Matthew Weiner opens up about "Mad Men" finale: "I did think, why not end this show with the greatest commercial ever made?"

The visionary showrunner spoke about his idea for the finale in a talk at the New York Public Library

Published May 21, 2015 2:28PM (EDT)

Jon Hamm in "Mad Men"           (AMC/Justina Mintz)
Jon Hamm in "Mad Men" (AMC/Justina Mintz)

Last night, Matthew Weiner spoke with novelist A.M. Homes at the New York Public Library, in what he has suggested would be his last public remarks on the subject for a long time. While he touched on the controversial ending, the conversation was more abstract and meandering than some would have liked, focusing more on Weiner's cultural influences (John Cheever, "The Fugitive") than on the tangible matter of the finale itself.

While Weiner did seem to imply that Don created the iconic coke ad that caps off the series, he was also predictably vague about the whole thing. "I have always been able to live with ambiguities. I don't really understand a lot of things that regular people understand, that's part of it. So holding those things in my head... 'Well, which is it?' Why does it have to be one or the other?” he explained." In the abstract, I did think, why not end this show with the greatest commercial ever made? In terms of what it means to people and everything, I am not ambiguity for ambiguity's sake. But it was nice to have your cake and eat it too, in terms of what is advertising, who is Don and what is that thing?”

Here’s five other points of interest:

1. It bothers Weiner that people have been reading the coke ad as a cynical ending.
While some perceived the ending as dark — in its intimation that Don’s breakdown leads to nothing more than finding a better way to shill sugary drinks — Weiner doesn’t approve of that reading. As he put it: "I did hear rumblings of people talking about the ad being corny. It's a little bit disturbing to me, that cynicism. I'm not saying advertising's not corny, but I'm saying that the people who find that ad corny, they're probably experiencing a lot of life that way, and they're missing out on something. Five years before that, black people and white people couldn't even be in an ad together! And the idea that someone in an enlightened state might have created something that's very pure — yeah, there's soda in there with a good feeling, but that ad to me is the best ad ever made, and it comes from a very good place... I felt that that ad in particular was so much of its time, so beautiful, and I don't think it's as villainous as the snark of today thinks it is. I did think, in the abstract, 'Why not end the show with the greatest commercial ever made?’"

2. Leonard was "probably the most important role in the series.”
Weiner explained how depression wasn’t part of the cultural vocabulary back in Don’s time, and men had very few ways to express their feelings. For the part of Leonard, ultimately played by Evan Arnold, Weiner said “he needed someone who's not famous and can cry, and really do it... We believe it right away that he's invisible.” In Weiner's view, the character summed up a general feeling of alienation among the men of the time: “Even if they're not veterans, the alienation that was created by success, political racial tension, the technology — which is I think what's happening right now — the isolation, these guys, they're gonna crack ... I don't think there's enough empathy right now in the world," he said.

Weiner also described the hug between Don and Leonard as a surrogate for Don embracing the viewer. “I hope the audience would feel either that he was embracing a part of himself, or maybe them, and that they were heard," he continued. "I don't want to put it into words more than that... I liked the idea where he'd come to this place, and it'd be about other people and a moment of recognition. I don't think I can put it into words, but I knew.”

3. A lot can be explained by Don’s love of strangers
At the end of the series, Weiner finally realized that Don loves strangers — it’s partly why he’s so good at advertising. As he put it, “I didn't realize until the end that Don likes strangers. He likes seducing strangers, which is just like advertising... You're gonna walk down the side of the road, and now we know each other. And once he gets to know you, he doesn't like you. It's gonna turn once they feel exposed. That's why he picked Megan over Faye. He just tells Peggy, just move forward — that's his philosophy in life.”

He also said he decided to have Don go off on his own at the end because he was inspired by the sixties show "The Fugitive." ”I thought, I want to see Don on his own,” he said. “I want to do an episode of ‘The Fugitive’ where Don comes into town and can be anyone: That netherworld of being on the run.”

4. Joan wasn’t always supposed to be a main character
Weiner said it was Joan who surprised him the most over the course of the show; in fact, she wasn’t even supposed to be a main character until he met Christina Hendricks. He also originally though the character was going to have an abortion, but writer Maria Jacquemetton convinced him that Joan should keep Roger's baby. As he put it, “I definitely didn't think Joan would end up this single-mom feminist, looking for childcare. I love the fact that it's not philosophical for her. I'm not demeaning the philosophy of feminism, I'm just saying this woman made a practical decision not to take any shit anymore... She biologically loves work."

5. He had to be talked into Steggy, but he always knew Betty would bite the dust
"I didn't know Peggy and Stan would end up together — that had to be proved to me," confessed Weiner, although he said he had the idea for Betty’s demise quite early on. "People die of cancer in the US. It's up there. I knew very early on. Her mother had just died in the pilot, and I knew this woman wasn't going to live long, and we love the idea of her realizing her purpose in life right when she ran out of time,” he explained. “I think there's a lesson to be learned about the randomness of things, and also she has some predisposition and some fairly seriously cancer-causing behavior.”

Watch the full livestream below:

By Anna Silman

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