on something. Five years before that, black people and white people couldn’t even be in an ad together!
"The idea that some enlightened state, and not just co-option, might've created something that is very pure — and yeah, there’s soda in there with a good feeling — but that ad to me, it’s the best ad ever made and it comes from a very good place, which is a desire to sell Coca-Cola probably,” he joked. "That ad in particular is so much of its time, so beautiful, and I don’t think as villainous as the snark of today thinks it is."
Something that had also been in the works for some time was Betty’s grim fate, Weiner revealed, saying he knew “very early on” that she would die of lung cancer. “Her mother had just died in the pilot and I felt this woman wasn’t going to live long, and we loved the idea of her realizing her purpose in life right when she ran out of time,” he said. “I think there’s a lesson to be learned about the randomness of things — and she obviously had some predispositions and some fairly serious cancer-causing behavior."
But what hadn't been planned was the romantic ending for Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), in which they confessed to each other via phone that they loved each other. "I didn’t know Peggy and Stan would end up together. That had to be proved to me,” Weiner said, noting he broke a dramatic TV writing rule by having the conversation play out over the phone. “A lot of the most important things that’ve ever happened to me happened over the phone.”
The conversation flowed easily on Wednesday night, and at times turned deeply personal. Weiner said he had been seeing a therapist for some 15 years, with whom he admitted discussing his work, and Don Draper, frequently. He said he agonized over a depression that gripped him when he was at his most creative, while also reflecting publicly on his combative personality.
This tendency to fight back, Weiner said, also meant he had been battling with the network over the show’s budget over its entire run, even having to justify the cost of the filming in Big Sur for the finale. “You come in on budget in the first season and [production company] Lionsgate cuts your budget the next year,” he said. “We were fighting over money for the finale! I made them a billion dollars! AMC went public! But for the most part, all the wounds have healed.”
One of the least discussed aspects of the era in which Mad Men is set, Homes observed, was the social revolution that occurred for men. For Weiner, the post-war man seemed largely unprepared for the social advances happening both around him and to him — including the civil rights movement and the fight for women’s equality — leaving him grappling with feelings of alienation. In this void of loneliness, Weiner said, Don was most drawn to those he didn’t know.
“I don’t think I realized this until the end of the show that Don likes strangers, that Don likes winning strangers over. He likes seducing strangers and that is what advertising is ... Once you get to know him, he doesn’t like you,” Weiner said, acknowledging this was most likely why Don chose to marry Megan at the end of Season 4, rather than Faye.
Weiner said he’d been surprised by some viewers’ hostile reactions to the introduction of new characters, particularly in the final season, like the waitress, Diana (Elizabeth Reaser), whom Don became infatuated with, as well as the shuttering of Sterling Cooper and the move to McCann, and the man who sobbed during Don's group therapy session at Esalen in the finale while talking about his own feelings of insignificance.
“This whole last season was the idea that the revolution failed in some way and it’s time to deal with what you can control, which is yourself. This turning inward,” Weiner said.
That alienation, which Don had battled throughout the entire series, culminated in that final group therapy scene with Leonard, the one-scene character who delivers the emotional monologue that causes Don to break down and embrace him, and in doing so embrace himself. Weiner said Leonard had “probably the most important role in the series." He sent his casting directors searching for someone who wasn’t famous and could deliver a cry on cue. Evan Arnold, who has made a career playing unremarkable men, was the first person who read for the part.
Weiner admitted some sadness that Don’s American Jeremiad journey in the last few episodes took actor John Hamm away from the cast some two months before the end of filming. But, he said, the character arc afforded Don the opportunity to discover both who he is and who he is not, to explore his successes and failures as a man, and to connect, at last, with another human being.
“I don’t think there’s enough empathy in the world,” Weiner said. “I hope that the audience would feel either that he was embracing a part of himself, or maybe them. And that they were heard.”