Weiner talks the societal reality mirrored in his ‘Mad Men’

“It’s got to be clear that I do not control what people think about the show in any way, and can’t obviously,” Matthew Weiner said recently during an interview in his downtown Los Angeles office. The creator of “Mad Men” had just been discussing the relationship between Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Jewish department store heiress Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) in the show’s first season, when he felt the need to offer that qualifier. Only minutes earlier, he’d joked that while he’s a regular reader of the Jewish Journal, he can’t call himself a subscriber, because he usually picks it up at his favorite fro-yo place.

Weiner, quick-witted, passionate and funny, at times speaks about his characters as if they’re alive, and for viewers of the critically acclaimed show, now in its seventh and final season, that might not be such a surprise. “Mad Men” has always felt like it had a certain authenticity to it, like it could actually have happened, an effect that is only bolstered by the décor of Weiner’s offices. Don’s typewriter sits under a framed LP of Megan Draper’s (Jessica Paré) “Zou Bisou Bisou,” which shares wall space with Don’s ad from The New York Times decrying cigarette advertising.  

Perhaps more than anything, though, it’s the show’s ability to make its characters seem like real people, even like real Jews, that makes it so vivid, and according to Weiner, that’s completely intentional. 

“I went out of my way to make Rachel Menken Jewish, to give her a Jewish name, to make her a Russian Jew and not a German Jew,” he said. “I have all kinds of little hairs that were split there that I thought were fresh, and a little bit defiant, and the network was just thrilled with the specificity,” he said. “They did not want me to name her Magnin, because it was a real store, and they had an heiress and we could have been sued, so as soon as I made a fictitious store with a fictitious heiress, everybody was happy — right down to the German shepherds on the roof.

“I’m very interested in ‘the other,’ ” Weiner said. This applies, in particular, to how outsiders have adjusted to life in America. “We’re a melting pot, but also, at a certain point, we’re completely expected to give up all ethnic identity in trying to become a white male, a WASP, as Don is also trying to do.”

And while some of the “others” on “Mad Men,” notably manic copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), chafe under the rules imposed by WASP society, Weiner believes that they, too, secretly long to fit in. “There’s something about being a white minority that really makes you notice the difference, and I think Don is that kind of person also, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not aspiring to be like everybody else, they just may not be able to do it. And Ginsberg is a lunatic; there’s nothing Jewish about that.”

“Mad Men” seems far away from the time television was dominated by, as Neal Gabler once called them, “non-ethnic ethnics,” characters like “Seinfeld’s” George Costanza, who, though clearly Jewish in so many ways, was made out to be Greek. As for why networks now seem open to allowing people to be overtly Jewish, Weiner puts it simply: “Dumbest answer ever: The times changed.  

“I know that there are people in the world who still want to kill people for doing these things, for being Jewish, for interracial romance, whatever, but the generation right after me … does not give a crap. They do not care. … They are embarrassed by racism,” Weiner said. “My kids, they are completely race-blind, they are colorblind, they are religion-blind, and they are offended by anything that smacks of real prejudice. It’s an embarrassing thing, not a position of power to be caught being a racist, even if you’re 80.”

Marten, the oldest of Weiner’s four sons, played a pivotal role in the early seasons of the show as Glen Bishop, a neighbor’s son who has a crush on Don’s first wife, Betty Draper (January Jones). It is a role that almost didn’t come to pass, according to Weiner. “It was suggested by Tom Palmer, who was the co-executive producer at the time. I asked him [Marten] if he wanted to audition, and I was actually warned by my casting directors, by Carrie Audino and Laura Schiff, not to cast him, not because he didn’t audition well, but because you don’t want the pressure of your kid screwing up the show.”

Weiner was not deterred. “Honestly, I didn’t think the show would go on for more than a season,” he said. “I love the way he was as that character, he was so not TV. He was so not a TV kid.

“He was really good, in my opinion,” Weiner added. “I think the scene in the first season, with him and January in the car, in the finale — I just sort of look at him in there and think, ‘That’s a real kid on TV. And this makes me happy.’ ”

And while Weiner has a few regrets about casting Marten, most notably some nasty comments on message boards that he hopes Marten won’t ever read, he said he’s happy to have had a chance to work together with his son, who will soon be heading off to college.

And as Weiner copes with that departure in real life, he’ll also be letting go of Don Draper, whose story will end this season. Draper was put on leave from the ad agency at the end of Season 6 but wormed his way back in after the first few episodes of Season 7, though not without a price. “He was definitely stripped away at the end of last season,” Weiner said of his protagonist. “He’s now broken.” 

In this season’s fourth episode, “The Monolith,” written by Erin Levy and directed by Scott Hornbacher, Don is put in the former office of Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), the office where Pryce so memorably hung himself in the fifth season’s penultimate episode.  

To make matters worse, Don reports to Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), his former secretary, and is barred from bringing in any new business or making his own decisions. “Is it a low point to have your character tested? Weiner said. “Yeah, if you’re of low character. We’re finding out what he’s made of.”

The episode, which features the installation of a computer at the agency’s office, also has a biblical theme, Weiner said. “One of the fun things about that last episode … was that the computer guy comes in, and he’s like the devil to me, he’s the mysterious stranger, and he is offering Don new business, which he’s not allowed to have; he’s offering wisdom, he’s enthusiastic, and he’s a guy putting in the computer — we love them so much now, how could we forget the fact that they’re a double-edged sword? As is all wisdom. Right? That’s the tree of knowledge.”

So will Don be able to make amends and be reinstated in the firm? “I just hope people understand that as far as Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy are concerned, the wake of destruction that this guy [Don] put on the firm last year, in 1968 — not just losing Jaguar, which Joan literally sacrificed her body to get, costing her a lifetime of financial security when he ruined their chance to go public, ruining Peggy’s relationship, forcing her back into the agency … ” Weiner trailed off. “Just because you say you want to change doesn’t mean anyone else gives a crap.”

“Mad Men” is all about truth and lies and their consequences. “You know who’s truthful all the time?” Weiner asked. “People who are mentally ill.

“We always talk about the idea of doing somebody a dishonest kindness, where you tell them the truth because you want to hurt them … Joan’s mother does it to her a lot,” Weiner said. “The truth will not set you free, it will usually get you in more trouble. Apologizing is a big part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it has to be from your heart. But in the Bible, it’s all about reparations. Words are cheap, give me my cows. Or let me kill your cows.”

Weiner acknowledged that Don has now found himself in a life-or-death situation, but whether he’ll live or die is something the audience will have to wait to find out.

“When you look at infinity, it is awesome and it is terrifying, because you don’t go on forever, and anything that reminds people of that is scary,” he said. 

“Anything that distracts people from that is a successful ad campaign.”