“It’s about the malleability of American culture,” said Mad Men creator, writer, and showrunner Matthew Weiner on Saturday night. Weiner was at a sold-out Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center to toast “Mad Men: The End of an Era,” a special panel celebrating the show in its final season. The event was set up like a clip show, with Weiner joined by Jon Hamm, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, and John Slatter. The actors introduced their favorite clips featuring their Mad Men characters — Don Draper, Betty Draper, Joan Holloway, and Roger Sterling, respectively — and reminisced over how these scenes came to be and what they learned from them. It was a night of celebration and remembrance — there was nothing as close to a hint about what will happen when Mad Men‘s final seven episodes start next Sunday on April 5, but still plenty to learn about one of finest shows of our time.
Feelings about blackface: A clip of Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Roger (Slattery) negotiating in Season 5 episode “Mystery Date” went off on a tangent into the adventures of Roger: namely, his fondness for LSD, and his shocking blackface performance of “My Own Kentucky Home” in Season 3. Weiner said the latter scene caused a “controversy in the writer’s room,” but it needed to be done since the scene was set in 1963 and blackface wasn’t banned from the Philadelphia Mummers parade until 1968. “That episode in particular is really about class,” said Weiner. “It’s the dumbest version of Nero fiddl[ing] while Rome burns.” This is a theme to which Weiner returned throughout the evening — he repeatedly described clips as being “about class”, a description he also applied to the show as a whole.
The beginning of Roger and Joan’s relationship: Over a clip that showed Roger and Joan at a midday hotel nooner, Hendricks said that scene was “the first time I discovered all these things about Joan. They’re [Joan and Roger] never telling each other the truth. It was the start of this long, interesting, and delicious relationship.” Weiner said that scene was particularly long in an effort to save money, and it was “one of the hottest things I’ve seen in any medium.” He also made the point that “Joan is in control of everything, but she is not in control of that relationship. [Roger] never came through at the right time.”
Weiner on season 4 episode “The Suitcase”: The bottle episode that laid the relationship between Peggy and Don Draper bare was originally unplanned and came about as a cost-cutting measure. “It was the entire relationship of these two people,” Weiner said. “Everything that they have not talked about, because the show is so much about what we don’t talk about.” He also called Don’s lack of hitting on Peggy “insulting,” especially in Season 4 where “Don is the least picky.”
Weiner doesn’t like exposition: “I construct the show that way,” he noted. “I’m embarrassed by exposition.” It takes him out of the story, and it’s part of the reason people are never saying characters’ names on the show. “I enjoy being mystified, I enjoy being confused, I enjoy conflict, because then it needs to be resolved,” said Weiner.
On Joan and the Jaguar account: The Season 5 plot line where Joan sleeps with an account man so the company gets the Jaguar account and she gets a partnership was based on true stories of women being prostituted for the sake of the firm. When Weiner said, “the only thing untrue about that story was that I don’t think anyone ever got a partnership out of it,” you could hear a murmur throughout the crowd.
January Jones is funny: When Jones talked about her two chosen clips — one where Betty is hit on by Roger, and another where Betty confesses her “sadness” to her young neighbor, Glen Bishop (played by Weiner’s son, Marten Weiner) — she dropped some fairly hilarious asides. “I broke the chair alone, I shot the birds alone,” she said. Someone pointed out that the Draper kids saw Betty acting out. “Who cares about the kids?” she said, “They’re not going to remember it anyways.”
After the second clip, Weiner told a long story about how he told a young Marten that he “would regret” taking the chance to shoot a scene where Glen hugs Betty and puts his head on her chest. Jones’ laughing reply: “He is sorry. We’ll reshoot it. Creepy, right?”
Joan’s “bag over your head” speech from the pilot: “My intention when I was writing the pilot,” Weiner said, “was that she was channelling Helen Gurley Brown [Cosmopolitan’s editor-in-chief].” That speech was straight out of Brown’s book Sex and the Single Girl.
Maybe a slight spoiler: So this is just a gut feeling, but when Jon Hamm was talking about “The Suitcase,” he observed that “obviously it [the mutual respect between Peggy and Don] foreshadows the end of the episode,” and the way that he said the word episode, with a pause and a thought and an overemphasis, it almost seemed as if he was going to say “the end of the series.” This could be pure conjecture. But if Mad Men ends on Don and Peggy in some fashion, remember this moment. Otherwise: “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”
What we can expect from the last seven episodes: According to Weiner, he found the final season to have no time for digressions, homage or something like The Sopranos episode “Pine Barrens.” Rather, it was “much more focused on the four people on stage,” delving into the stories of Roger, Joan, Betty, and Don. Perhaps that’s the way it should be.