"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Plenty of things in life are mediocre, or they’re good or bad in the most mundane ways. Almost everything, in fact, falls into a detached thumbs-up or noncommittal thumbs-down category. Dogs that bite, telemarketers: bad; friendly people, free stuff: good. This is not the story you are taught when you’re young. Everyone — your parents and teachers and society in general — tells you that there are incredible, impressive works of art and literature and music around every turn, that people who are brave and courageous fight evil and bring justice to the world, that it will be easy to make the right decisions, that God is looking out for you, that the world is vast and brilliant and full of possibility.
Boy, are you in for a rude surprise. No one tells you how impoverished and empty most human interactions are, how flat and unoriginal most books and TV shows and movies are, how tedious most careers turn out to be. We all want to experience the world as a big, beautiful, romantic place, but the truth is that it can be achingly dull, and confusing, and difficult.
And then, something comes along and shakes you awake: You fall in love, hear some heart-wrenching song, experience some tragic event, or read an incredible book, and what was once a mundane world changes into an incredible, glowing, rich, exquisitely sad, humbling, beautiful place. Art is designed to have this effect: to inspire us and wake us from the stupor of day-to-day life. The very best art feels incredibly personal, highlighting our most treasured memories and dredging up our deepest sorrows and pointing us toward a more passionate future. Each of us has a different collection of cherished items that we hold close to our hearts. My own messy tangle of favorite things includes REM’s “Reckoning,” the Rabbit series by John Updike, Charlie Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen, almost any Sufjan Stevens song, the last chapter of Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose,” and Alan Ball’s “Six Feet Under.”
On Sunday, one of my favorite things, a show that shook me awake every single week and made me feel more inspired and alive than any other TV show ever has, went off the air. It felt very personal. Saying goodbye to “Six Feet Under” was, unexpectedly, an emotional wrenching experience, more memorable and invigorating and heartbreaking than I could ever have imagined it would be. It’s just a TV show, after all. But the characters of “Six Feet Under” felt as familiar and as inscrutable as siblings: They pressed into my dreams, invaded my psyche, made me angry and sad and hopeful. Their actions confounded my expectations but always felt natural and stubbornly true. Sometimes they inspired me, sometimes I scolded them, sometimes I was happy for them, sometimes I was disgusted by the way they made the same mistakes over and over again. In other words, they felt like family.
But instead of feeling sad over the loss of these characters, the last episode of the show somehow pointed forward, allowing me not only to let go of them, but also to abandon years of conditioning to expect or even require a concrete happy ending, and to simply hope for the best for them — and for myself, somehow.
Sounds pretty personal, doesn’t it? Well, something about “Six Feet Under” always felt far too personal to express. More than the fully imagined characters or the daunting circumstances of their lives, the show tackled the ambiguity and confusion that’s an unavoidable element of our lives. On other TV shows, and in movies and in pretty much every facet of American culture, fictional characters are clearly defined as good or bad: We know who they love and what they want, we know which decision is the right one for them, and we even know that they’ll make the right choice eventually and everything will turn out OK. Justice will prevail, the villain will pay, the good guy will get the girl and the big house and yard full of kids and live happily ever after.
“Six Feet Under” is far less safe and sound than that. Here, there is no clear right and wrong; the characters aren’t good or bad. They struggle with their choices and sometimes make big mistakes that they live to regret. Still, the beauty of Nate’s death toward the end of this season is that it provided a catalyst for the characters to take some risks and open up to each other. If the show has a moral at all, it’s that death — either a realization of your own mortality, or the death of someone close to you, or both — knocks you on your ass, shakes you awake, and makes you realign your priorities.
Like most characters on the show, Ruth (Frances Conroy) embodies a heady mix of lovable and detestable traits. She’s rigid and generous and stubborn and sweet and judgmental. She’s a creature of habit who’s aching to be spontaneous and free from 30 years of the same old clothes, the same hairstyle, the same old routine of giving herself to others while her life passes her by. She rescues George (James Cromwell) from a life of loneliness and mental health crises, then never lets him forget what she sacrifices for him, day in and day out. She’s lonely and awkward and has trouble connecting with her children, and sometimes she seems completely helpless to her old habits, while other times she can break out of them and breathe freely, if only for a second or two. Ruth combines an almost archetypal mother role — the passive-aggressive martyr, with her manipulative woe-is-me outbursts, her distance in the face of real attempts by her kids to connect with her, and her controlling, irrational power grabs — with a vulnerability and spontaneity and deep concern for others that make her irresistible.
In the show’s final episodes, it makes sense, as a maternal archetype, that Ruth should struggle with the ultimate fear of any parent, the death of her child. To see her climb out of the mire and refuse to define her life as a tragedy, to see her relocate her will to connect with her children and grandchildren and her daughter-in-law, feels somehow redemptive.
For all her shrill tirades and hysterical meltdowns this season, if we had any doubt that Ruth is taking the hard path, the contrast between Ruth and Brenda’s mother makes it clear: While Margaret stoops to competitive behavior and snotty outbursts, Ruth shrugs her shoulders and tries to be expansive for her own sake and for the sake of those she cares about, even in the face of such a devastating loss.
David (Michael C. Hall) has always been wound a little tight, just like his mother, Ruth. But he’s also sharp and efficient and loving and bighearted and good-humored and courageous in the face of big life risks. David hasn’t been as courageous, however, in the face of the fears he keeps swallowing down and trying to block out of his mind — fear of his own mortality, fear of being a bad parent, fear of his traumatic attack. When Keith kicks him out of the house for the benefit of the kids, David is left alone to face his fears, to look death in the face, and to decide how he wants to spend the balance of his days. Strangely, instead of moving on to a whole new life, David and Keith decide to keep the family business going, to buy out Rico and Brenda and raise their kids in the house where David grew up. It’s fitting, really, since David’s adherence to a strict schedule and work ethic may have always pointed to a deeply sentimental desire to honor his father’s legacy. Restored to his family, David says a prayer before dinner that reflects just how much he and Keith have grown over the years, thanking God for “the love we feel for each other, even when it’s hard — especially when it’s hard. And finally for these two boys who came into our lives and made us a family, and who have given us a home every bit as much as we have them.” The look on Durrell’s face as he decides that the toast isn’t cheesy at all, and says Amen with some conviction, provides one of the most touching and memorable moments in a finale filled with such moments.
Nate (Peter Krause) exited at a messy time in his life, and because of that, he’ll be remembered for one of his worst decisions: dumping his pregnant wife from a hospital bed for Maggie, a woman he barely knew but to whom he ascribed a goodness she might’ve had a hard time living up to. As a character, Nate served as a conduit for viewers’ emotions about responsibility and marriage, and the struggle between giving to others and doing what’s right for yourself. Nate always found himself marching down paths that didn’t suit him, and then backing up and blaming those around him for where he wound up. But Nate was also, as George announced at Nate’s disturbingly realistic memorial service, an idealist. He embraced notions of what was right and wrong in spite of all the impracticalities surrounding those notions. Nate was anything but a pragmatist. Ultimately, though, at a family dinner where, for once, not one member of the family is absent, Nate’s family remembers him for his admirable qualities — his ability to express himself, to go out on a limb, to take himself seriously, to strive for a romantic life. Galvanized by his death, they sit at the table, face each other, and honor him. The only shame is that Nate couldn’t be there to witness a moment that basically wasn’t possible until he died.
Claire (Lauren Ambrose) personifies the confusion and ambivalence of youth, and her mixed-up feelings about her family, herself, her art, her lovers, her future look familiar to anyone who struggled to find their footing in early adulthood. It makes sense, then, that the show would end with her driving across the country to move to New York City, without a job, without any idea where she’ll live, without any friends. For all of her vanity and her self-importance and immature notions about what’s important in the world, Claire always had the most courage of any of the Fishers, and to see her set out into the unknown, without any guarantee of a future, armed with nothing but her talents and her sensitivity and her recurring bouts of optimism in the face of a deeply cynical world seems like a true beginning.
And, through the final series of flash-forwards, which range from comical to sad to stunning, we experience Claire’s imagination, her best guess of what the future might hold for herself and her family and friends. Whether any of these people seem happy or sad in the end, they will all end up dead. In any other context, this might seem a devastating final message, but in the context of “Six Feet Under,” we’re forced to accept the inevitability of their death and our own death and the death of everyone we know, and it all seems designed, oddly enough, to free us from our fear and apprehension about the future. We’re each left with a bracing, memorable snapshot of what lies behind us and ahead of us, cementing the span of our life and our inevitable death into the continuum of human history.
If that sounds impossibly big and heartbreaking for one little TV show, that’s because it is. But Alan Ball’s drama series has always reached past expectations, raising the bar and giving us TV that feels like great art, as it shakes us by the shoulders and kicks us in the ass and digs up our greatest losses and deepest wells of sadness and points us to a brighter, more loving, more expansive future. Through this lens, we’re shown a world that can be disappointing and confusing and mundane, sure — but also breathtakingly lovely, even in its flaws, even at our darkest moments.
“Six Feet Under” presents us with an ambiguous universe, but its message isn’t the least bit ambiguous: You have one life, one very short life, to enjoy, to embrace, to dive in, to try new things, to see the world, to love someone dear, to appreciate the little things. Or, as Nate might say, you have one life to live. Don’t fuck it up.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)