'Mad Men': Matthew Weiner Talks Midseason Finale, Music and Dream Sequences (Q&A)

Mad Men Inset Matt Weiner - H 2014
Courtesy of Justina Mintz/AMC/Matt Weiner

Mad Men Inset Matt Weiner - H 2014

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is in unfamiliar territory. In addition to the fact that the AMC drama just had its first-ever midseason finale -- the network split the seventh season in half -- Weiner is getting ready to film the series finale in just a few weeks.

Viewers won't get to see that that episode, or any new Mad Men, until 2015. And while the showrunner acknowledges that this might be a source of frustration for fans, he also assures them that he made every effort to pause on a satisfying note before the final stretch. (If you haven't yet seen the midseason finale, don't read any further.)

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"Waterloo" accomplished plenty of things. It put Don (Jon Hamm) back in a place of professional power. It ended his languishing relationship with wife Megan (Jessica Pare). And it served as something of a torch-passing to Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). But if the episode is remembered for just one development, it will almost certainly be the death of Bert Cooper (Robert Morse). The founding partner of SC&P and longtime fixture of the series died after watching Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. He was also resurrected in the final moments for a soft-shoe musical number ("The Best Thing sIn Life Are Free") seen only by Don.

Weiner, still writing the series finale, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter after Sunday's episode. In addition to talking about the decision to send out the Broadway icon with a song and dance, he also addressed Ginsberg (Ben Feldman)'s shocking exit in "The Runaways," what he wanted to do with Don during this small batch of episodes, and where his head is during these final days making the Emmy-winning drama.

How long have you been waiting to let Robert Morse sing?

I never thought it would happen, actually. I know who he is. I knew who he was when I hired him. It's part of why I hired him. We were really dodging it the first two seasons, in our fictional 1961 and 1962, because Robert was a gigantic star on Broadway at the time. He was part of the Kennedy White House, he was part of Camelot. Every time you would open up a magazine or a newspaper, there would be a picture of him there. That said, Bert Cooper does not sing and dance. When I realized that Cooper was going to die during the moon landing and I heard the song that I wanted to use for the episode, I thought, "Robert could do this." It could be in Don's imagination, and it could express, hopefully, to the audience in this moment of fantasy for Don that there are more important things in life. Someone's life is gone. The financial success is not everything.

His death reminded me of Miss Blankenship's and how he referred to her as an astronaut. 

It seemed like we wanted him to see the moon landing. The history is in the show for the writers and myself as a way to explore character. You always wonder how these things affect people's lives, and certainly the moon landing did, but we wanted it to be very personal. That statement about Ida Blankenship was to show lifespan. If Bert Cooper is 80 years old in 1969, he was born in 1889. That is someone living through a tremendous transformation,. You just want to remind people that we are on the moon 70 years after the turn of the century. It wasn't the stone age or anything, but it's something to talk about human life and how much achievement there's been. It's a positive thing to me, but not without irony.

You've used dream sequences and hallucinations relatively sparingly. What do you consider before going down that road?

I don't want to do it all the time, but it is the language of the show. It's as old as the flashback. The finale of the first season, after the "The Wheel" speech, Don comes home at the end of the episode and has this very elaborate fantasy that his family is still there, and they're not. And "The Hobo Code." Sometimes it's drug-induced and sometimes it's not. For me, I'm a person who frequently sees things that aren't there. I don't know if they're as elaborate as that, but I don't question the reality of the emotion. I feel like it's one of the things you're allowed to do within the fabric a show that's about people's internal states. And luckily film supports that. It's just another tool in the toolbox of filmmaking. It's like seeing things in slow motion through Peggy's eyes before that pitch to create anxiety. The whole show is made up. I'm not saying it's dumb, it's just not for everybody. Do people have dreams in real life? Yeah. The camera is an amazing way to represent that, because otherwise you'd just have another person sitting next to you telling you all of the weird things that happened in their dreams.

And it's not always used the same way.

It's like the LSD episode. When we did that, we didn't want the camera to be on LSD. We wanted it to approximate Roger [John Slattery]'s state. Those are the rules, if there are any rules. You don't want to pull anyone out of the show, and sometimes there's a meta element to it -- like the fact that it was Robert Morse, and he can dance and sing. He breaks character for that moment, but it's happening in Don's mind, and a big part of that sequence is the look on Don's face...on Jon's face. I hope people can see how deep the feelings were for the character and the person. Jon was watching Robert actually do that. A lot of the cast and crew showed up the day we did that because Bobby is beloved around here.

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How would you describe where Don is at going into the final episodes?

People asked about the challenge of the break, and what we really wanted to do was a whole season's worth of story in those seven episodes. Starting with Don and Peggy as far apart as possible in the premiere, and doing something we've never done before -- which is pick up eight weeks later, not a year or six months -- and see Don having the same problem. Seeing Don work his way up, that was the goal. They ended up selling the company, but Don discovered his work. Only on a show where everything goes wrong all the time, like this, do you get tension out of that. But you're surprised and worried about whether he can stick it out and not self-destruct, not drink his way out of it, embarrass everyone or be selfish. And we got to reunite him and Peggy...or at least repair their relationship. Both of them earned something new. Peggy earned her real confidence, because it wasn't given to her, and Don behaved with -- I wouldn't call it maturity -- integrity on a pretty large scale. That's where we wanted to leave him -- and of course a little bit of bittersweetness that life is more important than success.

Did you use anything you thought of holding for later?

No. I'm glad that it appears to have been satisfying to people, but this was the first half of the season, believe it or not. We wanted to get to this place. Hopefully when you look back at the other seasons, there's always this midpoint in the story. The interesting thing to me is that I feel like the people who like the show know that it's going to start on page one. This episode is not the thing you open a season with, or none of it's earned. Don is back to where he was, for better or for worse. One day, when people watch them all together, if they do that, hopefully they'll see that. But you've just got to take my word for it at this point.

It seems like everybody became very self-aware this season, with the exception of maybe Betty.

You'll have to see what happens with her. I can't speak to what the audience thinks, I can only speak to what we're trying to do, but I think Betty has grown a lot. We see her behave the way she behaves -- but that conversation with her and Henry where she disagrees with him in public, that's not about Betty being obnoxious. That's about the fact that a woman was not allowed to publicly disagree with her husband. And that's gratefully a relic of the past, though I know it still functions in many relationships. But I feel like Betty reached a frustration point that's almost political to me. She's tired of being told to shut up. That's gross, if you look at the woman who said to Helen Bishop, "I don't know who we're voting for."

Just to put any debate to rest, is there an official diagnosis for Ginsberg?

Yeah, he's a delusional schizophrenic. That's not a disease that's a cause and effect disease. I don't know how much we know about it, but there are triggers, and anyone who has been paying attention to the story can see that he's been wrestling with that. It also does appear sometimes in people who express creative abilities. His delusion is a disease, and it gets tied up into everything that is outside him. By the way, I'm not a doctor. That's all based on personal experience. Those are drawn from real life. If people find an inconsistency, they should consult the reality that we used.

Where are you with writing the last episode?

I'm in the office today finishing the series finale. I start directing episode 13, the second to last, next week. It's pretty heavy stuff. It's a big moment for all of us. We're trying to savor it. We're thinking about the beginning. There's so much to do that it kind of occupies you. As much as it's a frustration for the audience that it's been split into two seasons, it's a tremendous joy to us that we will finish this experience and not have to say goodbye until next spring.  

Email: Michael.OConnell@THR.com