Don Draper may not have kept all his deep, dark secrets under wraps, but his creator, Mad Men executive producer Matthew Weiner, is the master of keeping his cards as close to the vest as possible. As the fourth season of AMC's 60s-era sensation approaches, Weiner isn't about to break his rules about revealing any of the series' simmering plotlines, but he did give TV Guide Magazine a slight tease, a glimpse into the methods behind his Mad-ness and his thoughts on the show's ultimate endpoint.
TV Guide Magazine: We know you like to keep things close to the vest, but are you able to talk about at all what's coming up?
Weiner: I have nothing to say — I really don't! I mean, the season's not going to start the next day, and we're on episode seven or so. I'm working hard to make it an entertaining experience, to sort of keep in there and surprise people. I don't know what else to tell you. It's all very boring, what I have to say. I want people to watch the show — I really, really love that.
TV Guide Magazine: There seemed to be so much energy and forward momentum in the last episode, which appeared to be a game-changer for the show's dynamics. Does that carry through into this season, as we'd expect?
Weiner: I think there is some energy coming through. Part of the story of the show is the story of the era and things that were changing very rapidly. There were periods in time when things changed that rapidly. Things are always changing. Anyone who has a kid that was born before the Internet can sit there and say, 'How do you explain that? How do you explain that Mom and Dad didn't have a cell phone,' it's so much a part of our life now. You think about people born in the 1890s who died in skyscrapers in the '70s. The world is like that, but I'm always trying to maintain that continuum. The one thing that we have on the show that makes it unique is that you know how old all these characters are, and for me it's always about what's the next stage in their life derived by their age. All of the things that happen in the show have consequences. I never start fresh and pretend like something didn't happen. That's my way of saying whatever you saw at the end of last season had a permanent impact.
TV Guide Magazine: Have the actors reacted to what they get to do this season — were they surprised about where their characters go?
Weiner: I don't think there's anything that's radical that really changes. There is some time that passes between the two seasons. I'm not going to say how long it is. They're done being surprised. They really are. Ever since the first season when only Elisabeth Moss and the makeup department knew that she was going to be having a baby at the end, the rest of the cast was like, 'Well, let's see what's in this week's script.' There are certain people that I tell for the season, because I want them to be able to play it. I don't think there's anything that drastic but sometimes reality and sticking with that is the most shocking thing in the world. It's like, 'What are the consequences of that?' Part of last season was Don coming clean to Betty, and he tells her who he is. Well, right at that moment, this very real moment, everyone I think who was watching the show probably thought, 'Why didn't he tell her at the beginning? It doesn't seem like that big a deal anymore.' But it was. It's a big deal and in the end he was right about how it affected her. Things like that, just sort of following things through on a realistic stage has really been the way to make it the most shocking of anything, to say, 'Betty and that man are getting a divorce,' like that was what she needed to get out of that marriage. She couldn't get a job. It's very realistic. It happened to a lot of our parents. Just like her keeping her baby at the end of the second season to save their marriage. It was a shock. 'I'm keeping this baby,' when they have the worst marriage in the world.
TV Guide Magazine: You've used cultural and pop cultural touchstones from the time period as central elements of storylines. Will there be something like that this time around?
Weiner: I promise that there will be plenty of that, but I can't really tell you because it'll ruin what period were in and I don't want to do that.
TV Guide Magazine: As Bye Bye Birdie did last season, will these touchstones have a significant impact?
Weiner: I always feel like the history — and the advertising as well — are worthless to me unless they're about the story. So if we do something about Marilyn Monroe dying, we're doing something about identity and about people's relationship to celebrity and what's your name worth. That's the way that I take a story like that. The Kennedy assassination, what that was about to me was a sort of...I can't say it's the birth of nihilism but it certainly affected that generation in a way where they said, 'Well, no one is in charge of this,' forgetting about just the President being killed because that's happened a lot in this country. We've had a lot of violent overthrows considering the fact that we're a democracy, assassination attempts and so forth, but the idea of watching Oswald shot a couple of days later was an unsettling feeling about who was in charge of the country and about the government and the conspiracy and all those things that go through people's minds. True or not, I felt that it was something that was permanent that changed in the culture in terms of how complicit we were to authority. Then the '60's come and it's seen as a loss of innocence or something but it really is a death knell for a lot of institutions, just to see the police and the lack of closure and all the things that happened there. Also, being televised, which made it intimate and it wasn't coming through any other source. You experienced it. So those are the reasons why the history, why Bye Bye Birdie, was in there. Just for that one line: "It's not Ann-Margret. You can't just steal stuff." You have to have the person. I also loved what it said about women. Bye Bye Birdie itself was already a nostalgic thing when it was put together, reflecting a small town being corrupted by this sensual energy or whatever. It's part of why I put Bob Newhart's record in the show. It's because I'm always trying to show this subversive streak that I guess is considered to have originated at Woodstock and has been going on, is a part of our country and is there forever. You've got someone like Bob Newhart with a tie and everything he's saying is just slightly off. He looks like mom and dad. He looks like your clean-cut friend and yet he's got this incredibly subversive — it's not cynical, but it's a really, really pointed sense of humor. That's why those events go in the show.
TV Guide Magazine: Major series finales like Lost have been a major topic of watercooler discussions lately. Do you have in your head how and when and where your show ends?
Weiner: I think that once you get the pickup for the second season you start thinking about how it's going to end if you get lucky enough to go to the place where I get to end it voluntarily and don't just get yanked off the air unceremoniously, as has been known to happen. I have an image in my mind and I have a story that goes with it. It's all about where Don is when this thing ends. You just want to get there, in a place that feels organic to the show. So I would say, yes, I have something in mind and then I would say, no, I'm not ready to tell that story yet!