"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)
Bill Murray’s brilliant existentialist comedy “Groundhog Day” proposed that life consists of the same day lived over and over again with only minor variations, but that the key to happiness is finding a way to make the most out of the mundane. “Tea Leaves,” the third episode (the second to air, but the two-hour premiere was labeled as two episodes) of “Mad Men’s” new season, suggests something grimmer: Life is like waiting all night in a crowded concrete hallway thinking you’re about to meet the Rolling Stones, only to find out that you’ve signed a deal with the Trade Winds instead.
All youthful dreams die, and adult life is the long, slow accommodation to the way things actually are versus the way we not only hoped but believed they’d be. (As Henry puts it later in a more hopeful context, “This is what it could be, but it’s not gonna be.”) “Tea Leaves” draws a bright line between those who are still young and optimistic enough to have dreams – like sunny, yellow-outfitted Megan, back-to-connivingly-striving Pete, our plucky career gal Peggy, and even the new gaffe-a-minute copywriter Michael Ginsberg. On the other side, the middle-aged realists who are in the process of giving their dreams up, including the superannuated Roger, the always-doubtful Don, and the model-turned-matron Betty.
It’s Betty’s middle-aged spread that we’re first invited to gaze upon, and it’s a shock to see the woman who subsisted on Melba toast while pregnant failing to be shoehorned into a plus-size dress despite Sally all but putting a foot on her ass. Following her usual tactic when faced with a problem, Betty has avoided dealing with her overeating, leaving Henry’s battle-ax of a mother to drop in for a lecture, a case of the pot belly calling the kettle fat.
Frankly, I’d be overeating, too, if I lived in Betty’s new house, which looks like a combination of Manderley, the “Citizen Kane” estate and Lizzie Borden’s home. Betty seems to have taken that affection for an antique fainting couch she felt a couple of seasons ago and spread it over an entire mansion, the décor of which exudes musty old house smell even on-screen. Betty’s own upholstery is overstuffed because she’s swallowing unhappiness with an ice cream chaser, but that hard reality (which her doctor notes is common for “middle-aged women,” making Betty wince at being so classified) is quickly obscured by the possibility that she might have thyroid cancer. This threat sends her rushing back into Don’s ears, phoning him frantically for the auld lang syne of his “Everything’s going to be OK.” Looking concerned for her, Don throws in an affectionate “Birdy” to boot, although Betty’s clearly been eating like anything but.
Running into an old acquaintance, Joyce, at the specialist’s office, Betty is both shocked and intrigued by the fact that the woman has cancer, and asks her what it’s like. Joyce tells her it’s like paddling in the ocean alone while getting farther and farther away from the people on the shore. While you struggle, “because it’s natural,” you also get distracted and start thinking about mundane things like making dinner, before finally getting so tired you just “give in and hope you go straight down.” Betty seems to take this last part as advice, giving herself over to the idea like a child who imagines how very sorry her family would be if she died, even dreaming of them breakfasting while in mourning. She weeps when the fortuneteller who reads her tea leaves says she’s a “great soul … who means so much to the people around her,” and self-pityingly tells Joyce that if she dies, her children will never hear a good word about her ever again.
When word comes that she’s fine, she seems disappointed to have her romantic fantasy of death dispelled and angers Henry by complaining about being put through the wringer only to be told she’s fat (better dead than overfed, I guess, to paraphrase a saying of the era). Henry, on the other hand, is thrilled, saying he feels like Scrooge waking up after seeing his own grave, an indication he’s more engaged with life than others his age. (Especially Roger, who muses, “Actual life and death. I’ve given up on that.”)
Proving they were perhaps better matched than we thought, Don, too, prematurely kills Betty off, telling Roger she has cancer before clarifying that it’s not certain, and worrying that his kids will grow up without a mother — just like he did. Wondering how it will end up if Megan tries to parent them, it’s clear that the awe he held her in last season (when she charmed his kids in California) has been tempered. In this episode, we see that Don is increasingly drawing a dividing line between the people he sees as grown-ups like himself and those crazy young kids, including his 26-year-old wife, who he calls “such an optimist” in a tone that suggests it’s not a compliment.
Don’s doubts about the younger generation are also on display in that bright and busy hallway at the Stones concert, which Harry explains is “backstage” but not the “real backstage” – that lies behind a door that few can pass through (unlike death, a destination we’ll all get passes to some day). Harry and Don have no more luck than the teenage fans, even though they think they’ll be let in to pitch the Stones on singing for their client, Heinz. To pass the time, they chat with two young women, Harry sharing a joint while Don sticks to market research, picking the brain of one woman so relentlessly that she compares him to a shrink. And he does analyze her fantasy of meeting guitarist Brian Jones and suggests her toying with his tie is something that she’s seen in a movie. Having been compared by the girls to adman “Durwood” in the TV show “Bewitched,” Don’s right that this generation is deeply infected with the pop culture virus, but he’s one who gets the summary diagnosis: “None of you wants us to have a good time because you never did.” “No, we’re worried about you,” demurs Don in a patronizingly paternal tone, echoed by his telling Harry that the Stones aren’t right for either Heinz or the client’s daughter who worships them.
Naturally, the song that the client wants the Stones to sing is “Heinz, Heinz, you’re on my side,” pointing out for us (in case we’re too stoned to get it) that time isn’t on the side of Don, Roger or even the hapless Harry, who talks to the girls about seeing Charlton Heston in a way that would make Sal Romano blush. He apparently needs a weatherman to tell him which way the Trade Winds blow. Proving he might be a good match for Betty, Harry swallows his failure with a bag of White Castle burgers, eliciting Don’s disgusted view as a responsible father, “I thought those were for your family.”
Harry childishly replies, “Let them get their own,” before adding that his advice to anyone getting married and having kids would be “Eat first,” a motto reminiscent of Bert Cooper’s intoning, “Eat or be eaten – that’s how I was raised.” Unlike some of the sharks he’s surrounded by, Harry’s a pacifist who doesn’t want to destroy others, but he definitely wants his share, and like Pete, often feels that someone else is hogging the plate.
It’s Pete’s turn to hog things this time out, as he calls an “all hands” meeting to unveil Mohawk as their born-again client and humiliate Roger by not just taking all the credit, but telling the staff that even though Roger will do the day-to-day client work, “rest assured, everything he knows, I’ll know.” No older generation wants to be bested by the younger, but Roger is especially furious at being disrespected by a “kid” he hired and mentored, and who he feels is stepping on his fingers while he hangs from a ledge, a metaphor that brings to mind the falling man of the credits. (A tantalizing statement when paired with his later reflection that he’s long considered throwing something out the window.) Roger then plaintively raises the question that just about every white American male asked in the 1960s, “When is everything going to get back to normal?”
But there’s a new normal in town, and it shows up in staff changes that are curiously glossed over. We’re casually introduced to Don’s new secretary, Dawn, who Harry suggests is always being confused with her boss, despite the fact that she’s conspicuously female and black. After the dramatic buildup to breaking the color barrier at SCDP, the story line reaches an abrupt and anti-climactic conclusion that barely even draws a racist joke from Roger (“always darkest before the dawn over there”). Roger’s as surprised as we are that it’s no big deal to start hiring a more diverse staff, having checked with Mohawk about the Jewish copywriter that Peggy’s interviewing and finding out that “everyone’s got one now” and it makes an agency seem more “modern.” While that’s a fair depiction of tokenism, the integration of lily-white Christian offices didn’t go so smoothly in real life, so let’s hope we see some more repercussions at SCDP. At least sexism is still with us, since Roger informs Peggy that the hard-drinking Mohawk clients require a copywriter “with a penis,” leading her to joke that she’ll work on that.
Her work leads to Michael Ginsberg, who has not only a resume but some talent up his sleeve, and an even larger portfolio of quirks. On first impression, Ginsberg seems a tic-y bag of shtick, humorously eccentric (if not ethnocentric) as if designed to contrast as sharply with those WASPs as possible (including that sharp-edged Don, who Megan notes “has corners” even when going to a rock concert). Peggy worries that Ginsberg’s too strange, even after Roger dismisses her fears by saying all copywriters are crazy and smell like pee. (Peggy has obviously blocked Freddy’s disgrace from her mind since she asks, “Who smells like pee?”)
Roger doesn’t even bother with an anti-Semitic joke, and sexism still seems to be the real problem, as Stan warns that she’s hiring a guy who will end up being her boss. Roger preemptively reassures her that she won’t lose her job, leading Peggy to explain she’s not threatened by talent, but “inspired” by it. What she fears instead is Don blaming her for a bad hire, a worry that Roger understands once Pete Mohawks him in the back, telling her, “Forget everything I said before. That’s the last guy I hired.”
Ginsberg seems another character who may up-end the status quo of SCDP, not only because of his provocative ads (which Don seems to approve of), but because, as he tells Peggy, he’s willing to insult someone to be honest and to apologize because he’s brave. “Telling it like it is” is yet another cultural change rushing headlong at the older generation that will shock them to their core. Having been raised to talk around the truth and hide their own secrets as well as guard those of other people (at least until you can use them to your advantage), Roger, Don and Betty have already expressed horror at the blunt honesty of the younger characters on the show. “I don’t want to have that conversation,” Don firmly announces when Megan frankly mentions the possibility of mothering his kids if Betty died, once again affirming that ultimate Don Draper principle, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”
Being interviewed by Don, Ginsberg ping-pongs from being indiscreet about his past employers to agreeing with Don that he shouldn’t talk about them behind their backs, because after all, he knows prospective boss Don wouldn’t want his own secrets shared, either. We’re used to these jokes that wink at Don’s secret identity, but the fact is that Don’s merely one character with a hidden past on the show, and at this point, we know more about his history than many of the others.
In an era when both celebrities and ordinary people bear everything to the public at the drop of a reality TV show contract, it’s hard to recall that until the middle of the 20th century, unfettered self-disclosure was considered wholly inappropriate. Information was to be parceled out slowly and only in the most intimate of relationships, if at all. (In fact, spouses and children often were as unlikely to know a person’s secrets as anyone, making Don’s deception to Betty seem more a matter of degree than kind. Hiding previous spouses, children born out of wedlock, family scandals and criminal records wasn’t just the province of characters in soap operas, but more ordinary people than you’d imagine.) Betty and Joyce’s conversation in the episode is perfectly scripted for its avoidance of terms like “cancer” or “death,” as well as Joyce’s explanation that she only realized what was wrong when she saw her husband sitting in the waiting room after her third visit.
This growing schism in communication styles is suggested in Michael Ginsberg’s description of Don’s letter renouncing tobacco advertising as “the funniest thing I ever read.” Peggy shoots Don a worried look at this, but Don’s already told her to stop interrupting and let him talk, and appears to take this seeming insult in stride. Peggy’s the one who’s upset, saying it’s the fact that Michael “can control” his behavior that scares her, a cryptic statement that seems to mean she fears he’s more manipulative than odd, and therefore a danger to her just as Stan has warned. We’re left wondering who the real Michael Ginsberg is when we see him come home and talk to his father in a much quieter, more rational manner, suggesting that in fact perhaps he’s merely playing the role of wild creative guy (especially since we find out he lied about having no family).
While having dinner with Megan and Don, Raymond — the Heinz client — remarks that “back in Pittsburgh, everyone is who you expect them to be.” He thinks that he’s speaking of honesty and authenticity, the same allusion made by current political candidates who speak of “real Americans,” yet the same statement could be made about any of the SCDPers – they are who you expect them to be because they become who you want them to be. But then every person adapts to social expectations in order to fit in and survive. Megan tries to play the good corporate wife for Don at the client dinner, Michael Ginsberg tries to say whatever will get him hired, and Peggy tries to edit him into an acceptable version for Don, while Pete loses Roger and Don’s respect because he doesn’t shape his words to suit his audience, and instead cuts them to fit his own ego. But even lies told to soothe can hurt, as when the fortuneteller’s compliments toward Betty merely remind her of the way she’s failed in her relationships, failure that she seems to be taking to heart after her health scare.
“If, if, if – Betty, let’s not play that game,” Henry scolds when she considers various scenarios before getting her test results (an admonition that she neatly transforms into a mournful self-reproach by the Henry in her dream). But he’s arguing against human nature — everyone wants to read the tea leaves and find out what’s going to happen. Joyce promises Betty that the fortuneteller always offers good news, but real life doesn’t tell people what they want to hear, especially in matters of mortality. Having seen death up close from an early age, Don has always known this, and it’s made him the prematurely old person that he is, incapable of the youthful ease exemplified by Megan. “Stop looking at your watch,” the young woman at the concert advises Don, but he can’t help it; he knows that his time is ending and someone else’s is beginning.
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)