"I did think, why not end the show with the greatest commercial ever made?"
After three days of silence, that was Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner's explanation Wednesday night of how he settled on the final moment for Sunday's series finale, which concluded with Coca-Cola's famous 1971 "Hilltop" ad, strongly implying that Jon Hamm's Don Draper had dreamed it up during an Esalen retreat.
Weiner had declined all interview requests since Sunday's finale, but finally opened up about the last episode and that famous Coke ad, during Wednesday's Live From the New York Public Library discussion with novelist A.M. Homes.
"Coca-Cola, a trendsetter in advertising, always," said Weiner, who added he was disturbed to hear that some people had described the ad as "corny." After all, "five years before that, black people and white people couldn't even be in an ad together! And the idea that some enlightened state, and not just co-option, might have created something that is very pure," he said. "And yes, there's soda in there with the good feeling. To me, it's the best ad ever made, and it comes from a very good place."
Weiner continued, "You shouldn't write everything off. The ambiguous relationship we have with advertising is part of why I did the show," he said. "My main character in the pilot is selling cigarettes, and we cheer when he figures out a new way to sell it."
For his show's conclusion, "it was nice to sort of have your cake and eat it too in terms of 'What is advertising?', 'Who is Don?' and 'What is that thing?'" Weiner also confirmed that Coke did not pay for its inclusion in the finale: "No money changed hands!"
The Coke ad talk did not come until the final moments of a 90-minute conversation. Homes led Weiner on a wide-ranging journey of topics that included John Cheever, Richard Nixon and Weiner's acting aspirations, and only rarely touched on the finale. That left several audience members grimacing at the Coke bottles handed out to each of them as they arrived—a tribute to the finale—and wondering when the conversation would finally come around to the concluding ad.
It was an ending that Weiner revealed he had settled on years ago, once he finished contentious contract negotiations in 2011 and signed on for the show's final three seasons. At that point, "in the back of my mind, I knew about that moment, I knew about the Coke ad, I knew about Betty dying... I didn't know Peggy and Stan would end up together!"
Indeed, Betty's shocking lung cancer diagnosis in the penultimate episode was something that "I knew very early on," said Weiner. "Her mother had just died in the pilot, and I felt that this woman wasn't going to live long, and we loved the idea of her realizing her purpose in life right as she ran out of time."
Weiner credited his writing room for helping him avoid "so many horrible mistakes" over the years, like his wanting to end Betty and Pete's storylines in the finale, instead of a week earlier, as his writers talked him into. "I wanted it all in the finale," he said. "And it would have been a mess. Everything would have been five seconds long!"
Weiner calls the role of Leonard, the man whose emotional monologue in the second-to-last Esalen scene in which he describes feeling like he's invisible on the shelf of a refrigerator, is "probably the most important role in the series." Leonard's oration is a spark for a down-and-out Don. He breaks down and hugs the stranger.
Weiner told his casting director he needed "someone who was not famous and could cry.... I hoped that the audience would feel either that he was embracing a part of himself, or maybe them. And that they were heard. I don't want to put it into words more than that."
The show's final episodes—which found Don largely on his own and away from the rest of the cast—was "hard" for Jon Hamm, said Weiner, "because you want to end like Mary Tyler Moore. You want to end on the set with all of your friends." Instead, "he said goodbye to most of the main characters probably eight or 10 weeks before we finished shooting."
But that's what Weiner wanted for Don. "I thought, I want to see Don on his own," he said. "I want to do an episode of The Fugitive where Don comes into town, and he could be anybody. He's on the run. He's definitely a fugitive in his life.
"This whole last season, and I can say this now, was the idea that the revolution failed in some way, and it's time to deal with what you can control, which is yourself, that's turning inward," said Weiner. "And so this journey has been Don having all his material needs met…and what else is there? We tried to do this journey towards turning inward, for everybody...he stripped it all away. That's what we tried for."
While Weiner had planned many of the finale story beats well in advance, he was surprised to unearth new revelations about his characters late in the run. "I don't think I realized this until the end of the show, but Don likes strangers. Don likes winning strangers over," he said. "He likes seducing strangers, and that's what advertising is: 'We're going to walk down the side of the road, and now we know each other.' And once you get to know him, he doesn't like you."
As he looks ahead to life after Mad Men, Weiner said he hopes to do another TV series one day, but if he makes a show for Netflix, "I would try to convince them to let me just roll them out, so there was at least some shared experience," he said. "I love the waiting, I love the marination. I think when you watch the entire season of a show in a day, you will definitely dream about it, but it's not the same as walking around the whole week saying, 'God, Pete really pissed me off!'"
Ultimately, Weiner seemed relieved to have finally let the finale out into the world. "This thing has been sitting on the shelf since last October, that's when I finished editing and we had our last sound mix," he said. "I have incredible emotion. I'm so pleased that people enjoyed it, and seemed to enjoy it exactly as was intended."