"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)
No, Roger, you’re not the only one who wanted to see it.
Many “Mad Men” fans were no doubt just as eager as the staff of SCDP to see someone finally smack Pete’s smug little face. Rarely a sympathetic figure, Pete’s been made increasingly insufferable this season, whining about getting no love from his colleagues while doing everything possible to make them despise him.
In the latest episode, “Signal 30,” he childishly belittles Lane for landing a new client, Jaguar, and initially refuses to help him close the deal even after Don points out that adding automobiles to planes will raise the struggling agency’s stature.
Perhaps the value of cars is lost on the immature Pete because he’s only now learning to drive, and is more focused on getting into the car’s back seat with a young female classmate in his driver’s ed class. Made to watch the warning film “Signal 30” (police code for an extreme emergency), which shows footage of teenagers’ bodies mangled by car crashes, the girl, Jenny, feels appropriately queasy but Pete laughs and seems unaffected by the “mayhem.” Frustrated by her rejection of him in favor of a teenager appropriately nicknamed “Handsome,” Pete uses the excuse of client entertainment to indulge himself in a look-alike prostitute. Warned that it won’t be easy to please him, she quickly figures out that it requires kneeling on all fours and calling him, “My king.” While Lane may be overstating the case by calling him a “monster” and a “grimy little pimp,” his actions in the episode are questionable enough to draw a lecture from Don about how he should appreciate and not screw around on his wife. And when Don Draper lectures you about fidelity, you should know that you’re in trouble.
Pete may turn out to be everything we’ve always feared he is – including marked for death – given all the talk of guns, Don’s drawing of a noose, and those bloody accident scenes, but if he’s going to be pushing up daisies soon at least he believes “God’s all over the garden.” When Don warns him that you don’t get a second chance at what he has, Pete responds with a mocking, “I have everything,” and ends the episode weeping and declaring that he has nothing. If Roger’s the privileged guy who thinks he’s hit a triple, Pete’s the guy who was born on third base and thinks he’s sitting in the bleachers, utterly unable to appreciate his loving and spunky wife (who has won over even the socially resistant Don) or “take credit” for his adorable baby (but then again, there was another baby he couldn’t do that with, either, through no fault of his own).
Paralleling the slick deception of advertising, “Mad Men” has always been about the difference between appearance and reality – between what people seem to be and what they really are, as dramatized by the initial MacGuffin of Don’s secret identity. But the truth is that all human beings are mysterious, even to those people they’re most intimate with – and even to themselves. In “Signal 30,” we begin with a film prologue explaining that what viewers are about to see isn’t a slick Hollywood production but grisly reality. The horror we see in the episode is the tragedy of a young man who can’t appreciate the gift of life, and a lucky one at that. In the optimistic reframing of Ken’s Pete-inspired short story, “everything ordinary has become too beautiful to bear” for the protagonist, but in fact, we see that for Pete, everything ordinary has become too disappointing. Like his teenage classmate, he feels that “things seem so random all of a sudden” (rather than that his own poor choices are creating the fate he bemoans) and that time is “speeding up” (just like a car heading for a crash).
Pete’s spiral into a depressive and perhaps even suicidal state is the negative space that defines the hidden reality of the other characters. While Pete is less than he seems – unhappy despite having “everything,” not as strong as the prostitute flatteringly says he is, unable to win a fight or even fix a faucet like a man is supposed to do – other characters are revealed to be even more than they’ve seemed in the past.
While Don is still the series’ “Superman” the women joke about (when he whips off his shirt to fix the faucet) – tickling the client’s fancy with his idea to sell Jaguars as a literal wet dream for men, and such catnip to women that, as Roger jokes, he even does better than the others at a whorehouse — he also shows how much he’s changed by staying faithful to his wife and getting all “broody” upon seeing Trudy and Pete’s baby. Having joked that Saturday night in the suburbs makes you want to blow your brains out (another hint that Pete’s not long for this world), Don spurns the idealization of “country life” that the others indulge in, defining it as shitty by recalling only the horse manure and outhouses. Telling Megan that when he opens his eyes, he wants to see skyscrapers, he makes it clear that he’s found his true home in the city, which offers not only stimulation but a pleasing anonymity that makes him feel safe. While Megan pointedly teases him about lacking friends (other than his accountant), and the other characters spiral around him like eager satellites orbiting a planet, Don seems content to be a society of two, wanting to be alone with his new wife as much as he wanted to be away from Betty, and forcefully telling Pete that he wouldn’t have thrown away what he had if he’d met Megan first (as Pete did Trudy). Literally loosening what Pete has tightened too much by fixing the faucet that “blew in (Trudy’s) face,” the formerly angry and now relaxed Don controls what we increasingly see bursting out of Pete.
With Don and Pete squared off in different corners of the marital arena, a surprising referee appears. Last season I called Roger a potential Zen master when he showed glimmers of wisdom, but his recent sour attitude left me unprepared for the shift in this episode, as he takes his reduced status in stride, holds his temper, and dispenses not nastiness but the old Roger witticisms (abetted by a guardian angel-like Bert hanging over his shoulder). He actually seems to relish his new role as “Professor Emeritus of Accounts,” coaching Lane in the art of forming a “conspiracy” with the client by finding common ground in shared misfortune, which will lead to finding out everything you want to know.
Trying to put this plan into action, Lane fails miserably when his happy client doesn’t “have a complaint in the world” — although it will turn out he has one about Lane, who didn’t get Lesson No. 2 from Roger, “How to Please the Client With a Trip to the Whorehouse.” As Lane says about his client’s good fortune, “Well, that’s too bad, isn’t it?” And too bad is what the other boys are when they take over entertaining the client, losing the account when a hooker literally gums up the works.
Which leads to our little replay of the American Revolution, this time with the Brits coming out triumphant over the Yanks. “Good day to be an Englishman,” as Lane says earlier in the episode when England beats another old adversary, Germany, in the World Cup, temporarily putting on hold that “messy divorce from Great Britain” he’s been having. Lane’s triumph is short-lived, however, as he misreads Joan’s sympathy and tries to plant his flag, only to have her make it clear that she’s not ready to be conquered. “There is no end to my humiliation today,” he moans, a strange complaint from a man who’s just won a fight, but it follows asking her what he does that’s of importance, showing that Pete struck the harder blow by questioning his relevance to the firm. “Something essential,” Joan soothes, before reassuring him that being different from the other men in the office is a good thing.
That’s something she might do well to tell Ken Cosgrove, another example of someone who isn’t quite what they seem. Jovial Ken gives every appearance of being a lightweight, but while the other men are busy being johns, he’s turning himself into a John – Cheever, that is, or maybe Updike. Having openly published in the past (and drawn Pete’s jealousy as a result), he’s gone Don Draper by assuming a pseudonym, Ben Hargrove, to hide his moonlighting as a successful writer of sci-fi/fantasy stories. When Peggy discovers his secret, we also discover one they share: a “pact” to leave the agency together if the opportunity arises.
Having admitted to Peggy that he makes time for writing by cutting client dinners down to drinks, he’s outed by his proud wife at Pete and Trudy’s dinner party, leaving sneaky Pete to squeal to Roger. In another nod to dual identity, Roger scolds Ken for being “you by day, and Edgar Allan Poe by night,” saying he already has both a day and a night job at SCDP, and that his attentions can’t be “divided.” It’s an ironic statement from a man who makes a sport of being unfaithful to his wives, and followed by the unintentionally self-revealing assertion that “when this job is good, it satisfies every need. Believe me, I remember.”
But what we remember is that Ken has previously talked about the limited importance and satisfaction of business, and that he rejects the belief of Roger’s generation that success at work is the be-all and end-all for men. He tells Peggy that “Ben Hargrove is dead” and he’s “through with all that fantasy stuff” but this is merely a literal truth, when the reality is that he’s adopted a new pseudonym under which he’s writing realistic stories in the Cheever/Updike mold. Perhaps familiar with Roger’s tactic of using a client’s unhappiness for gain, Cosgrove takes Pete’s misery and turns it into literature, thereby transforming reality into art – a rebuke to advertising, which turns reality into artifice. Pete may not be long for this world, but I suspect Ken is not long for the world of advertising, even if that book contract doesn’t come through.
In order to maintain that “shred of privacy” he tells Peggy he craves, Ken hides his intelligence and his talent. Letting others see him as less than he really is gives Ken more power and freedom; by contrast, trying to be more than he is exposes Pete to ridicule and rejection. Having overestimated his importance at work (while denigrating others such as Roger and Lane), he thinks a teenage girl will find him attractive, only to be mistaken for a teacher. After being too afraid to fight war hero Roger, he apparently takes in the prostitute’s flattery about his strength and takes on Lane, who proves to be more of a fighter than anyone expected. Having been badly licked, he is humiliated a second time by weeping in front of Don, who has no answer when Pete says he thought they were friends.
“You have to pay both ways,” the cab driver tells Pete when he hears his destination is the suburbs, to which Pete responds, “I’m aware of that.” No matter which way you choose to live your life, there is a cost – to yourself, and to others. The mass murder of University of Texas students by Charles Whitman is attributed to a brain tumor, and then compared to Ken’s sci-fi story of a robot who has no power to decide anything, but only knows how to turn a bolt, and in doing so, kills thousands. Despite his words to the cab driver, Pete seems to subscribe to this mechanistic view of human behavior, leaving him no agency to change his life for the better.
At the end of this stylishly directed (by John Slattery) episode, the writer Ken imagines his fictional Pete hearing Beethoven on the “miniature orchestra” of his hi-fi and reflecting on the pathos of Beethoven composing his ninth symphony while deaf and heartbroken, with Death biding his time in the doorway. But the real Pete sits in a different kind of hell, listening not to glorious music but to the whir of a film projector spewing images of death while the endless drip of banal mortality echoes in his ears – a noise that Trudy agrees “goes all day” but which, unlike Pete, she doesn’t hear.
Ask not for whom the faucet drips, Pete Campbell – it drips for thee.
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)