Matthew Weiner is the genius behind what’s widely hailed as the most stylish TV drama series of all time. Who better to explain the appeal of the man we all secretly wish we were?
It has to be said. Matthew Weiner is nothing like his famous creation Don Draper. Not physically. “All the characters in the show are related to me, but I’m certainly not Don,” the short, balding, middle-aged Weiner chortles, taking a very unDraperish delight in his self-humbling wit. “If anything he’s a handsome alter-ego.”
Of course, on a more profound level, Weiner most certainly is Don Draper, the 35-year-old, conflicted copywriter he dreamt up when he was a 35-year-old, conflicted TV writer. “I was happily married with three children, had a lucrative job related to my lifetime dream. And I was thinking, ‘Is this it?’ There were all these questions about mortality and my humanity. The men of Don’s era had a very clear definition on some level — clear but confusing. You had to be the baseball coach, the ideal father,the great husband but you also had to drink as much, smoke as much, and get laid as much as possible. And that’s a conflict in the American male, whether externally or internally imposed, that hasn’t gone away.”
Is that what resonates with the male viewers of your show?
“With Don I’m interested in what that conflict is doing to him, how he’s trying to resolve it, what the psychic cost of that is. He is being led around by his Id, but at the same time he has a conscience. Don’s also about wish fulfilment. He does what isn’t allowed. He drinks, smokes, sleeps with a lot of people. But he’s tortured. There’s something about him that makes men say, ‘I know that guy. Maybe he’s me, maybe he’s my dad, but I’d like for the world to know that that is who I am.”
What did we lose when the ’60s happened and the world moved on from the kind of value system that Don adheres to?
“Well, there’s so much that’s better. We would never have had a half-black President, the amount of women we now have in power would just never have been allowed…” But… “There was an embrace of individualism and a turning away from communal responsibility. People began sharing everything about themselves. There was a celebration of indulgence without any sort of guilt. We lost a sense of shame, which, culturally, is something very valuable in keeping people in line. The expectations of behaviour back then, unrealistic as they were, did force a sense of gentility. Things were m ore civilised. There was formality but that formality was a form of respect.”
How weird is it to have sparked a retro-fashion craze?
“I’m thrilled. That was a golden age. Even though there was a great pressure for conformity, men and women did dress differently from each other, which they don’t really do now. Men are vain and that era embraced that. There’s something great, whether you’re wearing a cape or a suit and tie, about saying, ‘Some of my power comes from my uniform and I’m going to value and use that.’”
What’s the lesson you want the audience to learn from Don?
“Assimilation is one of the big stories in American culture. Don’s an American archetype, a Jay Gatsby figure. People abandon their past, change to succeed, but those past, inauspicious beginnings are something that haunt all of us if we become part of the culture. Maybe that’s universal, but it’s certainly true in societies such as Australia and America. There’s a cost for that mobility, you have to give up a lot of your past, but you can reinvent yourself, you can aspire to change your status, you can move towards a higher expression of yourself, whether that’s financially or artistically or anything else. I hope people look at Don and the other characters and say, ‘That’s the process of living. Aspiring to improve yourself.’ Don has transformed himself. At great cost, but I love that he’s done that.”
Mad Men‘s third series premieres on Movie Extra in February.