On the Therapist’s Couch with Mad Men Creator Matthew Weiner


Over the last few months, the Rubin Museum has invited various artists, writers and other famous creative types (think Alice Walker, David Byrne, John Adams) to interpret images from Carl Jung’s The Red Book with the help of a psychoanalyst. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner took to the stage over the weekend with analyst Morgan Stebbins; after the jump find out what the ensuing conversation revealed about his creative process and the upcoming season of everyone’s favorite TV drama.

Mad Men is not a serial

“I look at the season as one 13-hour thing all together. All I’m doing is throwing a series of doors in front of you. This one will open, and you go that way. Another will open, you will go that way. When you get to the end of it, it’s over. Whenever the show started up, the second and third year, I would get all of this groaning and irritation from people. ‘Where’s Doug? What happened? Why did we skip that? Where’s this?’ If I wanted to make a continuum — first of all, this is not to criticize other forms of entertainment — I could not sustain it. The story would have to escalate in such a ridiculous way to hold your interest. I need to literally start a new story.

“The great thing is that you know the people, and they are behaving in certain ways, but they change. I committed to that. I committed to an endgame scenario that these people might change in some way. That the events of their life would affect them. Which is actually something that you don’t deal with in drama. You can deal with it in a play — at the end of Hamlet, everyone is definitely dealing with some consequences, but in serialized drama, nothing. No one grows. No one changes. They can’t.”

On the dramatic importance of doors

“I’m kind of interested in doors; it’s all over the show and it’s all over a lot of my work. I mean, anyone who does drama, it’s one of the greatest things in the world … You get privacy when you close a door. You get turned on when you close a door. Then you open the door, and it’s just instant drama because you just don’t know what’s there. And even if you do, it’s going to change.”

The Tiger Woods scandal and the creative process

“I’m beginning the process of doing the show again. As you know, something good happening is more intimidating than just saying, ‘I told you no one would pay attention, I’m just going to keep doing it.’ Instead of, ‘Oh my god. They like it. What’s wrong with them? How did I do that? Can I do it again?’ Theoretically you are mastering something, so you have learned something. It will be easier. And then everything that comes to you easily you don’t trust, because your traditional process is throwing away everything that comes easily. So what you’re talking about is literally being in limbo. It’s very painful.

“I was thinking about this with Tiger Woods. I saw this on TV: He’s going to go play in a tournament, and he’s getting back together with his wife. She went to visit him in his sex rehab clinic. And I was like, what happened? Time. All of this could have happened the next day. Nope. Time. Why did that take time? Did anything actually happen? … It’s kind of strange, right? And it’s definitely part of the creative process. And it is completely mysterious, and no matter how many times you do it, it’s a necessity and you’d don’t believe it.”

Mad Men and the hollowness of the American Dream

“I’d hate to make it specific to us. The fact that we even have an expression like that shows already that we’re aspiring as a culture. I think that there’s a hollowness. That there’s a constant battle between what we expect and what we get. I can’t boil down what the show is about — it’s about a million things to me. I’ve written episodes that people think are about one thing and they’re about road rage. They’re about revenge. Sometimes I’m just beating the crap out of somebody I hate. I’m sorry, it’s true.

“The show is very personal. It doesn’t come from out there so much. I’m interested in philosophical ideas, but it’s way more — I’m not an exhibitionist, but there is personal relevance to a lot of what you’re seeing there. I hope that’s what people are keying in on. The fact that it comes in this beautiful package and it’s about the fact that we had a complete misconception and superiority to history all the time — that’s the American part of it … We have the same exact problems. Your wife does not hear a word that you say. Your husband is not loyal.”

The timelessness of the show

“It requires a tremendous amount of effort to take away human beings’ ability to abstract. One of the biggest arguments that we had in the beginning that I had with the director who shot the pilot was that he wanted to do it in black and white. I was like I’m not going to do it. That’s why that ceiling is in there. That’s why — I know people think it’s symbolic — but there’s a moment in the pilot where my hero lays down and looks at this light fixture and there’s a fly in there. People said, ‘he’s trapped like the fly, he can’t solve his problem.’ That had never occurred to me. I wanted to show that that fly is not period. There are still flies trapped in the light.

“The other part that I thought would have nothing to do with time travel was to focus my attention on this tiny shit which is the most important stuff in my life — and I think in anybody’s life. We made a season out of the experience of something as small as somebody being slighted. The revelation of Don’s identity, which is dramatic because it’s so big, is greeted with ‘who cares’? Because that’s reality. I always try to keep things within that scope. And I think that’s the part where you think ‘I don’t even know what year it is or what time it is.'”

Photo credit: Michael J. Palma