Matthew Weiner opens up about Mad Men and the moment he decided Betty was going to die
It’s not enough to deliver a satisfying series finale to a beloved televison show. Modern fandom demands more than that, so after a few days of “decompression” following the Coke-and-a-smile ending to seven seasons of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner sat down with author friend A.M. Homes to explain to a packed house at the New York Public Library who wanted to know, “Is that all there is?”
It was the creator’s first—and currently only scheduled—public event to discuss the finale and 91 other episodes of Don Draper and the 1960s advertising scene. But the AMC series was much more than that, and the 90-minute conversation was both revealing about Weiner’s characters, his creative process, and himself.
1. Overall, Weiner is happy with the finale’s reception
“I wanted it to feel like that there was a vision and a point to the entire thing, and I’m so happy that people stayed with it this long, and hopefully felt rewarded by that experience. I’m so pleased that people enjoyed it and seemed to enjoy it exactly as it was intended. You know, you can’t get 100 percent approval rating—or you’ve done something dumb.”
2. The famous Coke commercial that capped the finale was not meant to be ironic or cynical… and shame on you for thinking that!
“I did hear rumblings of people talking about the ad being corny, and it’s a little bit disturbing to me … The people who find that ad corny are probably experiencing a lot of life that way and they’re missing out on something. Because five years [before that commercial ran], black people and white people couldn’t even be in an ad together, and the idea that some enlightened state and not just co-option might have created something that is very pure—and yeah, there’s soda in there with good feeling—but that ad, to me, it’s the best ad ever made. … I felt that that ad in particular was so much of its time. So beautiful, and I don’t think as … villainous as the snark of today thinks it is.”
3. Betty was doomed after season 4
Once the show got another major renewal after a contract negotiation at the end of season 4, certain end-game developments crystallized in Weiner’s mind. The Coca-Cola ad, for example, popped into his head at this time. And he also decided that Betty wouldn’t survive. “Her mother had just died in the pilot, and I felt that this woman wasn’t going to live long. We loved the idea of her realizing her purpose in life right when she ran out of time. … I think there’s a lesson to be learned about the randomness of things, and also, she obviously had some predispositions and some fairly seriously cancer-causing behavior.”
4. Weiner wanted to jam Betty and Pete’s final twists and turns into the finale, rather than the penultimate episode
“One of the biggest arguments of the season was I did not want to end Betty and Pete’s story the week before. I wanted that all in the finale. And it would’ve been a mess. Everything would’ve been like five seconds long.” Weiner credited the writers room with talking him down from making the wrong decision, and not for the first time. “So many horrible mistakes have been avoided [by their collective wisdom over the years].”
5. On the art of the series finale, and how much surprise is too much surprise
“We try to be the audience. … You want to be responsive to the audience but you really want to be true to the characters. … The most sophisticated part of it is that you want to fool the audience in the sense that you want to surprise and delight them. You don’t want to say, ‘Gotcha!’ Everything that’s ever reverse engineered or planned out … it’s always a disaster. The rule that we sort of used is like, ‘What would really happen?'”
6. For chrissakes, it’s pronounced Winer, not Weener.
Paul Holdengräber, the accented director of the NYPL’s interview series, made the unfortunate, but hardly unprecedented, error of introducing Weiner as Weener. Weiner correctly him immediately, trying to laugh it off with a joke about the ease with which Holdengräber had pronounced Werner Herzog’s name during his prologue, and presuming the host to be German. “That is one of the reasons that [my family] left that place,” he said with a tight smile. [Note: Holdengräber was apparently born in Texas and raised in Belgium.]
7. Forget D.B. Cooper, Don Draper is all about Richard Nixon
Don Draper may have looked Kennedy-esque, but Weiner could hardly go 10 minutes without returning to his fascination with Nixon and repeatedly drawing parallels to Don’s unlikely path to wealth and success. During season 1’s “The Long Weekend,” set during the 1960 election, Don even said, “Kennedy, I see a silver spoon. Nixon, I see myself.” But Weiner couldn’t resist going further, delving into both Dicks’ poverty-stricken childhoods, and their determined drive to reinvent themselves and succeed after wartime service. “The idea that that guy, with no breeding, no Ivy League… and no friends [gets out of the Navy, and six years later he’s the vice president of the United States]. He’s psychological fascinating. … Richard Nixon’s a big important part of [Dick/Don], I hate to say.”
8. From the Nixon comparison, it wasn’t a stretch to crack Don and Mad Men wide open.
When Weiner presented his theory, the audienced literally gasped, as if the blindfold had just been removed from their eyes. “It’s weird, because I don’t think I realized this until the end of the show, that Don likes strangers. Don likes winning strangers over. He likes seducing strangers, and that is what advertising is.” Boom!
9. The whole last season, the arc of the last 14 episodes, is about the nation’s collective mood following the chaotic 1960s… which led us all back to Nixon.
“This whole last season, and I can say this now—I think it’s pretty obvious—was the idea that the revolution failed in some way, and it’s time to deal with what you can control, which is yourself. This turning inward. … Everybody’s feeling this. Like, ‘I’m tired of that.’ They killed Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy within months of each other, the Democratic convention, all of it. There’s Richard Nixon back there, like Napoleon at the end of the French Revolution, ‘Everything’s going to be okay. We’re going to get out of the war.’ Lies, whatever else is going on—just turn off from it. So this journey has been Don having all of his material needs being met… and what else is there? We tried to do this journey towards turning him inward for everybody. You’ve got to manage what you have control over, and he stripped it all the way. That was the idea and that was what we tried to do.”
10. Weiner isn’t going into creative exile. He even envisions himself back in TV.
Unlike his mentor, David Chase, who directed one post-Sopranos film and then went silent, Weiner expressed a willingness to do another show eventually. He seemed fascinated by evolving TV viewing habits and the pros and cons of binge-watching shows like those on Netflix—but expressed a preference for the old-school consumpion of weekly television. “If I did something even with Netflix, I would try to convince them to let me just roll them out so that there was at least some shared experience. … I love the waiting. I love the marination. … I loved having the period in between the shows.”
11. Weiner never forgets. Bad news for AMC (and Holdengräber)
Weiner prides himself on his memory, and he demonstrated some lingering bitterness towards AMC and Lionsgate over negotiations that almost ended the show prematurely. “I was in so many fights, that I started to think, ‘Is this my problem, or are these people really, really screwing with me all the time?’ Like, I come in on budget the first season, and Lionsgate cuts your budget the next year. And you’re like, ‘What?’ We were fighting over money for the finale! I made them a billion dollars—made AMC [who] went public, a billion dollars. And for the most part, all the wounds have healed. But at a certain point, someone goes, ‘You just like fighting.’ You’re like, ‘Maybe I do.'”
Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama