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'Mad Men': Don of a new era

After 17 months, the AMC hit is finally back. When the last orchestral strains fade, will Don be married? Will Joan be a mommy? Will Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce survive? The show’s creator and cast tell us what to expect — and why it took so long to get here

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In just a few minutes, there will be champagne on ice, celebratory cigarettes, and toasts brimming with good cheer. Or there will be frosty silence, consolation cigarettes, and much harder drinks. Somebody had better pick up that phone so we can find out. On a soundstage in downtown Los Angeles that’s been meticulously time-warped back to the ’60s, the cast of Mad Men is shooting a scene for the upcoming fifth season. Silver-haired Roger (John Slattery) stands at his desk at ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, where a flashing light indicates there’s a VIP client waiting on the line. ”I want all the partners in here,” Roger yells to his secretary. And so the gang pours in, filling the room with a rush of power and familiarity: There’s Don (Jon Hamm), Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), Lane (Jared Harris), Bert (Robert Morse), and Joan (Christina Hendricks), who’s wearing a fetching dress that’s the color of money. ”Well, I’m glad to hear that,” says Roger into the phone, a smile crossing his face. ”We like him too…. We’ll be over this afternoon to kiss the bride.”

The partners congratulate one another with handshakes and hugs before heading off to the conference room. Don holds the conference-room door for Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), but as they greet each other, it’s clear that something more important will keep them from attending the festivities. What is it? During a break, Hamm settles into a chair in Roger’s plush office and tries to offer a cryptic hint about the celebration scene. ”Like most things on the show,” he says, ”all is not what it seems.”

What else would we expect from the series that has turned obfuscation, self-deception, and the idea that no good news goes unpunished into high art? Thankfully, a new exhibit is finally about to open. After airing its fourth season way back in the summer of 2010 (remember Inception and vuvuzelas?), Mad Men returns to AMC on March 25, ending a 17-month hiatus. The sleek Madison Avenue-set series — which revolves around secret-stained Don Draper and the selling of the (mythic?) American dream — has claimed the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy four years running, one of only three shows to achieve that honor. And with the exception of Two and a Half Men, no show grabbed more headlines last year for its behind-the-scenes activities, as protracted renewal negotiations nearly prompted series creator Matthew Weiner to abandon the show that he calls ”the best work I may do in my life.”

He’s got a pretty important task ahead of him: continuing to satisfy a fan base that was left holding a bag of question marks and exclamation points. Don proposes to his secretary!?!? Joan decided not to abort Roger’s baby?!?! A panty-hose account might help save the agency!?!?! Rest assured, though, Weiner — a man who says he’s driven by fear of failure — doesn’t take his viewers for granted, and he’s crafted an ambitious two-hour season premiere that’s part welcome-back, part thanks-for-your-patience. ”We have to fight hard to show how much we love this audience,” says Weiner, who knows all about long hiatuses from his years as a writer-producer on The Sopranos. ”It’s not a given that they’re going to come back…. But the thing I found is that if you deliver it all, you will be forgiven.”

And according to the cast, the goods that Weiner is delivering are very good. ”I was completely, completely surprised by season 5,” marvels Moss. ”For a few of the characters that have big things happen to them this year — big surprises and changes — the audience is going to look back and go, ‘He said that in episode 1! Or they hinted at that in episode 3!’ It’s a brilliant writing season.” Adds Hamm, ”This season is about getting everything back on track. The company is where we left it. It’s in a bit of disarray. We get to see more of everybody doing their job. Peggy, Pete, Roger, Lane, Harry [Rich Sommer], Ken [Aaron Staton] — everybody’s reinvigorated.” Slattery believes that season 5 may be the best yet. ”It’s funnier. It’s sadder. It’s just amazing,” he says. ”Maybe it’s because you know these people a little better than you did before. But not as well as you think.”

The heart, soul, and superbrain of the Mad Men operation is tucked away on the second floor of a historic-by-L.A.-standards building on a downtown studio lot. Here, Weiner schemes and dreams in an office that’s stocked with midcentury tomes (Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer), odd tchotchkes (a pen-holding replica of Dealey Plaza), and fine liquors (he doesn’t always drink, but when he does, it’s Macallan 12). Windows to Weiner’s psyche are everywhere. Check out the set of literary-figure baseball cards; he often carries around Eugene O’Neill in his back pocket. Behold the hanging photograph of Groucho Marx, Alice Cooper, and Marvin Hamlisch together (”the three aspects of my personality”). And pinned to his bulletin board, there’s a line of dialogue he scribbled while driving to work — ”Faye to Don: You only like the beginnings” — that became a poignant season 4 moment. Because inspiration sometimes strikes at 40 mph, Weiner has instituted an unofficial rule for his arrival at the office. ”No one can talk to me for, like, five minutes, so in case I thought of something in the car, I can write it down,” he chuckles. ”I have serious pressure on my memory.”

Safe to say that he won’t soon forget the 2011 hiatus. While Mad Men has always been picked up by AMC on a season-by-season basis, the most recent renewal process proved the most complicated — and contentious. During the negotiations Weiner, whose deal had expired, learned that AMC wanted to slice two minutes off each episode to add commercials and hold the show’s fifth season until 2012, while Lionsgate (the show’s studio) wanted to lop $2 million from the budget, suggesting cast cuts. He balked at all three ideas, viewing them as harmful to the show. The talks heated up/melted down during late March, as details were leaked to the press and AMC (whose parent company would go public that summer) announced that the show would be delayed, citing ”non-cast negotiations.” Weiner, chagrined that the specifics of his negotiations had gotten out, felt that the wording of the statement fueled the perception that he was a greedy holdout. ”It was frustrating because I felt that I was doing something to protect the integrity of the show, and it was one of the more blindly, stupidly virtuous things that someone could do,” says Weiner. ”But it sort of became perverted into the exact opposite of what it was.”

AMC president Charlie Collier, who calls such characterizations of Weiner ”unfair,” concedes today that the wording of the press release was ”inelegant.” The show wasn’t delayed because of Weiner’s contract talks; it was a scheduling decision, he says. AMC planned to move Breaking Bad into Mad‘s summer slot in hopes of attracting male viewers perhaps distracted by postseason basketball in the spring. Weiner asked about a fall berth for Mad Men, but the network wanted to use the return of The Walking Dead to promote the debut of its Western Hell on Wheels, and believed that the female-skewing Mad Men had growth opportunity in Bad‘s old spring slot. Explains Collier, ”It was a strategic move to put Mad Men where it could best succeed.” While Weiner notes that the Breaking Bad move was ”genius,” he still wishes that Mad Men had found a home somewhere on the 2011 schedule: ”It’s hard to imagine any reason, business or otherwise, to keep it off the air.” (The series, which has grown in ratings every season, averaged 4.5 million viewers weekly, counting repeats and DVR users, during season 4 and ranked No. 1 among basic-cable dramas in affluent households.)

Meanwhile, as the talks wore on without resolution, Weiner became convinced he could not maintain the quality of the show within the aforementioned budget and time constraints, and grimly resolved to quit his own series. ”I actually made peace with it,” he recalls. ”I called Jon. I told my kids. My son [Marten, who plays Glen, the odd friend of Kiernan Shipka’s Sally] put his arm around me and said, ‘You’ll get another show, Daddy.”’

Watching from the sidelines, the cast couldn’t fathom the prospect of the network continuing Mad Men minus Weiner. ”There is no show without Matt. He is the show,” declares Hendricks. ”And I think the people renegotiating with him knew damn well that’s the truth.” Apparently. In the end, the series was renewed for three more seasons, through a seventh and final year, while Weiner signed a three-season, $30 million deal, which would allow him to make the usual 47-minute version of the show within an acceptable budget for Lionsgate. ”The one concept that [Matt] holds on to is the aesthetic integrity of the show,” says Lionsgate Television Group president Kevin Beggs. ”You couldn’t have more principled or pure motives than the ones he has. On a personal level, it’s admirable. On a business level…it’s sometimes a little complicated.” All three sides say relations improved as soon as the ink dried. ”Season 5 was the most exciting, easy, confident experience we’ve had on the show,” says Weiner. The cast seems to agree. ”There was relief and there was absolute elation,” Moss says. ”We all came back with this feeling of ‘Maybe now we can just concentrate on working on the show and making it really good,’ as opposed to ‘Well, this might be the last one.”’

No, it’s not the last one. But it’s a big one. We’ll do our best here to illuminate what will happen come March 25, but remember, Weiner runs such a secretive operation, he makes his wife put all of the scripts she reads in a box…which he then takes to work to shred. ”You could make your own Funny or Die sketch about talking to Mad Men actors,” jokes Harris, warning us not to read too deeply into cast quotes. ”Everyone could start running for public office because words come out of our mouths but they mean nothing.”

The two-hour premiere will resume the story after a healthy time jump, and you may need a few minutes to get your bearings. ”I want people to feel like they’re going to visit their best friend, and they open the door and everything’s been going on without them,” hints Weiner. ”The story is on page 30 when they open the door, so they’ll have to catch up.” Of course, fans are most eager to flip to the chapter that covers the aftermath of Don’s rash engagement to his secretary, Megan (Jessica Paré). All that Weiner will say on the matter is ”questions about Megan will be answered in the premiere,” though he’s clearly interested in the reverberations from the proposal. ”[Last season] we got inside Don’s head in a way we never had before,” Weiner continues. ”And then to see him say, ‘Will you marry me?’ and to see that look on his face? All of a sudden, he’s a stranger to us again…. It will cast a shadow on the season to come.”

This year’s arc for Don — the self-made man who often appears on the cusp of self-destruction — relates to his advancing age. ”A lot of the decisions that Don makes may seem strange to the audience, but they’re going to seem strange to the people around him, too,” Weiner says. ”He is coming into middle age, which was closer to old age back then. Existentialism is a young man’s game, and you can say what you want about how death nullifies things. But when you get closer to death, it starts to become more serious, and it’s harder to laugh it off and say, ‘I’m living for the moment.”’

Time marches on, and Weiner hints of its impact on the show’s themes. He speaks of ’60s New York in the process of decay, of a growing culture clash and generation gap, and a festering insecurity surrounding social/economic/technological change. ”There wasn’t a lot of history in the show last year. 1964 to 1965 was a relatively calm period, compared to ’63 or ’61,” he says. ”As we get deeper into the period, things are going to become more and more unstable, and how that affects Don and the business is something we can’t hide from anymore.” Echoes Hamm: ”The idea of having blinders on is something that is dangerous to people whose job it is to read the cultural temperature. And change is coming. Don is on the wrong side of that change for the most part, because he’s an old dude.” (For the record, when last we saw Don he was pushing 40; Hamm turns 41 on March 10.)

How does all of this play out in the halls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? ”The dynamics of the office are very interesting this year because the survival of the agency is still at stake,” Weiner says. ”That hierarchy is up for grabs because the agency is so small.” The power drama may include Roger, who couldn’t prevent his precious Lucky Strike from defecting (”He knows what’s going on around him,” says Slattery. ”Whether he can do anything about it, that’s another story”); the always hungry Pete (”There is an opportunity for him to show himself, but it’s coming about right when change is coming,” says Kartheiser. ”It’s like becoming CEO of a banking firm in 2007”); and an empowered Peggy (”She’s starting to realize what she wants and go after it,” says Moss). Harry and Ken also factor into the game, and eyes should be kept on Joan, who is now director of agency operations…with maybe a baby in tow? (”We’ve seen how Peggy dealt with hers, and know that anything could happen,” says Hendricks. ”I’m going to leave it at that.”)

Season 5 involved another baby issue as well: January Jones, who plays Don’s austere ex-wife, Betty, arguably the show’s most polarizing character, gave birth during the show’s production cycle. As a result, Betty — who didn’t clock as much screen time in season 4, since the story focused on a bachelorized Don — had to be deployed in creative ways this season. ”It was interesting to work around that, but [Matt] works best with a challenge,” says Jones. ”That turned into an amazing story line for me and for Betty. You’ll definitely see a different side of her.” Explains Weiner: ”We moved things around to get her in as much as we could. There will be less of her, but it’s not because people don’t like her or she’s not essential to the story. She’s in it, and she will be a big part of it again next season.”

Next season. And then one more. And then…no more. Weiner entered last year’s negotiations with the idea to end the series after six seasons, but warmed to a seventh when it was offered. So should we consider that one last call? ”Is that the end of the show? Yeah. For now,” says Weiner, who recently penned a play and is plotting his big-screen directing debut with a contemporary comedy he wrote years ago. ”I want to leave the door open in case something amazing happens, but my gut feeling about how much I have to say on this matter without being crappy is, [seven] just feels like the right number.” And that’s good enough for Hamm. ”I love going to work, so in that sense I could play Don for 100 years,” says Hamm, who stars in the just-opened comedy Friends With Kids. ”But I realize we’re not on a treadmill, we’re on a thing that moves forward…. And so I think these things should end, and it should end the way the guy that started it wants it to end.”

Yes, Weiner already has a vision for the final scene of the final episode. ”There is literally nothing but a piece of yarn between the finale of season 5 and the finale of the series,” he says. ”I don’t have a master plan. I have an image that is the end of the show. I think it’s the right thing. We’ll see.” While he won’t reveal anything else about that big goodbye, he does let slip one critical hint about the future: ”Jon Hamm will still be handsome. He’s going to be aging as this period goes on, and it may be incredibly unfair to women, and to other men, but Jon keeps looking better and better.” Just another one of Mad Men‘s magnificent mysteries.

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