Good news: “Mad Men” will be back soon. The series’ sixth season, its penultimate, will premiere in a little less than three months, with a two-hour episode on Sunday, April 7. With the premiere date in hand, series creator Matt Weiner got on the phone with us to talk about the new season — or rather, since Weiner detests spoilers, to talk around the new season. He spoke with us about his favorite images from last season, budgeting for the Beatles, those Hawaii spoilers, and writing the show with the end in sight.
I’m glad you feel that way. We’re getting ready to go. I’m writing Episode 8, and we’ve got a two-hour premiere. We’re very psyched to be in Season 6, I’m not going to lie. It’s an incredible concept that we’re still in this and still at it, and that it’s anticipated at all is very exciting for us.
I am honestly not really willing to talk about that at this point. It’s not because I don’t want it out there! All I can tell you is that I haven’t figured out a way to talk about this without giving it away. Seriously, it’s hard. This is not a teaser game, like how do I keep people interested. But I just want people to come to it and the thing on their mind is where the season ended last year, and what happened to these people last year, and the year, 1966, itself. Because I felt like there was a lot of coincidental or intuitive interaction with the real year we were living through when the show was on the air, because we’re in such anxious and changing times.
Yes. 1966 wasn’t one of the big banner years of the ‘60s, like ‘63 or ’68. People don’t really zero in on it, there’s not a lot written about it, people don’t know that much about 1966, but it was very much like last year. It wasn’t economically like last year, but it was socially like last year in the sense that there was a lot of anxiety and a sort of sense of social disorder and a sense of disenfranchisement and a separation between the big world events and the personal events. Maybe there always is, but I particularly thought that the juxtaposition of what really happened in the summer of ’66, between the riots, the Richard Speck murders and the Texas Tower shooting, that that sense of insecurity and random violence was almost born that year. I felt people getting a sense of it taking over the vibe of the show and those characters’ lives, and it was definitely part of our lives, and the last six months have not been that different.
Do you find it’s easier or more complicated to do a year like ’63 that we have a very strong collective memory of versus a more quiet year like ’66?
The first year of the show was 1960 and, really, the audience has become so much more educated about this period since it premiered. It’s hard to remember before the show, but there was a very different perception of what this period was like. I don’t think the show is people’s only source of information, but the first season of the show I had people asking me, educated people asking me, “Well, who wins the election?” They knew that Kennedy was the president and they that knew Nixon was the president but they weren’t sure what happened that year. I was like, “Well, if people look at Wikipedia, will they know the plot of the show?”
But people’s literal understanding of the time versus their memory of it or what’s been metabolized by the culture are so different that there’s always drama there. When I was doing the Cuban Missile Crisis, just trying to find an account of the Cuban Missile Crisis that was the way the public perceived it versus what was really going on, was hard. People living at that time didn’t know about Kennedy having all these conversations and didn’t know about the different strategies and didn’t know about the blockade really, even. It was 11 days for the president and seven for the public; things like that are what you’re always dealing with.
I find it interesting to hear the self-assurance people have about what actually happened and then to go back and look at what actually happened and see how incorrect they are. I remember when we did the JFK assassination, asking people, “What was Thanksgiving like that year?” And they were like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “It was the next week.” Most people did not remember that. It helps me reaffirm my own sense of history right now: I don’t know what’s important and what’s not. We don’t talk that much about politics except when things really get huge, and I love this idea of how current events, world events and social events are impacting our personal lives, because it’s really an interesting tug of war. And I’m not worried anymore about the public finding out that it takes place in a certain year and looking ahead and saying, “Are they going to do this?” That doesn’t bother me anymore. Once I dealt with the Kennedy assassination, I could really survive their perception of any event.
Are you still surprised about the intensity of the reactions to things that happen on the show, like Megan singing “Zou Bisou Bisou” or Joan’s accepting the indecent proposal?
I am pleasantly surprised. Not to quote Don or anything, but it sure is nice to create a conversation. My job is to entertain people and to tell a story that I think is true to the characters. When something becomes a point of conversation I feel like I’ve succeeded. One of the joys of the job is being in the writer’s room, and there’s no conversation about Joan’s activities that was not had in there, and so when I hear that conversation spill out into the street that’s amazing. And then there’s people’s projections about what the story means and it is often very personal. People will approach me with a take on a story that has nothing to do with what I was trying to say but has a lot to do with who they are, and as a writer that is — even if it’s incredibly negative — it’s a very exciting experience.
There’s an image from last season— in an interview you did with the Times you described it to as “The Avengers” image …
Yeah, I don’t think that “The Avengers” existed then. It was pre-”Avengers,” but it was a superhero pose for sure.
Are there any other images from the season that really stood out for you, that you really loved?
I am going to embarrass myself. I’m very proud of the show. I love the moment in the first episode when Megan’s out there on the balcony by herself. It’s her first scene alone and it kind of totally turns the audience over into her court. I love the Howard Johnson’s parking lot, when Don finds Megan’s sunglasses and you realize for a minute something horrible might have happened. There’s just this dread. It was just very evocative to me of the period. And then the scene with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Don listening to that song, and there’s a shot of all of them walking, Pete’s walking to his car, and you see all these people in their mid ‘60s, high-‘50s garb out there in the countryside, and you hear this song, and you realize they would be hearing this song and it would be so dissonant, so discordant. That was to me a little piece of time travel. I feel like the last 10 minutes of the season, that was the payoff to a lot of the imagery in the season, it really was: Don walking away from Megan on the set, and that whole montage there, visually and storytelling-wise that’s kind of my favorite moment. I really felt like it explained to people what was going on the whole season, which is kind of what you want the ending to do.
How much do you think about songs as you write? How far in advance have you picked them out?
It depends on the song. “You Only Live Twice” was something I almost used in the pilot, and then I decided I wanted to make the songs marry the era. It just sums up Don Draper’s life to me, and I didn’t know by the time we used it that it would sum up Peggy’s life and Roger’s life and everyone else’s. But we started the season saying “You Only Live Twice” is the last thing this season and this is what happens during it. “Zou Bisou Bisou,” I came in and I said Megan sings a song. And I found that and I brought it in and we just listened to it. I listened to it a bunch while I was writing. The emotions that I get from music are very strong, and if I can afford to get them in the show I will get them in the show. Believe me, I listened a lot to “Tomorrow Never Knows” while we were writing that episode — a lot.
If you can afford a Beatles song, I would think you could afford anything.
The money wasn’t the issue. I did a lot of financial planning to accommodate for that song. We used a lot less music in the rest of the season, which is hopefully not something people noticed. But I have a budget and that took up a chunk of it, but I felt like that was worth it.
How much are you thinking about the end of the series approaching?
The end seems very near. I started this season, Season 6, with the idea, all that there is is Season 7 left. So there were certain things that I was talking about in terms of this season, and I was like I’m going to save that, I’m going to put that into Season 7, it’s not time for that yet. And at a certain point [writers] Maria and Andre [Jacquemetton] said to me, “Why are you doing this differently than you did it before?” And they were right. I am incapable of really holding back on story. So despite my inclination and my terrors about it ending and having nothing left, I decided to use everything I have this season that I have right now. It’s worked for the show before. I never used to know if I had another season, so I would always put in everything that I had. There is an intricacy to the stories that we tell and they’re on a human scale, so the idea of having less is just … I think it would be boring.
Emotionally, I am extremely aware that the end is coming. And there’s been a benefit from that. It has bolstered my fatigue, it’s encouraged me to not repeat myself. All of the creative people here, the cast, the crew, everybody has a different energy coming back. Like, wow, now everybody has gotten to reap some of the benefits of this experience, and if we cannot enjoy it now, there’s no point in doing this.
A couple of months ago, pictures from shooting leaked. Do you feel more zen about those sort of spoilers than you used to, or does it still make you crazy?
Yeah, the Hawaii thing, which I will officially neither confirm nor deny. It still bothers me. I knew that was going to be a tough thing to keep secret. And I was prepared for that to get out. I didn’t like it. It may make me old-fashioned, but I love the idea of someone sitting in their living room and not knowing anything, not even the guest star, and the writers and directors and actors controlling the audience’s experience the first time that they see it. I understand people’s attachment to these characters and this show, and that gives me a lot of pleasure. Their curiosity and anticipation is something that you pray for. But I do want to tell them the story in the order that I want to tell it to them in, so it’s still frustrating, yeah, embarrassing but true. But I am very excited for them to see the show again. We’re getting to the point where we want to get it out there already.