Mad Men's Creator: Don Draper Represents American Society

A conversation with Matthew Weiner about anti-heroes, why everybody loves Joan, and the real-life drama that inspires the hit AMC show
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Chris Pizzello / AP

In preparation for her story “The Madness of Matthew Weinerin the April issue of The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin sat down with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner to talk about his vision for the show as it enters its final season. Weiner, 48, previously worked as a writer on The Sopranos.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


I’ve been reading a lot of your interviews lately, and I came across a phrase that someone used—“architect of silences”—to describe how you keep audiences guessing about things.

I try to communicate as clearly as possible.

Really? You’re not leaving clues or hints for people to obsessively put together?

Well, there is a thematic unity to each episode, whether people perceive it or not. Viewers just don’t always know what the theme is. What I’m trying to do, and what people get out of it, is something that I have no control over. That was a great learning experience for me, and has been a lot of pleasure. I think those moments of silence are filled with the depth of human experience: In a conversation, you don’t know what the person is going to say next. Most of us don’t, in dramatic situations.

And I also feel like the characters are so eloquent that no one could absorb what’s being said if they just spoke quickly, like rat-tat-tat. What usually happens when dramatists have people speak like that—rat-tat-tat—is they have to repeat things again and again. “He’s where?” “He’s there.” “He’s where?” “He’s there. What did I say?”

I’m trying to think of an example.

Bertram Cooper says to Don, “When you reach the age of 40, you realize you have met almost every kind of person that there is. And I know what kind of person you are.” There are two huge thoughts in there. One of them is an observation about human nature that I think is kind of profound. And then there’s “I know what kind of person you are.” We know more about Don, we think, than Cooper does. So Don has to sit there and he can’t just answer that. He has to be like, What am I supposed to say? Am I getting fired, am I getting complimented, am I getting punished?

And Rachel Menken and Don, in the pilot, was one of the first places where I put the silence in there for the exact opposite reason. It’s so the audience can say, did he really just say, “I am not going to let a woman talk to me like that”? Which is one of the first lines I had in the idea of Mad Men.

So it is intentional, but it’s the opposite intention of what we might have guessed.

Honestly, the intentional part of it is all from the gut. It feels very normal to me. It’s very close to the way I experience the world.

I know you‘ve talked about things you’ve taken from memories of your parents, like the Carousel, or the hot-dog shop, or Christmas parties. Are there any other places or events you’ve experienced that way?

All the time. I was at an awards show when I was working on The Sopranos, and someone who was drunk stood up and started talking to the host. The person on the dais. In a very intimate conversation. And it was an embarrassing public moment that everyone experienced.

There were a lot of writers there, and I don’t know who else’s show it ended up in. But I turned that into Duck Phillips at the Clios, because it was so dramatic. Things happen in real life all the time that are so dramatic. Somebody walks into work in the morning, sits down at the table, and 25 minutes into work you find out that their car has been destroyed. And they’ve been sitting there and listening to us talk about, ironically, how bad the traffic was and what a bunch of idiots there are on the road.

So it’s more the way the emotion is absorbed in those moments—it’s not that you literally think of copying the incident.

I copy the incident if I have to. I actually copy it as much as I can afford to copy it, production-wise. All the time, people say truth is stranger than fiction, or whatever the clichés are. I think all the great moments in the movies and the books that I love are very well observed moments that someone has witnessed.

Sometimes you do create them. I put people in situations for irony and things like that, and of course it’s crafted and manipulated in huge ways, with the help of many people’s lives. Someone tells you a story; they don’t even know what’s important about the story.

For example: We did a research call once on The Sopranos, and there were five writers in there. We all had yellow legal pads, and there was a writer’s assistant in there taking notes. At the end of a two-and-a-half-hour phone call, someone said, “I loved that thing about the wallet biopsy.” The writer’s assistant hadn’t even written it down, but the five writers in there who each had, like, two notes from the two-hour phone call had all written down “wallet biopsy.” Because that was the juiciest, strangest thing in there.

What is a wallet biopsy?

A wallet biopsy was a joke, and it ended up in the show! It’s when you show up at the hospital in an emergency situation and they go through your wallet to see if you have insurance. [Laughs] We didn’t know who was going to say that, but we were like, “We have to get that in somebody’s mouth.”

Is it your particular experience of reality—of time and how things move and how emotions are absorbed—that goes into the show, or is it universal?

I don’t do the Hollywood reaffirmation under moral circumstance—where someone kidnaps your child and injures them, so you have the right to shoot them. It’s very satisfying to see that person caught and shot by the parent in a story. But in our life, we believe in the law, and we say, “You can’t shoot him! What about the trial?” and “Maybe it wasn’t him.” We cling to the law; we made an agreement. Sometimes people don’t want to hear it, but I try to live in what I think is the emotional truth. I am always looking for that.

Meaning that it doesn’t necessarily have a satisfactory or a tidy narrative conclusion, but it might feel more emotionally true?

Right. The good guys don’t always win; bad people have reasons for why they do things. If you spend a few hours in the shoes of the bad person, you might do the same thing. Someone gives you the wrong change and you’re in your car already; do you drive back and give the change back? Probably not. But most people, when asked, would say, “Of course.” And “How dare that character do that.” I don’t like that in my entertainment, people who behave that way.

Although in this last season of Mad Men, there was a lot of sin. People got punished for sexual license, like the sexual revolution never quite worked out—there was an air of Catholic teaching that hovered.

I’m not Catholic, but I did grow up after the AIDS crisis, so I have my own concept of how that ended. Sexual liberation is a concept that you have to grow up in. I think there are people who can handle it, and people who can’t handle it, but it was a revolution. You can’t act like it wasn’t in opposition to the way of behavior that is established. And I didn’t feel like I was judging it. I have always felt that it’s more like, What’s it like to see it happen?

But Joan sitting on the couch is the image that sticks with me—her face when she’s in the bar, and she’s sitting on the couch, and someone is hitting on her. She has this look of, There is no pleasure here. This is something that is happening and I am not experiencing it the way I should be.

Part of the whole show is that there is no sexual revolution. But a young guy hitting on Joan is not a novelty, and I think what I was trying to say is, she wasn’t in the mood. That’s what that was for me.

So I’m always trying to ask, What was it like to be an adult and have this thing happen? That was the original intention of the show. And the first premise is, nothing new is happening. The second premise is: Oh my God, I don’t like this. And the last premise is, I have to go on, and this is the way it’s going to be, and it can’t be undone—so am I going to join it? Like Roger? Am I that kind of personality, where I’m like, bring me whatever’s coming?

The weirdest thing about all of this is that I do have something to say and I say it in the show, but I really try very deeply to not judge people that I am writing about. And that means characters don’t help each other through scenes. Everybody has a point of view. And the show captures a lot of private moments. That behavior, it’s real.

Most of the discussion last season among the critics was about Don: Had he congealed into some stiff kind of hero, or was this an evolution in the show? What was your interaction with the question of “What on Earth is happening to Don?”

More than ever in the show, I felt like the events of 1968 could not be denied from personal experience. Before that, plenty of people are just living their lives and just ignoring a lot of things throughout the sixties. And by the time 1968 comes, an international revolution is going on. There is chaos. And my take was, People think Don is going to just retract. But actually, society is in the same state that Don is in.

The revolution is defeated in 1968: There is cultural change, but the tanks roll into Prague, the students go back to school, Bobby Kennedy comes out with an extremely radical agenda right before he is murdered. You do not hear a politician speaking this way before or after, running in a real party. I mean, maybe “Yes we can,” but that’s still not the same kind of rhetoric. Martin Luther King, Jr. being murdered was so shameful to white people—no one was wondering who did it, or how it happened. Rather, they were waiting for it, and then there it was, and they were part of it in some way.

So Don is back where he was in the pilot: He is in a marriage with someone who loves him, it is one-sided, and he is seeking comfort from this other woman. Why is he doing this? Because he is in a state of chaos. Part of it could be because he is afraid of dying; part of it could be that he cannot believe that he can be loved. Love is at the bottom of this whole thing; it is the constant rhetoric of the sixties.

What you’re watching with Don is a representation, to me, of American society. He is steeped in sin, haunted by his past, raised by animals, and there is a chance to revolt. And he cannot stop himself.

What would revolt look like for him?

Improvement. “Why am I doing this again?”

So he couldn’t improve the same way the nation couldn’t improve?

That’s right. I’m pushing a lot of things together, but that was the impetus. This past season, there was an episode Sylvia is rejecting him, which turns into an obsession for him. And he is out of power at work. He has alcohol issues. He is an impulsive person: He married Megan impulsively, and he made this merger impulsively. Now, he’s always dealing with his powerlessness, which I think is also a big part of 1968.

The era of the antihero: Do you think it’s done? Or is that just the way that great television gets made?

This is a very, very confusing issue for me, because I don’t see Don as an antihero. I think of an antihero—

Is Tony Soprano an antihero?

Yeah. I mean, part of it is you have to murder. So Don is like an everyman to me.

So it’s not about being dark, it’s about being bad.

Give me an example of something where the hero is not dark. The hero is an antihero. If the hero is squeaky clean and perfect, you’re going to be interested in the villain.

You know what’s pushing us in that direction on Mad Men? Ted Chaough. I think the existence of Ted, as a kind of “new American man,” is creating a kind of contrast. There are the “dinosaurs,” who fail to realize their dinosaur-ness, then there’s this new set of characters who seem like they’re the future. They’re doing something right; they’re productive; they’re moving forward.

That’s exactly what it is. When I started this last season, and I thought about 1968, somehow I stumbled upon A Tale of Two Cities again. I thought, “Why is Charles Dickens writing this book 60 years after the French Revolution?” Because everything was sort of back to normal; there were flowers growing where the guillotine had once been. He was obsessed with the French Revolution, and it was a period piece for him.

But what was really interesting is that whenever you have identical twins in a story, you have two halves of the same person. And the great moment of those two characters—the good guy and the bad guy, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay—but Sydney Carton looks in the mirror and says, “This man looks like me? I hate this man.” They have the same face, and one of them is virtuous and fighting for something, and the other one is a dirty lawyer who’s just wasting his own life. In the end, he makes a personal sacrifice, but he is at odds with himself, with the desire to do good. He is in love with this woman that he’s going to have to give up for the good guy. Ultimately, he dies for him. We actually used the title on one of the episodes.

Ted, to me, was the best parts of Don. The man who chose his wife over his mistress. The man who expects to go into a partnership with Don, not realizing that he is immediately in an antagonistic situation. Why was that threatening to Don? Why did he hate Ted so much? That’s what Ted is there for.

I don’t know if Ted is as great an ad man as Don is, and he certainly has a lot of character flaws—we met him a few years ago as this total trickster, a thorn in Don’s side. But what I liked was Don going up against this guy and trying to destroy him. Because he hated his virtue. And who does that, except for someone who hates himself?

Ted has this quality of taking his own temperature constantly, which feels kind of—

Modern?

Modern. His conversations with his wife are almost Modern Family. The way she talks to him—it’s not like any other couple that we see in the show.

Trudy and Pete used to talk to each other that way. But you don’t see that a lot in the show, because no one really has a good marriage; the men are completely dominant.

But the way Ted and his wife are isn’t modern—it’s just better. I always cite this thing I read in Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith [who founded the Latter-Day Saint movement in the early 19th century]. Joseph Smith reveals that he’s had the revelation about having multiple wives to someone in the church. And the guy says, “Why don’t you just tell [your wife] about this?” She had been financing the church and was his greatest champion, and he had been somewhat of a womanizer. All he says is, “You obviously don’t know my wife very well.” I thought that conversation could’ve happened yesterday.

Ted’s wife says to him, “Your best friend died because he was at the office all the time. And I know you like being with that young woman at work more than me.” And to me, her forthrightness in their relationship was this great reveal about Ted. Ted’s the guy who came to the hospital the night Pete had his baby and tried to woo him. He is an ad man. But his wife was always a big part of it.

What I liked about Ted, and I think what Peggy liked about Ted, was that he was actually more secure than Don. When Frank Gleason says, “I have cancer, you’re gonna have to buy me out,” Ted doesn’t say what everyone else says on the show. He doesn’t say, “How much money is it going to cost?” He says, “You’re dying?!” That was, to me, a big character moment. It makes him slightly better than some of the people in the show.

Let’s talk about Bob Benson.

Bob Benson is Don. You can’t get it any other way. He’s got other secrets. I mean, I am fascinated with business success. I constantly feel like there’s so much forensics.

And Pete learns something over the course of the season, to me. Pete realized that he was not gonna beat this person.

So as we move into the final season of the show, what is it we want an answer to? Is there something we’re getting an explanation for, like Peggy sitting at the desk?

You’re waiting to get an answer to “What was the whole journey about?”

Whose journey?

Everybody’s. I can’t really tell it without spoiling it. But I can say one thing: Don had something great happen to him at the end of last season, and a lot of stuff that was terrible.

The great thing being that he finally showed his children the truth?

Finally telling the people who needed to be told who he was. In that episode with Grandma Ida, Sally says to him, “I don’t know anything about you,” then the only thing she learns is that he is having an affair with the neighbor. Megan’s not her mom, but it’s terrible. Forget about just seeing your parents having sex. It’s so shameful, it’s literally the worst thing that’s happened to Don. Sally is irreparably changed by that. And the idea that he owes it to her, and to Bobby, who also doesn’t know anything about him—to finally break this cycle of his identity.

And I guess there’s this idea that people are waiting for Sally to rebel and go nuts. I’m not going to say what’s going to happen, but oldest children, especially females, with parents like Don and Betty—more even like Don, who are alcoholics—they’re perfectionists. That’s not really how you build a criminal. That’s how you build a senator.

Why are they perfectionists?

I think there’s a responsibility, I think there’s a lack of control. I think there’s the wanting to behave properly.

Who do people hate the most on the show?

People are very, very hard on Betty. I think it’s because she behaves that way, and she’s beautiful. There are lots of factors. Don cheated on her for years, and people hated her. I never understood that.

And people hate Pete a lot of times. I know that as the experience of looking in the mirror. You can go to the supermarket and see 90 percent of the people in line at the cash register do something Pete Campbell-like before they leave the store. Pete has his virtues, but they’re very hard on him. They really feel superior to him. And it’s amusing to me, because they’re not.

Who do people love?

People love Peggy. People love Joan. They love Joan’s strength. They love Joan’s sexuality. And women love Joan. Joan is womanly in a way that they want to be womanly. And it was peculiar to me because I was like, “I think that’s what men want also, so I don’t know why it was such a revolutionary concept.”

And Peggy—Peggy is living Don’s myth. She’s creating herself out in the open. And whether it was denying her pregnancy or sleeping with a series of terrible choices, she’s very truthful and I think they like that. Peggy’s doing stuff on her own terms.

And they love Don.

Who? Everyone? Really?

They can’t help themselves. Especially last season. They see the show through his eyes. He doesn’t mystify them very much.

I think that there are certain aspects of adult sexuality that are dividers. After that episode where he essentially plays a sadomasochistic game with Sylvia, I was surprised to hear certain people be like, “What’s going on? He’s, like, so abusive and stuff.” And I said, “No, they’re playing a game that adults play.”

And it’s very hard for them when he loses his confidence. That’s when they really turn on him.

That’s what I felt like happened this season. They could tolerate his wickedness if he was alpha. But if he cried, or lost his bearings—

He’s cried before. He lost his bearings in the Carousel scene at the end of the first season. That’s the most famous moment in the show. He was filled with regret and weeping over something very, very un-masculine. He ran to Rachel Menken and said, “Let’s run away,” and could not have been weaker.

But that’s not the way he lost his bearings in the finale, when he was at the pitch meeting.

I think people love that, actually, and I think they were shocked at it.

I am always writing about the period we’re in, and sometimes I’m telling people things they don’t want to hear. Some people have an insatiable need for violent retribution and dismembered body parts and talk about powerlessness. The economy, the Internet—all these things are isolating us and making us feel defeated. Our national culture feels defeated, our exceptionalism. To see Don lose his confidence was hard for them: They want to be in a world where even if crime doesn’t pay, you go down shooting. Instant justice, and cops shoot people before they get due process—like Breaking Bad. That’s the beauty of, and the satisfaction of, that show. It was a great piece of timing. Walter White won the way they wanted him to. He made himself not a bad guy by killing all the really bad guys and providing for his family.

That, I’m not in that part of the business. 

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Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of the book The End of Men based on her story in the July/August 2010 Atlantic.

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