In ‘Mad Men,’ a genealogy of womanhood: Peggy, Megan, Sally, Joan and Betty

Betty and her mother. (Michael Yarish/AMC)
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Starlee Kine

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Last night we were shown Megan Draper’s first advertising pitch, which went like this: little girls grow up watching their mothers cook and then they grow up and do the same for their daughters who will then grow up, etc. The line stretches back to the cavemen and then forward in time to the far off future.

It’s the perfect bedtime story to soothe the terrified Heinz client. Don’t fret, sir; a hundred years from now, when we’re all living in space, the women will still be doing the cooking, in their shiny kitchen pods.

The pitch might have been about beans but this episode was about patterns, which along with the spaghetti recipes, children inherit from their parents and pass onto their kids. This happens with sons, of course, but this episode was about the daughters. Peggy, Megan, Sally, Joan and Betty, they were all included, even if they or their mothers didn’t get screen time.

The energy with which "Mad Men" has introduced such fully realized parental characters on a weekly basis has been impressive to watch. In just half a season, the cast has Fat Bettied up to twice its size. As we learn about where Peggy and Joan and Megan and Ginsburg came from, the holes in Don’s upbringing rip wider. His past is all negative space, which is different from the negative influence that plagued the childhoods of everyone else. If you think about it, the character who could come closest to relating to him is Peggy’s orphaned son.

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Peggy’s mother was never happy and so that’s the only advice she knows how to give; being lonely worked for me, I survived, you can’t have your cake and eat mine too. Her words are the scary ones that truly screw up your kids, because they're exactly what they fear is true. All episode long, Peggy has been feeling like she wasn’t something enough for Abe to want to marry her. Her opinion when it comes to bra design might mean more to the client (her preference is sexy underthings for older women, which is really just the fashion version of a daughter screaming at her mother that she doesn’t understand) but it’s Joan’s advice Peggy seeks out after receiving her second phone-booth call of distress.

“Well, that’s you,” she tells Joan when the idea of a possible proposal is first introduced. When Stan jokes that Abe is too good-looking for her, she laughs but also files it away.

Megan’s mum, Marie, on the other hand, led a life of ample risk-taking until one day she “made too many mistakes.” She’s bored and disappointed with her life while still managing to be the most entertaining person in a room and so when she meets Roger it’s the equivalent of her taking a tab of acid and looking, unsoundly, in the mirror. Her image is reflected back at her. She makes digs at Megan’s life because she understands that her daughter is capable of having everything she wants. Marie had her chance too and took it but, at least until those space pods get built, nothing is stopping the sloughing forward of time.

Roger’s ex, Mona, tells him: “I thought you had married Jane because I had gotten old. And then I realized it was because you had.”

She figured he’d traded in an older model wife for a new one, just like in that 1960’s animated vision of our future the Jetsons, when the outdated Rosey the Robot believes she’s being replaced. There is something a little assembly-line about the way the female characters break down.

Peggy was originally written as the new version of Joan and Megan at first seemed to be a modern version of Betty. But the trouble with robots, which has surely stymied the loneliest of mad inventors for centuries, is that no matter how many times you update them there are limits to how much they can learn.

Part of what’s so exciting about watching all these women is the way they grow and change in reaction to not just their parents but also their peers.

Betty Draper was a princess locked away in a suburban tower, where she remained a child forever. Megan escaped Canada to come work in an office with a girl like Peggy, whose judgment she dreads much more than Don’s. Hence a wholly original new version of the trophy wife is built with brains like the tin man after he meets Oz (who turns out to be nothing more than a quivering man hiding behind a curtain). And the robot on the bridge rotates his wrench once more.

Little Sally calls Glenn, who is played by the son of Matthew Weiner. The phone cord stretches across the hallway and trips her step-grandmother, Pauline, up. At Don’s house, Sally says it was her brother’s toy that was responsible for the fall. The shifting of blame onto a man, she learned from Mom; the lie feeling as natural as taking a breath came from Dad.

Don brags to his in-laws about Sally’s maturity when it came to keeping Pauline calm but later, when she walks out in a pair of go go boots, he wants her back in the tower staying a little girl. I loved Don’s proud boasting about her, so pedestrian and dad-like, oblivious of the lie even though it’s something he excels at every day. Now that Megan is in the business of peddling domestic fantasies too, they’re starting to feel like a real family.

Sally is Roger’s date to the award party. He treats her like a little wife in training, doling out tips as the evening progresses. Two episodes ago, Pete was in driver’s ed with a young Trudy and now, in Sally, we see a young Mona.

“His wife’s name is Lillian,” Roger tells her, “Don’t forget that.”

Megan forgot Ken’s wife’s name, a woman who seems destined to be shushed into obscurity, and it's likely Sally will soon forget about Lillian too. Her mind, as young and strong as it is, only has room for so many memories and it's clear which one from that party will be the keeper: Roger splayed out powerless in a chair, Marie down on her knees, that will be the image an older Sally will return to her when she has daughters of her own. Some things never change.

Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She writes The Girl, a weekly look at "Mad Men," every Monday this season. Previously: Superman Don gets a whiff of Kryptonite as 'Mad Men' trips out.