From the Archives: ‘Mad Men’ creator: Don’t hate Don Draper

If nothing else, AMC’s “Mad Men” has been the deliberate and artful chronicle of the psychological undressing of the secretive Don Draper. In its current season, the drama laid the character even more bare when he was caught with another woman — and with his pants down — by his 14-year-old daughter.

The excruciating moment, a culmination of self-imposed humiliations in a season awash in shame for the Emmy Award-winning show’s central character, prompted a fresh round of howling at the depraved depths of its charismatic antihero. He’s a terrible father. He’s a monster. He’s the devil.

But Don Draper is none of those things, counters the show’s creator Matthew Weiner, who after Sunday’s season finale will only have 13 episodes left to tell the troubled ad executive’s tale. Don, he says, is 1968.

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“People expect Don to be out of touch, but given society’s identity crisis in 1968, he’s never been more in touch,” said Weiner, who spent much of this season exploring the tumult of one of the nation’s most painful and divisive years. “It’s like the entire world is in a state that Don is in all the time — the id has overtaken the culture.”

It was a state some critics found wearisome this season, particularly when it came to Draper. While there were new examples of his morally reprehensible behavior, the most common complaint among many of the show’s devoted legions of episode recappers and social media commentators was they’d had enough. The New Yorker’s television critic Emily Nussbaum wrote midseason that “Don, instead of being the show’s engine, has become its anchor — heavy, even in the sixties sense.”

In an interview at his Los Angeles Center Studios office earlier this week, Weiner talked about his penultimate season and the critical reaction to it, as well as elaborating on some of the key narrative developments. The 47-year-old show runner, famously guarded about revealing plot details, also hinted at what might lie ahead for his leading man.

If last season was about the agency managing with unexpected success, this season was about Don’s bloodier battles with familiar problems, said Weiner. Rather than being merely repetitive, Don’s “self-destructive acts were amped up exponentially,” something that fit with the turbulent year of 1968, added Weiner. The gloom and doom was also there to open the door to the possibility of growth.

In speaking with him about the show, Weiner says people have been complimentary, but he acknowledged it could be different in the loud and echoing canyons of social media.

“I can’t control what they say,” said Weiner. “The only thing that has been consistent through the history of the show is from Episode 2 on, the show is never as good as it used to be. I am both completely thrilled there is so much conversation, but also I’m really bored of that conversation.”

Moreover, Twitter and social media commentators are like “baseball fans who scream at the players, ‘You’re nothing, you’re blah blah blah.’ It’s a one-way conversation that empowers powerless people who are trying to look smart,” he added. “There are so many derogatory things you could say about them, most importantly, where is your show?”

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But Weiner quickly made a bow to the rising new medium favored by the culture’s nattering nabobs of negativism. “The success of our show is completely tied to whatever happened to television and the Internet and social media in the last seven years,” he said.

Once derided for small ratings of a couple million viewers or less in its early seasons, “Mad Men” today commands a combined and highly prized audience of affluent, well-educated viewers that hovers between 8 million and 10 million per episode. Though this season’s official Nielsen average per episode is a modest 2.5 million viewers, that doesn’t take into account (unfairly, many argue) a host of other entertainment platforms, including all DVRs, video on demand, iTunes and others that would greatly increase that figure.

This season those viewers witnessed Don’s life deteriorate on every front. He’s having an affair with a woman in his building, a friend’s wife. He sours a lucrative public offering at work, and then he sets out to destroy a onetime competitor, Ted Chaough, who has become a firm partner. He’s drinking screwdrivers for breakfast and vomiting at funerals.

And worst of all, his already rocky relationship with his daughter, played by Kiernan Shipka, is shattered after she walks in on Don making love with his neighbor’s wife.

“One of the things I’m proudest of about the show is that it is very honest about childhood,” said Weiner. “A lot of things that happen to her or that happen to other kids on the show are collected from real people’s childhoods, either from writers in the room or mine personally.”

Almost as mysterious as Don Draper is the new character Bob Benson, played by James Wolk. A recent episode shocked many viewers when Benson, a smiling handsome ad executive, appeared to proposition Pete Campbell in his office with a now famous brushing of the knees. To many, it implied a gay relationship.

“Honestly, Bob is in love with Pete,” said Weiner. “I don’t know that he’s gay. He’s just in love with Pete.”

“It was one of the most beautiful love proposals we’ve ever had on the show,” he continued. “Pete has everything Bob wants. Bob is someone like Don that grew up on the outskirts of things and had a fantasy of who he wanted to be, and Pete really is that person.”

It’s hard to conceive of a happy ending for the drama that put AMC on the cultural map in 2007 and is still enormously influential. After all, the opening credits depict an ad man falling to his doom, as he plummets down the building he worked so hard to climb.

As usual, Weiner won’t hint at what’s ahead next season. But he was willing to answer a fundamental question at the heart of the show that will bear on the narrative end for Don — can people change in a meaningful and positive way?

“I don’t know,” said Weiner. “It’s the eternal question. It’s as important to me as what is the meaning of life. I don’t think it’s easy, but I guess I think it’s possible.”


‘Mad Men’

Where: AMC

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: Not rated