Jaimie Trueblood/AMC
June 24, 2013 at 06:06 AM EDT

[SPOILER ALERT: Do not read until you have watched Sunday night’s season finale of Mad Men.] When the penultimate season of Mad Men drew to a close, we witnessed the break of Don: Jon Hamm’s enigmatic ad exec snapped out of an alcohol-fueled haze of shame-spiraling and self-sabotage by deciding to get honest with himself and shine a light on his past, even if this dismantling of his inauthentic life might have very well cost him his job and his marriage. In the final moments of “In Care Of,” he brought his three children to a dicey part of town and showed them the rundown whorehouse where he spent his early years, and that’s how we would leave him (as late-60s hit “Both Sides, Now” played on): Down but not necessarily out, on the precipice of… hopey-changey stuff? Dare to dream for a year while we wait for the answer. Season 6 of the Madison Avenue drama, set largely in the tumultuous year of 1968, offered up trips to Hawaii and St. Mark’s Place, a slimmed-down Betty, an embarrassing upchuck into an umbrella stand, a thief posing as a grandmother, a conman posing as a corporate brownnoser, an affair-discovering Sally, a brief sexual reunion for Don and Betty, a merger with too many letters, a society in revolution, and a war on Ken Cosgrove and Abe Drexler, among  other things. EW spoke with series creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner about the finale, season 6, and the final season, and your highlights follow in two shakes of Don’s hand.

On this season’s story for Don Draper:

“The story was about Don in crisis saying, ‘I don’t want to do this again,’ the idea of the society being in revolution, him trying to find a solution to his anxiety and the outside doesn’t look like the inside. It’s a simple thing but what is causing him to repeat this problem over and over and over again? His relationship with his downstairs neighbor (Sylvia, played by Linda Cardellini)—there’s so much self-destructive behavior. And what I really wanted to do was get him to a place where he would look himself in the mirror and see all those things about himself. When I brought this up in the writer’s room at the beginning of the season, everybody got this nauseous look on their faces. I mean, no one ever does that. Let’s see if we can make Don confront who he is.

The thing that happened with Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is the worst thing that ever happened to him. We learn about his childhood, we learn how he feels about sex, we learn about this shame that’s underneath a lot of this, and the idea was: Could you get him to the place that he would confess, even to the wrong people? We would hear him tell the story and it would be beautiful, and when that man says, “Weren’t you a lucky little boy,” you would know more than ever what this guy is dealing with. And there’s Ted (Kevin Rahm) in his life, as a double. Not that Ted is the best version of Don, he’s not a saint — but he seems to be more honest than Don, more at home with himself on some level. So that was what we tried to do — in the end, he would take a tiny step. And I know everybody thinks that the steps have to go somewhere, but the event of Don revealing to Sally and his children where he is from is an event in their life, and that look between the two of them — whether it’s the beginning of something or just that thing — a lot of us never have that with our parents. It’s a big moment for him to come clean.”

On the “purity” of Don’s motives in granting rival Ted his request and giving up his spot in California

“I wanted people to think that Don was giving up what he thought was his chance at happiness and that he was doing the right thing because he is a good man. And when Ted talked about his family, and he’s more explicit about it with Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), Don heard that and realized that he just couldn’t keep lying about all of this. He knew that Ted was right. And it is a sacrifice. We can see what Megan (Jessica Pare) means to him, and that’s in jeopardy. Here he is with his family at the end of the show. We really want to strip him away but for the best intentions, that he looked in the mirror and instead of seeing Ted there — this man that he hated — he knew what the right thing to do was.

On Don sabotaging Ted’s and Peggy’s work on the St. Joseph’s ad in episode 12

“Episode 12 is Don dealing with the shame of Sally catching him. And unlike most episodes, he starts and ends in the same place, in the fetal position. He doesn’t want anyone to be happy. He gave his word to Ted, and the minute he sees Peggy and Ted together at the movie theater, he goes back on it and brings in Sunkist. And then he ‘helps’ them by insinuating himself into this thing to destroy and embarrass and humiliate his enemy. To crush him. And I felt that was someone who had no control — the worst part of ourselves just acting out — and it’s obviously not very satisfying. But it’s the act of someone who is not willing to confront himself. Don has had some amazing creative work this season and although I think the audience sometimes takes their cue from how the clients feel, if they can look at it in the abstract, Don has pitched some amazing work that is very … it’s not faddist. Ted is more of a faddist, he’s more about the style of the times. And it is where advertising is going. But Don did not pay enough attention to advertising this year; he was too busy trying to destroy the person who was there to help him. (laughs)”

On Don choosing to confessing his past in the Hersey meeting and whether his line “If I had my way, you would never advertise,” was an expression of contempt for his industry

“His personal relationship with Hershey is something that I knew, and that the audience didn’t necessarily know. They knew when he was telling the truth because they’d seen his background. And what I wanted was for him to have that drink, and go in there and do what he always does, which was give a very convincing and beautiful speech about what it would mean to a person. It’s Don’s gift that he can create this persona and that it feels so personal, and that it was a lie and that Hershey doesn’t advertise and it is a form of self-hatred for him to say, ‘You don’t need someone like me, you shouldn’t advertise, you should stay pure.’ And that was definitely his relationship with the chocolate bar and his horrible childhood that he can’t undo.”

On the ramifications of Don being put on leave

“In the corporate world, being put on leave is as close to being fired as possible. People do come back from it, but it’s a really embarrassing and serious activity. And it’s their only recourse because he’s a partner.… As Don said when he ran away in season 2 to California and came back and there was all the mail on his desk: ‘The world goes on without us. There’s no reason to take it personally.’… Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) came back, and I’m not saying people don’t come back from that and you’ll have to watch, but that shot of him going down the steps and Peggy’s in his office and there’s a replacement coming in — he was fired.”

On this season’s increasingly frustrating Don Draper

“I think people are always frustrated with Don. And when Sally catches him they felt badly for him. I have no control over any of that. When the premiere episode ends with ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ they know there is change afoot or at least an attempt at change. And I hope that they are always shocked and excited about it. When you find out in “The Crash” that he is actually working on winning Sylvia back — and not Chevy the entire episode? That’s the great gift of having these writers and these actors to be able to tell a story like that. I want people to be interested in Don. I can’t define what is positive or negative about that because I do not judge him or any of the other characters.”

On a turning point for Don to realize that his children — especially Sally — need him

“What really worked for me was that phone call [where] Betty says, ‘She’s from a broken home,’ and Don’s shame at knowing that is not the whole problem. He’s trying to fix things. I think there’s just so much shame. And he can’t handle it anymore.”… The children are woven through the entire season as a point of attention that people should be paying attention to. [It’s] the one thing they can control in their lives. And I don’t mean just controlling it. There is an opportunity to have peace, kindness, joy — maybe that is what is important, because the world is a mess, as Ted says.”

On whether Weiner is setting up a “Can Don redeem himself’ for the final season

“I’m not lying when I tell you all I have is an image for the very end of the show, and I really use everything that myself and the writers can think of for this season. We painted ourselves into a corner but I always want the season finale to feel like the end of the show. So, can Don redeem himself? I’m not going to say if that’s even an issue. But I hope people feel a sense of joy or hope at that last moment because that’s what the season was working toward. And I’m not kidding: That event in itself, just looking in the mirror and saying that is a big deal for that guy. And for any of us…. I live with each season as it is. I started this season saying, “We should save that,” ” We should save that,” “We should save that,” and Maria and Andre Jacquemetton basically had an intervention with me — they’re the executive producers, second-in-charge here. They’re like, “Why are you doing this different than you’ve done it before? You should just use everything and we’ll deal with it later.” And that’s what we did.

NEXT: “Peggy’s story this season was that she does not have any choices.”

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