"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)
The fifth season premiere of “Mad Men” plunges us into June 1966, a mere seven months time-lapse since the previous season, but a gap that’s been filled with dramatic changes in America as well as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. From the bright neon colors of the women’s clothes to the increasingly mod set design to the now-frequent protests and riots, we know we’re entering “that” 1960s, a time of turbulence, experimentation and sweeping change. As power struggles rise, groups use language rather than violence to achieve their aims, a shift from might to persuasion that catches some professional persuaders unprepared.
Several “Mad Men” characters will learn just how dangerous words can be to their status in the world, while others will find themselves losing their place no matter what they say. As in the country as a whole, some characters who’ve always had power are losing it, while others find it within their grasp at last, even if no one will recognize their ascendance. And one notable control freak, a certain Don Draper, lets someone else take over for the first time in his life — a miracle that requires just a little French kiss.
The episode opens with the powerless, as African-Americans picket for the employment opportunities they’re still being denied despite civil rights legislation. Clueless white guys at rival ad agency Young & Rubicam (Y&R) taunt them with the same senseless advice that Newt Gingrich gave to Occupy Wall Streeters: “Get a job!”
“You’re walking in a circle,” comes another taunt, an apt metaphor for the solidarity of the oppressed that leaves the privileged standing bewildered on the periphery. Dropping water bombs on the protesters, the men unwittingly baptize the cause while being unable to recognize their fellow human beings (“You hit one”).
“Is this what Madison Avenue represents?” asks an angry yet dignified protester, a question that sadly will be answered in the affirmative during this episode. Sophomoric and demeaning humor will abound, as will deliberate degradation of other people. “And they call us savages,” harrumphs another protester, a label that will be pinned on other groups – Vietnamese, the poor, hippies – as they too are attacked by “the establishment” (as those in power are beginning to be called).
New establishments have also sprung up for the folks at SCDP, as we see when the scene shifts to a midcentury modern luxury apartment with scattered packing boxes and scattered children getting to know a stepmother and a newly-married but more engaged father. Our gal Sal wanders through this unfamiliar landscape, trying to take charge in the way all eldest children do, reminding her father of schedules and presenting him with a 40th birthday gift that Bobby insists is “from all of us” (even barely-talking toddler Gene). After shocking Sally by showing a naked backside when Don opens the locked bedroom door, a sunny yellow-outfitted Megan charms the kids by complimenting their gift of a shaving brush. “It’s a Badger!” Bobby excitedly explains, “From its tail.” (Any allusion to the role that tail plays in the episode will be left to your imagination – or a later paragraph at least.)
While serious Sally is arranging schedules like a miniature Joan, newly-talkative Bobby is keeping Don humble, pointing out that they never actually get to the Statue of Liberty despite Don’s promises, and responding “You’ll be dead,” when Don asks how old he’ll be when Bobby turns 40. (A likely guess, given how Don’s abused his body.) Dropping off the kids at Betty and Henry’s comically Gothic-looking house, Don makes a joke of its resemblance to “The Addams Family’s” ghoulish abode with, “Give my love to Lurch and Morticia,” before showing how Megan’s rubbed off by translating an endearment she’d bestowed in French last season, “Goodbye, animals.” Don’s always shown more affection to his kids than the cold Betty, but he looks positively wistful watching them go and later says his weekend was good because he had them, suggesting that absence does make the heart grow fonder – or that the house of lies he lived in with Betty was the real domestic problem.
Having made breakfast and assented to Sally’s scheduling with a mild “Whatever you say,” Don seems a far cry from the impatient father and demanding husband we’ve known. Peggy actually complains that he’s so kind and patient she not only doesn’t know the man any more but is worried about him, although her real beef is that Don is failing to bully clients into accepting Creative’s ideas. As Trudy observes later, “Dissatisfaction is a symptom of ambition; it’s the coal that fuels the fire,” and Don’s fire seems to be burning only for Megan these days. Not long after they arrive (late) for work together, he suggests they play hooky and insists she open her blouse, but “Masters and Johnson” (as Pete calls them, invoking the married sex researchers who, well, mastered the johnson in the 1960s) are more than just happy, frisky newlyweds.
Don mock-sternly warns Megan, “I could make you go home right now, you know, I have that power,” but the equation of who really dominates who in this duo is not so easily solved. While Megan hustles to her junior copywriter job, Don terms the status of the firm’s business as “all good news” in a partners’ meeting and retires to his office to clip newspapers till it’s time to head home for more good lovin’. Gone is the driven man of previous seasons who sought refuge at the office from his fraught home life and then self-medicated with alcohol and cigarettes to cope with the pressure of making SCDP succeed.
As is usual in these cases, Don’s stress has merely been delegated. Peggy’s troubles amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, as she tries to sell Heinz an innovative and humorous “bean ballet” commercial in which they do acrobatic maneuvers that make them seem “more important than they really are” (the essence of advertising any product). However, unlike her Topaz pantyhose campaign, this idea hits a snag when the client points out that beans look like slimy human organs up close, and not just to guys who served in Korea as he did. A prescient warning since a nightly buffet of real blood and guts will be served up on the evening news as the Vietnam war escalates, and juxtaposing the art of war with the “the art of supper” might be a hill too far for a queasy public.
Youthful Peggy wants to push on to the future, in which a new high-speed camera that can “capture a bullet spinning in midair” would reveal beans that spin in opposite directions but “appear to be moving toward each other.” But the client knows that bringing either legumes or people together isn’t so easy. He asks instead for “a bite and smile,” which is how most Americans will get through the conflictual years ahead, biting their tongues over the unpleasant events they have to swallow (such as those spinning bullets) and attempting to smile at those moving in opposite directions. Something Peggy is unable to do when she lets loose on Don (at his birthday party, no less) for letting the clients off the hook and making her redo the whole campaign. “I shouldn’t be allowed to drink,” she apologizes later (even though she once claimed to be a “good drinker”).
The truth is that Peggy usually blurts out whatever’s on her mind even when sober, and her anger stems from more than overwork. Having developed last season into an “office wife” who shared more emotional intimacy with Don than we’d seen him have with anyone before, she’s been displaced by Megan, not only in his heart, but at the office, where he now avoids dealing with anyone but his spouse. Topping off the awkwardness is the fact that Peggy supervises Megan, who conspicuously asks her permission to go home even though Peggy has no choice but to agree, given she’s the boss’s wife.
But Peggy’s uneasiness and frustration are a mere molehill compared to Pete’s mountain of resentment. Having achieved a measure of maturity last season, the junior partner is back to putting the Pete in petulance — sulking and complaining about every aspect of his life, which has been relocated to suburban Connecticut since baby Tammy arrived. Looking decidedly pudgier and almost middle-aged, like those guys at the 10-year high school reunion who seem far older than 28, the formerly tender-lipped and boyish Pete has receding hair and baby spit-up on his suit. But his own appearance doesn’t concern him; it’s the fact that new mom Trudy lives in her bathrobe and “isn’t getting back to herself” as fast as he’d like. (A complaint many men will be making soon, as the women’s movement unfurls and the men impatiently wait for things to get back to “normal.”)
Just as Peggy’s been told by someone older and wiser that she’s full of beans, a middle-aged fellow commuter, Howard, coaches Pete on the new reality of his life, in which he’ll take later and later trains if he comes home at all (wink wink). Pete, who clearly loves Trudy, tells Howard he’s getting the wrong impression but returns the favor by mishearing a key word in Howard’s “Nothing a little peace wouldn’t fix” – although the Vietnam protest slogan “Make love not war” would cover both versions of this miscommunication.
While Pete seems wistfully disappointed by his new home life (and that dark little suburban kitchen makes us miss his Manhattan newlywed pad, too), it’s his work that’s really eating at him (or by the looks of it, vice versa). Still only a junior partner, he’s doing most of the Accounts work while fighting a cagey Roger sneaking into his client meetings. On a sliding scale of obsolescence and impotence, Roger ranks just below the eunuch Bert (who’s so out of it he thinks people are waiting for him rather than registering a meeting occurring right under his nose) and ahead of the newly laidback Don, who’s strangely content to let the younger generation take over.
For now at least, Don’s still “the big draw” as Pete puts it, the alpha dog of the office, able to coast on his mystique. Roger grouses that Don’s monopolizing their shared secretary, Caroline, who shows how far the pound Sterling has fallen by reminding him in kindergarten teacher tones that Joan said he “had to share” and accepting his bribe to give him more service while doing absolutely nothing.
As desperate to horn in on business as he once was to get out of doing any, Roger goes WikiLeaks on Pete’s calendar and preempts him at client lunches — perhaps because (as he later explains in envying Don’s happiness) “the only thing worse than not getting what you want is someone else getting it.” Pete responds by trying to out-martini the master, but the only thing that makes his head hurt worse than that is the concrete support pillar in his tiny office, which he finds as immovable a force as a partner who won’t retire. Pete shows the size of his column by having all the partners squeeze into his office to illustrate why he needs to take over Roger’s, but the silver fox refuses to surrender the last symbol of his executive male status (one the neutered Bert has already been stripped of).
When Pete democratically suggests they put it to a vote, Roger autocratically reminds him he’s a senior partner to Pete’s junior as well as suggesting they step outside, one-upping Pete with both might and right. Being a whiner not a fighter (as well as part of a generation that prefers to parlay rather than punch), Pete lets it go, leaving Roger to buy his way out of the situation as usual, giving Harry a month’s salary to make the swap instead.
Even this fails to satisfy Pete, who tells Harry that wasn’t the point, while failing to confess what he actually wanted was open acknowledgement that he’s taken Roger’s place in the firm. Feeling the respect he was earning last season slip away, Pete mournfully tells Trudy that there’s no fruit to his labors, manages only a rictus of a smile for clients and is grim and humorless with his co-workers. Having warned Pete in the first episode of the series not to become that guy in the office everyone avoids, Don now dodges meetings with him and treats Pete’s painful attempt to sell his “exciting” idea to woo back Mohawk Airlines with contemptuous impatience. Pete sets himself up for this reaction when he asks Don what client he’d most want and Don replies, “American Airlines, because they stood us up” when Pete’s pitching to Mohawk, who they fired as a client to pursue American.
In yet another example of power dynamics, Don wants to nail the cheerleader who said No, while Pete is pursuing the homely girl they walked away from. At work at least, Don’s all about risk while Pete is increasingly playing it safe. From his tasteful old-fashioned office to his comically plaid jacket at Don’s birthday party, Pete continues on the path of conformity and conservatism he was headed for last season, leaving behind the turtle-necked guy who pushed for youth-oriented ads and mourned JFK with his Jackie-emulating wife. He’s apparently one of those people for whom being young is like the flu: something you get over and move on from as soon as you can.
In that he’s contrasted with the Three Stooges, aka Stan, Kenny and Harry. While Stan and Kenny finish each other’s jokes like a comedy duo, Harry is a solo act that doesn’t know when the hook is trying to pull him off-stage. Salivating over Megan at the office, he ignores Stan’s warning that she’s appeared behind him and digs himself a hole that no Crane can get him out of, especially since he’s unable to do the obvious thing and simply apologize. While lewd comments about women have been stock-in-trade at SCDP, Harry has violated the convention Don reminds Roger of: Wives are off-limits.
Megan confounds the men in the office not only because she’s beautiful and overtly sexy, but because she straddles the line that’s always been drawn distinguishing women you work with (who are fair game for jokes, harassment and actual sex) and women you marry (who are to be respected, at least by men other than their husbands). The rare married woman who worked was expected to be asexual and unattractive, so that men didn’t have to sort out how to treat her, and the other women didn’t resent her (as it sounds like Joan does when she obliquely describes Megan to the “happy being nobody” receptionist as a girl she knew who “had your job and ended up with everything.”)
Wanting it all makes Megan the vexed question at the heart of “A Little Kiss” (the title of this episode), a forerunner of all those attractive women who will soon be entering the workplace, not just for a few years before they marry and not just to be secretaries. This massive social change confounded American businesses, just as it does the boys of SCDP. Peggy has struggled with sexism, too, but having gotten fat (actually pregnant) in her first year at the firm, she dodged being the object of sexual attention until she’d defined herself as a fellow professional. When Don reassured her last season that she’s “cute as hell,” she rightfully pointed out that she’s the secretary he didn’t sleep with (much less marry). And that other secretary who married the boss, Jane, has taken the traditional route of staying at home, where her husband can blame her for his unhappiness. By contrast, Megan appears to want both career and marriage, although she ultimately claims it’s Don who wants her close at (his) hand in the office.
“You don’t know her at all,” Don tells Peggy about Megan, and remembering his first marriage and the haste of this one, it’s tempting to think he doesn’t, either. But the episode reveals that these two lovebirds have actually gotten to know each other – and far from killing the romantic fantasy, it has intensified their bond. Don’s confessed his real identity to Megan, who not only accepts the truth but even tries to tease him out of the darkness it conjures in him.
And in one of the episode’s many reversals of status, Megan has taken Don’s place as the person with a mysterious past who may not be what she seems. When an old friend says she charms people because she’s a “good actress,” Don greets this news with a look of surprise that he may not know her as well as he thinks. I suspect Megan’s acting is on display the entire time, starting with her sweetness with Don’s kids and continuing at the office with Peggy, before appearing to climax with her public performance at Don’s surprise party but actually not doing so until the private party that surprises us later on.
The 40th birthday party is the set piece of the episode, one we deliciously anticipate from the moment Peggy warns Megan that “men don’t like surprises” and cites the “Lucy” show as support for her concern. In what could be an argument for many changes to come, Megan responds that “Nobody likes it in theory but, people are always glad,” before adding the real tantalizer: “You’ve never seen me throw a party – everyone’s going to go home from this, and they’re going to have sex.” (Which was probably true for a few people watching this episode, as well.)
The surprise spoiled by Roger and Jane, Don tries valiantly to get out of the ordeal, but given this was before “no means no,” he’s dragged protesting into an event that will lead to his “soul leaving his body” (as Lane so poetically puts it). After the forced socializing he thought would be his only punishment, Don is told to sit down so Megan can give him his present, unleashing the power of zooby-zooby-zoo on him. (Actually it’s “Zou Bisou Bisou,” a French song about a kiss, but for a moment it appeared she was trying to exorcise the 1950s of Sinatra’s “doo be doo be doo” out of her older husband.)
The scene recalls Joan’s performance at a dinner party she and Greg held, when she played the accordion and sang “C’est Magnifique.” The usually sexy Joan actually seemed sweet and sad trying to charm the guests who were important to her husband, but Megan’s behavior suggests not just a leap in time and culture but an entirely different agenda. Clad in a black velvet minidress, Megan doesn’t just serenade Don but pouts, poses suggestively and strokes her body in a pre-lap dance before jumping into his at the end. The men at the party are comically agog with desire, the women ricocheting from envy to embarrassment, leaving Roger and Jane to reveal what many are thinking when he asks, “Why don’t you sing like that?” and she retorts, ”Why don’t you look like him?”
Don and Megan are not only that gorgeous couple people envy; they’re actually having the hot sex people are imagining they have, but the full truth of their relationship is darker and deeper than that fantasy. After the party, Don’s exhausted and makes it clear he’s humiliated by Megan’s performance, which has made the private public – something the man with a hidden past and secret identity considers the ultimate sin. Even worse, Megan has flaunted her sexuality in front of other men when Don is so besotted with her that he can barely think about work and “twitches” if she talks to anyone but him.
For her part, Megan is angry that Don doesn’t appreciate what she’s done for him, arguing that he can’t tell her how to spend her money, and refusing the explanation that his birthday was never celebrated when he was growing up. It’s unclear if Megan knows it’s also his mother’s death day; since he’s confessed his identity, she probably does but had made it clear she prefers to enjoy the present rather than dwell on the past. In her youthful attempt to keep moving forward, she’s determined to bring her older husband along with her by any means necessary, whether it’s teasing him about being poor Dick Whitman or teasing him into being the sexy, successful Don Draper.
The nature of their erotic relationship only becomes clear towards the end of the episode, however, and it calls to mind dear Ida Blankenship’s pronouncement to Peggy last season that “It’s a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are.” But “Masters and Johnson” defy that separation, each playing both roles in turn. Don may dominate in public and Megan may appear masochistic when she offers to give up her fledgling career, but at home Megan is the junior partner who controls the senior, even as she gives him the illusion of mastery.
Leaving work after being humiliated by hearing Harry’s sexual fantasies about her, she appears angry when Don follows her there, then furious when he asks why she’s stripped down to her lacy underwear to clean the apartment. “Don’t you look at me! You don’t deserve it,” she hisses, taunting him for being old and saying she doesn’t want to be seen having sex with him through the windows, before suggestively looking over her shoulder and raising her backside to him as she cleans the carpet. “I don’t want it, I don’t want you,” she fumes, only to have him tell her how badly she does before they do the dirty deed on the “filthy” carpet.
Once they’ve worked out their frustrations in a way that’s obviously familiar and deeply satisfying to them both, Don gently explains that he knew all along how impractical the white carpet was but didn’t say anything because he wanted her to have what she wanted – a shaggy parallel to erotic desires overriding sensible choices. She mentions quitting, complaining that she doesn’t think her co-workers like her before admitting she doesn’t know if she likes them, but Don soothes her by saying that “there’s not one problem those people have that they didn’t have before you.”
Which brings us neatly back to the protester asking if the water bombers are the kind of people who work on Madison Avenue, to which we viewers could reply, Oh lady, if you only knew. They’re sadists and masochists and lechers and drunks and schemers and liars and, well, often just not very nice people, at least not after they’ve been in the business awhile. Peggy worries that Don’s so happy he’s lost his edge, but it seems he’s found a way to take the self-loathing that led him to the Happy Thanksgiving Hooker (who he asked to abuse him) and found a woman who can safely defuse it by being alternately loving and punishing, not in the uncontrolled and authentic way that Betty was, but on carefully calibrated terms that keep him sexually enthralled.
For the show’s sake, this balancing act can’t last, and a water bomb that bursts Don’s happiness must be whistling towards his head. I suspect it will come from a sudden change in the performance of good actress Megan, whose most honest statement seems her fraught speech to Peggy: “You can’t even apologize – none of you can! What is wrong with you people? You’re all so cynical – you don’t smile, you smirk.” A sentiment some viewers might share, as the formerly sympathetic Harry turns into a sniveling lech, Roger treats Jane with open contempt, Pete behaves like a toddler throwing a tantrum, and even Peggy is tense and snappish. Besides Don, only the terminally optimistic Kenny seems happy, excitedly imagining a daisy chain of successes that would result in the firm going south in a good way rather than as Lane fears. (Pete responds with a writer’s inside joke of an insult, “Kenny Cosgrove writes another novel.”)
The two most sympathetic characters of the episode are the pragmatic and responsible Lane and Joan, who’ve bonded like sailors in their joint mission to keep the firm afloat while the others seem awash in personal agendas. But even Lane seems to have caught the agency’s disease of deception, hiding from his wife and the other partners that they’re short of money – so short that he’s tempted to keep the cash in a stranger’s wallet he finds in a cab, and does steal his girlfriend’s picture, although only after she flirtatiously helps him invent phone sex circa 1966.
Joan’s not thinking of sex of any kind, being stuck at home with newborn son, Kevin, and her well-meaning but interfering mother, Gail. Adjusting to motherhood while her mother’s in the hood, she’s alternately grumpy and appreciative and in love with her baby but also stunned by what it takes to care for him. Staggering from lack of sleep, she’s missing her husband and well-ordered work life when she sees a New York Times ad touting SCDP as an equal opportunity employer. As she complains to Lane, when you’re gone from the office you miss all the jokes, and this is a prime example: a scheme Roger cooked up with Don’s chuckling collusion to humiliate account-stealing rival Y&R over bad press for the water bomb incident.
Certain she’s going to be replaced and goaded by her mother’s assertion that Greg won’t “let” her work after he’s back home, Joan pulls herself together in precisely the way that Pete longs for Trudy to do, and wheels her baby into SCDP for a seemingly casual visit. Fears mounting when the new receptionist doesn’t know who she is and reveals her duties have been reassigned, Joan poker-faces her way through Roger’s double private joke of “There’s my baby – now move that brat out of the way so I can see her,” and beams at Don’s somehow-endearing quip, “We’re not hiring anyone no matter how buxom his mother is.”
Handing off Kevin to a comical game of hot potato among the staffers, she lets a grateful Lane corral her in his office for a literal accounting of his (financial) woes. When she confronts him about the ad, he explains it’s a joke and that far from being replaced, he’s lost without her, causing the usually-composed Joan to burst into tears and confess how much she’s been missing work. Lane proves he’s a “real gentleman” (as the man whose wallet he returned called him), comforting Joan with sincerity and humor. Reassured that her place in the world is secure, Joan gets Lane to gossip about Don’s party, eliciting a stiff imitation of Megan’s coquettish “burlesque,” but his empathetic account of Don’s mortification is lost on Joan, who dreamily muses, “I can’t even imagine how handsome that man must be blushing.”
Humor, that most easily misunderstood type of communication, is a point of contention throughout the episode, as Peggy shakes her head at Stan’s bean jokes, Pete repeatedly claims he doesn’t find something funny, Don chides Roger for making fun of his wife, and Harry loses his office (and nearly his job) for making lewd cracks about Megan. But in the end, the joke’s on SCDP, as the partners show up for work the day after the Times ad to find, as Roger so delicately puts it, that their lobby is “full of Negroes” who’ve taken it seriously. The trouble with an inside joke is that those on the outside don’t get it, and you can’t say, “I was just kidding,” without risking the consequences. (Bad advertising is one thing, but false advertising is another, as these pros know in their sinking hearts.)
When Y&R one-ups the agency by sending an African statue that gets toted past the job-seekers, one artifact recognizes another and Bert asserts his authority for the first time in ages, dictating that they must appear to be what they’ve claimed they are in print: an equal opportunity employer. “Equal opportunity offender” is closer to the truth, but words are beginning to dictate actions and it looks like SCDP will be dragged into becoming a better place despite its worst intentions. “Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of bigots,” as Pete says of Y&R, while Roger counseled, “Let your conscience be your guide” when bribing Caroline, never suspecting that his own would be put to work after a lifetime of indolence.
An episode that began with humiliation raining down from a window on the executive floor onto those who are kept beneath it ends with a glass door opening to those who want to break through it, but not before we glimpse a young gentleman taking an elevator ride. Unlike everyone else, he’s keeping his mouth shut, and doesn’t care whether he’s heading up or down, just as long as he keeps moving.
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)