There’s an unreleased gem of a song by Ghostface Killah called “The Watch.” The song is high-concept and involves an argument between the rapper and the chunky timepiece at the end of his arm. It’s a metaphor for feeling out of step with what’s popular, for the creeping dread over the rap game moving on without you. His watch tells him, “Mothafucka, you ain’t blew in three years.” Ghost ends his verse by clowning the device for having almost drowned in a bowl of cereal milk.
In the first minutes of Mad Men’s season six premiere last year, Don Draper discovered that his watch had stopped ticking. The whole of that last season was the prestige TV version of Ghostface’s song: Don raging and flailing and, eventually, failing in his fight with time. He tried to be a different Don, but the old ways won and he blew up his life with booze and an affair his daughter Sally came to know about. By season’s end, he was out of his job, forced into a leave of absence after a pitch meeting that turned very True Life: I Helped Rob Johns in the Brothel That Raised Me.
Now, in season seven, Don is trying to get his watch ticking again. Ghost’s song is ultimately a diss at the fickleness of taste; timeless talent like the MC has trumps all. “I’mma murder you if ya bitch-ass gets on my nerves again,” he raps.
Don’s manslaughtering abilities have always flexed best in the boardroom (and in pushing relatives to suicide). In the disorienting opening of last night’s premiere, “Time Zones,” Freddy Rumsen, speaking with Don’s words, gave Peggy a beautiful pitch for Accutron watches. Because Rumsen directed his words at the viewer, staring dead-set into the camera, the pitch was also about the show. “Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something,” he said to you and me, and without even having to mention the product by name, we knew what he was talking about. It’s the beginning of the end for Mad Men. The watch is ticking again, only to run down.
Along with time, hierarchy was the other keyword for last night. It ran through Peggy and Joan’s struggles with new white men. Lou Avery and Wayne Barnes are the respective obstacles standing in the way of our heroes. Lou, Don’s replacement, is a grandfather-type, ready with a bad joke about the doctor’s office and some casual racism. Lou patronizes Peggy in meetings, kills her with the kind of kindness only a cardigan wears. Despite having Don’s great Accutron pitch, Peggy can’t get Lou into the idea because she doesn’t have Don’s place on the totem pole. Lou likes "Accutron is accurate."
Hierarchy is the word Ken uses when chastising Joan over a meeting with Butler, a footwear client looking to make some big moves. But first: What the hell happened to Ken? His personality has come to fit his pirate’s eyepatch, and he’s all salty bluster. The way he’s packed into his button-up, he’s also been hitting the buttered rolls too hard. He needs Joan to meet with Butler instead of him because he'll look less important if he shows up. He needs underlings, he despairs, before forcing Joan into the position of one. What it really does is give her an opportunity to sharpen her business acumen.
At the dinner, the new guy running marketing at Butler shows up and says that he’s going to move the company’s advertising in-house. Wayne Barnes is a shrimpy proto-yuppie who loves his Coke. He speaks in the deadpan tone of a hipster comedian, and is all about new business school slang like the 4 P’s.
Joan isn’t going to let the client get away, though, and so she takes a weekend meeting with a college professor to talk Barnes away from the ledge with the language of an economist. Again, the hierarchy rears its head. The prof gets rude with Joan because she doesn’t have an MBA. But Joan has 16 years in the game that have made her a business animal. With the right vocab, she puts Barnes’ briefs in a bunch and buys SC&P more time to keep the client from fleeing.
Meanwhile, Don Draper, as the Spencer Davis Group tells us, is a man who “ain’t got no time for loving, ‘cause [his] time is all used up.” SDG soundtracks Don’s flashy arrival in L.A. The visuals pay homage to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Nichols' vibes hummed in other places across the episode as well. Joan's wintry campus scene and Freddy’s direct address could’ve come from Carnal Knowledge, and Megan hitting the sauce felt a bit like Postcards From the Edge. That could be reaching, or it could be a sign of what’s to come for her, now that she’s in L.A. and making moves.
In her romantic life, though, she’s just going through the motions. Her long-distance marriage with Don is beginning to look like my long-distance relationship right after college, which is to say: doomed. They fall asleep in front of the TV, and only have sex after first brushing teeth and then having a conversation about the sex. Bad times.
If there’s anything resembling hope here, it comes during Don’s flight back to New York. On the plane, he meets a real wild thing, familiar with the craft of conversation, who keeps him company during his bicoastal commute.
Neve Campbell’s character, Lee, delivers one of the most interesting lines of the evening. In an episode involving both Peggy and Joan battling against the patriarchy in the workplace, Lee drops this jewel: “You can blame Madison Avenue for that,” she tells Don after he wonders why he always expects a beautiful woman to sit next to him on his flights. It’s important that it’s a woman who calls bullshit on the sexist dream created by these mad men, the dream that you will be seated next to a gorgeous lady while traveling. And the you addressed is always a man, just as it is in Don/Freddy’s pitch in the opening. Of course, Lee doesn’t spray second-wave acid at Don. She’s charming and whatever, functioning more as a story device to let us see how Don is changing.
They share stories. She tells him that she’s returning from Disneyland, where she released her husband’s ashes. Like a Rihanna selfie, her husband died of thirst. (Maybe it was tuberculosis?) Her real talk prompts Don to open up about his own marriage. “She knows I’m a terrible husband,” Don says. He’s just being honest. “I thought I could make it work this time,” he says.
When Lee invites Don back to her place, he declines, offering the same explanation he gave Megan before leaving California: "I'm sorry but I have to get back to work.” Then he opens the window of the plane and lets the light hit his face.
Work is eating heroes with Freddy and perfecting their ventriloquist act. It’s also watching Richard Nixon give his January 20, 1969 inaugural address. He describes the nation as “rich in goods, but ragged in spirit.” Sounds like Don. “To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit. To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves. When we listen to ‘the better angels of our nature,’ we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things—such as goodness, decency, love, kindness.”
That’s nice, right? Then you remember that Nixon is the one saying it. It’s a cold, cold world.
- Julio is the inner-city Glen, and it's awesome.
- Jokes about depth perception will never get old.
- "I don't know how, but everyone says that they can tell where the fire starts" is a great, great line.
- At the bar where I watch the show, Pete's appearance got the biggest laugh of the night.
Ross Scarano is a deputy editor at Complex and is ride-or-die for Sally Draper. He tweets here.