"Mad Men" creator and executive producer Matt Weiner. (Dave Getzschman / For The…)
The fictional ad executive Roger Sterling has now done hallucinogens. The real show runner Matthew Weiner has not, though he had his chances.
One opportunity for the "Mad Men"creator came as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in Connecticut during Uncle Duke Day, a campus tradition where some students honored the Doonesbury comic strip character and his fondness for drugs. Weiner remembered a classmate bursting into his room and declaring: "We're all going to take mushrooms — and you're not invited."
"I was voted most likely to upset everyone," said Weiner, who laughed and then turned more serious during a lengthy interview at his Los Angeles Center Studios office. "My father was a neurologist, and I was terrified from a young age of anything that could possibly take away from my faculties or make me jump off a roof."
Maintaining a sober equilibrium is a career through line for Weiner, who is well aware of his reputation for being — as he has put it before — "an insane control freak." It's a style that has his name stamped on the writing credits for almost 50 of the show's 65 episodes — a high number for a show runner. But it's that devil-in-the-details attention, not coincidentally, that has earned his AMC period show built around a Madison Avenue ad firm four consecutive outstanding drama series Emmys.
The 46-year-old writer and executive producer may have passed on a personal experience with psycheledics , but his influential program has been on a wild trip of its own this spring as it descended deeper into the cultural tumult of the 1960s. From "Zou Bisou Bisou" to suicide, and there's the fifth-season finale Sunday.
As with every previous season, Weiner was tight-lipped about plot details in the flood of publicity that attended the show's return in March, even going so far as directing critics not to spoil viewers' fun by revealing key story lines. But while taking a break from his feature directorial debut, "You Are Here," Weiner talked about the narrative choices centered on office politics, marriage, personal pain, sex and race for this season's show, which is enjoying some of its best ratings ever.
"I wanted to tell a story about success, which usually doesn't get told on television because the perception is there's no conflict," said Weiner, munching on an afternoon bagel. "I love the idea that the agency was slowly becoming more successful and nobody seemed aware of it.... A lot of issues we deal with on the show — envy, lack of satisfaction, the focus on work over personal life — are illuminated by the transparent and undeniable success of the agency as it got to its feet."
A difficult choice
Success, as viewers know from the season's penultimate episode, did not come without conflict for one of the ad agency partners, the Englishman Lane Pryce, who was in a costly battle with his homeland's tax man and himself. The character's untimely end in the episode titled "Commissions and Fees" marked a milestone — it was the first death of a high-profile character.
"I don't like to use death as entertainment," said Weiner, previously a writer and executive producer on "The Sopranos." "I grew up watching network TV, and during sweeps they would always kill a kid or kill his parents. And by the time I was old enough to realize what it was, I found it unpleasant. But life and death are the ultimate stakes."
The television landscape has been littered lately with the corpses of major characters on sophisticated dramas like "Breaking Bad," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Game of Thrones." Despite competing with beheadings and booby-trap explosions, the office drama still found a darkly comic way to stand out as it guided the character played by Jared Harristo his final exit. The British gentleman who had embezzled funds hanged himself in his office, but that was not his original method of choice. He was foiled in his first attempt, inhaling car exhaust fumes from his temperamental Jaguar — the prestigious car account his agency had just landed.
"The long execution and setup of Lane not being able to start that car," said Weiner, who co-wrote an episode in Season 3 that saw a John Deere lawn mower nearly shear off a hotshot ad executive's foot. "That's a very, very high-level joke. We were all very, very proud of it."
The move surprised the cast, said Jon Hamm, who plays the central role of Don Draper. "It was incredibly emotional to go through as a cast," said the actor who plays the brilliant advertising executive struggling to find contentment. "It was a very rough scene, but it came out of a solid narrative footing. It wasn't a trick."