Matthew Weiner, the creator and executive producer of AMC’s “Mad Men,” is no stranger to showmanship.
Whether on a panel promoting his four-time Emmy winner for best drama or masterfully pulling off the “Zou Bisou Bisou” scene in the fifth-season premiere, the gregarious show runner enjoys the limelight for himself and his show.
But as he approaches the series finale Sunday, Weiner is becoming acquainted with the kind of grief that comes with the end of things. He is clearly saddened and is a bit apprehensive about how he will feel Monday morning.
Not one to sit at home alone, the Los Angeles resident who will celebrate his 50th birthday next month is choosing to surround himself with cast, crew, friends and fans in the final hours before his iconic show concludes. On Sunday afternoon, Weiner and series star Jon Hamm will speak at the Television Academy’s “A Farewell to Mad Men” in Hollywood, and later that evening he will head downtown for a special screening of the finale.
At various points during the series, Weiner has talked with The Times about it — and he did it again one final time this week. He would say little about what the finale may hold, and he was just as guarded about his next move professionally. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Will you say anything about where the final episode is headed?
I really want people to go into the finale and not have any idea what’s going to happen. I like all the theories, and I like all the interest. What I like the most — it’s the most flattering part of it, and I don’t know how many times I’ve expressed this, and it never ends up in an article — but I am so grateful that people watch the show and have feelings about it.
Let’s talk about last Sunday’s episode. It must have been a tough decision to decide to kill off any character, much less Betty.
I always thought that Betty would get lung cancer. Her mother died of cancer right before the show started, and I felt like since she was predisposed for it, and she smokes too much. You’ll see it all over the show. Her father telling her not to smoke so much. You know, it’s just, like, the anxiety of it. I mean, she may be the first of all of them, you know, statistically speaking. People used to buy cartons of cigarettes.
I’ve had this conversation about the smoking throughout the show because people thought it was gratuitous. And it’s hard to explain that that was part of the groceries. Literally like buying, you know, food. More than booze, more than everything.
So why Betty in particular? Her character seemed to have turned a corner.
That’s called storytelling. That’s the idea, that’s a lot of this show. Is that all there is? But the first episode of the season is “The Life Not Lived.” It’s all about permanent choices and is it too late for anybody. And in this case, it was too late for Betty. The only thing I will say in a defensive posture — although everything I say sounds like that — is I love this character.
And the suggestion that you give somebody conflict … because you don’t like them or you don’t like the actors, something like that, that’s crazy. I have loved Betty’s story. It has mirrored people in my life. It is very much of that era and that generation. And it was a coincidence that it was on Mother’s Day.
That was odd timing.
I finished shooting in July. It’s been a year. We had no idea. I didn’t want to split the season, and I didn’t know when it was going to go on. That’s all I can tell you. I will take responsibility for so many things. I’m not saying that I might not have picked Mother’s Day if they’d given me a chance, but I really had nothing to do with it. If anything, I think it made it more resonant.
There was a lot of strong reaction to the way Betty handled the diagnosis.
What January [Jones] did in that scene where she hands the letter to Sally, which to me has the biggest laugh in the show when Betty gets up and says, “Go back to sleep.” Like, come on. You know, here’s an atomic bomb. As you were. And she doesn’t hug her. It’s a very adult moment for Sally, and it is filled with love as much as the way that woman can give it. It’s strangely selfless, even though it’s filled with the vanity and all the other things.
Don’s relationship with the waitress introduced in these last seven episodes seems to have confused people.
I think it confused people because they forgot how the show works, which is that I’m telling a new story every week. I think that they had a bunch of rules for how my show’s supposed to wrap up and what it’s supposed to be about. I think when you get to the end of this finale, and you look at where the season started, you will have a reaction, good or bad, as you do every season to how much has happened, to how far you’ve traveled.
The trip starts really with Bert Cooper’s death and this windfall of money and the compromises that go with it and Don seeing that specter and realizing that this is not all there is. So you come back and see him at the top of his game, playing the character that in a way the network and the studio and everyone wanted him to be from the beginning, a womanizing cad who has a ton of money. And we find out he’s been dreaming about somebody, about an opportunity that he missed.
When he goes to Rachel’s shiva and he starts to tell what’s happened to him in between, you realize like, “Oh, why didn’t he leave his wife for Rachel?” He’s thinking all of this. Like, “I could have — maybe that was the person.” And that first episode so clearly states with Peggy, with Ken, that people have a lot of excuses for their lack of opportunity. Ken’s going to have a reason to tell his kids why he was never a writer. Just had to make ends meet and had to provide, and we know that’s not true. Peggy’s got a lot of excuses why she never met the right guy. Really? We saw him.
So Don has a lot of reasons why he never was with the woman he loved the deepest that we can see. So that is how two strangers end up having sex. Two of them overwhelmed with grief.
What guidelines do you have in putting together an ending?
I have none, I have nothing. We have our own story to tell. Thought this would be a great ending to the story, and I’ve had it every season, and people like our endings, so I’m not going to go on the fence and say that we did anything different. So many of those season enders [in previous seasons] could have been the end of the series, you know? I’m not kidding. “Tomorrowland”? Oh, Don proposes to Megan, that could have so easily been the end of the show. “Shut the door. Have a seat.”
And I’m not just talking about my negotiations or them renewing the show or anything. I shouldn’t say negotiations. It’s really about them renewing the show. They never renewed the show until after [the season], so I would treat every one like, “That’s it.” And did the audience feel like they had closure? We killed some characters. We could have totally ended the entire thing with, “Are you alone?” after Lane died and Joan got her partnership. That could have easily been the end of the series.
Do you owe the audience anything in a finale?
Do you want to hit a note that has nothing to do with the life of your series? No. I think you owe them in the sense that you follow the instincts you had to make them want to watch the show to begin with. What happens is that, by nature, ending a TV show is not the job of anyone who writes a TV show. Our job is to propel you into next week. It’s one of the miracles. Propel you to next season, hold you over the summer. Hold you for five minutes while you’re rebooting on Netflix. But we’re supposed to propel you into the next episode, which is always done by a certain lack of resolution. Satisfying, but unresolved.
It’s not easy for a TV writer, then.
I have to say part of being able to be a writer, and all of the people on the writing staff know this, as a matter of fact most people who have my job and your job know this, you have to have a little bit of a thin skin. That’s how you notice stuff. . That’s how you are attuned to other people. Even if you’re completely narcissistic in your interpretation of the world, you are a little bit permeable. So you’re out there to please. But you learn very early on in your career that giving the audience what it wants will make them hate you.
What was the inspiration for the roller-skating scene with Peggy?
That was basically supposed to be kind of a ghost story. The house is haunted, and you can’t leave the house until you free the ghost. So Peggy is trapped because she has to free Roger. But the meta part of it was us dealing with the experience of dismantling that set. It had been planned for a long, long time that McCann would buy them. So you knew it was coming. And I wanted to deal with dismantling that set and the feeling that we would have walking around this thing when it was taken down.
And I was like: It’s just going to be like a big open space — how do I show that? Why doesn’t Peggy just roller skate around it? And then I had this idea that her and Roger would be there because I love it, also because it’s sort of the top and the bottom of the food chain. She could assert herself all she wants to, but … she’s still at the bottom of the food chain.
You shot a lot of the show in Los Angeles.
I insisted on working in Los Angeles, and it wasn’t just because of my family. I knew that I had more period buildings in Los Angeles than I had in New York because of what was going on there and what we’re trying to stop here. And I know the taxes are terrible and the labor is too expensive and the permits and the parking and this other stuff. You know what? We did the show for nothing ... I know the show is about New York, but I’m from here, and there’s been a little bit of the story of the show that is about the rise of California and the decline of New York.
Talk about why Peter and Trudy have apparently reconciled. I think that also surprised people.
Yeah, I mean, it’s organic. It’s like the cancer thing. There’s no justice. I’m not telling a story about justice. Pete has grown the most to me of everyone in the show. I mean, Joan, obviously, you don’t expect Joan to end up being the feminist, or the single mother, let’s put it that way. That is not what her life plan was when we met her. But I feel like Pete is starting to have a different attitude.
Maybe it’s the death of his parents … about it being too late. There’s this weird thing that we, most of us — and I think it’s a big part of the show, in a weird way — we perceive the problems in our lives through other people’s eyes. It’s how we get in a lot of trouble sometimes in terms of saving face, or losing our temper, or not speaking up for ourselves. And it’s one of these things, you look at any study on a hospice when people talk about their deathbed, No. 1 is usually “I wish I didn’t worry so much about what other people thought.” They don’t even think about life and death sometimes. So him saying to Trudy, “Can I persuade you…" and I hope that the audience can see that Pete really, from when it ended with Bonnie last season, the first half of the season, really has grown in terms of his interest in his children, his closeness to Trudy.
She was the tough part of it. Like, how could she ever recover from this? She cut him so much slack, and he totally embarrassed her, and the thing with her father, all of it. And I think he redeemed himself. He came back from California, and he behaved better and started to realize what he wanted. I believe in those impulsive things. It’s kind of how Don ended up marrying Megan. Sometimes things line up.
How do you feel now as you approach the series finale?
Now? Well, it’s ended like 800 times for me. So I didn’t expect to feel anything at this point. And it hit me, the reality of the fact that it’s really going to end, which sounds really dumb, but kind of it’s like graduating from college or your baby being born. All these things you can anticipate and anticipate, and then there’s the reality. And so I’m trying not to be … I’m trying to let the good in. I’m looking forward to seeing everybody on Sunday.
I’m excited about the world seeing how we finished it. But I’m sad. It’s hard. It’s a big loss. It’s a loss that I feel like I dealt with like a bunch, and I didn’t expect it to feel like this right now.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 1