Jon Hamm's Don Draper has never been an easy man to like, much less love — and Mad Men's previous season saw him burning nearly every bridge in his life, with his partners, his wife, even his daughter. But with just 14 episodes left to find Don's (un)happy ending, notoriously evasive creator/showrunner Matthew Weiner sat down with us in his spacious, well-appointed Los Angeles office to discuss the future of Sterling Cooper & Partners, the pressure of writing the finale — and the possibility of a spinoff.
TV Guide Magazine: What can you reveal about the new season?
Weiner: We know that Don had that catastrophic confession at work, and then hopefully had a more healing confession to his family; that Peggy and Ted have split; that Pete and Ted are going to Los Angeles; [Sterling Cooper & Partners] are going to hire someone to replace Don; and Don has been put on leave, whatever that means. And that's where the story picks up.
I think it's always hard for [viewers] that I just [continue] the story whenever I want to. The second season, everyone was like, "Peggy had a baby. When are we going to find out about that?" Well, you did, eventually. It did become a big part of the story. But I can say that all of the repercussions of last season, that's what this season is about. What are the things that you do that you can't undo? Don was caught by his daughter in an affair. That affair was then ended by Sylvia, and Don couldn't take it. In fact, I don't think Don even cared about that affair until Sylvia ended it. But Megan doesn't know about it. She just knows that their marriage has gone bad. Was the affair the symptom, or was it the disease? Don says he's going to try to stop drinking — is that a commitment? That's setting the stage for the season.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you think Don can be sober?
Weiner: I don't think Don needs to be sober, actually. I think he has to approach his life in less of a haze. I always felt he drank to avoid feelings, and last year [his drinking] intensified them instead of numbing them. Last season was really a step in his life that was created by the panic of his personal life. Sally walking in on him [and Sylvia], and his destroying the relationship with the person who looked up to him unequivocally — that was a turning point.
TV Guide Magazine: Did the fact that this final season is split into two affect your storytelling?
Weiner: It did — a lot. Having a gap in the middle of a season is tough. I'm sure someone will still complain that nothing happens, but there is a lot of story in the show — probably the most we've had. I wouldn't say that it's all racing around. We can't turn this into 24. But this season is very dense.
TV Guide Magazine: The year in which a new Mad Men season takes place is always such a big secret.
Weiner: I made it a big secret because I use that as an energy to start the story. The audience is going to have to be filled in on what transpired while we were gone. We can start the characters in the middle of something instead of picking up the next day. But the interesting thing to me is that sometimes the show is very focused on American history and sometimes it isn't. We left off with the United States in a mess. And I feel Don talking to his kids was a moment to turn a little bit away from the world.
TV Guide Magazine: Some have theorized that the show is about Peggy becoming Don. Is there any validity to that?
Weiner: Yes. I like that when we left her, she never wanted to be less like Don. The worst parts of Don were exposed and directed at her. His jealousy and self-destruction were in her path, and I don't know that she wants to be like him anymore. Peggy has her own thing to do that is so complicated and unprecedented, and she has no role models.
TV Guide Magazine: What will this season bring for Joan?
Weiner: Joan is a know-it-all, but she seems to be right. [Laughs] I've enjoyed watching that character who's so sure of her values and her goals. She's living in a very different world from what she anticipated — or from what she seemed to have wanted. And I see her adapting to it. She's almost shocked by it. The real question for Joan is, is a man going to make a difference in her life? She's the most modern person on this show. Add 30 years to Joan and you will see someone who is a very special kind of pioneer.
TV Guide Magazine: Were you surprised when James Wolk's Bob Benson became a breakout character?
Weiner: I was shocked. And thrilled. You never expect that people would even notice Bob. He was like a joke in our office. Like, "Oh, my God, there's that guy Bob Benson again and he's Pete's protégé." They don't know we're going to reveal that he's like Don.
TV Guide Magazine: How are you going to feel when the show is over?
Weiner: I was 35 years old when I wrote the pilot, 42 when it went on the air, and I'll be 49 when it's over. This is not just a huge chunk of my life. It is my life. I think I will be a wreck.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you have any regrets?
Weiner: This is going to make me sound like Don: I wish I had enjoyed more of the attention. A lot of the process I spent in agony, deep creative insecurity. I never expected people to come back the next season. I never expected the audience to grow. I never expected there to be any resonance in the culture. And I never believed it. I'm mad at myself for not sitting back and saying, "Wow, look what I did!" [Laughs]
TV Guide Magazine: Would you ever consider a spin-off?
Weiner: No. I'm done with this story. It's been interesting to think of where I'm leaving them in their lives.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you know where you're going to leave them?
Weiner: Yeah. You have to know that. And it will be as definitive as life is. I know what the last scene with each of those people is. And I'm sure the minute I start doing something else, I will miss them terribly.
Mad Men premieres Sunday, April 13 at 10/9c on AMC.