'Mad Men' Creator Matthew Weiner on Writing the Cuban Missile Crisis

Friday, October 12, 2012

Set in the 1960s, the AMC series "Mad Men" documents the dramas of that turbulent decade through the personal, everyday lives of its characters. As "Mad Men" creator and show runner Matthew Weiner explains, "One of the theses of the show is that whatever’s going on in your life is still more important than history." 

Sunday, October 14, 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a historical event that serves as the backdrop to Mad Men's season two finale, "Meditations in an Emergency." The episode features a series of Cold War-style negotiations between the characters, as Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) sell Sterling Cooper to the British firm Putnam, Powell, and Lowe. 

Weiner explains that while the business stories are drawn from his experiences, and the economics of the 1960s, a seminal scene between Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) represents the era, and the crisis. 

As Kennedy negotiates with Khrushchev from Washington, in the world of "Mad Men," "Pete warns Don about the merger happening, which he doesn’t have to do, and he takes sides," Weiner says. Indeed, Pete tells Don, "You know they stopped a ship this morning. I bet the Russians are reconsidering, now that we made a stand."

Weiner explains that Pete is warning Don. "You're going to be in a stand-off, but you should hold your ground," Weiner says. "That to me…that is the Cold War."

As with the Kennedy assassination, and the Beatles playing a concert at Shea Stadium, Weiner uses the real-world events of the Cuban Missile Crisis to examine his characters' lives. As characters panic, "deathbed confessions start to tale place," Weiner explains. 

"I used [the crisis] as a jumping off point to say, Don, a survivor in a crisis, is trying to resolve his relationship in the best way possible. His business is up for grabs in a very strange way and, of course, business goes on as usual. That’s one of the themes of the show, too, is that Americans in particular always respond to crises by going to work," Weiner tells Takeaway host John Hockenberry. "Then Betty Draper, who has to face the fact that she’s pregnant with a baby that she doesn’t want, and there are no rules."

Weiner also defends Betty Draper's impulsive behavior. "I do think that what Betty does is brave," he says. "I think that Betty Draper has probably been with only one man her entire life, and she is pregnant, so there is no risk, and she is drunk, and she drops her kids off and she is alone again for the first time, maybe in ten years…and she has the illicit romance in the back of a bar…it was for her a transformational experience that allowed her to go back to her husband." 

The critically-acclaimed scene between Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) also rests on the "deathbed confessions" premise. Pete confesses his love for Peggy, and Peggy finally reveals that she gave his child up for adoption. Peggy, Weiner notes, has to "step back and think about what love is…and how she wants to live even if it’s her last few minutes."

Finally, Weiner reflects on the Crisis itself.

"I can’t believe it was 50 years ago, because I think we still live in its shadow…I think that the United States had a sense of leadership, and understanding of this enemy [that was] much more comfortable. It’s just hard to believe how different the country is now and it’s a reminder of how vulnerable we always are."


Matthew Weiner

Produced by:

Jillian Weinberger

Comments [3]

ebethnyc from NYC

I like Mad Men and I thought this was a good episode, but I have to say I recall getting a much more tangible sense of just how scary it must have been from an episode of Quantum Leap, than the oh so understated MM treatment (of all situations; lots of pregnant pauses and things to be inferred).

Oct. 12 2012 04:53 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I honestly don't know if knowing about situations are better, than not knowing:

The innocence of our world is gone. We are constantly given information about all kinds of terrors; political situations around the world which could explode with chemical weapons, terrorists who target our citizens, domestic terrorists, individuals who lose it who have arsenals of weapons.

On the flipside, not knowing about the horrors of the world, but just getting hints of it might be worse. Our imaginations of horrors can be worse than the realities.

Oct. 12 2012 01:16 PM
Randy Paul from New York, NY

I was a first grader living in Miami during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember it vividly: we were looking at the possibility of turning our hallway into a fallout shelter. We were walked home from school by the National Guard.

I thought it was kind of cool, however: given the likelihood of being cut off from civilized society during the possible war, I was given a bunch of new toys.

Oct. 12 2012 09:49 AM

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