It still seems impossible. When TV’s hottest show, The Sopranos, finally left the air, the suspicion was that nothing could follow it, that anything its creative team might come up with would inevitably fall short.
And then along came Mad Men.
Sopranos executive producer Matthew Weiner’s hard-drinking take on the world of advertising executives in early ’60s Manhattan got people talking from the outset with its modern look, its brazenly un-PC swagger and, possibly most of all, the laughable amount of onscreen smoking in each episode. But it’s the texture and complexity of the characters and their emotional entanglements that keep people coming back.
But even the idea of having Mad Men and the sharpness of its writing compared to the previous series on which he worked doesn’t sit well with Weiner. “If people compare it to The Sopranos, it’s almost ridiculous, to me,” he insists. “That is the best TV show ever made, and I was so lucky to be part of it. … I definitely was a contributor to The Sopranos, but really — I don’t compete with that. Anybody who competes with The Sopranos is insane. I do not want to replace — I do not want to even fool myself into trying to replace that in people’s hearts. It would never be replaced in my heart, and this is my show.”
As the series returns to AMC with new episodes, Weiner says that if there’s anything we should not expect in Season 2, it’s a return to the world of Season 1. “We left off in Thanksgiving 1960,” Weiner explains. “We won’t be coming back then. Kennedy will be the president — I can tell you that. And he will be alive. … My goal was to do something different, and to show that time had passed, and for the audience to slowly figure out what had happened in between.”
It’s a goal that has deep roots for Weiner. “Part of my impetus for doing the show, originally,” he says, “was knowing some old people, and saying, ‘What was it like to see the world change?'” But this isn’t something that Weiner, 43, thought of in recent years. It’s an obsession that goes back long before he started his work on The Sopranos. “I think it goes back to high school,” he reflects. “Interest in this period was something I was raised with. My parents got married in 1959. They lived through the ’60s and were politically involved. My father was an inner-city physician, a scientist. My mother joined the Women’s Liberation movement in the late ’60s. But they talked a lot about the ’50s. Their heroes were Hemingway and Einstein. It was Joseph Heller … the blacklists. These were all things that were discussed in our lives as seminal parts of the way the world was.”
At the center of Mad Men‘s story, as always, is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the ad exec with confidence of steel and the dark secret of a stolen identity, concealing his humble origins as Dick Whitman. He might sound like a superhero, but the only place Don is more powerful than a locomotive is in the boardroom at Sterling Cooper, pitching a client. Weiner is excited to be digging further into the mystery of Don’s story. He feels it’s the predicament of every person, in some way. “Whether we have as dramatic a past as Don does, or not — you become someone,” he says. “You become your job. You become your marriage. And you still, once in a while, look in the mirror and say, ‘Am I just some liquid that could be poured into any vessel?'” It’s the central question in Don’s life, and the primary focus of Season 2. “The way I describe it is that Don Draper is doing fine, but Dick Whitman is not doing great.”
As for the other question marks left from last season, we’re going to have to wait awhile for most of the answers — but not all of them. “Roger survived and he will be back,” Weiner readily confesses. (Roger Sterling, you likely remember, is one of the partners of Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, where much of Mad Men takes place. He suffered a massive heart attack last season.) “He will be back in his previous job, but Duck has the job that Pete wanted.”
And Pete Campbell, of course, has problems of his own. The ambitiously conniving young account exec always gunning for Don’s job is in well over his head, with a home and lifestyle beyond his means, an unhappy wife and a child born to Don’s secretary, Peggy. Season 2 isn’t going to be any kinder to Pete, apparently, as his life continues its sure-and-steady descent into flames. “He won’t be sniveling any less,” Weiner assures. “If you imagine where Pete was at the end of last season, his life has not improved any. He is still an ambitious person, and more frustrated than ever. … But he has personal life issues, and he has the issues of someone that age.”
But what Weiner asserts above all is that whether you’re talking about Pete or Peggy, Don or his wife, Betty, all of the characters in Mad Men are facing the same issues. They’re all essentially lonely people in a world that’s changing, and their confidence in their own identities is becoming strained. “If there’s a theme for the season,” he reiterates, “it is, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I in this marriage? Why am I in this job? Why aren’t I getting more?’ … The world has changed, but it’s a time of relative calm we’re coming back to.”
And we can’t wait to check out their distress.
Season 2 of Mad Men premieres on AMC July 27.