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

[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.”

On Betty’s story this season

“Our plan was that Betty (January Jones) is trying, and she is happy in her marriage and she is growing a little bit. And as soon as Henry expressed his desire to run for office — she’s been in Weight Watchers at this point for a year —  there was a kind of ‘uh-oh’ where she realized she had to do something about herself because she was going to be in the public eye. Did she learn something? I don’t know. Has she grown? I don’t know. The first line I came in with was where she says, ‘I have three children,’ when the guy says, ‘I want to be with you.’ And he says, ‘I don’t care,’ and she says ‘No, look at me. Can you believe I’ve had three children?’ What we were heading toward is that this is a woman who has maybe not learned as much as she should have. Children teach us more than we teach them, and I think you can feel that Betty is always trying, and part of what the premiere was about was her having her own crisis as she’s getting older — and of course her looks were not a factor in those scenes in the Village — with how she’s seen. I guess any moment of consciousness for her is interesting to the audience, but she’s a fascinating character to me…. She’s got her own issues — she wants Sally to go to that boarding school and you can tell she’s living vicariously though her. Anyone who has a 13-year-old girl recognizes what’s up with Sally, and that is an equalizing force that Betty cannot do anything about. And maybe she has learned something.”

On Peggy winding up without Ted — but in Don’s chair

“Peggy’s story this season was that she does not have any choices. She was forced to buy an apartment where she didn’t want to buy it. She’s in a relationship [with Abe, played by Charlie Hofheimer) without a wedding ring but it looks like it’s going to have kids in it so she’s interested in that. Then she’s in this relationship with Ted she has no control over, she’s forced to work in an agency — it’s like The Godfather, they keep pulling her back in. And what I wanted to say is it’s definitely to feel gradual change. All of a sudden, you start one place and you end another. She’s finding her way at the beginning of this season, her management style, and then it ends with her in a pants suit. Thank you, [costume designer] Janie Bryant, I was waiting for the right moment to do that, in a pantsuit. And she says to Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), ‘This is where everything is.’ And I think that is in a nutshell what’s going on in Peggy’s life. It’s not like there is no joy at all, but her work has become everything.”

On Pete’s decision not to expose Bob Benson

“Duck (Mark Moses) says ‘I’ve never seen this before,’ and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) says, ‘I have.’ We’re expecting him to go in there with guns blazing and the fact is he learned something. And when he says ‘I’m off-limits,’ he means ‘Keep your hands to yourself. I don’t care if you love me, I don’t know what you’re up to, but I have learned something in these eight years, which is that I tried to go up against Don Draper and it was a mistake and ‘Im just going to submit.’ Unfortunately it doesn’t last very long (laughs), and we see that Bob is as formidable as Pete feared. But Bob Benson’s presence in this show — every character has their own story and God knows I’m so grateful that we found James Wolk and he just killed the part — but he was there to sort of show what was happening to Pete. Don’t forget, this season Pete had the affair with the woman on his street, and he lived very recklessly and even on the verge of the public offering and getting back together with Trudy (Alison Brie), the entire thing fell apart. And what an interesting thing for us to see if we could pull off this story where it seemed like Pete actually grew.”

On the twist that Pete was going to California (…with Ted?)

“Yes, that’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s one of those things where the writers were like, ‘We could waste screen time which we don’t have that much of, by seeing that decision get made, or just reveal that he’s going.’ Because the story is really about what Trudy says to him. He has nothing, he is free now, and Pete has this moment where he says ‘That’s not the way I wanted it,’ and she says ‘Well, now you know that.’ And you feel the sting of a guy who has irrevocably changed his life. But we saw with Pete in the past, he’s not scared of California, maybe it will be good for him. We know what New York means to him.”

On Megan finally standing up for herself

“She’s really the most modern character in the show. She’s an independent woman, she’s busy and she is with this very somewhat traditional man. We saw Don’s fantasy in California when he was on hashish, that he wants her to be pregnant and not working and excited about him being with other women. (laughs) She, like a modern woman, is really independent and interested in her career, and feels that he is distant. She knows something is wrong. And what we wanted to show was her evolving to the point where she can’t take any more of it, where she realizes that she is either, in the modern terms, enabling him or she loves him. And I think we can say at the end that he loves her and he knows how lucky he is to have her, but she is the sacrifice at that moment. And once her career is being affected, she is like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And I think Jessica just killed that scene. Just being there watching her do that scene where she talks about the kids and how she identifies with the kids, you’re just like, ‘Of course.’ How great to have the blinders pulled off to some degree? I think she’s been tolerant of him, she knew he was drinking too much, she knew he was screwed up, she was trying to help him through it, but she really doesn’t know what is going on.”

On whether there will be any part of Ken (Aaron Staton) left at the end of the series

“He received the full Dick Cheney treatment. The story that we heard about working on a car account in Detroit, I mean, this is the mild version, that’s all I can say. I don’t know what their reaction has been to their treatment in the show, but there’s no one who has come up to me who was there and not said ‘You think that’s bad, let me tell ya…’ Ken is okay. He did not lose his eye. His foot heals and he’s got an eyepatch. If anybody could be helped by an eyepatch, he’s even more handsome than he was.

On his favorite weirdest theory he heard this season

“Bob Benson was Peggy’s baby come back from the future in a Terminator thing to illuminate and set things right. That was the most ingenious one. I hope what really happened in the show didn’t disappoint people — that’s not a vernacular we usually work in.

On approaching season 7

“It’s going to be a new experience for me and I’m as usual terrified and excited by it but I’m trying not to think about it for a couple weeks. I can tell you we will continue to make the show the way we always have but there’s extra stakes and extra pressure and an emotional process for myself and the writers who have been here.”

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