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”.
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