"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)
What do women want? On being asked Freud’s famous question a few seasons ago, Roger Sterling replied, “Who cares?” In “The Rejected,” the question is considered by various women, with strikingly different answers: Trudy wants (and finally gets) a baby, Joan wants an office of her own (that doesn’t double as an observation room), Allison wants Don to face the truth and show her some respect, Jane Siegel doppelganger Megan wants to be able to read a book instead of acting like a dumb receptionist, Dotty wants to be taken more seriously than her name suggests, and Peggy – well, Peggy’s not sure what she wants, other than to keep exploring that very question.
By the mid-1960s, Freud’s question was also one that advertisers couldn’t afford to ignore, as women increasingly became the decision-makers in buying consumer products — as well as in directing their lives. Yet even with this power, women seem far more susceptible to the fears that all advertising preys on. (As I once read an adman put it, in a frank article about his profession: “All advertising boils down to: ‘You suck. Buy this.’ “) Whether being manipulated into buying household products to make their lives easier and please their families, or beauty products to help them find or retain love, women have continued to be a literal gold mine of insecurities for advertisers and their clients.
While SCDP continues to rely heavily on a very manly product, Lucky Strike cigarettes, to make its monthly nut (unfairly billing the company for most of their overhead), new cigarette ad guidelines prohibit them from using athletes or any type of camerawork “that makes the smoker appear superhuman,” which suggests that marketing to men involves a heroic approach. This provides a sharp contrast with the prospective campaign for Pond’s cold cream that Peggy has come up with, suggesting it as a beauty ritual that allows women to stare at themselves in the mirror without feeling vain, a preview of the self-reflection that will become prevalent in the late ’60s and ’70s.
But Peggy is apparently ahead of her time, since the agency’s research supports Freddy’s old-fashioned concept of marketing the cream as a way to land a husband. His unexpected ally is Dr. Faye Miller, who runs a focus group with SCDP’s young unmarried secretaries that ends up as a cryathon worthy of “Oprah” during sweeps week, as not-really-Dotty unloads about the boyfriend that dumped her, and Allison flees in tears over the callous way Don has treated their sofa-sex. Playing like the CliffsNotes of a grad seminar on the effect of the male gaze on women’s psyches, it relies on lines like Dotty’s, “I feel like it doesn’t matter what I see, it matters what he sees,” to make the point that women are trapped by gender expectations, especially in regard to appearance. And appearances do have a large role to play in this episode, including when they are deceiving.
That includes Peggy’s misread of the weepfest, when she tries to reassure Allison that many people (“even grown men!”) break down and cry in focus groups. She gets a major misread back, as Allison says she knows that Peggy must have gone through the same hell she is. Shocked to realize that Allison (and thus probably others in the office) assume she’s slept with Don, Peggy immediately distances herself by declaring, “Your problem is not my problem,” before callously adding, “And honestly I think you should just get over it.” While Peggy certainly doesn’t want anyone thinking she slept her way from secretary to copywriter, she seems even more horrified at the idea of being a sob sister, weak and weepy over a man, having gone to great lengths to avoid traditional “women’s problems.”
From giving her baby away to pursuing a traditionally male career to resisting marriage, Peggy has consistently been defined as a woman unlike her contemporaries, which has predictably resulted in the women in the office shunning her (while the men have come to accept her as an equal). Stuck in a no-woman’s-land, Peggy has yet to meet her equal, either male or female, but that changes in “The Rejected” — a word that she observes on a pink slip clipped to a folder, allowing her to strike up a sympathetic conversation with the young woman in the elevator who’s wielding it. Notably, they bond not over the traditional female rejection arena (romance) but Peggy’s comfort zone (career). After clearing up that she’s not the one who got rejected (for artsy photos of female nudes), Joyce literally gets Peggy’s number and stops by to invite her to an “I don’t even know what to call it” event downtown. The unnamed and uncategorizable happening is our first clue that Peggy’s about to go through the looking glass, into an alternate world that evades common definition, a world that she’s longed for without realizing it. Here pot is easier to get your hands on than beer, art is revered and commerce is shunned, and both girls and boys find Peggy fascinating and attractive.
Hit on by both genders, the “swellegant” Peggy doesn’t seem to mind getting dissed by Not Andy Warhol, the artist whose nude photos intrigued her, and whose sacrilegious, non-narrative but “rhythmic” film she finds more interesting than she expected — even though she’s Catholic. (Catholics do set great store in rhythm, after all.) While Not Andy Warhol disdains Peggy for defining herself as a writer even though she only does advertising and insistently asks her what else she does, a far cuter fellow and fellow writer, Abe, provides a sweet mix of avant-garde politico (having covered a boycott in Harlem) and old-fashioned boy (who says he wants to kiss her rather than just grabbing her).
Abe is tantalizing as a match for Peggy, but it’s unclear how susceptible she is. She takes the lead in kissing him and seems enamored of her new social scene, but subsequent developments with Pete cloud the question of what Peggy really wants – as does her toying with Dr. Faye Miller’s engagement ring during the focus group. But then Dr. Faye is her own bundle of contradictions: a high-powered professional and verbal straight-shooter who can stand toe-to-toe with Don but who also plays manipulative games in order to gain other women’s trust, and a psychologist who feigns sympathy for feelings only to ask, “Who?” when someone worries about one of her tearful subjects. She has no qualms about recommending a campaign to sell cold cream by making a (pun alert) “veiled promise” that it will lead to matrimony, although she’s cavalier enough about marriage to shed her ring as an unwelcome distraction in her client work.
Don not only rejects her campaign idea as “hello, 1925″ but disdains the idea that past behavior predicts future actions. (Gee, why would he kick against that notion?) Dr. Faye protests that she can’t change the truth; Don considers that maneuver child’s play. He’s confident that in the hands of near-geniuses like him, advertising can — and should — shape opinion rather than reflect it. Of course, his entire life as we know it has been about the alchemy of making something true that isn’t, and vice versa. Following in the footsteps of Betty, Rachel, Midge and countless other women, Allison tries to enlighten him that, “This actually happened,” punctuating her point with a nicely flung tchotchke in her anger at his suggestion that she write her own recommendation letter and he’ll put his name to whatever she says. Of course, when your name is a lie, this isn’t really much of an offer. Even without knowing his secret, Allison is furious at his inability to say anything genuine regarding her, even professionally. She leaves with the intent to work for a woman boss, presumably to avoid this caddish behavior, but Dr. Faye’s retrograde sliminess reveals that other women aren’t a panacea; sisters will have to do it for themselves.
But then so do men. In a strand that mirrors and reverses Peggy’s before joining it, Pete learns that he’s going to be a father, news delivered by the father-in-law he’s just been told to dump as a client, since Clearasil is in conflict with Pond’s cold cream. (Isn’t adolescence always in conflict with aging?) Pete initially has trouble making the transition from pseudo-adolescent dependent on his father-in-law’s largess, but fatherhood literally makes a man out of him. He uses the leverage of providing a grandchild to push his father-in-law to hand over $6 million in business for the Vick’s chemicals account, including Vaporub (those free samples will come in handy once the kid is born).
Tenderly bonding with Trudy, genuinely touched and proud to become a father and bringing in a huge amount of new business, Pete seems to be riding high. He even makes peace with his old nemesis, Ken Cosgrove (who conveniently indicates he’s not happy in his job, paving the way for his character to join SCDP). After clearing the air over insults that Pete may have slung (with gossipy, jealous Harry being the obvious conduit of information), they exchange their respective good news, Ken’s being his upcoming marriage to the daughter of a corporate CFO. The ever-cheerful Cosgrove, while admitting that he’s only “floating along laterally” at his current job and would prefer to be a slave to Don Draper’s creative wizardry than to “some old fart” as he is at Geyer, also reminds Pete that their personal lives are “all that really matters” — an idea Pete finally seems mature enough to entertain. Going all gestalt-y, Cosgrove laments the endless chasing of huge clients, a pursuit that yields just “a bunch of little pieces” and not the great-white-whale of a deal that all agencies hope for. “Look how lucky we are,” he intones before adding, “Another Campbell. That’s just what the world needs.” And slightly reframed, we viewers can agree: What this world needs is another version of Pete Campbell, one who’s matured past the whiny complainer stage.
Like Ken, Peggy seems to have forgiven Pete, but still takes the news of Trudy’s pregnancy hard. Having put on a brave face and walked to his office to congratulate him, she returns to her own to bang her head on her desk, a desperate gesture that raises questions only heightened by an exquisite silent scene at the end of the episode. Having been summoned by new friend Joyce to have lunch with the gang from “downtown,” Peggy passes Pete in the reception area greeting his new corporate clients. Separated by glass doors, they turn and exchange a long look, passing a message that only the two of them can read. Beyond the emotional connection, we see their divergent paths: Pete choosing the adult world of marriage and family, conservative corporate life and playing hardball (even with his father-in-law) to get ahead; Peggy choosing the adolescent world of experimentation and exploration, in the realms of drugs, sex, art and politics. Pete looks for all the world like the establishment, a suit stuck in a corporate waiting area, and Peggy like rebellion, entering the ’60s as she leaves the office to go out and explore all the world has to offer.
“Did you get pears? Did you get pears? Did you get pears?” an elderly man plaintively asks his wife in the final scene. Has anyone in this show gotten the pair they wanted? Pete and Trudy seem genuinely happy together, and Peggy has not only met a man who might be her equal, but finds herself an accepted part of a peer group at last, that substitute family that began to replace the nuclear one in the ’60s. But Don is still stumbling home drunk (looking like Sam Spade in his fedora as he tries to type Allison an apology note but stops when it descends into rationalization of his behavior) and passing out on his couch alone. Sometimes the handsome guy who seems to have everything going for him is the rejected (not to mention the dejected) one, while the smart unusual girl that everyone made fun of ends up being popular and happy, after all.
Nelle Engoron is a freelance writer who blogs about “Mad Men,” movies, sex and relationships at Open Salon.
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)