Matthew Weiner: ‘Mad Men’ has to end, because people try too hard to ‘perceive the machinery’

Matthew Weiner and Jessica Paré. (Joyce Culver.)
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As he does with many of the most affecting episodes of "Mad Men," show creator Matthew Weiner saved the big reveal for the end of the evening during a talk titled “Matthew Weiner and the Wives of Don Draper,” held Wednesday night at the 92nd Street Y.

Near the end of the evening an audience member asked a question about how men and women are faring in recent episodes—so far this season the men have been kind of floundering while the women have been on the rise, the questioner hypothesized.

Weiner didn't seem to want to answer.

“Are you asking, like, because you think things look bad for the men right now, if the men are gonna end up doing great and the women are just gonna be . . .”

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He trailed off, seeming genuinely annoyed, before changing tack.

“This is why the show has to end, because people start to perceive the machinery of it,” he said.

He didn't really quite mean that. He meant people try to perceive the machinery of it; they don't, in his estimation, always succeed.

For a show-runner who seems to talk so much about his show—the event at the 92nd Street Y is one of many similar appearances Weiner and cast members have made to talk to audiences about the show since it debuted in 2007—Weiner doesn't seem to quite like talking about it. There is, if he is to be believed, a far simpler machine spitting out this show, behind the closed doors of the writers' room, than most seem to imagine.

“I can promise you I have no idea when the men are talking and when the women are talking," he said, enigmatically. "Don is the main character—don’t tell them!" (Here, the audience laughed.) "Don’s story is important. I pay a lot of attention to that, and everything else is, ‘Where are these people in their lives?’”

As it was coming out of his mouth, I was wishing it hadn't been. He kept going.

“We’re trying to entertain you, and we don’t want to repeat ourselves. So, if it seems like it’s about that, you know, that may be what we ended up doing, but that’s not part of the plan. The plan is that they start here and they end up here.”

If Weiner doesn't want to be reduced to a series of statements about the transformation of women in the 1960s, that doesn't mean the show says nothing about it. And that may have been easier to talk about, for Weiner and for the audience at the 92nd Street Y the other night, by focusing on smaller plot points and individual characters.

The Fat Betty plot line, for instance, came up, as it was bound to. Moderator Caryn James asked the question early on in the night, directing it at Weiner, “Tell us about Betty’s transformation, physical and internal. Why did you put on that weight for her?”

Weiner responded matter-of-factly, “Well, it was a creative solution to a real-life problem, that January was pregnant—and everything worked out great, she has a baby [laughs]—and we had to start shooting, so I had the choice between doing the laundry basket thing or really trying to deal with it, not trying to hide it.”

So, an accident of the filming process? Not quite.

He continued, “We know Betty has had weight [issues before] . . . and it just seemed to me that her response to her [ex-] husband marrying a 25-year-old woman might be to kind of indulge in what was probably her greatest vice. And then there was this great story that came along with it, which was, ‘How does a woman who is so clearly defined by her physical appearance—how does that work for her?’”

That question wasn’t exactly answered, but at least it had been posed, leaving the audience with something to think about for the rest of the season, or at least the rest of the night.

But another question that was, at least in part, about some of the women characters seemed to reaffirm that Don is the sun of this show, orbited by everyone and everything else.

"Brian from NYC," a man on the street filmed earlier by the event's organizers, asked Weiner, Jones and Paré: “Who do you guys think really is the better wife for Don? Is it Betty, or is it Megan, and why?”

Jones was quick to start this one off: “I’m not sure Don’s supposed to be married in general,”she said.

Paré followed closely on her heels, “I don’t think any one of his relationships has been perfect.”

But it was Weiner’s response that provoked a collective nod of approval from the crowd.

“I think Don likes longing more than he likes people who love him.” The audience was now hanging on his every word. He continued: “And I think he’s a deeply wounded person, and his lack of loyalty is pretty deep because I think he doesn’t like people who know him.”

The event was billed as the Wives of Don Draper, but the evening’s questions were not only about women, or Don. As prelude to a clip involving Pete Campbell, James asked Weiner, “Do you think it’s fair to say the audience thinks Pete’s kind of a jerk?”

“He’s hard to watch," Weiner said. "He’s every bad thing you’ve ever done all at once.” And he jokingly added, “The hardest part about him I think is that he’s ungrateful, and we really, really have a hard time seeing that in other people, 'cause none of us—we’re always so happy when we get what we want!”

Later, when James asked Weiner why he thought "Mad Men" had hit such a nerve, he was visibly excited to answer.

“I have been asked this question before and I’m going to give a different answer because I’ve really been thinking about it recently," he said. "I always used to say, ‘I don’t know.’ But I actually think it is the most contemporary thing on television.”

“Because the show is on a human scale and has a lot of moments of privacy and on some level . . . it is about the community and the individual, and it is about the workplace and the family—I don’t mean those are settings, I mean it’s really about that.”

So there you have it, the "Mad Men" machine, laid bare. If, that is, you can make anything of it.