'Mad Men' Creator Matthew Weiner Teases Season 5

Showrunners Matthew Weiner Headshot

Personal responsibility has never been a strength of many of the Mad Men characters, but when Season 5 begins on March 25, series creator Matthew Weiner promises that each of them will have to deal with a changing world on their own -- a task that might be more difficult than any of them had imagined.

“And the other thing is -- and it really just kept coming up and it’s actually in the show -- I’ve never talked about this before, where the line is in the show in episode three and it’s ‘When is everything going to get back to normal?’”

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After being off the air since October 2010 -- and missing the awards season in the process -- fans will at least have a sense of normalcy when it finally returns. But since the undercurrent -- or B storyline -- to every season of Mad Men has been the changing world outside the walls of the agency, there might be more emphasis on how societal and political changes affect the lives of the characters in dramatic new ways.

Of course, Weiner, famous for protecting even minor plot points, wouldn’t reveal what year Season 5 is set in, but he didn’t see that as overly important.

“The year doesn’t really mean anything,” Weiner said. “It doesn’t. I’m not doing a history lesson. The thing that I’m excited about is I wanted to give people a big helping. I wanted a two-hour premiere. It’s a Mad Men movie -- I don’t think anyone’s going to think it’s two episodes spliced together. There is a story that starts in the middle of it [but otherwise] it’s one story. The beginning and the ending are related to each other.”

Weiner, who was at AMC’s Mad Men cocktail reception on Saturday night (along with the cast) held court for the first time in ages. Later in the evening I was able to pull him aside with another critic and talk in-depth about the show and the pressure surrounding it as it enters its fifth season.

Weiner on a central theme this season: “We talked about 'life isn’t fair' before on the show, but the realization of, like, you really have to deal with your own problems by yourself and other people are not interested -- that self-interest can be a surprise, especially if you’re trying to be good.”

Is that the new normal? “Yeah. And I feel like that’s the way it is right now. That’s what I feel we’re undergoing -- such tremendous change. Technological, cultural, social, our perception of ourselves as a country, our perception of each other. The country really feels like a melting pot, like it’s culturally diverse as ever and representative. And at the same time I personally -- I don’t know what period I’m looking to -- but I don’t feel like my feet are on the ground. And what you realize is, this is the way it is.”

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“What I mean is that we have a show that’s about people’s personal lives and about people’s jobs. And obviously the office is a big part of it and we take it very seriously -- these are ambitious people. But there is a certain point where you have to start thinking for yourself and a lot of behavior that you would judge as very negative or destructive or whatever, that is the only way to achieve what you want. If you sit and wait there for someone to give you everything in life there is a very good chance you won’t get it. And that can be an earth-shattering thing about understanding the world. And you take someone like Don, who we know is trying to be a better person. That’s part of what [the audience] likes about him. They see that there is virtue in this man from the pilot. The fact that he’s talking to that busboy -- he’s an African-American man in his 50s -- and immediately he cuts through everything to see that, well, this is a human being’s opinion. You see someone there who’s got a virtue in their trust of other people and is a bit of a chameleon and curious and open and all of these things we’ve talked about. But Don’s maneuver at the end of last season was really, really selfish and he may have saved the business, but that’s what I’m talking about. It’s like, how long does it take to learn that lesson? And that’s a big part of the season.”

Now that the season is wrapped, who suffers the most from the coming changes?: “I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you that if you keep it on your mind then it is constantly there. I am a composer who is writing for an incredible orchestra and it’s not premeditated, but there are seasons where there has been a lot of Betty, there are seasons where … there is always going to be a lot of Don. But I have gotten to really feel like even with this huge cast of characters that I fought to keep in the world, it’s like I don’t want that world to get any smaller. You know, Christina had an amazing season. Vinnie had an amazing season. They always do. Lizzie. It’s all over the place.”

Critic: You set up some stories at the end of last season where Don marries Meagan…

Matt: Don does not marry Megan.

Critic: No, no. Don gets engaged to Megan.

Matt: Don proposes to Meagan. And Megan accepts.

Critic: It’s been a while. That’s part of what I’m getting at. Joan is pregnant…

Matt: Catch up!

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Matt: I have to tell you, I more than anyone know that a lot of pleasure in the show is the accumulation of details and we talked about that, but I do think that last season’s finale was kind of the most cliff-hanger-y we’ve done because it was such an abrupt shift and it was really like we’ve just got to Don and all of the sudden we’re on the outside again. Some people felt betrayed in a way I think…They thought the story was honest but they thought “Oh, he almost made it.” But considering all the drama of not being on the air for the past year, I’m glad that it was that kind of episode and we left them there. How are they going to catch up? I think more people see the show on Netflix than have ever seen the show before. At least that’s my personal experience is people are really watching it.”

Critic: I imagine you had certain ideas about where these stories were going to go when you did that finale. Did that change given the amount of time there was?

Matt: I’m going to terrify everybody here. I never have an idea when that finale is over. I really don’t. I mean, I wanted to stay within that reality but I think that the audience deserves to not have the same thing happening like this for five years (makes motion of keeping a straight line). I literally try and shake it up and dump out the milkshake and rinse out the glass and start over. And whatever happens in between and whatever happens in my life, and certainly success is something that is now everyone on the show feels this responsibility to the audience, so you get extra pressure to please. And I am a showman and I am an entertainer so I want to please that way. But all that said, I look at it like: OK, so everyone is “Oh, my God you have to raise the bar! How are you going to top next year?”  They really loved it. And I love hearing that. But part of that makes me vomit because I can’t think that way. You like chocolate ice cream? I can’t make RICHER chocolate ice cream. I’m going to make orange sherbet this year. And if you don’t like it, you don’t like chocolate ice cream. It’s still ice cream.”

So how much pressure is on you for Season 5? “Pressure? Now we are the old show. We’ve been on the air longer than anyone being nominated. I still want my special excuse of, ‘We’re new and you don’t understand us!’ I think we’re an underdog. We’re always going to be an underdog. The show is very specific and it’s very peculiar.”

But since you’ve been gone it’s a more crowded field with more really good shows: “Yes, there’s more pressure than ever.”

At that point, Charlie Collier from AMC came over to say hi and I joked that we were talking about having a Walking Dead zombie crossover on Mad Men.

Weiner: “No one was more of a zombie than Don last year.”

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com