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'Mad Men's' Matthew Weiner discusses 'bittersweet' midseason finale

Matt Weiner on Don Draper in #MadMen Season 7: 'The question is, has the guy learned anything?'

On Sunday night, "Mad Men" ended the first half of its final season on a bittersweet note, with the triumph of the Apollo 11 moon landing -- and, to a lesser extent, Peggy's brilliant Burger Chef pitch -- tempered by the death of agency elder Bert Cooper (Robert Morse). 

We caught up with series creator Matthew Weiner Monday afternoon to discuss "Waterloo" just as he was sitting down to write the script for the series finale (no pressure or anything) which will air on AMC next year. 

The episode ended with a lovely song-and-dance routine from Bert Cooper's ghost. What inspired that?

I came into the season with the idea that Cooper would die, he’s of an advanced age. He would die during the moon landing and it would send the power dynamic at the agency into a tailspin, and Don would see his ghost singing that particular song. I’d heard it on the radio as a kid, it’s a Depression-era song and it offered a chance for Cooper to break out of his character and remind Don there’s more to life than business.

It seems like this cycle of episodes ended on an unusually optimistic note for the series, with Don able to make real change in his life. Would you agree?

This story began with Don eight weeks after the Season 6 finale, the shortest time lapse we’ve done between seasons.  He’s lying to Megan, he’s fighting to get back in his business, he knows that he needs to change. He’s alienated Joan, cost her the equivalent of 7 million dollars in today’s money. He’s destroyed his relationship with Peggy by driving a wedge between her and Ted. And he’s been ousted from his own agency. Can Don work his way back up? That’s the story that we tried to tell in seven episodes. The first half of the season was about wanting to change, and deciding to change. Don blowing everything up last year, with Sally walking in on him -- that was the moment of change.  The question is, has the guy learned anything? Now he’s paying attention to the work instead of the mechanics of the agency, and finally giving Peggy an opportunity to shine.  He was pushing her on the bicycle -- he let go [Sunday] night and watched her ride away.

And with the moon landing and the technology -- whether people are familiar with the period or not, what we were trying to show is this massive change happened and the people who were there were quite aware of it at the time. As much as we gained from technology, there was also something lost. I mean I have my phone in my pocket right now and it’s like 90% of my entertainment. Yes, it was made by people but it was an awesome change in humanity’s importance to itself. That’s all part of the period.

So is Betty realizing that she’s sick of being told to shut up. It was fascinating to me that some people did not remember that it was socially inappropriate for a woman to disagree with her husband in public. She broke a big rule. She’s tired of being told to shut up. Feminism is not even really a part of that era yet.

Don starts off the season alienated from many of the people close to him, but by the midseason finale he has been able to make amends with Sally, Peggy and Roger. Why do you think he was able to make this happen?  

I always take it from the character point of view. I think he concentrated on what he could control. On some level the work set him free, he got his drinking under control. It’s also what he said to Ted -- paying attention to other things. Of course some of his relationships are still a mess; we tried to do a very realistic version of Don and Megan’s relationship disintegrating. He took it very seriously; this was his second marriage and he wanted to make it work, even though in some ways the marriage was over as soon as she decided she didn’t like advertising.

But I think viewers get a sense of the bittersweetness. Materially, everyone is doing well, they’re all rich, but it’s only part of life. Now it’s what we are left to deal with. With Bert’s ghost, that was a slightly immaterial moment there -- that’s what that midpoint is about. The thing we’re thrilled about is to make these seven episodes feel like a season on their own and take viewers a journey. What we define as story is different from other shows.

There were several moments this season that seemed to invoke earlier episodes in the series -- particularly the dance between Don and Peggy in “The Strategy,” reminiscent of “The Suitcase.” How conscious are these callbacks?

My whole thing is I don’t want to step outside the show. Yes, you benefit if you remember that episode, but what’s different about it is what’s the same. To me and to the writers, we just wanted to say OK, Don works for Peggy now. But Peggy is still asking him for advice because she does not know how to be the boss. She thinks he’s sabotaging her but really she has to learn that being the boss means not being sure of your decisions and accepting that uncertainty -- that is very different than firing people or making people get you your coffee. Of course you don’t want to repeat yourself. But she was the secretary who made a pass at him on her first day and now they have a real relationship, and we wanted to show that.

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