The Stuff of History: “Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men at MoMI

03/24/2015 9:00 AM |
The Draper kitchen set, on display at MoMI.

When Don Draper ditches Dr. Faye Miller for his then-secretary Meaghan Calvet in the fourth season finale of Mad Men, the psychologist manages to choke back her tears and claim the last word: “I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things,” she says, before slamming down the rotary receiver. But while Draper may be a man of fresh starts—it’s no spoiler at this point to reveal that the tortured ad exec’s personal reinvention forms the dramatic crux of his character—the show itself is deeply committed to a cumulative sense of temporality.

“I wanted the audience to be able to look back at the pilot and feel a sense of: ‘look how young we were then!’” creator Mathew Weiner said during an onstage conversation at the Museum of the Moving Image on Friday. Heading into the second half of the show’s seventh and final season, it’s difficult to avoid a sense of ownership over the characters’ memories and experiences, to look back over the years (1960-1969) and wonder where the time has gone.

Fans of the series will be pleased to find the clock standing still at MoMI’s newly installed exhibition, Mathew Weiner’s Mad Men.

On display though June 14, the collection includes countless props, miscellany, costumes, and sets from the show—most notably Draper’s Manhattan office and a perfectly preserved kitchen from he and Betty’s first home in Ossining. Don’s wheelie bar is well stocked with Beefeater Gin, Smirnoff Vodka, and Canadian Club Rye—because it wouldn’t be a day at Sterling Cooper Draper Price without someone vomiting up their oyster lunch or sleeping one off on the mid century couch—and in Ossining, Betty’s cookbooks are right where she left them. Utz potato chips and Ritz crackers rest atop the boxy refrigerator and hidden deep within the recesses of the uppermost cabinet (or perhaps just our minds) is the lone bottle of booze Don and Betty share before she sells the house to start anew with Henry Francis.

Replete with ashtrays, embroidered hankies, and period-appropriate boxes of scotch tape, the exhibition certainly does justice to Weiner’s now-famed meticulous—some might say maniacal—attention to detail. “The philosophy from the beginning was that nobody would pick up empty suitcases,” he said. The comment extends to every facet of his show on which nothing is faked: every card on every rolodex contains a phone number and if there’s Sterling Cooper Draper Price stationery lying around, you can bet it contains a vital memo or a financially accurate invoice.

The seamless fusion of historical precision with character and story comes together in the writers’ room, which, in keeping with the exhibition’s focus on celebrating the creative process, is also on display here. In addition to an overstuffed shelf of reference books—everything from the Holy Bible to the Encyclopedia Britannica—are the showrunner’s handwritten notes and early drafts, including the first few pages of a screenplay Weiner wrote in 1993 featuring a familiar character named Peter Whitman: the accidental product of a prostitute and a farmer during the Great Depression.

Along with Vince Gilligan and David Chase, Mathew Weiner is one of the biggest success stories in television history—a venerated hero of the medium’s new, cinematic era—and he plays the part well. Ebullient, wildly intelligent, and a notably dapper dresser, he recounts his early struggles without feigning self-deprecation, and he knows how—and when—to tell a joke. Before landing a writing a job on the TV series Becker (during which time he penned the pilot for Mad Men) and eventually The Sopranos, Weiner was just another out-of-work screenwriter desperately dodging the question “What do you do?” at dinner parties. “I’ve only had one idea in my entire life,” he quipped.

His thought process naked, exposed, and placed under glass, Weiner likened the experience of walking through the exhibit to “having someone come up and pants you.” The notations on display range from the poetic: “You can’t get youth back” to the cryptic: “Betty should get fat,” while historical queries provide insight into his rigorous research process: “Were hospitals integrated?” “Did hospitals have PA systems?” “What were the ER beds like?” All of these snippets are interesting enough, but the overarching genius of the show’s construction is encapsulated in one line in particular: “Sequences must be combinations of time not merely simple events.”

Spanning nearly a decade over the course of its seven seasons, Mad Men has certainly covered a lot of ground—elections, assassinations, suicide, marriage, adultery, divorce, mergers, buyouts, and man’s first lunar landing—but it hasn’t been particularly “eventful” in the traditional, episodic sense. Rather, it’s a show that sneaks up on you much in the same way life does: its immediate, more tangible pleasures are ultimately eclipsed by a bigger picture that can only be wholly appreciated with the wisdom of hindsight.

Weiner was quick to point out the eerie, “ghostly” quality of the MoMI exhibit. Perhaps the choice of adjective was more leading than he meant it to be, but there’s nothing like standing face to face with a box of Velveeta to bring about the realization that the Mad Men’s magic lies less in the specificities of the time period than in Weiner’s command of time itself.

“Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men” runs through June 14 at MoMI. The related film series “Required Viewing: Mad Men‘s Movie Influences” continues through April 26.