Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen the Season 6 finale of AMC's "Mad Men," titled "In Care Of."
Could Don Draper finally be growing up?
Most fathers are not a mystery to their children; most adults are not quite so hobbled by tortured pasts. But most people are not Don Draper, who, in the course of "Mad Men's" six seasons, has tried to shield his kids from the most basic truths about himself. Where he's from, how he grew up, what kind of life he had: Those were all things that he lied about, to co-workers, clients and those closest to him. But as viewers saw in the show's Season 6 finale (which I wrote about here), Don is in the process of shedding that false skin.
The final image of Season 6 was Draper showing his three children the house of ill repute in which he grew up. We don't know yet if his bold gamble will pay off, or if his daughter Sally, who grew especially disenchanted with her father this season, will continue on her path of rebellion and barely-suppressed fury at her father.
Don also revealed the truth about his origins during a meeting with an important potential client, and everyone in the room was appropriately stunned. According to "Mad Men" creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner, however, Don's behavior in the Hershey meeting is not what got him fired (or placed on leave). That meeting, shocking though it was, was "a very minor infraction in all this," Weiner said. As he explained, the entire penultimate season of the show (and all the questionable behavior it contained) was meant to lead Don to the point where he felt he could -- and had to -- start to be at least partially truthful about himself to the people around him.
In the interview below, Weiner discusses the events that led Don to this moment, as well as his future (or lack thereof) at SC&P, the paths that Joan and Peggy took this season, the conspiracy theories surrounding the show and Megan Draper's infamous "Sharon Tate" T-shirt, among other things.
This interview has been edited and slightly condensed.
Don went in to that Hershey meeting thinking they weren't really serious about taking on an agency, so in a way, there wasn't much at stake for him. But could you talk a little bit more about his motivations for coming clean about his past in that setting, especially given how his colleagues were likely to react?
I think that he is not thinking about his colleagues and I think that he is in a crisis. As you can tell, he’s planning on going to California; he has quit drinking. Ted has just told him that he wants to go to California, and I think a lot of what Ted said is resonating in his mind. But our whole goal for the season was to put Don in a position where he knew whether he was going to change or not. At least looking in the mirror and admitting who he was, in some ways, was going to make him feel better, and alleviate that anxiety that he has been feeling all year -- [the anxiety] that led to him destroying his relationship with his daughter, that led to him destroying his business and his role in his business.
It's not that the Hershey meeting has no stakes. It's that the Hershey meeting actually has a very personal connection to him. You see him get up there and just lie his head off. And we know that everything he is saying isn’t true. We were sort of building to one line the whole season, where the client says, "Weren't you a lucky little boy?" [In that moment, Don was] looking over at Ted and realizing that he was a liar and that he had to confess. That’s what I think that was: a confession.
The first part of Don's pitch in the Hershey's meeting strongly recalled Season 1's Carousel scene to me. The Hershey pitch was a classic Draper nostalgia pitch, and then he revealed the ugliness that lies beneath everything he just said. Was there a deliberate evocation or echo of the Carousel moment in the Hershey pitch?
Well, he's done a lot of pitches where there is some dramatic irony, like there was in the Carousel pitch. I feel like the Carousel pitch -- it was so emotional because we knew that he didn't have [that ideal family life] and he wanted it so badly. He had sort of forsaken his family, and that was what the pain of that was.
In this case, I really wanted people to know that Don Draper is that good at what he does, and it's all a lie. He's so good at it, and it's beautifully done. But yes, they are related to each other in the sense that [this is an insight into how he operates]. Don once said, "I'm not going to be in advertising," and Roger Sterling said, "Yes, you are. You're going to die in the middle of a pitch." I think that there is that heated reality for Don -- that when he is selling and using himself to sell, once in a while, he might really have to acknowledge who he is.
What I wanted was for you to hear that pitch and that phony childhood, and even feel a little emotional, even though it was so hollow. And he knew it was hollow -- it was a lie and he didn't feel good about it, especially because he had this special relationship with Hershey. They didn't advertise, you know. That's not made up. They did eventually, but I love the idea that he says, "You know, you shouldn't advertise." That's not a sales pitch. He really thinks that they are beyond it, because they were that important to him.
So much of the show and -- the premiere and so forth -- is about how you are seen by other people: "You’re a doctor, you’re a handsome ad man," you are whatever. And what’s going on inside Don [is so different]. That’s one of the central tensions of the show. At the beginning of the season back where he was when we met him, he was saying, "I don’t want to do this anymore."
As far as Don learning about himself, or at least looking in the mirror, I thought the final scene showed him taking a big step forward. He's showing the kids where he really comes from. And he's realizing that lies, success, image, money, drugs, alcohol, women -- all these things we’ve seen him grabbing, they don't really work anymore.
I think that's true, and that's what we were trying to say the whole season. It was partly derived from what was going on in history, because there was a revolution underway in 1968, globally. And most of it was idealistic and driven by young people, and by the end of 1968, every one of these voices had been silenced by violence. The tanks rolled in to Prague and they shot everybody. There was a massacre in Mexico City. Nixon was [elected]. [After all that,] people turned towards the past or towards whatever to sort of clamp down on it. But it doesn’t mean that there wasn't some sort of recognition. The problem's becoming less social and suddenly being much more personal.
That’s kind of the story we’re trying to tell with Don -- was it possible for him to look in the mirror? And obviously getting caught by Sally helped a lot with that. Being with Betty again helped a lot with that. Facing this strange double, Ted Chaough, helped a lot with that.
Just so we’re clear, Don essentially has been fired, right? Because "take a few months off" is what the partners said to Freddy Rumsen and Freddy was out. And now that Duck brought in that guy from another agency, it looks like Don is history. He’s done at SC&P, right?
Well, this is the most serious sentence you can get. It's not like no one's ever come back from it. People do, but between the lines, [the other partners are] saying, "You have to be punished for the way you behaved this year." I would say that it is exactly what it looks like. He has no return date; it’s completely humiliating. There is someone being brought in. We see Peggy sitting in his office.
And let’s face it, how good do you have to be to get away with the crap he pulled this year? He fired their biggest client [at that time, Jaguar], he forced them into a merger. He ruined their public offering and then, he went to war against their partner -- the Hershey meeting being a very minor infraction in all of this. So yeah, it’s pretty bad. I mean, Freddy came back and worse people come back from this thing; I'm not going to say that Don's not going to be back in the agency. But people should feel exactly what it is -- the partners have put their foot down and they don't want him in the office for a while.
So often we've seen Don think of his problems as being geographic in origin when they’re completely not -- they’re emotional and psychological. So for him not to go to LA, and to be honest with Megan about that, that seemed like yet another step forward for him.
I think you’re absolutely right. And I think it’s a big step in that scene after he’s in the drunk tank. [It's] his sort of re-proposal to Megan, where he says, "It got out of control. I got out of control." That’s huge for Don to know that he is part of this problem. And yes, he does seem to like moving to LA as a geographical solution and [to think that] problems are not going to follow him there -- that’s stupid. But it was a sacrifice for him to not go there, and to be upfront with Megan about it. I think he really loves her and I think we've seen, since his experience with Betty, and certainly Sylvia, that he knows how important she is. And good for her for [ending her role as], in modern language, an enabler or a doormat or whatever. I think she had had it.
Don appears to have a solid friendship with Betty now, a friendship he didn’t really have when they were married. And I wonder if he can have that kind of true friendship with someone he’s actually married to, because that does seem to be a continual issue for him.
It does. Part of what we learned with Sylvia is that the longing is part of his intimacy. It’s almost like he wants people more once they've rejected him.
That's very Don.
So maybe it is possible. I don’t know. I definitely think that [this season], he was very honest with her and [Betty] obviously had grown a lot. I mean, we’re dealing with hundreds of pages of scripts and 13 hours of TV, so it’s always a process. But we do know more about him than ever. And certainly, in his discussion with Betty [in "The Better Half"], where the focus was on Betty feeling pity for Megan and [the things] Betty had learned, we also heard Don talking about sex. And [the way Don feels about sex] is not that different, probably, than the way Michael Phelps feels about swimming.
"Whatever. I've got to do it. I've got to do it tomorrow."
"It’s a job."
"It’s a job," exactly. I mean, to say the man has intimacy issues is an understatement. But yeah, the thing that I like about the ending, and why we were working for it and wanted to earn it, was that moment of Don and Sally looking at each other. A lot of us never have that with our parents. It’s just a moment of understanding where she doesn’t know anything about him. He has kept himself from them and it is causing him a lot of pain. And so how great for him to actually come clean a little bit to somebody who matters, not just some strangers in the Hershey pitch.
Right. I wanted to ask you about the many conspiracy theories swirling around this season -- about Bob, about Megan, about death, etc. Do you have any thoughts on that? Did all that come out of left field for you?
It always comes out of left field, but [there were] all these theories last year about Pete killing himself. There’s always something. It’s very, very flattering to have a show that people are spending time thinking about and writing about. I think this show, thanks to Netflix, has never been more popular. People are discovering it, and there are more voices than ever weighing in on it. And they have high expectations that we are weaving a story here. And their story is as good as mine sometimes, so I don’t know what to tell you.
Well, by this point in the show's history, we know that you are very specific about any image, any callback, any piece of clothing, even pictures on a wall. The show is known for being very meticulous about that, so I think that leads to people thinking that everything has to have a meaning and nothing can be a mistake. But sometimes maybe a cigar is just a cigar.
You know, it’s funny -- it does mean something to us. I mean, it’s true. Nothing gets thrown in front of the camera without thought and a lot of creative input from a bunch of very talented people. But I think part of it is -- people are not aware that myself and the writers and everyone involved in the show -- we are living in that period. [To us, we see in the culture of that time] the importance of Sharon Tate as a sex symbol, and the importance of "Rosemary’s Baby" as a cultural juggernaut -- [it's a] a huge, successful film and a best-selling book.
When [Tate] was murdered, it was such a huge story. But she was in Playboy; she's a big sex symbol. And honestly, that T-shirt [Megan wore] was about [costume designer] Janie [Bryant] having proof that a woman was wearing a T-shirt at the time. So we just wanted to make sure that we had it right [for the period], because you can’t just take the modern version of women wearing their yoga clothes all day and dressing that way. It was not part of the time. [Megan's T-shirt recalled the] picture of Sharon Tate and, yes, she was murdered. It was horrible, but that’s not what [the Megan scene] was about. It was about finding a T-shirt that we could substantiate in case somebody said, "No, women didn't wear T-shirts back then."
Well, you got more than you bargained for with that.
I know, I know. I love it. I'm not kidding. You want people to have this kind of investment and you want their imaginations to run wild. It proves that the machinery that tells the story hasn't been exhausted yet.
At the end of this season, you have Peggy wearing the pants in Don's office. I know you hate to give things away and maybe you haven't thought through Season 7 yet, but she seems like she's now essentially the head of Creative in New York.
I wouldn't land on what that is, because I don't know. But it was a deliberate choice to put her in that pantsuit and it was a deliberate choice to put her in Don's office.
Peggy's story for this season was that she doesn't have any choices. She's had a meteoric rise, especially for a woman, in her career, but she was forced to buy an apartment she didn't want. She was in a relationship, an unconventional relationship, that didn't have the ring that she wanted, but might have children. That did not work out. And she's in a relationship with a married man that she has no control over. What we were working for the whole season was to basically say, the story of this season is that Peggy doesn't have any choices.
One thing I've been predicting is that maybe Peggy will go out on her own at some point. And this was an era when women did begin to establish their own agencies. I know you don't have Season 7 on paper yet but ...
I don’t have Season 7 on paper, and I would say that if you're talking about [advertising pioneer] Mary Wells, you're talking about the Jackie Robinson of advertising. That is the exception and not the rule. The women's movement didn't really even have any traction until the '70s, and Peggy is still an exceptional person with an unusual job and unusually successful for where she is. There's one Mary Wells for all the other thousands of women who are trying to get into that job. I don't think you can name a lot of women who were not at least standing behind a man in an agency.
I love the chemistry between Elisabeth Moss [Peggy] and Jay Ferguson [Stan], and I love the friendship that they have -- they just have a great vibe and they understand each other. I'll be honest, I don't want "Mad Men" to go seven seasons with Peggy not having one love affair that works out for her.
No, she's got really bad taste in men. She really does. I know, Jay's an amazing actor and the writers love their relationship also. We love their friendship. But yeah, she's not a very good picker.
Well, to be honest with you, a lot of popular fiction and TV depicts the successful woman who has a great career, but she can't find a man. But as we saw in this episode, Peggy's beautiful and she's amazing and obviously, she's very talented. I want her to have it all, damn it.
I would like her to have it all, too, but drama is based on conflict, and I think her not having a man is, at least on this show -- it's a blind spot for her and it's also a product of her ambition. There is a price to pay at that time, for this woman, in working that hard. I mean, you look at Joan. Joan doesn't have a man either. I think one of the reasons that those characters resonate is that that may not necessarily have changed very much.
Speaking of Joan, did Joan actually land the Avon account? Where did that end up?
Yes. They landed Avon.
So she's a big wheel now. Wow.
I don't know. It's one account, you know, and I like the way she got it. We all felt that was accurate, and of course, she was already a partner. The thing that's been great, and the audience has gotten on board with this as far as I can tell, is that they understand the difference between needing money and needing your job. For Joan to be a partner and financially participate versus [not necessarily having the respect of the other partners], that was what that story was about.
If you go back to the beginning of the show and say, this is a woman whose advice to Peggy was, "Find a rich man and get out of here," and now here she is, risking everything to just have control of something, yeah. That did work out.
This year, the show has really engaged the events of the time -- the assassinations, the riots, the general unrest. Did you always know that 1968 would have to be a much more culturally and news-engaged kind of season?
Yes -- 1968 was a climax of bad news where the actual state of insecurity and hopelessness and powerlessness and the defeat of idealism was constant, and I wanted that to be both Don's internal story and the story of the people experiencing it. At a certain point, the events are so big that you can't escape them, and what does that produce?
Well, my feeling was is it drives us closer together. It made Don [change]. It drove everyone towards their family. It drove everyone towards their children, which is a big theme in the season, from Roger's mothers death onward. It's about that parent/child relationship, and why it might be the only saving grace for people in this much pain. Maybe it's the only thing that matters.
Editor's Note: This article has been amended to correct Weiner's statement that Nixon was reelected in 1968, which was in fact the beginning of his first term.
Update: A Talking TV podcast on the "Mad Men" finale, among other topics, can be found here, on iTunes and below.