Don Draper is a man in changing times, and so is his creator, Matthew Weiner.
The “Mad Men” mastermind is part of the first wave of TV writers to have their shows scrutinized and interpreted from the moment they air. Weiner realized what a fascinating counter-world the internet can be when fans created intricate conspiracies last season around a relatively minor character, Bob Benson.
With the intense investment in a show comes a demand for instant gratification. Weiner recalls an underwhelmed initial reaction to the “carousel speech” now considered one of the show’s greatest moments. But he’ll take the bad with the good.
“I don’t really pay attention to it anymore, but there were people writing reviews of the show while they were watching it,” Weiner said. “How can you have any experience of what’s going on here if you’re talking while the characters are talking? But that all sounds super critical. All I can say, and I’m not pandering: What a great problem to have, if people are so into it that they’re reading into everything and they have their own theories.”
We talked to Weiner as the show prepares to enter its seventh and final season about how he watches TV, whether everything in “Mad Men” pays off, and why you can’t give people what they want.
TheWrap: With the mythology around Bob Benson last season, and the mythology around “True Detective” this year, are we over-analyzing our TV shows?
Matthew Weiner: Probably. I don’t know that that’s bad. I think the group conversation has never been possible before, and I applaud that. As someone in the entertainment business, having that kind of interaction with your audience is extremely exciting. But there’s a big difference between the way you feel about a piece of work that’s taken months, sometimes years to prepare — how you feel about it in the first 30 seconds after you’ve finished it… and how you feel about it in the context of an episode in a whole story. Even if you’re binge-watching. Those are two different things. And the noise that happens immediately afterwards is very different from the resonance of the work. Good or bad.
So if it gives people pleasure, I’m all for it. Any ancillary aspect of appreciating the show is a miracle to anyone who makes the show. … The interesting thing to me is that the good/bad critique, that scale immediately, is often a disappointment to the people who make the show. I’m not just talking about “Mad Men.” I mean any show. …But I do think it’s a product of the isolation that technology has brought into our lives. And anything that breaks through that, I applaud.
There are so many episodic criticisms along the lines of “Nothing happens this episode” and “This was so boring,” and then you realize it was setting something up. We don’t review novels a chapter at a time, but we do review TV shows an episode at a time.
People do review novels a chapter at a time. [Laughs.] And they can always put them down. To me, it’s always about plot. Plot to me is very important. I admire people who can do it. We try to do it here in an organic way. But plot is not the definition of entertainment. And that’s the thing that you kind of see people passing by the wayside. Often when something’s really successful, you can’t even put it into words. But I applaud the compulsion to talk about it. No one who is in my position is not grateful for that.
Do you see “Mad Men” as a show where everything has to pay off down the line, Chekhov’s-gun style?
No. Plot’s really important. We talk about it all the time. The shows have very, very intricate plots. They’re elaborately plotted. The season is elaborately plotted. It’s just that what happens to be defined by the audience as a significant event or a twist is up for debate.
I used to watch every “Sopranos” episode twice. First, with the tension of, “Is somebody going to get killed? Is there going to be some explosive violence? Is there something I need to be prepared for?” I’d be biting my nails with the constant tension of the way suspense worked on that show. And then I’d watch it again and realize what it was about. Once the story had been exposed, you could sort of see what it’s about. And one of the things that gets lost in the gut reaction that comes out in such a short period is what the show is about.
I can tell you right now that for whatever reason, the carousel speech at the end of the first season is considered to be sort of a benchmark for the show in terms of its success and evoking feelings for people, and a payoff to a 13-episode story. At the time, I would not say that the reaction was positive at all. The episode was greeted with, “Nothing happened,” “What the hell happened?” “Is he going home or not?” “So he missed Thanksgiving vacation.”
That’s what happened in the activity. But the plot was this man came to this realization that he was missing his life. And that is plot also. Character is plot.
There’s a predictability to the fact that people have no interest in what they just saw, and have this rosy recollection of what there was. So without fail, every season of “Mad Men” was the worst to come out, and the last one was so much better. And then you’re like, “Well, last season — I thought that was the worst one.”
I can’t get involved in that conversation. It’s hard enough for me to just tell the story here every day. All I can tell you is we don’t phone it in. There’s no filler. There are episodes that are digressions to the audience that are supposed to have some greater meaning sometimes. I’m always looking for meaning. And I don’t work from a thematic context. I work from a story context. Story is about what’s happening to the people, and then we look for the broader theme. I want every episode to be a complete story that you can watch without knowing what happened before. You do get more if you know what happened before.
… When I heard about this Bob Benson theory last year, I thought, Oh my God, they’re going to be so disappointed. Their version of it was so much more exciting that the reality that we were living in.
We wanted it to be good. I just didn’t know it would — it’s like Megan wearing that T-shirt. It’s flattering that there’s a whole parallel universe. I don’t look at it and say, “Why didn’t we think of it?” The show is definitely heightened reality, but it is closer to reality than a lot of shows are. That means not making the story too extreme. When something that’s big in our lives happens — like getting a divorce or losing your job — it feels catastrophic. But that is not the same as shooting someone or stealing a car or robbing a bank. If you’re outside of that world, people are always going to be sort of tough on the plot. To hear their imagination of how we would do that to this show was totally intimidating. [Laughs.]
And if you’d done what people wanted, they would have said it was ridiculous.
I get in trouble for saying this, but you cannot give people what they want. They hate it. Many people in every field of cinema, theater, everywhere, have tried to nail that down, and it always fails. The audience will not tell you what it wants. You have to think about what you want.
When you have an idea that everybody tells you is crazy, do you tend to follow it, or listen?
I have to say…I am proud of the fact that we do everything we think of here. I don’t look at the extremes. I’m not usually the person who has the most extreme idea. I might have the perverse idea. That sometimes is something that I have to sort of fight for. But I go with my gut. I don’t want to be sorry the next day. But the really extreme moves in the story are things that I have to be talked into, usually. Even if I thought of them, I might abandon them by the time I get there. And they’re like, “You said that Don was going to get fired by the end of the season,” and I’m like, “Okay. Well, we’re gonna do that. I don’t know, but we’re gonna do it.”
“Mad Men” returns April 13 on AMC. Here’s that carousel scene: