'Mad Men' Vet Jared Harris Channels Classic Episodes for Directorial Debut

"I don't think it's going to be a Hallmark card ending," he says of the upcoming finale. 
"Absolutely not."
Justina Mintz/AMC
'Mad Men'

[Warning: Spoilers ahead from Sunday's episode of Mad Men, "Time & Life."]

Any viewers overly concerned with Mad Men's recent surge of guest stars and steady movement during these final episodes could not accuse Sunday's episode of being uneventful. "Time & Life" seemed to seal the fate of Sterling Cooper after seven seasons and the ad agency's many iterations.

The brass at McCann Erickson surreptitiously absorb the agency after having acquired a majority stake during the first half of the season. The office, the Sterling Cooper moniker and much of the staff won't stick around for the change. And while the partners attempted to avoid this fate, like they've successfully done so many times before, this time they failed.

Former castmember Jared Harris, last seen swinging from a makeshift noose during the fifth season, returned to direct the episode. And earlier Monday morning he spoke with The Hollywood Reporter, about the many times Sterling Cooper has successfully tried to cheat death in the past, his bargain with creator Matthew Weiner after being killed off, and how he anticipates the series will end in just a few weeks.

You got a pretty eventful episode.

It was definitely a strong episode in terms of so much happening in it.

What was the conversation like that brought you back to direct?

Part of it was Matt. When he told me he was letting Lane Pryce go, he said he felt some regret about that and expressed a desire to work together again. I had been feeling it for a while, so I said, "How about letting me direct?" I directed stuff at Duke University, I feel like I understand it from the acting side, and from the technical side it's been on for seven years. Everybody knows what it is. You don't come in on a show like this and reinvent the wheel. There are 10,000 questions that a director has to answer before shooting starts and, on Mad Men, 9,000 of them have been answered already. I felt that I could handle it.

How did you prepare for those other 1,000 questions?

I've been watching it very closely since I left the show. This hit me when I was shadowing Mike Uppendahl when he was directing the season six episode "The Crash." There is a tremendous amount of work, forethought, preparation and deliberation that goes into every single detail that appears or even could appear on screen. In that episode last night, there's a scene in the middle of the night where Don [Jon Hamm] and Ted [Kevin Rahm] are preparing for the pitch to McCann. Ted is working on the boards that you'll see in the office. There was a discussion about the typeface and every single detail, nothing is taken for granted. People know that Matt cares about everything, so they care about everything and present really good choices for him.

Actors have so much downtime, but I imagine you didn't have much opportunity to hang out with your old co-workers.

Absolutely. And on the breaks when they're setting up lighting, you're figuring out what your shooting time is and going over notes to make sure you're getting everything you need. I found that so exciting. It's addictive. You're right in the heart of the process for the entire time that you're there. Exhilarating but exhausting.

Did you have a favorite shot or image in the episode?

I didn't have a favorite, but I'm always deeply impressed by the collaboration between [production designer] Dan Bishop and [costume designer] Janie Bryant in terms of their awareness of what the set is going to look like and how she complements that with what the people wear. It's incredibly thought-out, and it's beautiful. Is there any shot in particular? It's fun on Mad Men when you get a legitimate excuse to move a camera. There were some scenes where we could utilize that motion and the sense of momentum; it was useful for this episode. There was that feeling that these guys had hatched this plan and they're going to grab control of their destiny.

Which they ended up failing to do …

The audience's knowledge of those times it has happened before was an important callback to those episodes where they pulled it off before. It's a deliberate callback to "Shut the Door, Have a Seat." They'd successfully done this several times before. They get into the office with McCann Erickson, where they're basically handed everything they've ever dreamt of. And the one thing that could put the hole in their plan is that they get everything they want. They've died and gone to advertising heaven, which they've been resisting for so long. McCann has been after Don Draper for a long, long time. That was an important element. It was part of what you could rely on, that familiarity, so that scene comes as a shock.

It's bittersweet, because it is still good news for many of them.

I had the opportunity to read the last three scripts, but I chose not to. I wanted to watch the last ones like I've watched it for the last two years. Not knowing anything about the content of what's to come, I do think the touchstone that Matt always comes to is that he wants it to be authentic to the human experience. I don't know what happens vis-à-vis Don, but I know that he's known for a while. No one gets what they want without it coming at a price. And that seems to be true if you look at the events that have come throughout the last seven years. People think they know what they want, and they get something else. Or they get what they want, and it isn't how they thought it would be. I don't think it's going to be a Hallmark card ending, absolutely not.