I talked with Matthew Weiner today about the surprising, grim, and often very funny season of Mad Men that ended last night. I adopted the same strategy I used when I spoke to him before the season began—that is, I avoided questions about the future, knowing that the famously tight-lipped showrunner wasn’t likely to tell me much about Peggy’s cigarette work—or the results of Roger’s second LSD trip. Instead, I asked Weiner to describe what was going through the minds of Don, Peggy, and Joan when they made their life-changing decisions this season. And of course I also asked him what was going through that conductor’s mind when he socked it to Pete Campbell.
Slate: One of my colleagues in Slate’s TV Club observed a few weeks ago that this season has seemed to suggest there’s a trade-off between happiness and success. Don’s happiness at home coincides with a period of complacency at work. In the world of Mad Men, do you need to be unhappy to succeed?
Matt Weiner: Freud defined happiness as the ability to work and to love. And of course success in your relationship is a kind of success also. Don is someone who we know always wants to work when things are bad. It’s always there for him. He prefers it to everything. But concentrating on this other aspect was definitely to the detriment of his ambition.
Slate: When do you think Don got his ambition back?
Weiner: I think he’s living a fantasy of having his work life and love life overlap in a way that he never expected; Megan’s this person for him to grab whenever there’s a dull moment at work. And when she rejects that it’s very hard for him to take. She rejects him in some way—she doesn’t like orange sherbet. In Episode 9, he tries to get back to work and we see that there are new horses that run faster than him and that’s hard for him and he kind of rigs it. And then in Episode 10, he comes home and Megan throws that plate at the wall and says, “You used to love your work.” He kind of gets the fire lit under him, and he goes back and pitches the hell out of Jaguar. But the victory is tainted. And I think he realizes that he’s ambitious to the point that accomplishment is never going to be enough.
Slate: That’s a point he makes during his Dow pitch, right? It almost seems like he’s saying there’s emptiness to success—that an ambitious person can never truly be satisfied.
Weiner: Right, happiness is the moment before you need more happiness. That is not a healthy way to think. I know he sold the hell out of it and the audience was distracted by Jon Hamm’s incredible delivery and the great directing in that episode. But the words he’s saying are strange.
Slate: Speaking of the sacrifices one makes in the name of ambition, perhaps the most controversial moment this season was Joan’s decision to accept Jaguar’s indecent proposal. Why did she make the choice she did?
Weiner: I have been a little bit surprised by people’s questioning whether this was within character for her. I think she’s shown an extremely pragmatic side. Both in the negative and the positive. Living with the man who raped her because he’s a doctor and that was her dream. Living with his military service. Living with the fact that she’s not financially taken care of. All these fantasies that she had are not there and she’s pragmatically adapting to all of that. She’s a person who solves problems in an unconventional way.
My anecdotal research on human behavior in this world comes from people coming up to me and telling me stories. The amount of stories I heard of this particular dynamic are in the triple digits. The only thing that’s false about it is no one got a partnership out of it. They got a car or a fur or an apartment. It’s not to be taken lightly, but this is a gigantic step for her in securing her future. I don’t think it’s outside the possibility that she’s slept with a client before for nothing. When Joey was fired, she said to Peggy, “You didn’t have to fire him.” She said, “I would have taken Mr. Sugarberry to dinner and I could have gotten Joey off the account in a second.“
Slate: If this is the kind of pragmatic decision Joan makes, how come she turned down Roger’s offer to take care of her baby financially?
Weiner: I think her relationship with Roger is over. She does not want what comes along with that. We tried to make that as clear as possible. She does not want his money or his involvement. With that comes Roger back in her bed.
Slate: Do you think Peggy needed to leave to the firm to get the respect she felt she deserved?
Weiner: Freddie says it to her: She was always going to be Don’s secretary. And the fact that she and Don are close emotionally—it means that she’s family and she’s the person he can behave that way to. It’s never going to be the way she wants it to be. This is one of those things—like Betty sleeping with that guy in the back of the bar during the Cuban missile crisis—where, like it or not, this is the kind of person she is. This is what we created and this is what had to happen.
Slate: In last night’s season finale, what did Don see when he watched Megan’s screen test? What did you hope to convey in that scene?
Weiner: It’ll mean different things to different people.If you watch these screen tests, they’re always silent. And I looked at a bunch, from Marilyn Monroe to James Dean, and you get this sense that you’re getting a really good look at somebody’s private self. And I thought it was a chance for him to evaluate her and his feelings for her and make a decision. He realizes how badly she wants this—and how unhappy she is.
Slate: He seemed disappointed last night that she was giving up on theater and film to do a spot—had he come around to supporting her artistic ambitions?
Weiner: Don is still annoyed at the fact that she rejected advertising. The same way he was when they want to see America Hurrah. I think he is appropriately defensive about this idea that what he’s doing is not valuable, and he found it ironic, on some level, that now that she wants to be an actress it’s OK to be in an ad, when she thought it was below her in some way before that. I really do think it’s that ugly. It’s a real sacrifice for him to then put her in this ad because he’s right that it doesn’t work that way: It is compromising his position to just say “Oh I’m going to put my wife in it.”
Slate: I’m curious about the source of Pete’s unhappiness this season. My sense had been that he and Trudy had found a measure of happiness together in Season 3.
Weiner: We were always talking about how he definitely had the strongest marriage of anyone. They’d sort of grown into each other, especially after he had slept with the au pair and Trudy basically says, “You’re not going to do that anymore.” And he says, “You’re right.”
Slate: Exactly—the Campbells seemed battle-tested. So what’s come over Pete? Is it just those Cos Cob groundhogs and long train rides getting to him?
Weiner: I think that’s a lot of it. I think a lot of it is him aging. And a lot of it is him switching places with Don. In fact, that shot at the beginning of the season where we’re coming down the train—it’s the way we always introduce Don. But there Pete is, on that train. This is a guy who has professed his love, attachment, etc. for Manhattan—we know that it is his whole identity.
Slate: How did you settle on the idea of having Pete get punched not once but twice this season?
Weiner: We actually were talking about him getting off the train and getting in a road rage incident. But we really wanted him to get hit a couple of times on his way home because he was having such a bad day. It was an expression of his frustration—though not that he wanted to be punished. And anyone who has been on that train knows that conductor.
Slate: I’ve been on that train; I think I know that conductor.
Weiner: The actor was great. He knew that conductor, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed.