There were a few striking images on last night’s Mad Men, and certainly one — you know, the blow-job one — is dominating today’s chatter about the episode. But there was another image that was more askew, more symbolic, more relevant to the thesis of the episode. Last night’s most important image was that dangly clump of spaghetti, wiggling as Megan cheerfully plopped it on Sally’s plate. “Mothers feeding children,” Megan says later in the episode. “Some things never change.”
Sally Draper is the character most associated with food on the show, so it’s not so surprising that food-centric and Sally-centric episodes go hand-in-hand. We’ve seen Don and Sally bond over late-night cornbeef hash, and a few years later bond over Sally’s rum-waffle creation. She eats ice cream with Grandpa Gene and refuses to eat ice cream with her mother. She has vomited at the dinner table. “The Codfish Ball” was weirdly all about food: what Megan would and wouldn’t eat as a child; children apparently clamoring for beans; the steaks at Minetta Tavern and how the service is there; how Abe likes ham and Mrs. Olsen brought cake; and are we getting dessert, and order me a Sanka, and let’s change that Sauterns to Champagne, and Roger brought you a Shirley Temple, and don’t poke that dried-out fish. Who’s hungry?
Megan’s Heinz pitch hits on the intimacy and poignancy of providing for someone, of feeding them. For all the talk about the account this season, though, we haven’t actually seen anyone eat a single bean. The bean ballet, the bean campfire, the college students eating beans, beans in space — but here’s your plate of plain spaghetti. That nurturing stability that’s the crux of the Heinz pitch is also the, er, key ingredient to what’s missing for everyone last night. Megan’s parents can’t stop fighting and cheating on each other. Peggy’s mother is unbearably cruel. Sally’s mother is not present.
What’s getting passed down, generation to generation, bean to little bean, isn’t love and support. Peggy’s mother passed down a persistent, pervasive sense of disappointment — a disappointment we see Peggy scramble to disguise when Abe doesn’t propose. (At a meal.) Megan’s mother passed down a vague Electra complex, and we see Megan scramble to sit next to her father and be closer to his affections than her embittered mother. (Again, at a meal.) We know a lot about what Betty has passed down to Sally, in terms of anxiety and body issues certainly, but last night’s episode gave us some classic Betty Draperisms from her daughter. Sally lied about what happened to “Bluto,” has a secret and ongoing relationship with Glen Bishop, knows information she wishes she didn’t, and is a little aware of and a lot afraid of her emerging sexual identity. She likes to get dressed up and is extremely charmed by awards. She’s also habitually abandoned: While everyone else goes off to conduct their business, she’s left at this exquisitely set table, all by herself, with a purse full of business cards a philandering man asked her to hold on to.
Some things really don’t ever change.