Don Draper, according to his spurned ex Faye, "only likes the beginnings of things." Is the show's audience in the same camp?
Well, not quite. Devotees of the show tend to be in raving-fan mode during the last third of each season, but "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner has detected a pattern in how seasons of his show are received. Audiences usually like the season premiere -- and they're even more primed to enjoy the Season 5 premiere, given how long they had to wait for it. But in his experience of past seasons, they start carping around the time of the second episode.
"They get irritated and ornery and talk about how crappy it is," he told HuffPost TV with a laugh.
There's something to Weiner's theory, though I think it's around the third or fourth episode that the "where is this going" grumbling tends to crest. But there's certainly a rhythm that the show has tended to follow in the past. It's worth noting that my least favorite episode of the series, Season 3's "The Fog," was the fourth episode of that season, while three of my favorite outings -- "Shoot," "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" and "The Suitcase," aired in the seventh, sixth and seventh hours of their respective seasons.
Your mileage may vary, as they say, but there's no denying that "Mad Men" likes to take its time in setting up themes, alliances, conflicts and dilemmas -- usually in ways that pay off handsomely as each season heads into the home stretch. But when I spoke to Weiner, he seemed a bit apprehensive about just how different this season's story is. It certainly doesn't sound as though Weiner wanted to create another Duck Phillips to cause trouble for Don, or have the gang start yet another advertising agency. The way he tells it, the Season 5 arc will involve things we haven't seen before.
"I'm telling a new story and I hope that [fans] can get on board with it and start to let their imagination and expectations wander," he said. "I can’t inoculate myself from their disappointment at the fact that it’s going to be a new story."
But once fans wrap their heads around the Season 5 saga, they may love it. Or not. Either way, they'll be sure to take to the Internet to vent their feelings. Goodness knows I will, once again, need to do a brain dump of my thoughts, feelings and theories every week; please meet me back here the evening of March 25, the night the show returns to AMC, for the first of my weekly reviews of "Mad Men's" fifth season.
If you missed it, here is Part 1 of my interview with Weiner is here. At the end of Part 2 here, Weiner was talking about the gap in time between seasons … and you can probably guess where the conversation went next. We also discussed how change is explored in "Mad Men" and the key character you won't be seeing much of in Season 5.
Of course you’ll never tell anyone what the time jump is.
At this point, no.
I just want it to be the year I was born.
What year you were born?
I know you won't tell me. It’s okay.
Well, you know. I was born in '65 and I can tell you right now, doing that year was really, really uneventful.
Really? A lot happened on the show.
But it was funny. You think about the '60s and you look at the news headlines and there are periods of such calm and peace, but not for people getting divorced or who are sick or [things like that].
Or having a friend die.
Or having a friend die. So I got that in there, but the historical stuff does come in clusters.
Do you feel like Season 5 is one of those clusters?
I never want the show to feel like that until it gets to its climax, and I'm talking about the seven-year climax, not the one-year climax. We’ve used [history] where we could: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the [Nixon-Kennedy] election. I look for the structure that way and you could always [turn it into part of the show]. Last year, I could have done the blackout, but then we did Columbus Day.
Writing this historical fiction, [I am not] an expert -- my expertise is on human fallibility; my expertise is not history. What I have been interested in my whole life more than anything -- the theme every year really is -- how do you deal with change? Because that's what I'm looking at [with] that period. Do you even know change is happening? Do you go with it? No matter what, that becomes the theme every year.
I cannot explain to people without sounding like I'm eight billion years old that Netflix did not exist when I put the show on the air, and now my mother knows how to get it streaming in her house.
But what has resonated so much about your show is that these are people from a few decades ago, but they're like us. They've flawed. They're searching for some kind of contentment.
We talked about this from the very beginning. The first conversation I had with you was me looking at someone who is 75 years old and saying, "I should not have a patronizing parental attitude towards this person. For me to assume that that cardigan sweater and whatever grilled cheese sandwich they're eating on their retirement -- for me to assume that that person has not lived a life filled with every kind of drama is literally stepping over a gold mine."
We don't think those people had a story and they're around us. There was some misrepresentation [some time back] of how the show is going to end, with Don in the current day or something, and what I was trying to say very ineloquently on that podcast -- I'm not backtracking -- was, "You want to know what happened to Don Draper? Look around you. There are people walking right next to you."
I'm not doing "Boardwalk Empire." There are people alive who have very strong, conscious memories of the period that I'm trying to recreate. Imagine what it's like to be a guy who worked in that office in New York with those secretaries. Imagine what it's like to be that secretary who got a job and lived through the '70s and the '80s and the '90s and 9/11 and is here right now. Imagine what that's like for them to take the iPhone out of their pocket and have a conversation face-to-face with their grandkid in New York City.
Don't take it for granted.
But what's interesting is how well people adapt to it.
We're really amazing, isn't it? Or do we not adapt and that's just the way it is?
I was looking through my write-ups of Season 4 and I came across something that I wrote that maybe encapsulated the things the show makes me think about. And it's this: "Do people change or do they come up with strategies to deal with the defects and problems they can’t change? And does that itself constitute some kind of evolution?" (Editor's note: See what Jon Hamm had to say in response to the same notion here.)
That's amazing. You saw [the Season 4 episode] "The Summer Man"?
That's kind of what Don is saying in his diary when he's watching Henry mow the lawn. "I want to become the person that I want to be." Do you know what I mean? Is it wanting that? Isn’t that a change? A lot of people don't want to be better. They don’t even think about it.
I've said this to other people, but [one of the lines in the season is]: "When is everything going to get back to normal?" I don't know if that's because I'm 46 years old that I'm having this sensation, or if it's really a cultural phenomenon.
You know, seeing that Clint Eastwood ad on the Super Bowl, that sort of WPA-style ad for America and the car industry, I was kind of like, "They are trying to take a positive message." But I having studied history, every generation ... I mean, things are particularly bad right now, but there is always that moment where you just came out of something awful, where you’re just on the way to something awful, but because this is America, there is mobility. It's Don, it's Megan versus Faye. Are you going to accept who you are and deal with it, and call a lawyer and declare bankruptcy and try to start over as that person, or are you going to say, "That was the first half. I am totally reinvented. I am not out. I am a new person. I'm a phoenix"?
But that's the great balance that you're exploring in the show: How much do you accept of who you are and what you are? How much do you try to change?
And do you have control over that? Because I felt like Don was really on the way someplace before they lost Lucky Strike. I really felt that he was coming to a sort of comfort, at least with the kind of person that he was and what the limitations were and what he wanted. The minute that business was gone, he was scrambling to save the business and wrote that [anti-tobacco] letter, which, in my mind, that's a great piece of advertising, but an incredibly cynical move. He's doing something great for all the wrong reasons. Look at the fallout. They had to get rid of everybody.
So once that instability was so overwhelming in the business, I think he literally was like, "I've got to hold onto something. I've got to pay attention to this part of my life." What I'm saying is that external events [can overcome our best intentions, as in]: "I'm starting my diet Monday morning -- what, free donuts? Someone sent over donuts. Am I really not going to eat them? Well, I've got tomorrow. I want to be thinner, I do; but tomorrow."
I'm around the same age as you, and I don't know if it's just me, but how many times in your life the last few years have you said, "I'm not ready for that yet?"
That’s everywhere. Betty Draper, where do you think that comes from? Betty Draper sitting down and [her father] Gene’s trying to read her his will, trying to tell her the arrangements [in Season 3's "The Arrangements,"]. She's pregnant and she sounds so selfish and so cold, and the fact is, I'm on both sides of that problem. I am like, "Stop it. Why do they wallow in this? Why are they wallowing and telling me all the awful things, [like] where they want to be buried?" We had this thing in “The Sopranos” when Carmine died. It was my first episode and Junior says, "You know, my arrangements [are this and that]" and Tony said something like, "Yeah, well, we're going to mount you on the wall like a moose" or something like that.
Do you have things you want people to be aware of or thinking about, generally, for the season?
People should try and prepare themselves for a new story. I tell them that every season and they cannot be prepared for it, because they always have the same response to it when it comes on the air. They love the premiere, which I hope they do. I don't want to take that for granted, but they do usually love the premiere, and then the second episode they get irritated and ornery and talk about how crappy it is.
"It's moving too slow."
Or whatever. They don't want a new story to start and then Episode 3, they sort of get what I'm doing. By Episode 4 or 5, they’re like, "This is great," and then hopefully, they get to a point where they start saying they're better every week.
But I'm telling you right now, I'm telling a new story and I hope that they can get on board with it and start to let their imagination and expectations wander. But it's new. I'm not trying to top last year. I just try to do something new and I don't mean, like I said, [just] turning it on its head. It's a new story.
I can't gird myself [for the responses]. I can't inoculate myself from their disappointment at the fact that it's going to be a new story, but I hope that they are on board for it because it's very entertaining to me and the people around me and to the people that work on the show. But we may be in some kind of ...
Bubble. It felt very personal this year and the characters are pretty deep. You spend a lot of time with them and their personal lives and I'm very pleased that we were able to find so much interesting [stuff]. I'm not going to promise that it's entertaining, but it's interesting things about these people and what the next stage in their life is.
That is what people always have to keep in mind -- if you’re 40, go back and remember where you were at 30, where you were at 20. I'm always keeping that in mind. Peggy is one age, Pete is another age. We had this episode last season, “The Rejected,” where you saw that Peggy was going to be heading towards youth, because she was still single and hanging out with people and the '60s were happening in front of her and [she was] meeting a guy in a closet and all these other things. Pete was going to be standing there with the suits. He had finally gotten the balls to tell his father-in-law to mind his own business, to take it or leave it, and he was about to be a father. If you know the characters, you get to do that. We take that shit very seriously.
So Jon Hamm directing ... how did that go?
It was great. It was annoying to me that he could do it so well [Laughs.] It was. And by the way, when I'm directing, I'm wearing a hoodie and yesterday's underwear, and because he's in the scene, he's dressed as Don Draper and standing behind the camera.
No, honestly, I don't just give these [gigs] away. It is my discretion who directs this, even Jon Hamm, and there are so few of them. There is a lot of mobility at this show, but Jon, I think, is probably our eighth or ninth first-time director on the show, including myself. He was great.
I just I knew when I gave it to him, that if he had the time, that it would be okay, that he was really good with the actors, which you expect. He has a point of view. I got to see it. It was satisfying. It was satisfying to see him do it. It was also our first [episode] in production [though it airs in the show's second week, on April 1]. That’s why everyone thought [Jon's episode] was the premiere, but we had to move things around because of January's pregnancy. She was out for a chunk of the season, and she should be allowed to be. That's not a scoop. I mean, I think people know that.
I am not sure they do.
Oh, okay. I haven't been hiding it.
That was actually one thing I meant to ask about, how much she was in the season.
Yeah, she's not in it that much, but you know, that's biological reality.