'Mad Men' creator Matthew Weiner breaks down his favorite scene
Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to return nomination ballots, EW.com is running a series called Emmy Watch, featuring highlight clips and interviews with actors, producers, and writers whom EW TV critic Ken Tucker has on his wish list for the nominations announcement on July 19.
It feels like almost a foregone conclusion that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner would submit “Far Away Places” for writing consideration. For one, it’s likely the most structurally daring hour of television we’ll see this year, a triptych of stories that take place over the course of a single day, interweaving and folding back on themselves with elegance and an almost outrageous narrative confidence. And at the center of it all is Roger Sterling’s first acid trip, a calmly psychotropic journey that results in a moment of clarity for both Roger and his young wife, Jane, where they carry each other to the realization that their marriage is over. For a show where people rarely say what they mean, even if they mean what they say, it was a surprising and touching moment of openness and mutual respect. Here Matthew Weiner discusses why this is the scene he’s proudest of, as well as a whole lot of other elements of Mad Men‘s stellar season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In a season — heck, an episode — filled with plenty of memorable scenes, why did you choose this one?
MATTHEW WEINER: It was very hard to choose. I found it a fascinating experience, and a great creative experience, to write that scene and that conversation. There were some challenges in it. No. 1: There was some information to reveal in the scene. Obviously there was a plot point—they were going to reveal that their relationship was over—and also, we don’t know that much about Jane but we definitely didn’t know that that was her doctor and that her doctor had told her to try LSD to improve her relationship. So those two pieces of information were there, but the whole theme of the episode was going away to another place and finding the truth there. So the other challenge is that I have, like the rest of the world, grown up seeing drug trips portrayed with flashing lights and switching lenses and forced perspectives and all those things that go along with your warped perception when you’re on drugs, but I thought I could use this as a moment of what I perceive to be insight, and how to express the insight when you’re having a conversation that is filled with conflict and at the same time the two people are agreeing with each other. They’re having an “Ah ha!” moment at the same time that they’re having an argument.
It’s beautifully directed by Scott Hornbacher and beautifully shot by Chris Manley and, of course, the performances. I think my favorite moment is when she talks about how she did kiss somebody once, but then she didn’t tell him about it, and she was mad at him for not realizing that she’d given something up. The show sort of runs on these restrained emotions and people not saying what’s on their mind, and here is this moment where they’re saying so much that is on their mind and they’re commenting about how it’s on their mind, and they’re coming down off this drug and it’s super intimate and strangely agreeable in the middle of this relationship ending conversation.
And then you have the revelation afterwards that only one of them really remembers this grand metanoia.
I know, I know! He has to basically bring up all the evidence—that she was speaking German, that she told him about the shrink—and there’s something about their faces, they got it right away that this was a conversation…I can’t even explain it, it’s almost a twist on an acting exercise. In improvisation they say you should always say “Yes, and,” but drama is built on conflict, so how is that gonna work? It was a hard scene to write, but I was particularly happy because a few of the people who had taken LSD in the writers room—they shall remain nameless, but I’m not one of them— felt that it really captured this euphoric insight.
This episode is split into three stories and you have Peggy and Don working through their own relationship issues. How do you think this scene juxtaposes against their narratives?
It comes down to these three two-person scenes which are the climactic scenes for each piece of the triptych. For Peggy, it’s when she’s with Ginsberg and he tells her he’s from another planet and she sort of steps outside of herself for a moment and thinks, “What am I complaining about? How lonely is this person? How lonely am I?” And it drives her towards Abe because all of her anger towards screwing up, and that guy in the movie theater, it all solidifies her relationship and why she needs him.
The climactic scene with Don and Megan of course is when he thinks she’s dead and when he chases her around the apartment and ends up on his knees there and he says, “I thought I lost you.” The shadow of death, the feeling of physically losing her, I think he really thought she was dead and I hope the audience got that impression. I mean, you never know what’s going to happen on the show anyway, but as soon as he finds the sunglasses in the parking lot, I think you have to be seriously worried that something could have happened. And for Don to think for a moment, okay I may have lost my temper, but what if she’s dead, what if I drove her to that, by doing an incredibly obnoxious thing leaving her there. And when he realizes that he hasn’t lost her, he basically says, “I can’t live without you.” Or, “You mean that much to me.” It’s the depth of their relationship. So those are the two companion pieces to that scene.
Speaking of companion pieces, “Far Away Places” seemed to me a bit of a permutation of Season 2’s “Three Sundays.” Instead of three stories spread out over the course of three separate days and told simultaneously, it was three stories occurring over course of one day and told individually. How did you end up deciding to use this story structure?
Structurally, I love this French movie by Max Ophüls called Le Plaisir. It’s three or four Guy de Maupassant stories that are told by a narrator, and then characters start to appear behind each other, their stories overlap and they are just walking through, and you realize it’s a complete world. What I loved about that was just telling the story from that one person’s point of view. In Peggy’s story, she’s in every scene, nothing happens without her there. And it’s the same thing with Don and the same thing with Roger. So you’re really getting this very private perspective, and then thematically holding it together by saying, “Here, this is about the status of the relationship.” We weren’t sure that it was going to work. The hardest part was breaking it up for commercials so that the Peggy and the Roger stories would be in the same segment and you wouldn’t come back and think you were in the middle of another episode.
And that way it also feels less like an anthology episode.
Exactly. And making sure that the audience would stick with it over 47 minutes. The only rule we had to adhere to was if it’s from this person’s POV, he has to be in every shot. So if Roger enters Don office, you can’t see Don walking down the hall. And then these conversations—which we really tried to get right—like Peggy and Stan having a conversation while Don’s in the hallway with Megan, saying, “We have to go.” We tried to keep the time limits honest, so that Don’s conversation we see in the hallway later is the right length for Peggy to have her conversation before coming out.
It seems a bit like building a ship in a bottle.
It is! And I gotta tell you something, that’s one of the great things about writing, and especially writing with a bunch of really smart people. You have the time to figure that out on paper and you hope that it works and of course if it’s directed well, which it was, and the timing’s good and the performances are good, you’re suddenly like “Wow, this works on some level.” And the toughest part, as it was with “Three Sundays,” since you brought it up, was keeping the narrative moving as a whole episode. I’m always worried about what people are worried about. What are they curious about? What is the question that they’re waiting to have answered?
I feel like you sometimes get painted as someone who makes the show he wants to make, audience expectations be damned, while it seems to me to be opposite: You really enjoy messing with us on a weekly basis.
I’m an entertainer. I’m trying to keep people stimulated. I like being told a story I don’t know the ending to. Some people do, some people don’t. I thought that if this episode works, then people will immediately watch it a second time. I’m always aware of the audience. I don’t listen to the audience in terms of what they want, like, “Why isn’t there more Joan this week?”, or more Betty, or, “Why doesn’t Don have a more triumphant moment?” Those things tend not to be in the audience’s best interest. Not that I know better than them about this, but if you start getting led around by what people say they want, then they’ll immediately start complaining about that too. I’ve seen people do that and I know for a fact that’s what happened.
So I don’t pay attention to the audience in terms of will they understand the story, or have I earned the right to tell the story in a different way, but I’m always thinking about what’s on their mind and what they’re thinking about and can I keep their interest. So when we go to a commercial breaks—we don’t do big act breaks with cliffhangers like “dun-dunh!”—but to me when you see Roger and Jane in the elevator and you see Jane in that outfit, you’re like, “Where are they going?” “Is Roger going to make a fool of himself?” “Is he going to embarrass her?”
Just off of you saying elevators, they’ve been really prominent this season.
I always use the elevator, I love it. But if I used it more dramatically this season, that’s possible.
Every once in a while you use the elevator doors almost as stage curtains and I love that effect.
Me too, me too. We obviously didn’t invent it, but I love doors closing and opening, entrances and exits, and there’s something about that elevator. We’ve done a lot of it. We had a lot of it last season, too, at the end of the Waldorf story where Don comes in and lies to Roger. Or “The Beautiful Girls” where all three of them get on the elevator and they’re waiting for the doors to close. I didn’t invent it by any means, but because we have it, I love using it. One of my favorite things in The Sopranos, was in the episode where Carmella looks back when they’re trying to rip her off and she sees their expressions change before the elevator doors close.
It’s almost straight out of the end of The Godfather. A door closing, thresholds…
Absolutely. I guess you could do the same thing at a urinal in a less elegant way. When people are looking ahead and aren’t aware they’re being seen, there’s something very dramatic about that.
See, now you’ve just tasked yourself with writing the first great, dramatic television scene at a urinal.
[Laughs] I don’t know. That’s a tall order.
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