Imagine a scene in which a man is sitting on a park bench reading a book. A woman comes up and sits beside him. He looks up at her. She hands him a letter. "It's over," she says.
If you were to see this scene in a film, completely out of context, you might look for a variety of clues to figure out what's going on. Some are straightforward: How are the people behaving? What's her tone of voice? What do their faces look like? How close are they sitting? If you've spent some time thinking about filmmaking, you might consider other things: How are they framed? What's the angle of the shot? Where's the light?
If you were to see this scene on Mad Men, however, you'd probably go to one question before any other: What book was he reading?
Because while Mad Men contains plenty of craft that's not necessarily meant to be consciously processed, it also contains more overt references – footnotes, little superscript numbers that tip you off that there's something to look up – than perhaps anything else on television. That's one of the ways the show has managed to merge with its postmortems, becoming one with all the recaps and comment sections and decodings that allow you to essentially score yourself on the number of references you got.
For a period piece, it's become protective of itself as an example of a thoroughly modern way of watching episodic television. In the above example, for instance, where a POV shot might be meant simply to suggest something rather than motivate the viewer to think aloud what it means that it's a POV shot, taking meaning from the book the man is reading requires another level of analysis, one that's more conscious, or perhaps self-conscious. "Hmm, he's reading The Handmaid's Tale. I wonder what that means."
Mad Men begins its seventh season Sunday night with a keen awareness of its status as an institution both venerated and near retirement. This episode, "Time Zones," opens what is its second to last season if you are watching it like a normal person, or the first half of its last season (with the second half to air in 2015 in exactly the way an additional season would) if you are watching it like a contracts attorney.
Creator Matthew Weiner protects and overprotects both secrets and things that are not really secrets, giving interviews that say nothing, sending out review copies to critics with restrictions that make a real review impossible. Silly as it sometimes seems, all this contributes to the sense that the show is special, that it is an event, and that ordinary promotion – even ordinary use of the "scenes from next week" mechanism that's been common in television for decades – would disrupt it. Weiner believes that it's a spoiler to say what year it is, or who's joined the cast.
The "final season" is not to be trifled with.
Perhaps it's inevitable, therefore, that we begin with a man looking directly into a camera, explaining how special the show is and how special the final season will be. And then, archly, he even comments on how smart the viewer is for being a viewer. "This watch," he says, "makes you interesting."
Of course, this is all interpretation; you could choose to believe that the man says "Are you ready?" and begins talking about a watch – not just any product, but a watch – that makes you interesting for reasons unrelated to the fact that we are beginning the final season of a show that represents the state of the art in episodic armchair decoding. You could choose to believe the watch is there because of its connection to time, not because of its connection to the act of watching. Or you could choose to believe it's both.
What you cannot realistically believe, however, is that the watch is just a watch. Or that later, the line "Everyone says they can tell where the fire starts" is just about fires.
Weiner knows, and everyone who makes the show knows, that every Mad Men episode is reverse-engineered after the fact, taken apart and brushed off like a found fossil to see what close attention reveals. It's the only show that has brilliant, widely-read recaps devoted solely to the coding found in the clothes, hair and makeup, and decor. Its main character now has a Doomsday Clock. You still see people on Twitter with Mad Men-inspired avatars they've had for years.
It's hard, at times, for the show to break through its increasingly self-aware sensibility, in which viewers are invited, more than they are in many other pieces of TV and film, to notice visual metaphors and other pieces of symbolism. The use of, for instance, a reference to Lost Horizon could be made subtle, but it isn't. It's easy. All you need to "get it" is Google, and it's set up so as to invite you to look up what they're talking about and trace the reference back to its point of origin: Shangri-La. That's a reference you're supposed to pick up, despite the fact that a large part of the audience won't get it on sight. They'll either look up what it is, or they'll read somewhere what it is.
In fact, one of the challenges of watching Mad Men is to stay in the part of your brain that's appreciating the show rather than solving it. There are times when all of its layering is rich in the sense of being satisfying, but there are times when it's rich in the way a dessert is so rich that you wish someone had used a lighter hand. It remains most effective when it's using fewer obvious footnotes, when it's reliant on stories it's been painstakingly and beautifully building for years, like the relationship between Don and Peggy, which continues to be central in the premiere, though in an unexpected way. (Is that too much to say? I hope not.)
It's a solid and promising opening to the season, or the half-season. It's beautiful to look at, and yes, it's full of things to unpack. And there will be time for that.