The question came up the very first time Matthew Weiner sat before journalists at the Television Critics Assn. tour to promote the July 2007 premiere of “Mad Men.” How will it end? More specifically — how long did he see the time frame of the show running? Would he take the characters through the tumultuous decade of the 1960s? Or would Don Draper and Co. stay in the skinny ties and bouffant hairdos of the show’s 1960 beginnings?
Weiner deflected the question with a pragmatic answer that he hoped would hide how much it had caught him off guard.
“I said I didn’t know if there was going to be a second season — at that time we were only shooting the second episode,” Weiner recalls. “But I realized at that point that there is an expectation that I have a plan for this thing all the way to the end.”
Now it can be told. When Weiner first wrote the “Mad Men” pilot script nearly 15 years ago, he had a “vague notion” of where he saw the series finishing. But it wasn’t until the end of the show’s fourth season that the thunderbolt of inspiration hit.
“The actual ending came to me all at once,” Weiner says of the storyline that will begin April 13 with the premiere of the first half of the Lionsgate TV show’s final season, and air in seven-episode increments this year and next.
Without giving anything away, he hints that there’s a splashy something coming in the seventh and last chapter of his epic novel. The episodes, he notes, are densely packed.
“Once I knew what (the ending) was, I could see that there are things throughout the entire series that will seem related to it,” he says. “Certainly there are things in these first seven episodes that you’ll go back to and be able to say, ‘Oh there it is.’ ”
As “Mad Men” heads toward the finish line — filming on the last episodes began March 31 — Weiner says he’s not feeling the pressure to deliver on the finale so much as he is grappling with the emotion of saying goodbye to characters he loves and the many people who helped bring them to life. “I’m dealing with loss more than responsibility right now,” he admits. To the fans that keep telling him they can’t accept this being the end for the Sterling Cooper gang, he advises: “Trust me, I’m going to miss it more than you will.”
The stake are high for any series finale, but “Mad Men” has to live up to its own exacting standards. More than any show of the post-“Sopranos” era, the skein has expanded the creative boundaries for television drama — winning four consecutive Emmys atop the category along the way — and it spurred the contemporary tidal wave of original series on netlets up and down the dial. If a sleepy movie channel like AMC could transform its fortunes with a bet on a show that violated all the tenets of ad-supported television, others could hardly afford to ignore the opportunity.
“This show built a network,” says AMC president Charlie Collier. “You really can’t say that in the same way about any other (modern) show I can think of.” “Mad Men” also reverberated loudly for AMC by being the “harbinger of quality” that convinced other writers to work there, Collier adds.
The importance of all of that can’t be discounted, considering AMC became the cornerstone of a cable programming company that was spun off from parent Cablevision as a stand-alone, publicly held entity in 2012. That wouldn’t have happened without the mojo provided by “Mad Men.”
“As the head of a network, you dream about your first scripted series,” Collier says. “You wouldn’t dream about anything as good or as powerful as ‘Mad Men’ turned out to be. Matt Weiner has delivered on every promise he ever made us.”
By now, Weiner’s story of sitcom rags to drama riches is well known. He’d spent a decade working on primetime comedies until his dissatisfaction led him to labor over a spec drama script he intended to use as a writing sample. It was powerful enough to land him a gig on “The Sopranos,” which changed his career fortunes. But the “Mad Men” spec was rejected by HBO and many others until AMC said yes in 2006. Lionsgate came onboard after the pilot was completed. “It was clear from the day we met Matt that he was prepared to kill himself to make this show, frame by frame,” says Lionsgate TV’s Kevin Beggs.
Terence Winter, the “Boardwalk Empire” creator and “Sopranos” alum, recalls being bowled over when “Sopranos” creator David Chase asked him to read the “Mad Men” script as he was evaluating whether to make the writer an offer.
“It was all there on the page right out of the gate,” says Winter, who is coming off a writing Oscar nom this year for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” “The complexity of human interaction he captures — Matt always goes deeper with his writing. He is easily one of the smartest, most well-read people I’ve ever met. There was not a day that I spent with Matt in the (writers) room where he hasn’t made me laugh out loud.”
Over a long late-afternoon lunch at an Upper East Side hotel, a place where Don Draper and Roger Sterling would fit right in, Weiner took a break in early March from writing and post-production labors to discuss the show’s evolution and the process of bringing it to a close.
“Mad Men” at the outset bucked almost every convention of television, from its period setting to its lack of notable stars to dispensing fairly early on with the plot engine provided by Don’s effort to hide the fact he had assumed another man’s identity. Weiner is most proud of the fact that all of his central characters are markedly different than when the show began — another violation of the TV rulebook. Those changes have been helped along by the march of time in the show, which was up to 1968 by the end of last season.
“I committed to having them change,” Weiner says. “(The whole show) could have been March 1960, or some amorphous version of that. I thought about how people’s lives inevitably change. At the end of season three, when Don and Betty split up and Don started a new agency, people said to me, you’re not really going to break up that marriage?’ I knew we had to have some change if not growth for these people over a long period of time.” And some characters, even beloved ones, would have to go from time to time.
The hardest struggle in the early seasons was the behind-the-scenes uncertainty about the show’s fate — a situation that came about in part because of AMC’s inexperience with deal protocols for scripted series. The second season of “Mad Men” was not ordered until well after the first season had completed its run.
After the end of season two, Weiner no longer had a deal in place to remain with the show, a situation that would not have happened but for AMC’s inexperience. A protracted negotiation ensued, given how the show exploded as a pop culture force in its sophomore year.
After the end of season four, “Mad Men’s” fate was held up by the bare-knuckle negotiations between AMC and Lionsgate over license fees and the divvying up of digital rights to the show. When “Mad Men” began in 2007, VOD and streaming rights were barely referenced in the fine print in the original deal between the cabler and the studio.
But by 2011, it was clear that the off-network payday was coming from the digital realm — in the form of a then-record $1 million-an-episode pact with Netflix. Those talks held up the start of production on season five, forcing the 16-month gap between it and season four.
Finally, last fall, AMC set the pickup of “Mad Men’s” seventh and final season, to be spread over two years. That model worked extraordinarily well for “Breaking Bad” in 2012 and 2013, and before that for “The Sopranos.” It gives AMC the benefit of turning the swan-song into an event that spreads “Mad Men’s” ratings and pixie dust over two fiscal years.
Weiner was game for the bifurcated season, but as he dug into the work, he realized the seven-and-seven structure had its own challenges. “Creatively, we tried to see it as one season, but right away you come to the realization that you need to have two premieres and two finales,” Weiner says.
The show maintained its regular production schedule, with the writers room opening last August. Filming on the first seven episodes began in October. The actors took a four-week break in March to catch up on scripts before shooting the last seven segs.
Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” has been on Weiner’s mind lately as he and the members of the writing team hunker down on the last story arcs. Weiner notes that Dickens wrote the 1859 novel (in TV-like serial form) set against the backdrop of the French Revolution at a similar distance from history-changing events as the “Mad Men” creatives are from the 1960s (give or take a decade or two).
The famous closing passage — the part before Sydney Carton’s “it is a far, far better thing,” about envisioning a time when he sees “a beautiful city” rising from the devastation of the ill-fated revolution — has been particularly resonant to Weiner.
“I thought that was something to take to heart,” he says. “There’s a chance for revolution in 1968, but it ends with Nixon in the same way that the French Revolution ended with Napoleon.”
Another one of the things that drove home the finality of the situation for Weiner was a conversation that came up in the writers room early on in the planning for season seven.
“I asked (everyone) to think about anything that they’ve always wanted to do on the show that we’ve never done, because we should make sure we get it in. That brought the reality (home) to me that this really is the end. This will be the last time we’ll see these people in this world.”
As the brainstorming process proceeded in the writers room, the two sets of episodes organically broke down along distinct thematic lines. “The first seven are about the material world — ambition and the things we can control,” Weiner says. “Don has had almost everything taken away from him: his position, his status, his confidence” after getting fired at the end of season six from the merged agency he had instigated. “Watching (that) was hard for a lot of people. We’ve seen him go from a hungry and insecure person to someone who’s got growing children, a second marriage, and he’s on this third company.
“Then in the second half, we’re dealing with the immaterial. What happens to these people when (their) material needs are met. What else is on their mind? Love? God? I don’t want people to be afraid, and think it’s going to be a big dream sequence. But it is looking at the outside and the inside of these people.”
As always, the season is defined by Don’s mental state. Weiner is emotional as he talks about all that his leading man has been through. This naturally leads to a tangent on the greatness of Jon Hamm. Without his genius in the role he was born to play, the show would never have worked, Weiner says flatly.
“He’s very brave,” Weiner says of the actor. “He so commits, intellectually and emotionally. Let me tell you, it’s hard to play (Don Draper). There is a psychic cost.”
The passage of time since the pilot was produced in 2006 is felt by everyone on the show in large and small ways. Weiner notes his four sons — ages 17, 15, 13 and 10 — are now old enough to watch the series in its entirety. (Oldest son Marten has been in multiple segs as troubled youth Glen Bishop.)
“They’ve started to understand what I do,” he says. “They know (‘Mad Men’) bought our house, and that it’s my identity at this point.”
When production concludes on the last batch of episodes, they’ll be under wraps for months until spring 2015 — a wait that Weiner expects to be fairly nerve-wracking. Later this year, he’ll be busy with the bow of his movie, “You Are Here,” starring Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis and Jenna Fischer.
Weiner has written a play he wants to bring to the stage, and he has every intention of working in TV again. But on the advice of experienced hands like his old boss David Chase, James L. Brooks and the late Larry Gelbart, Weiner will make no decisions about next moves until the credits roll for the last time on “Mad Men.”
“This show has been a miracle,” Weiner says. “I have gotten to say so much of what I wanted to say about America, about creativity, about love and marriage and children and business. I don’t know what the size of the next story I’ll be telling will be. It might be set in outer space.”