"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)
Last night “At the Codfish Ball,” our mad men and women learned that life isn’t a party just because you’ve dressed yourself up, and losing can sometimes appear disguised behind a mask of winning. Fortunately, to borrow Cosgrove’s term, there’s also the possibility of a “double secret reverse,” in which you get what makes you happy even if it’s not what you expected – or what others think is right.
In this fish tale, the genders are moving up and down like parallel elevators in the Time-Life building, the workplace that consumes so much of their lives they barely can escape it for a meal that doesn’t involve business – and in this episode, not even for that. But this show is about time and life – the time in these characters’ lives, and the times they’re living in. Unfortunately for them, few seem to be having the time of their lives.
After her failure to impersonate Don, Peggy’s off the Heinz account, but seems in good spirits when Stan and Ginsberg treat her like one of the boys. She rolls with the sexual banter about how she’s got a way with the equipment on the Playtex account, as well as Ginsberg’s criticism that she’s a “traditionalist in the bosom arena” (something that will be challenged in this episode), defending her opinion about selling youthful, sexy bras to older women.
Having to elicit male support for her ideas isn’t a good sign for our Pegs, and neither is the fact that after her bean blowout, she’s being marginalized to female products (Topaz pantyhose, Playtex, Pond’s cold cream, etc.). Given that we now live in a time when tweeners dress like prostitutes, Ginsberg may look prescient in arguing they should be selling adult bras to young girls, while Stan grumps that her opinion shouldn’t count more just because she’s a “boob-carrying consumer” (as opposed to a consuming boob like him). But in fact, bras will soon be even less popular with young women than beans, so I award Peggy the winner’s cup in this round.
Megan is the real heroine of the hour, having had a beanstorm while feeding Don’s kids spaghetti, which her mother also did to comfort her. Realizing that “some things never change” between parents and children (not only a slogan but an idea well-proven by interactions with her visiting parents), she envisions a historical beanline stretching back to caveman days and rocketing all the way to a family’s meal on the moon (where in just three years astronauts will in fact be eating consumer products like Tang). Despite being on the verge of dumping SCDP – a fact that Megan intuits and confirms with some wife-to-wife talk in the ladies’ room – the client Raymond loves the idea as soon as he hears it, proclaiming, “It’s the future; it’s all I ever wanted.” Of course, he admits this only after his wife all but pokes him in the ribs to get him to acknowledge that emotion Peggy had scolded him for not admitting to before.
To his credit, Don’s ecstatic at Megan’s adroitness in both creating the campaign and figuring out on the fly how to pitch it, feeding Don cues that allow him to let rip with one of his classic Don Draper spiels, during which he gives Megan credit only for the space scene. “You’re good at all of it,” he marvels afterward in the taxi, as if basking in his own reflected image, finally having found someone who (unlike Peggy) can play the role of a female Don Draper.
But, in fact, Megan’s playing a different and very traditional role, that of the woman behind the powerful man, not just letting Don take all the glory, but deliberately engineering each situation so that he’ll get the attention, and modestly deflecting credit from her co-workers for what Peggy rightly terms a “home run” (which also happens to be what Don wants from her immediately afterward). Expressing a classic female fear, she’s concerned that Stan and Ginsberg will hate her for changing their campaign (the kind of worry that we never see cross any of the men’s minds), and is relieved when the banished Peggy not only congratulates her, but also urges her to enjoy what she’s accomplished.
Yet Peggy’s words contain an implicit warning against future career satisfaction, telling Megan to “savor” her victory because “this is as good as this job gets.” Megan’s father, Emile, is similarly worried that Megan has started “at the end,” achieving wealth and success by marrying Don rather than working for it. Speaking to her in English because he says she’s changed (into – quel horreur! – an American), he suggests that she’s given up her own dreams to mold herself to Don’s, an argument that seems to hit home since Megan silences him with, “Not tonight.”
Emile’s own dreams are shattered when he’s rejected by the one publisher that had agreed to consider his manuscript. Taunted by his wife, Marie, who pointedly observes about Sally and Don that “every daughter should get to see her father as a success,” he shows that things never do change by accusing Marie of being just like her own mother and covering him in shit. Despite her Heinz slogan, that particular family tradition seems to be stopping with Megan, who is not only covering Don in glory, but covering up for the fact that he’s not having good ideas anymore. Even worse, the normally razor-sharp Don can’t even recognize them, forcing Megan to play connect-the-dots in translating spaghetti to beans, and all but kick him under the table to get him pitching at the client dinner.
Megan’s father may be right that she’s skipped over all the intermediate steps to the end, but as Don acknowledges, she’s doing so by displaying every skill required to succeed. No longer the pupil to Don’s master, she instead schools her husband, who admits his inclination was to yell at the client rather than persuade him (behavior we’ve seen in the past with anyone who dares reject Don’s genius). In a masterful display of classic feminine wiles, Megan gently overrides Don’s terrible slogan for Heinz with her own, modeling the ego-flattering behavior that he then repeats with the client, letting Ray take full credit for the idea of using the same actors for every historical period in the commercial. (Another image of how patterns repeat throughout generations as well as in human beings in general.)
As Peggy said in the season premiere, this hardly seems like the Don Draper we know, but that episode also revealed that Megan dominates Don in a way that sexually enthralls him. In this episode, their improvised pitch-as-casual-dialogue serves as a kind of public foreplay, and he finds her mastery of the process so powerfully erotic that they have to return to the office to make love, sealing the melding of their personal and business partnerships.
It’s an open question if Megan will remain content with “topping from below” (as disempowered people have always had to do) or whether with women gaining power, she’ll soon take the more straightforward route, even if it caused Peggy to crash and burn – or does the same to her marriage. That velvet glove Megan uses on Don would also be fantastically successful with clients, even without Don as her wingman.
Wings are another theme of this episode, as several characters try theirs, with varied success. With Megan’s assistance, Sally rocks a minidress, makeup and boots for walking, provoking from Don the response I expected to hear from Betty, as he tells her she’s not leaving the house dressed that way. Don at least says he’s happy his daughter will soon be wearing more grown-up attire, even if he deems she’s not quite ready for it yet. In contrast, Emile’s otherwise immaculate English mysteriously slips on Freud when he warns Don that “no matter what, one day your little girl will spread her legs and fly away.”
His own daughter has done just that, of course, marrying a man he dislikes and distrusts because “his manners are studied” – a strange comment from a man who studies things for a living. But then Emile’s also a Marxist who can’t understand why Don doesn’t let the doorman carry the luggage, and a man who dresses well and enjoys an apartment that he nevertheless criticizes as “exquisitely decadent,” because (as his wife observes) it puts his eyes and his politics in conflict.
Eyes and politics are increasingly in conflict in America, as the battle between traditional concerns about “appearances” clashes with the youthful push for social change and a more natural way of being. Roger’s ex-wife, Mona, says she refuses to let a “bunch of dirty teenagers” make her feel guilty, but Roger, still riding the magic carpet of post-LSD openness, has been having bouts of post-hallucinogenic self-awareness. (Not to worry – he’ll probably get over it soon.)
He interprets his 1919 World Series hallucination to symbolize his entire life, in which he cheated his way into success by being born into wealth and privilege. Determined to show he can actually work for a living (a fact he trumpets to Don and Megan as a great accomplishment after trying it one morning), he schemes to use the American Cancer Society dinner at which Don’s being given an award as a chance to gain clients. Envisioning it as a gold mine that they’re being lowered into, Roger himself appears to be rising (in more ways than one) but is as unaware that the work he’s doing may be fruitless as he is that the insights he gained on acid are commonplace knowledge to less self-absorbed people.
Watching him pursue clients right and left, a flirtatious Marie says he’s so full of life and ambition that he’s like a “little boy,” and sadly this seems true. He recruits his maternal ex-wife to rustle up intel for him and enlists 12-year-old Sally as his pretend date, instructing her to bolster his ego by saying “Go get’em, Tiger,” and – the coup de grace — sneaks off to have sex with the wife of a man who is his guest. Perhaps he should have listened more closely to the rest of Marie’s “Je regrette quelques choses” speech, when she says one day she realized she’d made too many mistakes. Instead he cheerfully responds that he’s decided never to stop trying, an approach that without true enlightenment will yield not progress, but merely a repetition of his own brand of mistakes.
Having rightfully mocked Roger for not knowing that people are focused on their own concerns rather than his, Don has his own mind-blowing moment at his familiar temple of self-enlightenment: a bar. Chatting at the American Cancer Society party with Ken’s father-in-law, Ed Baxter, an executive at Dow Corning, the company that brought better death through napalm, Don is shocked, shocked to find out that that he’s as popular with clients these days as the Viet Cong would be. While Roger had predicted that Don would be like the bride at an Italian wedding, with people lining up to give him envelopes of money, Don’s instead pink-slipped by Ed, who wonders why he hasn’t gotten out of the ad business. The award he’s been given might as well be a death certificate, because no one wants to do business with a man who betrayed his client the way Don did Lucky Strike. “They’ll bury your desk with awards, but they’ll never work with you after that letter,” he calmly informs the shell-shocked Don. “How could they trust you after the way you bit the hand?”
Not just the hand that fed the agency, but the hand that holds the cigarette we might assume, as SCDP’s former lucky strike turns into a match that could burn down the house. A point subtly made when we see the familiar image from the credits of Don’s hand with a cigarette echoed by a drunk and sleeping Marie. Following her mother into the bedroom as if she’s done this a thousand times before, Megan removes the smoking weapon from her hand and puts it out, just as she rescues Don in this episode.
Their partnership is paralleled by another couple, as Abe asks Peggy to live together. Having initially thought he was breaking up with her, only to be counseled by the ever-wise Joan that men take you to dinner for good news like marriage proposals, Peggy is momentarily fazed before agreeing, her ironic “I do” in answer to a question about dinner, rather than a vow that she’s seemed quite ambivalent about taking. But just as she has to have backup for her creative ideas, she turns to the now marriage-hardened Joan for approval, which is granted after some initial shock at shacking up, granting that at least Peggy has a man who really wants to be with her. Anticipating a song (“My Old Man”) that Joni Mitchell will write a few years later, Peggy argues that she and Abe don’t need no paper from the city hall to stay tied and true, a sentiment that was still fairly radical for a woman of her time, but which will be quite popular before long.
This decision is soundly rejected by Peggy’s very traditional Catholic mother, who literally takes the cake by saying she’d rather her daughter had lied to her than revealed the truth of what she’s doing. That repossessed cake is one that she described as “very delicate,” telling Peggy she would be the one to take it out of the box, just as she deems when and how Peggy should share herself with a man. Saying Abe will leave her when he’s ready to marry, she offers Peggy mere crumbs, suggesting that cliché of single womanhood: a series of cats to keep her company until she runs out of lives.
In congratulating Megan, Peggy said that seeing her victory was like “getting to experience my first time again,” as if the act of mentoring someone else to success had made her a born-again virgin. Becoming a successful professional woman has in some ways restored Peggy, not just from the trauma of giving up her child, but from an upbringing that counts the “sin of pride” as seriously as that of fornication. But to her mother, she’s still damaged goods, just as Don is to the clients he seeks to woo. And just as Peggy’s mother worries that Abe is “using her for practice” for his future life, it’s possible that Megan is similarly using Don.
Meanwhile, Sally practices being a woman, including in her play date with Roger, but is disappointed that the hotel ballroom has no staircase or prince. She may tell the waiter she’s done with her Shirley Temple, but she’s not ready to leave childhood behind, hastening to remind Glen that she’s not his girlfriend right after getting a glimpse of adult sexuality with Roger and Marie. Like Peggy’s mother, she finds the city “dirty,” an appropriate response for a girl of her age and innocence, if not for a middle-aged woman.
At the end of the episode, five people sit side-by-side in silence, sunk into their own thoughts about what they are facing at this time in their lives, and completely unaware of the others around them in similar pain. Perhaps if they’d joined the Heinz clients at that new Edward Albee play, they’d have a sense of what life requires, namely “A Delicate Balance.”
Some things never change.
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)