“The more you invest in the show the more you get back…”

An interview with Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Bright Wall/Dark Room: So, Brianna, when did you first start watching Mad Men?

Brianna Ashby: I’ve been in from the beginning—I came for the seemingly endless parade of vintage fashion and stayed because there was so very much more.

BW/DR: Wow, you’ve been in since day one – impressive! Not a lot of people can (honestly) say that. So the original ads caught your eye or how were you even aware of it?

BA: I have a friend who watched the pilot and basically sat me down and said, “This show is made for you.” And he was right.

BW/DR: Sounds like he knew you pretty well. I hope you kept him in your life – he’ll need to find a new show for you now, after all.

BA: Yes sir.

BW/DR: And do you have any routines or rituals around watching the show?

BA: I sit down on the left hand side of the couch on Monday night (after iTunes has made it available) with a full glass of water next to me that I never touch, admonish my husband not to talk, sneeze, eat, or breathe, and then I sit motionless for 47 minutes. It’s practically meditation.

BW/DR: And I think you told me recently that you don’t read anything about it afterwards?

BA: I don’t. It’s not that I don’t think that I have anything to gain from reading other people’s interpretations, but somehow I feel like it would taint my own response to what I had seen. I’lltalk about it until I’m blue in the face, because when it’s conversational it feels less like someone is trying to instruct you on how to feel about something which I tend to internalize pretty deeply. I sound like an asshole, don’t I?

BW/DR: Not at all – it’s actually fascinating to me, because I’m basically the exact opposite way. I’ll watch it with my wife, we’ll talk a little bit about it, and I’ll let it sit with me overnight. But then by the next day, I’m religiously reading a handful of writers I trust and enjoy (Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture, Molly Lambert at Grantland) to see what they made of the episode. For me it adds to the engagement with the show – but I can totally see and respect your point of view, where you want to keep your own interpretations intact. That’s great, too. I don’t think there’s a wrong way to do it.

So, you’ve been watching Mad Men like this for eight years now – which episode do you think best captures what you love most about the show?

BA: Hmm…that’s tough. There are so many connecting threads that run throughout the show that it’s really difficult to isolate one episode in particular and hold it up as an exemplar without it losing some of its power. I guess the episode that immediately comes to mind for me, though, is “The Wheel,” (Season 1 Episode 13) which is masterful television in its own right, but becomes that much more poignant when you pair it with “The Strategy.” (Season 7 Episode 6).

One of the most compelling things about the series as a whole is the way that advertising is used as a vehicle for telling bigger, deeper stories; in this case, the mythological nostalgia of both the Kodak Carousel and the Burger Chef campaign is just a projection of what Don and Peggy and Pete and everyone else are fumbling for. Much of the beauty of Mad Men lies in the unsaid—which, like every other detail of the show, is absolutely intentional—and having the advertising work carry a lot of the emotional weight is such an elegant way to forgo exposition. It’s a brilliant plot device. And then visually both episodes are knock outs and really show off what the series conveys through lighting design: the intimacy of hushed tones in Betty’s psychiatrist’s office and the warm darkness of Don and Peggy’s dance, contrasted with the brilliant glow of the slide projector and the Edward Hopper-esque fluorescence of a meal at Burger Chef.

BW/DR: It really is amazing how much the show is able to convey without words. All those intangibles—the lighting, as you mentioned, but also the composition of certain shots, the detailed set and art design, the songs they choose to use in certain moments—they bring so many additional layers to everything. And it’s clear, like you said, it’s all absolutely intentional and on purpose. I can’t believe there’s much of anything at all on Mad Men that’s accidental. Which actually, as I’m saying that, makes me realize that almost connects Matthew Weiner in this weird way to someone like Wes Anderson. They work in vastly different realms tonally, for sure—but the specificity, the obsessive care and attention to detail and artifice, the self-contained worlds they create…there’s definitely a connection there, right? I defer to you on this, since you’re the resident Wes Anderson expert on staff.

BA: I actually made the Wes/Matt comparison in a recent conversation! I think it’s an apt one. I think in both cases we have creators who are willing to let things happen organically (to a certain extent) within a very specific, controlled, environment, but I don’t think anything isevery left up to chance. Everything is a storytelling device, even the costumes, which I can’t resist talking about for a second.

Reflecting on the Mad Men finale, I picked up a little bit of foreshadowing in Don’s costume changes. When he first shows up at the retreat he’s in jeans and a plaid shirt and is slightly unkempt, but when the camera focuses in on him at the end, he’s perfectly groomed and meditating in a dress shirt and chinos, work attire. A minute later, the Coke commercial starts and Don Draper is back in action. It’s so subtle and so wonderful.

I also particularly appreciated the reappearance of Megan’s tiny blue chiffon dress this season; she wears the same dress to meet Harry to discuss finding her a new agent that she did when she picked Don up from LAX for the first time. It’s her Dress of Unmitigated Disappointment. It’s details like that that totally suck you in. Both Matt and Wes have such clear visions about the worlds their characters inhabit, and their scrupulous methodologies have made watching a film or turning on your television a completely immersive experience. A huge part of that comes from how immersive their creative processes are—both of them devour everything they can get their hands on that’s related to a particular idea. Hell, at this point Matthew Weiner is practically a historian. The relatability of both Mad Men and of Wes’ films comes from their being based on real people and real places and real stories and layering them with their own ideas, even things that seem far fetched. I went to a panel discussion at Lincoln Center with Matt and some of the cast of the show, and they were talking about how he collected stories from people from that era to use as jumping off points, and the conversation came to Joan’s Jaguar storyline. As unsavory as it was to watch her sleep with a lecherous creep to secure an account, it was more unsavory to learn that it was inspired by a true story, but that “no one got a partnership afterward.” You can’t discount the strangeness of real life.

BW/DR: Very true.

So, is their a relationship on the show feels the most important to you?

BA: The relationship between Don and Peggy, no question. Here we have two people that have absolutely put each other through the wringer, but would do it all over again. There is such a profound understanding between them and such an openness…it’s incredibly moving.

BW/DR: Don definitely put Peggy through the wringer over the years, though he basically put everybody through the wringer at some point, but do you think Peggy did the same in turn? It seems to me she got the short end of the stick far more often than not in that relationship.

BA: I’m not sure that anyone really got the short end of the stick. When Don was spiraling out of control, he took a lot of it out on Peggy, and she internalized a lot of it, but she wasn’t passive. When she struck back she was downright hostile, and she hit him where it hurt. When you’ve let yourself be utterly vulnerable in front of someone else, all your nerves are exposed. They expected even more out of each other than they expected out of everyone else (which was already a lot), and so when someone was falling short, things got ugly.

BW/DR: And they also gave us some of the most wonderful scenes in the entire series. Those moments of emotional intimacy between them in “The Suitcase” and then again years later in “The Strategy”, that’s as good as television gets in my mind. And while I don’t think their phone conversation in the finale matches either of those, it’s still another incredible moment between them. Which one stands out most for you?

BA: The beauty of their relationship is that it runs that emotional gamut. When I said earlier that I had trouble isolating episodes, I also have trouble isolating specific moments, especially in this case. When you’re watching “The Suitcase,” you have to have an awareness of Don and Peggy’s backstory, otherwise you’d just be kind of left scratching your head. They have a pretty heavy conversation at the bar about Peggy’s baby, and they barely have to say anything. It’s one of my favorite instances of meaningful omission in the series—there’s so much depth in between the lines. Then moving forward, we couldn’t have had “The Strategy” without “The Suitcase.” The power of that episode hinges on our having been privy to Don and Peggy’s conversations about family, and why it’s such a fraught topic for both of them. All of that said, both of those episodes are masterworks. Like you said, they are as good as television gets, especially when Don says to Peggy, “You’ll find someone. You know you’re cute as hell.” It slays me every time.

BW/DR: Ok, so you liked the Don/Peggy relationship the most, but which character on the show did you most identify with?

BA: I actually identify the most with Betty. Like her I’m a mother in my 30s living in a town just outside of New York City, and like Betty, I feel like I both fit into and stand totally outside of my domestic role.

BW/DR: Given that, how did you feel about her character arc over the course of the show’s seven seasons? It seemed like they put her through a lot, but at the same time, didn’t give her much to do for long stretches of time.

BA: I always wanted more for Betty. I have never been a fan of Henry – he’s arguably just the lesser of two evils, though I’m not really sure how much I actually believe that. It’s always frustrating to see someone with untapped potential be consistently undervalued, you just want to shake them and say “You can do so much more!” And it was particularly frustrating to watch Betty be held hostage by the times and her need for propriety and social acceptability, because she has the self awareness to know that she’s trapped. The storyline between her and Glen was so compelling because we see her acting purely on instinct, in ways that are pretty wildly inappropriate, and she’s laid totally bare. She writes to Sally that she used to worry about her marching to the beat of her own drummer, but now she doesn’t because she knows her life is going to be full of adventure—and that one sentence brings all of Betty’s struggles into sharp relief. I think it’s part of the reason why she’s so calm about her prognosis, and so wistful in dictating her last wishes: she gets to choose. She has no idea what comes next. It’s an adventure.

BW/DR: It seems like people really embraced January Jones as an actress a lot more in the final season, but she caught a lot of flak in the early years of the show.

BA: Negative critiques of January Jones’ acting always sort of rubbed me the wrong way. There’s a lot of discomfort surrounding her character and I think some of that gets displaced. I also think that when you watch Betty, you’re watching someone who is so conscious of every move she makes and how she’s presenting herself that she rarely lets her guard down and just acts naturally, for lack of a better phrase. She’s suppressing so many instinctual reactions and emotions that of course she’s going to come off as cold, or wooden, or whatever the preferred pejorative is!

BW/DR: Definitely a suppressor. That’s why I was so thrilled to see her wanting to study psychology this season! I think if they’d have actually let her read all that Freud she was starting to dig into before she got sick, she might have started seeing some things a whole lot differently, and made some fairly interesting changes.

BA: I’d also like to think that if she’d been given the chance she would eventually have gotten to the point where she just said fuck it and threw Henry and her life as she knew it totally overboard.

BW/DR: I did start thinking at some points this season that that was the journey she was ultimately starting in on. Education and self-awareness would have been an interesting fit on Betty Draper. Do you think she would have made a good therapist some day?

BA: I’d like to think so.

BW/DR: So what has Mad Men meant to you on a personal level over the years? And how do you feel about it all being over now?

BA: Well, I feel like I owe Matthew Weiner—and all of the writers, actors, and anyone who had a hand in creating this show—an enormous debt of gratitude for letting me into that universe. I’ve been enthralled with television shows before, but I’ve never felt the emotional connection I do with Mad Men. The writing isn’t just sleek and snappy and witty, there’s also an emotional intelligence that’s unlike anything I’ve ever really seen before. There is so much to decipher in the places in between words, in body language, in set design, in lighting, in color, that you’re never less than fully engaged with what you’re watching. You get to a place where you can read the characters like you would a person standing right in front of you, and you realize that even though the characters are fictional, they’re telling you the stories of everyone you know. The more you invest in the show the more you get back and the more you can see yourself, which can be uncomfortable, but it’s also a relief to see people at their worst, because god knows no one is ever consistently at their best.

I’m sad that we’ll no longer have that mirror, but I think the show is ending at just the right time. I don’t want to see Don get old, or see Joan wearing awful 80’s power suits and directing spots for Lean Cuisine.

BW/DR: Speaking of which, have you seen that “80s Don Draper” twitter account? That’s maybe the single funniest Mad Men thing I’ve come across all week.

BA: Oh god, I have. I laughed in spite of myself.

BW/DR: And what did you think of the actual season finale?

BA: I thought the finale was perfect! I had anticipated sobbing through the entire thing, and when that didn’t happen, I thought, well, Weiner has done it again. The man can throw a curveball better than any professional pitcher.

One of my favorite things about the show is its sort of “magical pragmatism” – it’s always been pretty relentlessly realistic, but there’s always been room for the surreal and the dreamlike (and sometimes literal dreams) as well, so it’s never been without hope, and it’s certainly never been without humor, even in its darkest hours. (Lane trying and failing to kill himself with a car that notoriously has mechanical difficulties? That’s just brilliant.) And I think we got all of that in the finale. Having it end with a wink instead of a sob was such a wonderful surprise that I was giddy. I didn’t see anything cynical about having it all come back around to advertising, in fact, I saw it as the opposite. We see Don undergoing such a powerful catharsis that it’s like he’s detoxing from all of the regret he’s been carrying around, and then he calls Peggy who tells him that he can come home. Where is home? Home for Don is at Kodak, Jaguar, Heinz, Lucky Strike, The Hilton. It goes back to that idea of advertising as a vehicle for the emotional—Don uses his pitches as a way of trying to attain the intangible. Throughout the episode we see the major players in Don’s life working their way toward their own versions of happiness, and acceptance, and finding love and peace through that, and that’s all Don wants for himself, and for everyone else. When Don Draper wants to buy you a Coke, he’s not just buying you a Coke.

BW/DR: Totally true. I always thought of Don as an artist – even if his “art form” was advertising, which we don’t often associate with “being an artist”. And like so many great artists (writers, musicians, painters, etc) throughout history, he had a miserable childhood, with a whole lot of trauma and attachment wounds, and finds a way to channel that into creative expression. I mean on some levels “Don Draper” itself is essentially one long extended piece of performance art on his part, right? He’s always, everywhere he goes, Dick Whitman and he never won’t be, he gets the bone deep level of insecurity and loneliness at the heart of the human condition on a very basic level – it’s carved into his core. But at his best, he can channel that into his “art” at a level that someone like, say, Pete Campbell is just never going to get to as an ad man.

BA: Right, I completely agree that there’s a lot to be mined from trauma, and Don is a master at finding the gems. When it comes to the finale and Don’s acceptance of his duality, I think I may have a different interpretation. I saw the last episode as a sort of sloughing off of the vestiges of Dick Whitman, and this man becoming wholly Don Draper, which was set up brilliantly in the previous episode. In the VW hall listening to haunted men tell their horror stories, Don tells what we know is the absolute truth about what happened in Korea, and yet, these men that he feels a kinship with think he’s a phony. He’s distanced himself so far from that life that his honesty rings hollow. There are a few bits of dialogue in the finale that stuck with me, particularly when Don calls Peggy and is laying out his multitude of sins and he says, “I’m not the man you think I am”, Peggy dismisses him and says that’s not true, and when Stephanie says, “You’re not my family. What’s wrong with you?” No one is buying into the Dick Whitman story anymore, and Don realizes that he can finally let it go.

BW/DR: Hmm, yeah, I can see totally see that take on it, even if it’s not where I personally landed. And bear with me, this is gonna be long. I saw it more as finally, like, this integration of Dick Whitman and Don Draper, rather than a shedding of either part. I mean, the Dick Whitman thing isn’t a story, it’s his actual self, who he is underneath the Don Draper mask. And that insecure, traumatized, restless, scared, lonely kid inside of him is ultimately what drove him to build this cool, confident Don Draper mythos up around himself, even if it was often Dick driving the emotional car around, self-destructing time and again. That’s why I saw the finale as him finally getting a bit more integration of Dick/Don, which becomes that “new you” the yoga teacher refers to in the final lines.

And he’s only able to get to that point after going through this complete dismantling of the Don Draper persona, shedding everything, stripping it all down to maybe try and build that new self. But then once his mask is gone, he’s a wreck too, and has to face up to that directly for maybe the very first real time. So he starts building up the persona again—drinking heavily, racing cars, sleeping with a random woman because he can, starting to Don Draper it up a bit. Then he gets that literal wake up call from Sally, telling him that Betty is dying, and finds out in quick succession that Sally doesn’t want him to come back to help raise the kids, and neither does Betty. Then he goes to the only “family” he has left, in Stephanie, and she tells him he’s not her family. They go to the therapy retreat, and a woman looks into his soul and flat out pushes him away. Then he tries to console Stephanie, in crisis, by repeating the mantra that’s gotten him through for years, telling her to keep moving forward and not question her choices—and she tells him that’s just plain wrong. And then she ditches him at the retreat, stranding him there! Total rock bottom. No Dick, no Don. Totally broken down.

And that’s when he’s finally open and raw and vulnerable enough to fully be present and take in that heartbreaking “no one notices I’m gone” monologue from Leonard in the final group therapy scene. Leonard basically feels like a stand-in for Dick Whitman at that point, and Don fully gets that, takes it in and connects with the guy’s sadness and pain and gets up and hugs him. Not to get too woo-woo or new age-y on you, but I think that’s Weiner trying to suggest Don is finally really seeing and befriending his own inner child – the Dick Whitman self he’s been running away from for so damned long. That hug, and shared sadness with Leonard, that’s the start of the Don/Dick integration. And then by the next morning, he’s becoming someone slightly new – not a better Don Draper, but a better, more compassionate and integrated person in general. (He should have changed his name again…maybe he could have just taken Leonard’s!)

Now, as to how long that change or new self lasts, who knows. But I think the point is that he got there, even if only for a little while. And that’s the smile that ends the show.

BA: It’s interesting to hear your interpretation of things, because you can approach it from a much more psychological perspective. I agree that for a long time Don Draper was just a facade, but over the course of the series, I felt like I was watching that gradually fade away while Dick Whitman became mythologized. He’s a tragic John Steinbeck character. That said, I can get behind your take for the most part, but I’m not sure I believe that Don is on the road to complete reinvention. I think if that was the case, the show really would have ended on that smile, and not on a commercial for Coca-Cola. Even if Don made it to some other astral plane, he brought what he saw and felt back down to earth with him, and channeled it into the thing that makes Don Draper Don Draper. His self-actualization becomes part and parcel of his creative process.

BW/DR: Oh, trust me, I’m not arguing that Don self-actualizes or reaches nirvana or anything—just that he gains some pretty deep insight, for once, and uses that to grab onto a moment of contentment that might possibly lead to a bit of reinvention. At the end he’s a changed man, but who knows how long that change holds. Mad Men loves to remind us that change is cyclical, for all of us, and it’s always happening.

BA: Exactly.

BW/DR: Alright, so final question – what was it like doing the Mad Men/Jon Hamm cover art for this issue?

BA: Unsurprisingly, I’m pretty attached to the piece I did. I am so inspired by the creative processes that brought the show to fruition, so it felt right to pay a humble tribute by creating something with my own two hands.