EMMYS: Matthew Weiner And Maria Jacquemetton On 'Mad Men'

Anthony D’Alessandro is managing editor of AwardsLine

When Jared Harris received an email from the Mad Men production crew asking him whether his signature had a calligraphic flair, he finally saw the writing on the wall: His character, Lane Pryce, the nebbish British partner of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce ad agency, was being eliminated from the show.

“I figured, ‘Oh, he’s forging a check,’ and if he’s doing it in secret, that’s not good”, explains Harris, who learned during the episode 10 shoot that Lane would hang himself in episode 12 after Don Draper (Jon Hamm) discovers he embezzled ad agency funds.

It might have taken 10 episodes for Harris to find out about his character’s fate, but Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner dropped hints all season: Don drew a noose during a meeting with Lane (episode “Signal 30”), and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and his train buddy Howard Dawes (Jeff Clarke) converse about insurance and suicide (“Lady Lazarus”).

Though Weiner is notorious for his iron grip on details about the season, even when it comes to his own actors, he has a very good reason for the cloak-and-dagger approach. He wants to keep the drama organic, especially after his writing staff has vigorously crafted a specific intonation for a scene. It’s a tactic that has paid off in terms of the show’s fan base and its Emmy haul. In fact, Mad Men has earned the best drama Emmy four years running, and it’s poised to earn a record fifth.

“With Jared, I delayed the conversation about Lane until the last possible moment out of cowardice”, quips Weiner, who also held out on telling Elisabeth Moss that her character, Peggy Olsen, was leaving Sterling Cooper. “I don’t want the actors to ‘play the end,’ it would tinge their moments if they knew. Jared had a defiant courage throughout the entire season, and it made perfect sense to tell him when I did. I never told Jessica Paré (Megan Draper) that she would wind up as Don’s wife ultimately–her heart would have been racing through every scene. They’re all super-gifted actors, and on some level, it wouldn’t effect their performance, however, there are huge things not worth risking”.

In addition to the topic of suicide, which earned Harris a supporting actor Emmy nom, Weiner and his cast tackled tough, messy subjects in the fifth season, though often to mixed critical results. Don dreamt of murdering a woman, Joan (Christina Hendricks) prostituted herself for a partnership at the firm, and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) dropped acid. It was widely reported that Weiner made a mandate to his writing staff that the earmarks of the ’60s (i.e. civil rights and women’s lib), which were swept under the carpet in previous seasons, could finally seep into their characters’ lives.

“I am always interested in a socially conscious, realistic depiction of human behavior, which may lean toward the ugly, but has an element of redemption because it’s familiar”, Weiner explains. “I love people being forced into real-life drama, which are the decisions we make: Sometimes because everybody is doing it, sometime because it’s required of us to get what we want, and sometimes because we don’t know any better”.

Count Megan Draper as one of those victims of circumstance. The most challenging scene for the writing staff wasn’t Lane’s death, but the moment when Megan tells Don that she wants to leave the agency and become an actress. By rejecting an advertising career, Megan, in turn, was rejecting Don.

Nailing the intricacies of the couple’s dialogue was key, as it marked “the emotional turning point in the season for Don’s character”, explains executive producer Maria Jacquemetton, who runs the writers’ room with her husband, André, when Weiner is absent. “We had to make this happen without Megan looking petty, childish, or ridiculous. It was difficult. There were many weeks of Matt having us try it different ways”.

Weiner adds: “Similar to real life, part of the premise of Mad Men is these people’s inability to communicate their real desires. Our characters walk away from conversations thinking of what they should have said. Here we have a scene where someone has to actually express their desire to Don, who is not a welcoming audience. What became obvious to us while writing was that Don is unable to understand. The hard part of it was that she wakes him up in the middle of the night because she’s scared of his reaction and also that he can’t process it”.

Don and Megan’s complex relationship was largely inspired by Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film Beauty and the Beast: Don is the beast and Megan the imprisoned princess in his penthouse who contends with his duality, according to executive producer André Jacquemetton.

“Overall, our influence comes back to cinema, both American and international”, adds Maria Jacquemetton. “We approach each episode like it’s a separate little movie”.

Such macro themes and inspirations are front-and-center discussions in the writers’ room, but Hamm, who was bestowed with a producer credit this season, is the only actor Weiner bounces larger ideas off of at the beginning of a season. Before he even speaks to the writers, Weiner meets Hamm for three hours at L.A.’s iconic Pacific Dining Car to mull over Don and the show.

“Even though the pilot script existed before Jon, I entered into this idea that Jon would be my partner for the life of the show. He’s a smart person beyond acting, and whatever I write, I want to run by him”, says Weiner, whose p.o.v. on the Season 3 finale shifted after a discussion with Hamm. “Jon went on in a great way about how Don feels about what he has given Betty. I always thought Don felt guilty about lying to her. Don’s lines (to Betty) when he comes in drunk and after he discovers Henry Francis: ‘I wasn’t good enough for you, but I gave you everything’–that’s threaded throughout the whole season. I didn’t see that. I felt guilty for Don lying to her and bad for Betty living with him. Jon told me, ‘It doesn’t matter what Don did. In the end, he and Betty made this life together.’ ”

And Hamm’s input on Season 5? “Oh, he got it. We talked about the year 1966 and what this second marriage means to this man, how hard Don was going to try to do it right”, Weiner explains.

Despite Weiner’s tendency to keep his plans close to the vest, Mad Men actors must arrive to the set with a game plan in mind for their character and prepped for the tight production schedule: an episode a week, seven pages a day, with a table read and blocking cue rehearsal. As such, there’s no time for an actor to deliberate their character’s motivation. (“They don’t have time to wait for the actors to do sense memory exercises”, Harris says wryly.) Further propelling the actors are the precise stage directions in Weiner’s script, down to a character’s gesture: for example, Lane wiping his mouth after advising Joan to take a partnership in exchange for her prostitution. Despite this attention to detail, none of the actors have taken home trophies at the ceremony.

“It’s a mystery to me”, Weiner says. “There’s a story every year about why it didn’t happen (for an actor). I take it personally. I begin to think maybe it’s something with the writing and the degree of difficulty of what the actors are adding to their performance. I’m not in the actor’s voting group. It could be that they’re more subjective”.

“Let’s face it, we wouldn’t be talking if it wasn’t for the writing”, says Slattery, who directed the episode “Signal 30” this season. True, the TV Academy has given Weiner and his writing staff three consecutive wins (2008-10), and this year three Mad Men episodes (“The Other Woman”, “Commissions and Fees”, and “Far Away Places”) consume the majority of nomination slots.

“This season was a doubling back to the first season and a reevaluation of all these characters in a telescopic way”, Slattery explains. “You think you know who these people are, and then you get more information about (them). The writing is the best because Matt isn’t afraid to tell new stories and stick his neck out. I think it’s the best season so far”.

    1. Yeah, how do you explain Best Drama without Best Cast? It’s like when Best Film doesn’t also win Best Director. Baffling.

      s

  1. everyone in the cast is great, except for jessica pare. i was disappointed by how much significance she had in the last season. her acting skills are okay, a bit too “days of our lives” for me, and i feel like you can tell considering the rest of the cast is absolutely terrific.

    1. I want to thank Matt Weiner for selecting Jessica Pare for the part of Megan. Enjoyed her work and development of Megan as S5 progressed. Perfect expression of the young, later 1960’s, independent woman. Bravo. Hope to see more from this actor.

  2. Hamm’s performance in the scene where Peggy quits was one of the most remarkable moments of TV acting I can remember EVER.

    If he does not win an Emmy it would be a bloody shame.

    Harris was great, but I have to go with Giancarlo Esposito for best supporting actor this year though – like Hamm he just took things to another level.

  3. I want to like Mad Men because I think it’s well written and well acted, but it’s clear that it has badly damaged the morals of its cast – Elizabeth Moss divorcing, January Jones having a child out of wedlock, etc. If this article is to be believed, it seems that this moral weakness originates from creator Weiner, who compels a married couple to waste the best years of their lives trying to appease his incomprehensible whim, while he’s off indulging his monstrous appetites at the Pacific Dining Car, one of LA’s most notorious dens of vice. Indeed, during the 13 weeks a year that the show is on the air, I have found myself straying from my strict Wolverine-esque personal code of honor/conduct: catching myself hitting on Whole Foods check out girls, buying irregular cordoroy pants at Ross’s, and even giving the middle finger to parking enforcement officials as they drive around in those little electric cars. I’m not blaming Weiner per se, but clearly a man who gets so much anonymous scorn from the internet while still producing a high quality television program must have some role in the great ills of society. As for the best actor/actress stuff this year, I believe that all TV acting awards should have been retired when Jerry Orbach died, but I understand that it’s tradition, so I dunno… the guy who plays the earnest hispanic cop on Dexter?

  4. I concur. The ensemble cast was given heavy material this year and pulled off the intricacies wonderfully. 
    Watching Harris cycle through the stages of grief once his embezzlement and forgery was discovered; Hendricks prideful shock and indignance slowly and incrementally giving way to acceptance as part of the reality of what advancement – both financially and status-wise for herself as a partner at the firm after thirteen years of running the office smoothly and the company’s first prestige car account – would mean for the longterm health of their respective lives; Hamm and Moss cycle through several seasons worth of loaded shared history between Don and Peggy in a few short minutes all contain moments which made me tear up to outright ball.
    For the aforementioned reasons, I’ve enjoyed rewatching “The Other Woman” and “Commissions and Fees” a multitude of times for its artistry and its cathartic entertainment value, a notion I would apply to the series overall from its pilot episode in season one through the final episode of season five. However, the stakes felt high this time: the existential angst of previous seasons literally ending in a death for one while giving phoenix-like rebirth at a second chance at a new life, mirroring Dick Whitman’s ascent as Don Draper, for the two women who’ve come a long way, baby – each in their own right and their own path. 
    Rooted in reality, Matthew Weiner’s auteur vision for the series enrich my senses emotionally, intellectually, and as a woman, spiritually as I watch the lives of Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway, especially this season, develop and unfold before me.  
    Kudos to everyone involved in creating the stimulating and entertaining work of art this stellar season. Bravo.

  5. It’s important that this series not derail in its final couple of seasons. If giving these guys more Emmys–including the ever-so-modest Mr. Weiner–encourages the show to keep breaking new ground, then I’m all for it.

  6. In continuum, the ease with which Jon Hamm enacts Don Draper’s complex psychological architecture with enigmatic mystery and sartorial elegance will always be the anchor and primary draw to the series; although it all begins with Matthew Weiner at the helm. 
    Regarding the change in tone this season from seasons past, comparatively, if the meditative quality of seasons 1-4 is reminiscent of the color fields of a Rothko painting whereby the experience deepens as deeply as you want to go into yourself then season 5’s dynamism is reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock action painting whereby one wants to find order and a settled place for oneself amongst the frenetic chaos; and therein lies the beauty of Mad Men as both meditative and dynamic canvas for our subjective interpretation.
    As an aside, when I read the names Andre and Maria Jacquemetton as the writers on “Commissions and Fees” I immediately thought, “They’re bringing out the big guns.”    

  7. This was the season where Mad Men turned into a soap opera. It was really disappointing to watch. And if they wanted the audience to like Megan then they should have hired an actress who can actually act to play her.

  8. Jon Hamm deserves Best Actor, for sure.

    As for the story line, I sure hope the firm gets the American Airlines account. ;)

  9. The lack of recognition for Kartheiser is awful. He takes such huge risks, delivers such stellar performances, and never gets nominated. It’s apalling.

  10. Emmy voting is done by peer group. Only actors can vote for actors and  right now there are about 70 to 80 Emmy judges voting in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series category.  

    While the Emmy writing judges have rewarded the Mad Men writers for their work, the Emmy acting juges have not rewarded a single actor in the series. Do these actors believe a four-time Emmy winner for Outstanding Drama Series acts itself without the benefit of an actor’s contribution? Surely, as actors themselves, they don’t believe this possible. So why then, this egregious state of affairs in their category? This implausibility is simply an embarassment to their group.   

    In the contest for Best Drama Series, there are three groups of voters. Each group is comprised of about 300 members of the TV academy, representative of a diverse and random pool of judges. 

  11. I just discovered Mad Men (never have had cable) and have watched all five seasons in about as many days. Finally to have an artistic series with “critical nostalgia” as Weiner calls it and subtle, emotionally realistic writing and acting. I love it. There are a few things that I think would make it better and even more affecting/believalbe: The ease with which the many men bed down the many women does not ring true. Yes, Don is a womanizer, and so is Roger, but the way the women relate to the sex seems run through a male interpretation. I always check who the writer and director are (often a mix of genders, that’s good) but can pretty well predict if there will be extra gratuitous sex in an episode before I see it, depending whether it was written by a man or a woman. The characters other than Don and Roger should have more subtle sensual lives, not constantly hopping into intercourse with virtually no foreplay. The other thing that I would hope could be tweaked are the anachronisms, from the teacher who is a “jogger” — women jogging alone, even as pioneers of their time, didn’t happen until the early seventies — to language like “really?” and “seriously?” with a very current (even just a year or two now) intonation. Please check these things with people who grew up in the sixties… just changing “seriously” to “are you serious?” would do it, and “really?” with a different intonation that doesn’t scream “2010s”. I love the links to pop culture icons of creativity and kitsch like Star Trek. The Jewish characters deserve some development… esp Ginsberg. Fabulous work, thank you! I would love it if smart kids (tweens like the Sally character) could watch this show, even just a few episodes without so much sex? Probably too much to ask…

  12. Mad Men continues to be the gold standard of television drama. It’s time to acknowledge that the whole season depended on the credibility of two performers, Jessica Pare and Christina Hendricks. Christine’s performance in the episode where she sleeps with a client to get a partnership was both heartbreaking and riveting. Pare’s sensual power over Don is the key to holding the relationship together. The show has never showed him needy of anything, till now. In the hands of lesser writers and actors it could easily slipped into a cliche. It was anything but. Well done, again.

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