"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)
Something inexplicable and crazy happened to me back in 2000. I was in L.A., talking on the phone with my friend Gadi in New York. It was June 30 for me, July 1 for him. Out of nowhere I blurted, “Oh my God! Walter Matthau just died.” It was bizarre and creepy, but kinda funny too, because I couldn’t possibly be right. I had no connection to Matthau other than being a huge fan. Gadi bet me $25 I was wrong. The memo line of his pay-up check read “1:42 a.m., July 1 2000,” and he included a simple note: “HERE’S YOUR STINKIN’ BLOOD MONEY!” My friend Ali sums it up best: “The most pointless use of supernatural powers ever.”
Nothing like that ever happened to me before or since, that is, until Sunday night. The flash: Pete Campbell will take a header out a Time & Life Building window, probably around Thanksgiving on the show. (I’m iffy on the when but feeling solid on the who, what and where.)
I can argue that I came to this conclusion logically, because I was a sociology of media major in college, focused on film and TV theory and I did intern as a script analyst for the late, great Alan J. Pakula (“All the President’s Men,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Klute”). Plus, I worked in the T&L Building for nearly a decade, so I know that, indeed, its windows can in fact be “opened” (lore has it that an editor or staff writer at one of Time Inc.’s cash-cow titles — it varies depending on which version you hear — threw either an IBM Selectric or an Apple IIe out a window in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s). All those things are true, and relevant after-the-fact, but this started in the gut. And now I can only see poor Vincent Kartheiser dropping on that stark poster heralding Season 5, even though the cut of that guy’s jib is more Draper than Dyckman.
For those for whom my hunch alone isn’t sufficient proof (and that probably means all of you), here are all the actual clues, as I see them, pointing to Pete being the iconic falling adman. Four things kept cycling on a loop throughout the fifth season’s first episode: Height, windows, falling, death. Not all were embedded in his narrative; as allegories do, many came in the form of other, spoken by or symbolized through everyone from Sally to Stan. Not that I doubt my prediction (Oscar Madison!), but for you naysayers, I lifted my when-is-a-cigar-not-just-a-cigar monocle and watched the episode again. I made a cuckoo list: Nuts both in terms of length and, at times, its “Paul is Dead” stretches. Maybe Weiner is just luring us into a bait-and-switch with the 75 bread crumbs below, and if so, bully for him — but then again, Coach Morris Buttermaker! Horace Vandergelder! Grumpy Old Man! I’m feeling so confident, I wish I could make a $25 bet with all you people.
Chronologically, with themes noted:
FALLING, DEATH During the opening credits, the name of the actor who plays Pete Campbell, Vincent Kartheiser, falls down next to an illustration of a storefront with the street address “8806.” Say that number aloud and phonetically it’s “86,” slang for eliminating something. (Granted, a weak starter, but since we’re going in order …)
HEIGHT, WINDOW The very first image of the season is a Harry Crane look-alike opening a window at Young & Rubicam.
FALLING, DEATH The Y&R bigots throw water bombs at the picketers below. One of the picketers says to the Y&R receptionist, “Do you know there’s somebody throwing water bombs out your window?” This is the first of many uses of the word “bomb” in the episode.
DEATH The first character we see whom we recognize, Sally, seems almost dead, even though she’s just asleep.
PETE On the wall above Sally’s bed are two tigers fashioned from floral-patterned fabric or paper, both adorned with paper flowers. In Peter Pan, the title character’s life is often in the hands of Tiger Lily.
DEATH Sally’s bedding is butterflies, considered a caterpillar’s afterlife.
DEATH Organ music begins to play. While the tune itself isn’t funereal, the manner in which the instrument is played very much is.
DEATH Sally starts walking down a hallway that is more illuminated at the end than the front.
HEIGHT Sally passes a removed (or not-yet-installed) set of Venetian blinds exactly like those we later see in Don’s office.
DEATH Sally comes to a door, but it’s locked. Catholics believe that Saint Peter is the keeper of heaven’s locked gate.
WINDOWS, HEIGHT Don and Megan’s new apartment boasts a wall of windows, and they’re obviously situated on a high floor, much like the SCDP offices in the T&L Building.
PETE The gift the children give Don is a shaving brush, made from a badger’s tail; a badger is from the weasel family. Google “Pete Campbell” and “weasel” and behold the search results. In 2009, Salon ran an interview with Vincent Kartheiser titled “Everyone’s Favorite Weasel.”
FALLING, DEATH When Don pulls up to Betty and Henry’s house, he puts his arm out to prevent his three children from slamming into the dashboard.
DEATH Don asks Bobby to guess how old Don will be when Bobby himself turns 40. “You’ll be dead.”
DEATH Don tells the children to “Give Morticia and Lurch my love.” Morticia, just one letter shy of “mortician.”
PETE, FALLING The next character we see is Pete, shot from behind like the show’s man-on-couch graphic. He’s on a train, but headed in the “wrong” direction, as falling out a building would be definitely headed in the wrong direction.
DEATH The first thing we hear anyone say to Pete is, “You’re losing your head there.”
HEIGHT If Metro-North trains had the same stops back on May 31, 1966 (this date in the timeline of the episode), as they do today, it’s likely that Pete and Trudy live in Cos Cob, Conn., as the next two stops after he boards are announced as Greenwich followed by Port Chester. One of the two theories surrounding the naming of Cos Cob is that it comes from the Algonquin term for “high rock.” From the Greek, the name Peter means “rock” or “stone.”
FALLING, PETE When Roger and Don talk about the Y&R guys dropping the water bombs out the window, Pete says, “I don’t see the humor.” Don responds, “Because it’s funny,” but Pete looks almost sickened.
WINDOWS Don, building on Roger’s idea about the Equal Opportunity newspaper ad: “Our windows don’t open.”
DEATH Roger says an executive at Oldsmobile wants to know if there is a way around Nader (presumably regarding safety belts to help prevent auto fatalities). Pete responds coldly, “There isn’t.”
HEIGHT Pete arranges a meeting with the long-gone Mohawk Airlines.
FALLING Regarding this meeting, Pete says to Don, “I’ll let you know when I need you to —” and then makes a downward “swoop in” motion with his hand.
HEIGHT, FALLING, DEATH Roger, at lunch, to Pete: “You’re only one [drink] behind, but they’re nuclear.” This is the second “bomb” reference.
HEIGHT Roger, to Pete: “You don’t want me to fly copilot, or be your wingman?”
DEATH Roger, to the Mohawk airlines execs: “When you’re done with him [Pete], fold him up and slide him under the door.” This would require Pete to be flattened.
FALLING Peggy, during her Heinz beans pitch: “Spinning in air” the beans “pirouette” and “somersault.” Then, “There’s a splash of mouth-watering sauce as each one lands.”
FALLING, DEATH Peggy, about the high-tech photography: “This camera can show a bullet spinning in mid-air.”
DEATH Heinz exec, to Peggy: “You ever seen beans up close? They’re slimy. They look like a bunch of bloody organs.”
FALLING, DEATH The Heinz exec, to Peggy: He says that people associate their beans with “bomb shelters.” This is the third time the word “bomb” is used.
DEATH Don, to Peggy, regarding why he doesn’t want to force this campaign on the Heinz guy: Why bother “only to have him pull the plug at the last minute.”
WINDOWS Don, to Peggy, regarding the Heinz account: “This is business that came in over the transom.” A “transom” is a crosspiece separating a door from a window.
FALLING Pete doesn’t accidentally walk into the exposed support column in his office; he trips, then falls squarely into it, resulting in a very bloody nose.
HEIGHT, DEATH Pete’s door has a marker than reads, “3766 Peter Campbell.” NGC-3766 is the scientific name for the Pearl Cluster, a so-called star factory expected to explode as a supernova.
HEIGHT, DEATH Pete, to Clara, about Roger: “He hovers over your desk like a damn U-2!” U-2s were traditionally used to spy on countries thought to be in possession of “The Bomb” during the Cold War. While not explicit, could be considered a fourth “bomb” reference.
FALLING Kenny, to Pete: “You need to lower your voice.”
HEIGHT, FALLING, DEATH Kenny, to Pete: “Did you crash with Mohawk?”
FALLING Pete tells Kenny he was the coxswain when he rowed; this position sits backward in the stern and steers while all the other members face in the opposite direction, reminiscent of the position Pete assumes on his train ride into work. Tradition dictates that coxswains are thrown overboard after a regatta win.
HEIGHT Kenny mentions opening an office in “Buenos Aires,” which in English translate to “Good airs” or “Fair winds.”
DEATH Kenny mentions Elvis playing at Tammy’s Sweet 16. This would be roughly 1982, and by then Elvis will have been dead for five years.
DEATH Pete, to Kenny, about Mohawk and how much they like Roger: “They love his pickled guts!”
FALLING The M.C. at Don’s surprise birthday party: “If we could bring things down to a subtle voce, that would help. I’m gonna turn off the lights.” Kenny: “No!” M.C.: “Well, fine. Just keep it down.”
FALLING Bert Cooper, to Stan, Stan’s sailor cousin and Harry: “The domino theory is not a joke.” This was a reference to the Cold War idea that if one nation fell to Communism, then surrounding countries would fall in succession.
FALLING, DEATH Stan, responding: “Bombs are the perfect product.” This is the fifth time “bomb” has been uttered or evoked.
DEATH Bert Cooper, to Stan’s cousin, the sailor on shore leave: “So I suppose this young man here’s comin’ home in a bag for nothing?”
FALLING, DEATH Harry gifts Don with a walking stick. Harry makes a point that Don Ameche has the same model, but our Don knows they were designed to help prevent the elderly or infirm from falling. And, strangely, the only movie Ameche made in ‘66 had the word “dead” in the title (the horror flick “Picture Mommy Dead”).
HEIGHT The cool spot at the party (where everyone is smoking “tea”) is out on the balcony.
HEIGHT One of the lyrics in the famous “Zou Bisou Bisou”: “Lovers glide stealthily like birds.”
DEATH Don hurls himself onto his bed, still in what looks like work clothes.
HEIGHT, FALLING, DEATH After Don chastises Megan about the party, she goes out to the terrace and looks over the balcony. This shot is held for an uncomfortable amount of time, and then they fade to black. It’s as if we’re supposed to wonder if she ends up returning to the apartment, or jumps to her death.
FALLING We have a severe, straight-overhead shot of the sidewalk outside the T&L Building. There is garbage strewn everywhere as if someone has knocked over all of the trash cans below.
DEATH Lane phone sweet-talks Delores, originally Latin, now a form of Dolores, which in Spanish means “lady of sorrows.”
DEATH Joan’s super, Apollo, named after the Greek god who could bring healing or death. At the Temple of Apollo in Greece, all that remains are the columns (much like the one in Pete’s office) and a stone foundation.
DEATH Don asks Roger, “Is it your obituary?”
WINDOWS Pete calls a partners’ meeting to discuss his need for a windowed office.
FALLING Roger, to Pete: “Thems the breaks” and then, “I say we step outside.”
DEATH Stan, to Harry: “I think I’m gonna die!”
DEATH While Delores is talking to Lane, she says he sounds like Cary Grant; Grant ended his career in 1966.
DEATH Lane, to Delores: “I’ll be here the rest of my life!”
DEATH Harry morosely plays with a model cannon that’s facing him on his desk.
WINDOWS, HEIGHT Roger, to Harry: “Just between you, me and the window washer …”
WINDOWS Harry, to Roger, re: Pete’s office: “There’s no window in there!”
DEATH Lane mentions a “parking meter,” something that indicates when time has run out.
DEATH Lane, to Joan, re: Don during Megan’s song-and-dance routine: “I saw his soul leave his body.”
DEATH When Clara is moving Pete’s things, we see she has the rifle he bought in Season 1 propped against her body.
DEATH In Pete’s new office hangs Harry’s painting of Washington Square Park’s Arch, the site of a former execution site and burial ground where supposedly over 10,000 remains lie. (If it’s actually the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, it’s the site of that country’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from WWI.)
WINDOWS Harry, to Pete, about his office: “It’s got the windows.”
DEATH Lane slips Delores’ photo under his desk mat, reminding us of what Roger said to the Mohawk execs about them slipping Pete under the door.
DEATH The man whose wallet Lane has is named Alexander Polito; “Polito” is a nickname for someone from Constantinople. Earlier, we hear Lane say his son is enrolled at “Saint Paul.” Saint Paul the Confessor was the 6th bishop of Constantinople. His feast day is June 7, exactly the final day in the timeline of this episode.
WINDOWS Megan, to Don, regarding their blind-free windows: “I don’t want people to think you’re getting this!”
WINDOWS Cut to Pete, staring out the window of his new office.
DEATH Pete, to fellow train rider, regarding his future pool: “No, no — in the ground.”
WINDOWS, DEATH Train guy, to Pete: “I hope to be dead by Christmas.” Pete laughs, then turns to the window and gives a long stare that lasts until we fade out to a different scene.
FALLING Joan and her mom in the elevator with baby Kevin, going down while the camera remains static.
DEATH The episode ends with the Dusty Springfield song, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” which features the line, “Life seems dead and so unreal.”
Robin Sayers is a writer based in New York. She is also an Editor-at-Large at Los Angeles Times Magazine.More Robin Sayers.
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)