As we get ready for the final season of Mad Men, let’s take a look back at one of the series’ most powerful–and, coincidentally, dental themed–episodes: “The Phantom.” Some fans have complained that the episode seemed like a slow, drawn-own denouement after the excitement of the suicide of Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) in “Fees and Commissions,” one of the rare acts of violence that help to give texture and relief to the series’ far more damaging psychological themes. But the episode is like many of the series’ best episodes (for example, season 1’s finale, “The Wheel”), a key to much that has come before and after.
An Episode of Extractions
In this episode, we see Don Draper (Jon Hamm) suffering from the pain of an abscessed tooth, which he tries to treat as he treats all pain: with alcohol. In this case, he soaks a cotton ball in whiskey and puts it in his mouth. However, the pain is too severe for even whiskey to treat, and he spends most of the episode wandering around in a delirium of pain.
Through his pain, he sees the ghost not of Pryce, but of his brother Adam (Jay Paulson), who also hanged himself after Don refused to be a brother to him.
Also in this episode, we see Megan (Jessica Paré), who has been trying to break into acting after leaving her position at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, come to Don with an appeal. She wants him to pull strings and get her the starring role in a commercial.
Later, Don decides that the pain of his tooth, symbolic of his grief over the deaths of Pryce and Adam, won’t cure itself and he goes to a dentist and finds out his tooth must be extracted.
There are other extractions, too, such as when Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser)’s flin ends with no chance of continuing after his mistress has all memory of him extracted with electroshock therapy.
A Dental Reading
What most readings of this episode neglect is the notion of prevention. An abscessed tooth isn’t a condition that arises overnight, it usually comes from months or years of neglect: a failure to brush one’s teeth, skipping dental appointments, and not getting a filling for a small cavity. And even then, an abscessed tooth can usually be treated with a root canal, a procedure that has been commonly used for more than a hundred years, and would have been available to Don if he had acted sooner. But that isn’t how he treats his problems. When something or someone becomes a problem, he extracts them.
That’s what we see going on with Megan in this episode. Although it’s possible to think that Don was shocked by seeing her drunk and decides to finally take action to prevent her becoming “somebody’s discovery” in the sense of Pryce’s body, by the end of the episode, we see that this is just another way in which he extracts people from his life.
This is the lesson he has learned: people, like teeth, can hurt you, so you have to extract them. Through the course of season 6, then, we see Don becoming progressively more toothless, both in the sense that he has fewer people in his life that can give him a smile, and he is becoming creatively impotent. (It’s no coincidence that so many of his ideas–such as Royal Hawaiian, Heinz Ketchup, and Chevy–feature an absence of the product.)
However, there is hope. Perhaps in his children he has found people he wants to keep, and in letting them know more about his past, he is actually taking preventive actions to preserve them rather than lose them. And in so doing perhaps he will finally find peace.
Only this final season will tell.