How time flies in this very mad world! It seems like only yesterday that the 1960s were dawning for Don Draper, his family, and his comrades at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency. Now, as if in the blink of an eye, the '60s are waning as "Mad Men" nears the end of its glorious run.
When the series begins its final stretch Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT on AMC, the passage of time will be palpable for all concerned – the series' characters, its audience, and, oh, by the way, "Mad Men" mastermind Matthew Weiner.
"I'm out of work," cracks Weiner, who wrapped shooting last July, finished postproduction last October, and, in December, vacated his office of seven years.
He is excited about what the last lap will bring, but, during this recent conversation, was customarily tight-lipped.
"We deal with the consequences of material success," he says, only hinting at what lies ahead for the agency's newly well-to-do partners. "The incredible windfall they got at the end of last season wasn't just a plot device. It is propelling them into these last seven episodes: Once all your material needs are met, what else is on your mind?"
In an interview a few weeks before "Mad Men" premiered in July 2007, Weiner explained why he had placed his ambitious new drama in the 1960s.
"By talking about that era," he said, "I can talk about everything right now that I care about." Things like civil rights. Sex. Gender roles. The nature of adulthood.
And that he has done, season after season, with a drama of modern society as viewed through the prism of modernity as it was a half-century ago.
Weiner centered the action on Draper, whose gift for image-making, seduction, and strategic chicanery was perfectly suited to the advertising game. Meanwhile, Draper, like the '60s, was sufficiently removed, but not too far removed, from the present day to lend it fresh perspective – what Weiner calls "the quotidian reality of everyday behavior and desire and aspiration and frustration" – with startling currency, not to mention retro chic.
Even so, Weiner's choice of time frame was remarkable, since he, now 49, fell short of membership among the usual custodians of '60s lore: baby boomers. And his chosen hero, Draper, born in the 1920s, was significantly older than the boomer crowd.
"The story has been told mostly through the baby boomers," Weiner says. "They got their hands on the wheel and they've been taking us on a tour of the quote-unquote 'Turbulent Sixties' ever since. But that way, we see it through the eyes of a child. I wanted to focus on what an adult was during that period."
When "Mad Men" began, Draper was already in his mid-30s, and increasingly he has viewed that decade through wary eyes.
"Matt used a lot of incredibly resonant 1960s touchstones," says Jon Hamm, who under his guidance brought Draper to life. "But it's in a very wise way, because he's never leaned on them. It's never been a travelogue through the '60s or a history lesson. It's just been about these people who came out of Matt's mind and have been working through their lives in this tumultuous, tricky time. We navigated those incredibly choppy waters with his characters," who have also included those portrayed by co-stars Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, Rich Sommer, Aaron Staton, and Robert Morse.
"Mad Men" tapped into the '60s ethos with painstaking authenticity. But that wasn't all. From the vantage point of 50 years' distance, Weiner also drew on his unfolding life – even his experience of doing the show.
When Don, in the second season, says, "I keep going to a lot of places and ending up somewhere I've already been," it's not just an expression of his existential angst. It's also Weiner's lament as a writer feeling pressure not to repeat himself in each subsequent script.
Negotiations that pitted Weiner against AMC and the series' studio figured into "Mad Men" – particularly the bitter clash that dragged on for months before a new contract was signed in March 2011, a squabble that delayed the show's return for its fifth season.
"There's a lot of negotiating that season," notes Weiner, including failed negotiations that spurred Draper's fed-up protegee, Peggy Olson (Moss), to leap to a rival agency. "That was on my mind."
The autobiographical, historical and imagined commingle in a series that has always been fiercely formula-averse. The tale unwinds at times with crystalline specificity, at times like a half-remembered dream. Things that go unsaid become as forceful as the show's most penetrating dialogue. Episodes are densely packed and yet, somehow, meditative. Sometimes hard-edged, sometimes mystical.
"In a weird way," says Weiner, "what happens is not as important as how it happens."
No wonder viewers plunder "Mad Men" for any buried clues. Item: In the final moments of last year's finale, set in July 1969, agency founder Bert Cooper (Morse) appears a few hours after his death in a vision to Draper, breezily performing a song-and-dance number that had viewers stewing over its meaning.
"The show is famous for being byzantine," Weiner acknowledges. "But I can't believe that someone singing 'The Best Things in Life Are Free' was up for conversation. That was EXACTLY what I was trying to say!"
It was a sweet, poignant scene, all right, and it perfectly set up these final seven episodes with the most heretical message possible by a series whose characters proclaim: The best things in life are the products we sell.
"Oh, my God! I didn't even THINK about that," says Weiner, laughing as his timeless drama nears the end. "Lucky for me I'm not in advertising!"