‘Mad Men’ stars remember biggest bombshells hurled at them on series
This month, “Mad Men” made its exit, to the dismay of fans everywhere. As the satirical Twitter account @LosFelizDayCare put it in March, “A lot of the children are afraid and asking but the truth is we don’t know what life looks like after ‘Mad Men.’”
If we can’t look forward to more from the series about 1960s admen (and women) and their lives, at least we can look back. From the first episode, the show gave us dramatic, outrageous and stunning scenes that burned into viewers’ consciousness — the runaway lawn mower, Betty Draper shooting the bird, the hanging suicides (Lane Pryce and Don’s brother Adam), Mrs. Blankenship, Peggy’s surprise baby.
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Every twist was unexpected, and yet the turns never felt like a soap opera. Instead, the series delivered a weekly commentary on the cultural shifts in American society.
Here, cast members recall the biggest bombshells hurled at them, with series creator Matthew Weiner weighing in.
Christina Hendricks (Joan Harris)
Season 2, Episode 12, “The Mountain King”
When Joan’s new husband raped her in the office, that was pretty shocking to read and do, and I think to watch. It was a doozy moment.
Most of the time for every episode, we do a table read, and then we rehearse right before we shoot it. But for this in particular, they wanted to do some choreography for it, so that everyone was on the same page, there were no surprises. Matt had a very distinct idea of how it should look and what it should be. So the day before, we did literally choreograph the moves, the move down to the floor and all that. In the script, it says you see Joan’s face turned to the side with a sort of disassociated stare on her face. I took that information and I knew how the scene started and ended. As an actress, it was just how do you emotionally get from Point A to Point B. So we rehearsed it a little bit and we shot it. I was very pleased with how it turned out.
The biggest shock came after it aired, that people said, ‘Remember when Joan sort of got raped?’ And my heart just started beating faster and my hands clenched up because, to me, it’s so absurd. But I think it was really smart how Matt portrayed it, because of that conversation, because of how controversial rape is and the way people talk about it, and the blame game that is still happening when people tell these stories.
Matt said a lot of people, when they described the situation that happened to them, would call it a “bad date.”
Weiner: That was a euphemism from the period. People come up and tell me stories. I don’t know if they want to see them in the show or they just have to tell somebody. That story in particular, I’d heard a lot of.
What I really wanted was to see it from her point of view, and getting a shot like the dust bunnies under the couch from her point of view would be in there, which was something that we usually didn’t have time for. I thought making it happen in real time would make it the most uncomfortable, and what I consider to be nightmarish, which is the old thing of the familiar turning into the unfamiliar. Honestly, there’s a philosophical aspect behind that scene in particular, which is that I didn’t want it to feel exploitive … to make it clear this is about powerlessness and humiliation and, for Joan, this incredible disillusionment about her relationship.
John Slattery (Roger Sterling)
Season 3, Episode 3, “My Old Kentucky Home”
It was that blackface scene. We would have a party at the beginning of each season to welcome everyone back to town and kick off the season, and Matt had been writing for a couple months at that point, and he said, “I’ve got to tell you something: You’re going to sing ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ in blackface at a country club on Derby day,” and I was like, “Great.” It wasn’t until I was driving home that it hit me, and I thought, “Wait, what? This is crazy.”
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It’s so awful, but it so accurately depicted the period, and the logical guy to have done it would have been Roger. We had to do tests with the shoe polish. Jennifer Getsinger was directing it, and I said, “At least let’s make sure everything’s set up so that I don’t have to show up on set in blackface and just hang around for an hour.”
I stepped up on the stage and they turned the camera on, and I started singing, and I looked out into the sea of people, and everyone had their mouths hanging open. I thought to myself, “We should have shot the crowd first.” They knew it was coming, but seeing it — it was grotesque.
Weiner: I can say that I knew that would be uncomfortable. I work with a lot of African Americans, and I knew they would have to sit through this, which is basically like working on a Holocaust movie, especially hearing him sing that song over and over. It’s so unpleasant; it was the state song of Kentucky until 1986.
I’m interested in recapturing how regular, nice people did things like this. We love Roger, and it’s a game between him and his bride. He thinks it’s hilarious, and it’s part of a long tradition of racist entertainment that was nowhere near gone at that time.
January Jones (Betty Draper)
Season 2, Episode 13, “Meditations in an Emergency”
When Betty sleeps with that guy in the bar, that was shocking to read, only because I didn’t understand it. It seemed hypocritical at the time. Then I talked to Matt about it, and he said she’s a very sexual being, and she thinks the world is ending, the Cuban missile crisis is going on, she found out she’s pregnant, she found out Don’s cheating on her, and there’s no consequences, basically. That made it a lot easier to understand.
The most shocking thing about that was the audience’s reaction and how much hate Betty got for that. Everyone seems very hypocritical that they forgave Don for all his infidelities but not her one.
Weiner: There is a strange, traditional double-standard about married women characters that they can’t do this. The audience will turn on them in a very violent way if they violate this rule. But first of all, we’d done it on “The Sopranos” with Carmela, so I knew that wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule, and second of all, I was like, “I don’t care.”
That scene was a shock to me too. The writers came up with it. I think it was Maria Jacquemetton who was like, “Just hear us out.” (I guess I say no a lot. But they do win when it really matters. There have been so many terrible things I’ve wanted to do that they told me not to, and we didn’t.) They said — and this is a female perspective I might not have had — she’s pregnant, she’s never been freer. And just for her self-respect, she should sleep with someone else if she’s going to take Don back.
Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper)
Season 6, Episode 11, “Favors”
When Sally walked in on Don and Sylvia [Linda Cardellini]. I did not see it coming. It was partly even more shocking because Sally was so shocked. It was a “Don’t open the door!” kind of moment.
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I was reacting to pretty much nothing. They were just standing there. But it was just being in that zone of pretending you don’t know what’s going to happen. Being completely oblivious. Sally had other things on her mind, and then all of a sudden her world shifted in a way that she wasn’t expecting. It was a punch in the stomach. Her parents’ divorce was hard enough on her. It was the season where things were looking up, and she was on this great track, and then, bam! That was a big shift in Sally and Don’s relationship.
Weiner: I wrote that with Semi Chellas. We had gone through real machinations in the writers room to hide from the audience that this would be an actual surprise. We shot Sally’s point of view after she left, because I would not put Kiernan in that situation. To me, it’s still the worst thing that ever happened to Don. It’s bad enough if it’s your parents, that’s already scarring, but catching your father cheating on your stepmother who you think is your friend — everything about it is like seeing a UFO; you’ve lost your entire perspective on the world. Jennifer Getsinger directed it. She did a great job. That’s the kind of scene where you just rely on your actors. I don’t know how they act surprised. I really don’t.
Jon Hamm (Don Draper)
Season 2, Episode 5, “The New Girl”
There are certainly a lot of scenes over the 92 episodes we have done that were surprising, to say the least. One of the earlier ones was a flashback to Don visiting Peggy in the hospital after she’d had her baby. That was a piece of story that we hadn’t really addressed. It happened between seasons and we skipped over it, so a lot of people were wondering, what happened there? What was that all about? That was a really interesting, shocking way to deliver a piece of pretty important exposition, and we learned a lot about those two characters and their relationship to one another, and Don’s philosophy.
The shoot was very intense and very quiet. Poor Lizzie [Elisabeth Moss] was in fat makeup and stuck in this tiny bed. I remember it was very early on in the process of telling the story and not really knowing what this was all going to mean in the grand scheme of things but also being really pleased that we were giving it its due. It’s an important piece of the picture, and I was glad that it didn’t happen off-screen.
Weiner: It was definitely on the chopping block. We had the feeling that it was a huge moment, but it was a lot of effort for a very small shot. The way it is in the show is the way my first draft was. I wrote the episode with Robin Veith. In the subsequent days, I kept trying to make it longer; I was trying to exploit it in some other way.
The most important thing to me in that episode was about Peggy bailing him out. She’s the person he calls when he gets in a car accident with his mistress. He’s brusque with her. He borrows money and almost forgets to pay it back. I wanted to say this is why she did it. He had come to her and told her his philosophy of life, and that’s how she was going to move on. He knocked her out of whatever that state was that allowed her to even deny her pregnancy. I watched them shoot it, and I didn’t have a thing to say. It was so intense and so respectful and so dramatic.
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