Matthew Weiner is reciting a theory he’s heard—one that, unlike many of the wild would-be complots linked to his TV series Mad Men, he feels holds water.
“It’s about how Starbucks is a replacement for cocaine,” he says, postulating that their addictive brews provide the perfect adult antidote for those who grew up huffing powder in the crazy ’80s. “It provided three things that they needed: It was expensive, it gave you a buzz, and it had a lot of paraphernalia.”
He pauses, before adding, “It wasn’t my observation, but I think that’s what it is!”
Mad Men is, of course, coming to an end. Really. Weiner, who’s served as showrunner, executive producer, and head writer of the highly decorated series over its six-and-a-half seasons, says there will be no spin-offs, no movie, and no one-off Christmas special. Nope. The impeccably crafted show has put out its last Lucky Strike.
“This is it! This is the end,” he says, flashing a big smile. “You can rewatch what’s there. There’s 92 hours of it. That’s a lot of bingeing. To continue to make that show without making it crappy and have people hopefully leave saying, ‘Oh, I wish there was more!’ is a lot better than saying, ‘Is that thing still on?’”
Indeed, since debuting back in 2007, the AMC series hasn’t seen its quality diminish as the seasons float by—a rarity for a TV show not named The Wire, Breaking Bad, or The Sopranos. And it was on the latter landmark show that Weiner really began to make a name for himself in the TV biz, working as a writer and producer on the HBO show’s fifth and sixth seasons.
Weiner penned a spec script for Mad Men around the time The Sopranos premiered in 1999, while working as a writer on Becker. He says he was very influenced by David Chase’s exploration of mob and family life, and eventually showed the script to Chase, who then hired him as a writer on his series.
“The influence is constant,” Weiner says of The Sopranos. “I would never compare the two shows, and we’re always going to be after it. I wrote the pilot for Mad Men around the same time The Sopranos came on the air, and it was encouraged by its existence. I saw it right after I wrote the pilot in 1999, and David paved the way for letting the economic powers know that the audience was interested in this non-formulaic, real-life story.”
We’re seated on a couch at a fancy hotel in Midtown Manhattan to discuss the final half-season of Mad Men, dubbed “The End of an Era,” which begins on April 5.
When I ask Weiner about the similarities between Tony Soprano and Don Draper, these dark, brooding, terribly sexy-yet-troubled existential heroes, his interest is piqued and he launches into a very long—and fascinating—explanation as to what he views are the key similarities and differences between The Sopranos’ and Mad Men’s leading men.
“I love that Don’s in the same tradition,” says Weiner. “Yeah, he’s someone who is troubled on a daily basis with the meaning of his existence, and it influences a lot of the decisions he makes. Don is trying to change who he is, to become the person he wants to be—and behaving very well in certain situations and very poorly in others, because he can’t control his impulses, he’s selfish, and self-serving—and that’s similar to Tony.”
“I think that they are very different in terms of their responsibility, and in terms of the amount of power that they have in their life, and the period does reflect that in some way,” he continues. “Tony is someone who, unlike most of us, always seemed to have a lot of control, and it was always surprising to us that he would have trouble solving his problems because he could always shoot his way out of it. I think Tony is more childish than Don. I think he is. Tony has willfully taken other people’s lives. There might be issues of conscience. Tony was always dealing with his guilt, but I think Don’s conscience and his crimes are much more identifiable and familiar to most of us.”
And that, Weiner says, is the key difference between Tony and Don: Tony kills people, and his sins are, on the whole, a bit more exotic than those of the besuited ad exec. Sure, they both screw around and are absentee fathers, but Tony is a more feral beast who will smoke a relative if the dirty deed aligns with his own self-interest.
“From the beginning, I made the decision that Don doesn’t kill people,” Weiner says. “When his brother came back to visit and we played with the tension of the audience of having him reach in that drawer and not see what it was, as soon as you found out that he was going to give his brother money to make him go away, you have a very different person. You have a person who lives much more like the way most of us do. Tony is certainly close to real-life experience—whether it’s his powerlessness with his children, him driving in and out of mini-malls, and him not living in New York City, like in the opening credits which were so identifiable—but I think there is on some level with Don a much smaller story that is hopefully, whether it is internal or not, constantly related to the more pedestrian and familiar problems in most of our lives, which are: ‘How am I perceived?’ ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ‘How could I not be happy with this?’”
We are, many feel, in the “Age of the Antihero”—a tradition that supposedly started with Tony Soprano and continued with Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Don Draper. Just Google “antihero” and you’ll find a zillion lists and think pieces on everything ranging from how this is “The Golden Age of Antiheroes” to antihero fatigue.
Weiner, however, doesn’t really see it that way.
“I hear people say that, and I don’t know if that’s true,” he says. “It’s the era of television in the sense that there’s so much of it, and you can access it everywhere, and it’s the largest economic force in entertainment right now. Basic cable is the most profitable part of entertainment in general right now. It has the highest ad rates, the lowest union rates, the cheapest distribution, and it’s able to take risks.”
He pauses. “Is television still filled with a lot of escapist, smart aleck characters who are great at their jobs, always know the right answer, and triumph over every evil? Yeah. That’s part of entertainment, and I want to see that. There’s very little justice in my life, and I often turn to TV to experience the sensation of justice. Is Hawkeye Pierce an antihero? The hero must have flaws or they’re boring, and you’re just going to pay attention to the villain.”
It’s Weiner’s belief that the actors inhabiting these roles and bringing them to brooding, thrilling life are the ones who’ve led to all this antihero talk. The complexity of their performances, he says, is what’s led many in the television arena to drop the word “antihero” so damned often.
And his guy is Jon Hamm, who’s managed to transform Don into someone that, despite the 1960s time period, outmoded cultural trappings, and downright despicable behavior, we can’t help but identify with.
“Jon Hamm is an intelligent, charismatic person who’s doing things that we like to think we’re above doing, but we’re not, and that confuses us,” says Weiner. “James Gandolfini is so likable, and charming, and handsome, and sexy, that when he’s being cruel and brutal, we’re on his side. When a character is a traditional hero, it’s a joke. When they sit back and say, ‘I care so much and just want to do more!’ it’s rarely successful. I just look at it and think, ‘I understand why people want this entertainment in a chaotic world, but I don’t want to be a part of it.’”
But back to those conspiracy theories. Over the course of its eight years on television, Mad Men has managed to give birth to plenty of out-there ones, from Don having a brain tumor (which would account for the hallucinations, apparently) to last season’s whole “Megan Draper is Sharon Tate” theory, largely fueled by Megan’s move to L.A., her career as an aspiring actress, her secluded home, and a scene where Megan wore a T-shirt that Tate donned in a famous image.
I asked Weiner about the Megan-Sharon Tate theory, and he does seem to hint that there’s some validity to it—just don’t expect to see Charles Manson pop in and off Megan.“The idea that you would cover 1968 and not talk about Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski is wrong, and the fact that they are heading towards that thing is part of it,” he says cryptically. “But the idea that I would take one of my fictitious characters and say, ‘Hey, guess what? Ginsberg shot JFK, not Lee Harvey Oswald!’ I just would never do that.”
It’s fascinating that, for a show that doesn’t feature all that much “action,” Mad Men has inspired all these theories. Weiner says it’s a credit to his writing team that they’ve been able to trigger the imaginations of the series’ viewers and constantly keep them guessing.
“We never want to repeat ourselves, we don’t have a formula, and we don’t have a genre. So there’s very little to hang your story on every week except for the story itself,” Weiner says. “How you tell the story becomes more and more important—what the tone is, whose eyes it’s being seen from, where you get the information, and how it’s being omitted. I never wanted to be binary. There’s this phrase that used to be used when I worked in more traditional television before The Sopranos, which was, ‘Let’s turn this on its head!’ We don’t do that. We try to find out what’s more organically related in the story.”