The penultimate season of "Mad Men" has come to an end — and a hell of an end it was, as I discuss in my review of the finale. I also spoke with series creator Matthew Weiner about Don's choices (and their consequences), the secret origin of Bob Benson, the way history intruded on fiction like never before, and more, all coming up just as soon as I get to that sandwich on my desk before you do...

Why does Don choose to confess to Hershey in that moment? Is it just about his feelings about Ted and seeing the look on his face, or is something more going on there?

Matthew Weiner: I think it's a lot of things. But definitely the Ted conversation (is part of it). It's the spirit of change that has been ignited by him hitting rock bottom. Being in the drunk tank and telling Megan, "It got out of control. I got out of control," he's in a different head space. He's quit drinking. I think a lot of it's about his daughter, as we find out. And a lot of it's what we tried to do over the course of the season, which is to say, at a certain point, you have to stop looking outside yourself and look in the mirror and just recognize who you are. Ending up there with Hershey, which he obviously had a very personal connection to, it was obviously overwhelming, what Ted said. It's a bunch of stuff, hopefully.

Did Don just get Freddie Rumsen'ed in the final meeting with the partners? The language about the leave of absence is very similar, and Duck is bringing in somebody new on the elevator. Is this an actual leave of absence, or is it more than that?

Matthew Weiner: You'll have to watch and see. Freddie Rumsen did wind up back at the agency eventually. I'm not going to say what's going to happen, because I don't know. But the idea that the partners would not give him what is the worst punishment that they can give to a partner for his behavior that year was not realistic to us.

Relating to Don's behavior, he was behaving erratically, missing meetings, making unilateral decisions that hurt the firm. But what I also noticed was that even when his pitches were good, they involved specifically omitting the product. The Royal Hawaiian and Diamondhead are not in that ad, the ketchup is not in the Heinz ad, the car doesn't appear in his Vega teaser ad. Was there something specific to that? Was Don already disengaging from the game at that point?

Matthew Weiner: That's a very interesting analysis. It's hard for me to explain this, but Don's ads this year are spectacular. That omission is actually kind of an expression of creative genius. It is where things are going. It is the way advertising will be in 1975. You just have to talk the clients into it. The idea of how do you draw someone's attention in when you live literal photography and you can scream at them with the product bigger and more accurately than ever, is something they're struggling with. I don't want people to think Don is off his game. The clients are a little behind. That's the way they should see it. What they should really think about is that he ruined a public offering, he fired their most important client, he impulsively forced them into a partnership merger and then went to war against their partner. That's why he has the leave of absence. I don't think there should be any doubt that he is at the height of his abilities. The great thing about Don, and part of the contrast with Ted, is Don is not a fad-ist. Don is still operating from his own relationship with the product, which is more timeless. Despite trends in humor, photography and everything else that's going on in what the advertising agency's self-proclaimed creative revolution, Don's advertising, I think, is still great advertising, and probably better than a lot of the advertising that is getting sold. His understanding of television is the reason they got Sunkist, you know?

That's a really interesting analysis, though. What I found out there is that there is a style to what Don pitches, and it didn't even occur to me. It's constructed by so many people here at our fake agency.

Has it been set in stone yet that next year is going to be the last year?

Matthew Weiner: Yes. No one has asked me, but that's my plan.

Given that, you blow up a lot of things here: Ted and Pete go to California. Don is at at the very least suspended from the agency, if not outright fired. Megan walks out of the apartment, and we'll find out later whether or not she comes back. Peggy is at least temporarily in charge of creative. This is massive seismic change to the show. Did knowing you're this close to the end give you the freedom to try to do that?

Matthew Weiner: I like to think that we always do that. I wasn't going to go this far, and then Marie and Andre Jacquemetton — who are the seconds of the show, our other executive producers in the writers room — they were like, "We can't structure this as two seasons. You need to do what we've always done." I like to think that every finale is that cataclysmic, of every season. We just didn't hold anything back. It sounds like a lot, but we ended season 3 with Don starting a new agency, living in the Village by himself, and Betty going off to get a divorce. Hopefully, it always feels like we've painted ourselves into a corner, because we actually have.

But was there anything about these specific places you painted yourselves into? For instance, you and I have talked in the past about California; does putting two of your characters there tie in at all to your endgame, or have you not even thought that much about what's going to be in this final season yet?

Matthew Weiner: I have not thought about it. I will tell you one thing: we did not save anything. I have an image for the very ending of the series, and I won't say whether it's related to any of this, because why would I? My feeling was, we started off the season saying the world is in revolution, the world is in an identity crisis, similar to Don, Don is back to a place where he was maybe even before we met him. The premiere this year could have easily been an episode before the pilot. "I don't want to do this anymore" is what's different about it. We wanted to get him to a place where he would be forced to acknowledge his behavior, and to do something a lot of us never get to do, which is to look in the mirror and admit that he is the problem, and maybe come clean a little bit. For me, the season was about learning more about him. We have 78 episodes of the show now, and I always want the finale to leave people with a feeling — not a cliffhanger feeling, but a feeling of the completion of the story of that season, and maybe the show.

You said Don comes to certain realizations. He's come to similar realizations in the past, has even opened up about himself a bit in the past — he took the kids to Anna Draper's house when they were in California — but it generally doesn't stick. Is there something different about what's happened here, in terms of bringing Sally here, letting the partners hear about his childhood growing up in the whorehouse, and all of that?

Matthew Weiner: We always take very seriously the consequences of the actions of the show. I never pretend like it didn't happen. Those kids were really little when they went to California. Sally did her family tree last year, and asked questions and Don lied to her. I like to think, that moment of Don and Sally having that look, a lot of us never get there with our parents. And that in itself is something. Does it stick in what sense? Can a man change his entire fabric? I don't know. But he definitely has recognized something, and he should get points for that. As long as people feel that he has at least begun — not a reform, but certainly a recognition of the problem, which is a huge thing for this man. Huge. I will not pretend like it didn't happen. Will he pretend like it didn't happen? I don't know.

Why introduce, in Bob Benson, a Don Draper doppelganger in this season in particular? Was there something about Don's story this season that necessitated this parallel character existing in accounts?

Matthew Weiner: That was part of the way that the show works, in a strange way. I hope it's not disappointing to people, but I love that they're interested in how the process works. Bob Benson was introduced as part of Pete's story, actually — not just to show that Pete had learned something by the end of the season, when he confronts him and realizes he should not mess with this man. Unfortunately, it doesn't stick. But we really wanted to show that Pete has everything, and this underling who is Don Draper-like — except for the fact that he admires Pete, wants everything Pete has and loves Pete — everything about him, I think, that we conceived, was accelerated by this lucky piece of casting in finding James (Wolk). He just really did a great job in conveying this kind of childish enthusiasm. I think that's where it came from. We wanted it to be that this man is doing everything right, his success is not based on merit in some way, but it's not like he's offensive. For Pete to realize what he was losing, and this man would ascend, because he knew what he was doing.

Speaking of James, he's doing "The Crazy Ones" in the fall. You've always been able to work things out with Alison Brie so that she can do your show while she's doing "Community." Do you have a similar arrangement in place with James Wolk, or will Bob just be in Detroit all year?

Matthew Weiner: I can't tell you. You have to watch. We loved having him on the show. I would say that the little thought I've given it, I don't think his story is over.

You've said in the past that you're not making a history lesson, but a story about these people set in this historically-rife period. 1968 becomes one of those years where it becomes very hard to ignore the history that's happening around the characters, and there were a lot of episodes where people were watching it on TV, or listening to the radio or dealing with the violence. What was the challenge of setting the show in this year, and how you decided to show the big events of it?

Matthew Weiner: The reason why I always say that is because I feel like historical events take a while to filter into our life. We take the ones that we think, judging from what we can tell, would really impact people's lives. They were not following the civil rights struggle on a daily basis, but when cities started burning down, they started paying attention. We have tried to make it as gradual a process as it really was. By the time 1968 comes, it is a climax to all of the issues that have been filtering through, that they've been ignoring for as long as possible. Also, the television is so prevalent in people's lives — and that has changed in the world, not just in the show. You understand? We're trying to show how much of the hysteria is being shown on TV now.  It was a challenge, because there was so much of it, and it was so bad, that I basically realized that that was the story. The story was there was a worldwide revolution going on, and it is creating this deep, deep anxiety as idealism is going up against violence. And I don't think that idealism wins. That is part of what we tried to show: they turned toward the part that they can control, which is their family. It kind of reminds people that, at least at that point, the social structure and "civilization" is not in great shape, but what can you deal with? You can deal with your family and your children, and that is all over the show, the entire season. We tried to hit it as much as possible. And Don is not capable of doing that as long as he's living a lie with his family.

What happened with Joan and Avon?

Matthew Weiner: That succeeded. Speaking of revolutions, Peggy bailed her out of it in the end. A lot of this is about people trying to not repeat their habits based on previous experience. Even though Peggy is higher up than Joan, and is explaining to Joan how it works, Joan knows she's having so much taken away — she just knew that would be the only way to get it, so she got it.

Was there more material in later episodes referring to her getting it that got cut, or were you assuming it would be understood?

Matthew Weiner: I assumed it would be understood, yeah.

This season seemed to generate a lot of conspiracy theories, far more than previous ones. Everyone's coming up with crazy ideas about who Bob Benson is, whether Megan is Sharon Tate, whether Megan is already dead and you're writing "The Sixth Sense." Do you feel like there's something about the storytelling or the period this year that generated that? Or is it just that the nature of TV fandom has evolved and it's just what people do now that they weren't necessarily doing in seasons 2 and 3?

Matthew Weiner: They were doing it in season 1, Alan. There was a lot of theory about Don being Jewish, and what Don's secret was. This is what I consider very flattering, and a symbol of the success of our underdog show: the audience feels compelled to theorize about what's going to happen. We don't try to start the conversation, but we pay a lot of attention to detail, and people know nothing is in there by accident, and they tend to extrapolate. I love it. I love that there is an anticipation about what is going to happen. I can't imagine that there is more conversation this year than there was last year about Pete committing suicide, for example. There is always some sort of thing about is Don a government agent. The first season, the Internet was not in the prevalence it is now, we got to see that change just in the life of the show, but the amount of people who used to corner me about, "Did Peggy sleep with Pete to get ahead?," there was a huge theory about that. I think we're telling the stories that, 78 episodes into it, in an unpredictable way — and it's not mathematically unpredictable, and sometimes it's not even deliberately unpredictable.

Just looking at the finale, I don't know that I would have predicted many of the things that happen in it, based on what happened previously.

Matthew Weiner: But if you look at the premiere, you can see we have a story we are telling, and what's important and not important, sometimes it's not even on our minds. I see a very clear progression in Don's evolution over the season, and the problems that we threw at him, whether it was Sylvia rejecting him and how much more intense his feelings became as he longed for her; finding out about his past and relationship with sex; getting inside his head with Betty and through the flashbacks; seeing his shame with his daughter and realizing (what he's done), that's a story construction. Should Megan find out he's cheating, or isn't there something that is worse, when you're telling the story? Maybe the daughter would find out, and what would that mean? Just like with the burglar who breaks in, the children don't know anything about him or his problems.  And that's part of his problem. For us, we have a very clear thing that we're telling. I'm always, honestly, not being coy — just surprised at what people do get and don't get. I don't even question it anymore. I am seriously, deeply flattered that there's a conversation. And I love that the conversation — I hope that the audience isn't disappointed that their theories are better than what we did.

Speaking of the audience interpreting things in a different way, Vincent did an interview recently in which he said that moments like Pete falling down the stairs, he plays straight, and is disappointed that people find them comical. Do you ever find that there are certain moments when people are taking them as funny or very differently than you were going for?

Matthew Weiner: I think actors always have to play things as straight. This show is a realistic show with a natural style of acting. Did we think that it was funny that Pete fell down the steps in a moment of rage? Yeah. It's supposed to be funny. (laughs) I do find that sometimes people laugh just when they are uncomfortable, sometimes at the most heart-wrenching moments, like Roger crying in the premiere. He realizes that the shoeshine guy is dead, and he's crying about a lot of things — most obviously his mother. And that will elicit giggles sometimes, and I just take that as the "Blue Velvet" effect: people are just uncomfortable. But the actors should always play it straight. Vinny is a very gifted comic actor, and he knows that people will laugh at Pete falling down the steps; I don't care what he says.

And Christina Hendricks' old Jewish neighbor lady? I don't know how long you've been sitting on that, but that was gold.

Matthew Weiner: That was a shock to me. We had written it, but I didn't know it would be that good. Christina is so funny. These people are really funny. There is a lot of stuff in the show that we want people to laugh at. That was a huge welcome surprise; I was not there the day they shot that, and I just saw it in the dailies and am still laughing about it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com