"The show is titled 'Mad Men,' but without these women, the guys would be just a bunch of desperate masturbators in great suits."
So said Holly Hunter, introducing the lead actresses of the acclaimed AMC drama last week at the nonprofit Women in Film awards. And, really, it's hard to argue. While the show's men, most notably, the self-loathing Don Draper, keep repeating sins from the past, the women have evolved and adapted through the show's six seasons. Remember the pilot episode in which Joan takes Peggy on a tour of the office and advises her to "take a paper bag, cut eye holes out of it, put it over your head, get undressed then look at yourself in the mirror"? Now Joan's a partner in the firm (albeit, at a cost) and Peggy has advanced from secretary to a sought-after copy writing chief, her shyness (and bangs) but a distant memory.
"Now if those two are talking, it's about business, and how to get it," says Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy on the series.
We met Moss and the show's other female leads — January Jones, Jessica Pare, Kiernan Shipka and, by speaker phone from Detroit (where's she filming a movie), Christina Hendricks — along with "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner shortly before last week's Women in Film evening to talk about the changing times as the series heads toward its climactic seventh season. Wine was poured, rumors were dispelled and there was even a kind word or two about Don. ("He's not that bad," Moss offered. "He's just having a serious crisis.") Here are excerpts from the conversation:
With all the rumors, do we need to keep our fingers crossed for the continued good health of everyone here?
Weiner: I don't want to spoil anything for people, but after Lane …
Moss: They're barking up the wrong tree.
Weiner: It's just not part of the show. No one's going to die.
Pare: Thank God!
Weiner: This season. I didn't say never! (Laughs)
Moss: He changes his mind all the time.
Pare: Well, we have finished shooting.
Hendricks: Wait … is there some rumor that Megan's going to kill herself?
Weiner: The T-shirt she was wearing on the balcony at the end of episode nine was a T-shirt Sharon Tate wore, so everyone's convinced that this is some secret clue that Megan's going to be murdered or die or end up in Los Angeles in a house in the hills.
Hendricks: I had no idea this intrigue was going on. I love it!
Just google Sharon Tate and Megan Draper …
Hendricks: You bet I am!
Moss: (Laughs) She's googling it right now.
Weiner: And then because Sally was reading "Rosemary's Baby" too, they thought that was some kind of clue.
Moss: That is a lot of hints!
Weiner: It's not. It's the end of the '60s. Honestly, on the cheap, we're trying to tell the story of the disintegration of the city. That's our way of evoking hard-core decay. By 1977, New York will be bankrupt.
Well, certainly, Don's decaying too, repeating the same mistakes again and again. The women in the show, though, display a nimbler ability to change, to evolve, even if circumstances sometimes make that difficult.
Moss: It seems like the argument of the show this season is: Can anyone change or do you just keep making the same mistakes? For Peggy, that's definitely her story this year. She thought she got out. She thought she had changed and was this new person with this new boss and then got dragged back into an even worse position.
Caught between two bosses, almost the good and bad version of the same man.
Moss: And it becomes worse than she imagined, thanks to the idiocy of the men. For me, a lot of the characters are going through this thing where they're thinking they've changed and gone somewhere and somehow they just seem to wind up in the same spot.
Weiner: And don't forget the boyfriend. There's a moment in the season when they're driven close together, even without the piece of paper. There's talk of a future and a family. His idealism is attractive to her. And then it gets turned on her.
Moss: Because it's not really who she is.
The show's audience has always rooted for Peggy, going back to the pilot episode where we follow her on her first day. Betty, though, has been a divisive character — until that episode this season when she slept with Don. Now everyone loves her!
Jones: In a way, how the audience feels about her depends on her relationship with Don — and her relationship with her children. At the end of Season 2, when she had the affair with the guy in the bar, so many people came up to me and said, "I can't believe she did that!" And I felt it was so hypocritical of people to think that this was so bad of her when her husband's been doing it the entire time.
Weiner: It's a big TV taboo, actually. The men can do whatever they want but a married woman cannot stray. With Betty, it's been an education for all of us. I have very strong feelings for Betty, and I'm always confused by what the audience likes or doesn't like. She's fat, and they think I hate her. Or I hate January.
I've heard both thoughts from a lot of people ...
Weiner: Even though Betty is childish, she's not selfish. She's often thinking about something bigger.
Jones: People were sympathetic to her in the beginning and then they didn't like her when she broke away from Don and tried to make her life better. Then she gained weight and they liked her again because they felt sorry for her and then she had sex with Don and now they think she's great. It's confusing. I knew there was going to be a big reaction when she sort of seduced Don, but I didn't know people would love it that way. What is that?
Weiner: I think they're the ones with the problem. I think people see a lot of themselves in Betty. I know we all do.
Jones: It's a lot of what you say about people changing. Betty is able to see that Don is not going to change and that makes her confident that he's doing the same thing to someone else. It makes her stop being jealous of Megan and sympathize with her. It makes her realize that relationship is really dead.
Weiner: Isn't a realization as good as changing sometimes?
Jones: If you learn from it and grow.
Weiner: Sometimes just knowing it. Betty seemed very wise too. What she says about Megan really made me think this woman has grown up.
Which brings us to Megan ...
Weiner: Her career is going great! (Everyone laughs.)
Pare: That is huge. When Megan left the agency ... she loved the people and liked it there, but she had this thing she had to do to be fulfilled.
Weiner: I think Megan is the most modern person on the show.
Moss: Megan's definitely the one who is the most advanced. She's totally cool having a career and being married and maybe having kids. Even though Peggy's pretty modern, she's in a little bit of a box. We all are. Megan's the only one of us who actually is doing it all. She just doesn't know that part of her life, her marriage, isn't going as well as she thinks. But she's actually the most similar to all of us.
Weiner: People always ask me about Megan: What is her flaw? What is wrong with her that she's with that man. She really loves him. She has a big heart. She made a choice about her career. I don't think we even heard the word "choice" in the show for these women. It is literally just them riding a wave.
Jones: Her flaw is that she trusts Don.
Pare: I don't know. Other flaws might show up. But I am in love with her. And I agree with you. Somehow it never seemed like there were barriers for her having her career and having her family and her husband. She felt like she could have it all and then it was just a question of going and doing it.
Weiner: And she's very idealistic about her career and serious about acting. At the same time, I hope everyone can identify with the choices she's making as an actress. It's not all good.
Jones: We've all been there! (Laughs)
Christina, Joan made a choice this year, going after Avon and cutting out Pete in the process.
Hendricks: She has the new title and Joan's incredibly aware that that could mean very little to nothing unless she does something about it. As we've seen through the show, little triumphs have been taken away from her.
Which is why she tells Peggy that, protocol be damned, she has to go after the account herself ...
Hendricks: Absolutely. At the start of the season, in her mind, she has a fresh start. She's trying to turn over a new leaf. She's made this great new friend, Bob Benson ...
Weiner: Who's a government spy. Well ... not anymore.
Moss: Have you heard all the Bob Benson rumors?
Moss: Oh my God, you have to google Bob Benson. Do that one before Sharon Tate. I've heard the craziest stuff about him. That he was Don's brother come back. Or that he was Peggy's son, come back from the future. Isn't that amazing?
Weiner: (Laughs) That would be a huge shift in tone for the show.
Moss: Season 9: The Syfy Channel. We're in the future. We're all in Spandex. [Costume designer Janie Bryant] would be so excited!
Sally Draper has obviously changed significantly through the years, moving from making cocktails for her dad into the heart of the eye-rolling adolescent years ...
Weiner: We've had conversations along the lines of: "I don't know if she should roll her eyes here." And [writer] Maria [Jacquemetton] would say, "It's not enough. She should roll her eyes more."
Jones: It's true. When you're 13 or 14, your eyes are rolled 24/7. Mine were.
Shipka: I think throughout the whole season, there was a lot of hope for Sally. She had friends. Nothing super-dramatic was happening. And then all of a sudden [after accidentally catching her father having sex with neighbor Sylvia] it just crashed and burned and I don't think it'll ever be the same. That's just too much guilt on her shoulders, too much shame that she now has to live with. And I don't think she trusts anybody any more.
Weiner: (To Shipka) That's amazing. Sorry, I've known [Kiernan] since she was 6. I can't even believe it ...
Jones: She was the same when she was 6. (Everyone laughs.)
Weiner: It's true. You know, you talk about shame. That moment where Don is talking to Sally through the door and she puts her hand over her face and I swear, she looks exactly like Don. I don't even know if you're thinking about it in your performance or if it's all from the inside, but my god, that's just what Don does.
Shipka: The characters just rub off on each other a little bit. You are living with them for six or seven years, so that's where a lot of that comes from
Weiner: Sally has a lot of problems. She's inherited a lot. I predict smoking. I predict alcoholism.
Shipka: Therapy. Lots of therapy.
Weiner: But the people we run into the most talk about Sally. There's a lot of women that say, "I'm Sally. I'm Sally's age." And they're all very successful.
Shipka: So there is hope.
Actors don't have control over their characters' fates. But with just one season remaining for the show, do you have any hopes for where they might land?
Weiner: (To the women) Are you thinking about the end?
Moss: I just keep thinking about the moment when they say, "Cut" and "Check the gate," and that's it and I'll never play Peggy again. The people you'll see again. And you'll keep acting, hopefully. And you're not going to die. (Moss looks at Pare, and everyone bursts out laughing.) But that character ... I'll never speak as her again, and that to me is so weird. It's like a part of yourself is definitely dying.
Hendricks: I think about the end all the time. I think I'll go into hiding for a while. It's going to be really difficult. It's been the most special work experience in my life. I don't know how I'll deal.
Moss: We've always agreed that whatever we think of for our characters can't possibly be as good as what Matt's going to write.
Weiner: Well, at this point you all are pretty insightful about your characters, so ... keep your ideas to yourself! (Laughs)
You must have a few thoughts about that final episode, Matt. If "The Sopranos" ended with Journey, what song is going to play off "Mad Men"?
Weiner: "The Sopranos" was very rock 'n' roll and that was a very rock 'n' roll ending. This is more [Percy Faith's] "Theme from 'A Summer Place.'"
Wistful in tone ...
Weiner: I feel a pressure to make the ending feel like something that will not disturb the taste in people's mouths that they've had from eating this meal for seven years. That you can go back and look at the pilot and not think it was all a lie. I don't want anything to disturb that reality.
Hendricks: Does that mean my "Thelma & Louise" ending isn't happening?
Moss: Well, not now!