See all of Slate’s coverage of Mad Men, Season 5 here.
I approached my interview with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner determined not to fall into the familiar trap of trying to get him to reveal even the most trivial detail about the coming season, which premieres Sunday night on AMC. Instead, I asked Weiner to reflect on what, if anything, his characters have learned over the course of four tumultuous seasons. But at the end of our time together, my curiosity got the better of me. I just had to know: Is account executive Ken Cosgrove still writing fiction on the side? Or was his deliciously titled short story “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning”—published in Season 1 by The Atlantic Monthly!—just a one-off? “We will see,” Weiner said maddeningly. “We will see.”
Slate: I think one revealing way to contrast the great cable dramas of the last decade is by looking at the degree to which they allow their central characters to change. Tony Soprano’s trajectory is different from Walter White’s is different from the city of Baltimore’s. Do you believe that characters can, and should, change over the course of a series? Has Don changed?
Matthew Weiner: You know it’s all about your philosophy of entertainment versus your philosophy of real life. One of the great revelations of The Sopranos for me was realizing that Tony Soprano’s psychotherapy just made him a better criminal. What I like is that on our show the characters are really trying to change. I look at Don and I say he really wants to change. And events have happened. I’ve committed to change in a way that TV shows usually don’t. Don got divorced. No one believed that was going to happen. We left the agency. No one believed that was going to happen. And a lot of that is just the financial realities of TV. They can’t build a new set. They can’t cast another actor. And also why screw with the meat and potatoes of your story? The Don-Betty dynamic—you know, bad marriages can go on for years. But I was bored of it and I felt that he had done enough and this woman would not tolerate it.
But one of the premises of my show is that people don’t change. Don Draper is certainly a creature of external change. He’s an imposter.
Slate: What about Peggy?
Weiner: The woman who put her hand on her boss’s hand because someone in the switchboard told her she’d lose her job if she didn’t sleep with him, versus the woman last year who said “I gave you an idea and you didn’t give me credit for it.”
Slate: She seemed newly indignant.
Weiner: Well, she’s always been arrogant. And I think entitled. And it’s part of why I love people talking about her as a feminist because I think she has no idea that she’s political and she would deny it. She’s just someone who wants what she’s entitled to. It’s fairness. Has she matured and grown? Professionally she’s become more sophisticated. She’s certainly learned a lot about how to do her job. Her personal life? Who knows? In Season 3 she had a one night stand with this young guy and there was some issue about how he doesn’t have a condom. And so she won’t sleep with him.
Slate: If I recall correctly, she suggests “There are other things we can do.”
Weiner: Right. But there was just as much psychological possibility that she would sleep with him without a condom. Because people sometimes “repeat to master”: She would want to have unprotected sex again—and not get pregnant—to undo that problem. It’s human behavior. People want to know how we come up with unexpected twists? We just do the stuff people actually do.
Slate: One of my colleagues noted last year that Mad Men is particularly great at throwing a party: There’s Sally’s birthday party in Season 1, Roger’s infamous Derby Day party in Season 3, the Christmas party last season. Why does the show keep returning to party scenes?
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