Matt Weiner Sets the Scene for Mad Men's New Season

Crédit photo: Handout Matt Weiner Sets the Scene for Mad Men's New Season

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — If Mad Men has stood the test of time — and early evidence suggests that it has — it’s because writer-creator Matthew Weiner stood by his original spec script for more than five years before anyone would take a flyer on it. The 17 months that have elapsed since the last original episode, Tomorrowland, and Mad Men’s fifth-season premiere (this Sunday on AMC), are a mere spin of the Kodak carousel in comparison.

Secrets are back. Ambition is back. Envy is back. Jealousy is back. Mad Men is back in vogue, and the existential question of Mad Men’s fifth season, and the one Weiner says he may be proudest of, is no longer, “Who is Don Draper?” but rather, “When is everything going to get back to normal?”

On an uncharacteristically chilly mid-March morning at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Weiner told his audience of visiting reporters to, “Shut the door, have a seat,” while he set the table for the coming season with actors Jon Hamm, Kiernan Shipka, January Jones, several other cast members, and the series’ Emmy Award-winning costume designer, Janie Bryant.

These are anxious days for Weiner. He is anxious that Mad Men’s devoted core of followers appreciate and enjoy these new episodes as much as he does, but he’s also anxious that no story details leak early.

“I don’t know how much I want to talk about the new season, but I’m excited that we’re back on the air,” Weiner said. “I really am. I’m so glad to be here. I went back to work right away, but it’s been a long time, and I’m excited about it.”

Weiner is both passionate and possessive, when it comes to guarding Mad Men’s secrets. He applies the same cool logic that Mad Men’s mercurial, secretive leading man, Don Draper, applies to a new ad campaign. Mad Men is a boutique drama, Weiner reasons, and its unique audience — educated, affluent, knowledgeable, demanding — prefers quiet, understated, soft-spoken revelations to loud declarations and bombast. Mad Men is an exercise in classic cool, where long silences speak as loudly as words, and the characters say as much in a knowing glance as a pre-scripted speech.

For someone who is reluctant to divulge details about the season’s storylines, Weiner is talkative — loquacious, even — when setting up the big picture, about how he wanted Mad Men to present something different to the outside world. He wanted Mad Men to reflect the momentous events of the age — the early- to mid-1960s — without wallowing in nostalgia. Mad Men is oblique, decadent, subversive. Seductive, but unsettling. It’s a story about secret-keepers who make their living pitching and selling new products to eager consumers.

“I’m a person who’s more interested in unwrapping the package than looking at the package,” he explained, an oblique reference to both his desire to keep the new season’s storylines secret, and Mad Men’s tendency to imply things — sex, for example — rather than show them explicitly.

“I love the seduction and I love the moment afterwards, just dramatically, as a storyteller,” Weiner said. “Even in regular conversations that are not based on sex, the dramatic scenes are always based on levels of intimacy. I love when things cut from light conversation to that moment, for example, when Peggy can say to Don, ‘What if this is my time?’ All of a sudden, the conversation becomes, ‘What if my life is passing me by?’

“I live for that, as a storyteller. It’s not sexy, but it’s intimate.”

Weiner has a reputation for a maniacal, almost obsessive attention to detail. If it’s true that a fictional drama set in the 1960s presents the casual viewer with an opportunity to relive the remarkable cultural cross-currents of those times, Weiner believes the only way to bring that era to life for a present-day audience is to be faithful to the specific details of the era. Mad Men set in 1965 cannot look, sound or feel the same as Mad Men in 1962, or ’63. Weiner insists that every element — from Trans World Airlines’ 1964 ad campaign for the New York World’s Fair, to the vintage brass Stiffel lamps that adorned Don Draper’s corner office in the early days of the Sterling Cooper ad agency — be accurate.

In Don Draper, Weiner created a character who looks perfect on the outside, but is in deep trouble inside. Draper, played with studied coolness by Hamm — an accomplished actor who is both a throwback to the matinee idol of Hollywood’s Golden Age and a leading man for modern times — trades in illusion. His emotions are buttoned down on the inside, and yet he has an uncanny ability to visualize what people want and need. It’s what makes him uniquely gifted as an ad man.

Last season, Draper wrestled with his new role as a divorced father with a difficult, emotionally needy daughter — Sally Draper, even at age 11, is a girl after her father’s heart — while confirming his position as de facto senior partner and rainmaker-in-chief of his newly formed upstart ad agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The season ended with Draper shocking his work colleagues with a surprise announcement of his last-minute engagement to his secretary, 10 years his junior, Megan Calvet, played by Montreal native Jessica Pare.

“There’s something that happens to men when they reach a certain age, when they are obsessed with youth, especially young women, and they are trying to feed on that,” Weiner said. “At what point does Don Draper go from being an acceptable Lothario to a dirty old man? I don’t know. We haven’t reached that yet. He’s certainly — in his own life, and as the series goes on, and you certainly saw a lot of it in Season 4 — questioning the fact that his state of being cannot be permanent.”

The new season will pick up after Draper’s shock announcement, but exactly how long after, or where, Weiner is reluctant to say. If you’re a fan of the show, his reasoning goes, you wouldn’t want to know. And if you’re not a fan of the show, it doesn’t matter anyway.

Mad Men has a firm end date. There will be two seasons after this; the seventh season will be the last. Period. End of story.

Weiner has thought about the ending, but not as much, perhaps, as has been reported. Weiner told the website last November that he envisions Mad Men ending in present day, with Don Draper at age 85, looking back on his life.

He was simply being facetious, he suggests now.

“This gentleman asked me, ‘How does the show end?’ and I made an offhand remark,” Weiner said, with a rueful shrug. “I’m not going to fight it at this point. Expect whatever you want to expect for it.

“What I meant to say, and what I was trying to say, was, ‘You want to know how the show ends? Don Draper would be, what, 85 this year. Look at how he lives. Do you think he’s going to make it?’”

Weiner laughed. Loudly. Basking in the moment.

“In terms of where will it go,” he continued, after a pause. “I’m not going to tell you that now. Shows have done that, certainly. One thing I probably will not do, though, is something that you’ve seen on another show.

“If I was more disciplined and less superstitious, I might have planned out the next 39 episodes. But I really just try to keep doing what I’m doing. I had the storyline for this year, and I just blew it all out. The finale of Season 5 could easily be the end of the show, just like every one of the other ones is. I don’t know how else to do it.

“I also think pulling back on things would be dishonest for the audience. The show has been very bold in committing to the changes in people’s lives. Somebody gets fired — they’re gone. Right? Somebody gets divorced — it’s over. Right? They’ve left the agency? We have to create a new agency. That’s the story of the ’60s, and that’s the story of business.

“But, oh my God, you want to talk about pressure? People have waited so long for this.”

Mad Men returns Sunday, March 25 on AMC at 9 ET/PT.

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