"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 last we saw of Carrie in season one, she was rewinding memories in her mind of the time she spent with Brody, desperately trying to recall the name “Issa” before pulses of electricity were applied to her temples — an attempt for Carrie to lighten her burden. Our final image of her as the season finale wrapped: Carrie’s body, convulsing from the ECT. We are left with the exquisite torment of knowing she isn’t crazy at all, that the dangers she foretold are real not imagined, that she loves a man who seemingly doesn’t love her back, and that she is alone with all these burdens.
The second season opens with Carrie convalescing at home, under the care of her shrink sister Maggie, living with her father, and teaching ESL classes to Middle Eastern students to keep busy. She is desperately trying to suppress the pangs of yearning for her former life — the one she loved even though it drove her mad, even though she was betrayed. But she is still recovering from her breakdown, vulnerable: It won’t take much to lure her back in. And indeed she will be tempted.
Because half across the world, in Beirut, Saul has been alerted to a sudden, urgent request by a mysterious woman to meet with her CIA handler, just two days after Israel bombed five nuclear sites inside Iran. He can’t ignore the canny timing — there’s too much of a coincidence between the two occurrences. When he meets with her, she is skittish, tries to get away, and feigns ignorance, until Saul calls her on it, showing her a photo of herself. “You have information about an attack,” he says. Saul learns she is the first wife of Hezbolla district commander Abbas Ali, and the only person she’ll speak to is Carrie.
Naturally, the CIA is going to call on her. And because the CIA has always held an inexorable pull on her, one that neither electroconvulsive therapy nor time can change, we know what will happen.
And so, as Carrie returns exams to her students one evening, class is interrupted by a messenger: A man tells her David Estes needs to see her. Carrie, her body tightly coiled with rage, tells the man, David Galvez: “Tell him to fuck off.” She returns home to find a dark SUV is sitting in front of her house. She eyes it warily as she heads inside, and learns from her sister, Maggie, that Saul has been calling all afternoon. Saul hates himself for even asking (though clearly he doesn’t hate himself so much he cannot bring himself to ask), he tells Carrie when they finally connect, but the CIA needs her help.
Carrie doesn’t want to see Estes but there he is, waiting in the SUV. She stands on the porch, seething silently. Estes approaches her as contritely as he can manage to, but Carrie isn’t having it. Estes drops a folder on the table and asks if Carrie recognizes the woman. She confirms what Saul said: She is, in fact, Fatima Ali, the asset Carrie recruited when she was stationed in Beirut. And then comes the kicker: Estes asks Carrie to return to Beirut for three days and meet with her asset. But, he says, clarifying, he’s not offering Carrie her job back. “Homeland” loves to give the audience the briefest of satisfactions before upending everything.
In Washington, D.C., Vice-President Walden, who is running for president, tells Brody he wants to float his name as a potential running mate. “Homeland” is wasting no time upping the stakes, and what an intriguing twist, imagining Brody as one of the most powerful men in the United States. Is Brody interested? “Hell, yes,” he says, like a good soldier. The vice-president tells him he’s had him thoroughly vetted but wants to know “flaw in your character, what deep abiding secret,” might he have that his staff hasn’t yet discovered. The vice-president suggests Brody is “damaged goods”; the freshman congressman replies, “You really want me to respond to that?” Brody’s plan to get in front of it by deflecting by waving the cover of his eight years as a POW, thinks Walden, is exactly what he wanted to hear.
Back in his office, Brody’s aide interrupts him—a reporter, Roya Hammad, wants fifteen minutes. It turns out she has been dispatched by Abu Nazir, who is seeking out Brody’s help. Again, we see Brody’s eternal — and internal — conflict over to whom he pledges allegiance. He can barely stay in his own skin as Hammad relays that Nazir wants Brody to retrieve an encryption key to a database of potential targets in David Estes’s safe, during his Homeland security briefing with Estes the following day. Brody attempts to wiggle out of it with is reassertion that he is not a terrorist, that he’s going to try to change American policy in the Middle East nonviolently, that he will not harm innocent civilians.
This has always been Brody’s struggle — proving he can be a good man, a good husband and father, a good Muslim, a good soldier, a good disciple, a good American, even though these identities are always at odds. He is, in fact, damaged goods, but like Carrie, he is always trying to overcome the damage. At the end of the first season, Brody told Carrie he wasn’t what she thinks he is but it wasn’t clear whom he was trying to convince.
Hammad shakes off his words by reminding that they are at war, and that Brody needs to take sides. His face pulsates with anger as he says he has already proven his loyalty by killing Tom Walker. Hammad looks at him with something like pity as she says, “I’m sure some part of you hoped it would end there.” Hammad gives the impression that Brody will never be done proving his allegiance. The impossibility of Brody’s position is almost suffocating.
Carrie has, against better judgment — and her sister-doctor’s orders — decided to go on the mission to meet with Nazir’s wife. She goes to Cyprus, where she stays at a CIA safehouse to prep for her return to Beirut. Her hair has been dyed dark brown, her identity changed to Kate Morrissey, a Canadian. As her handler, Joy Mendez, interrogates Carrie about the details of her cover, and she struggles to remember the finer points, and then admits, “I think I want to go home.” She, along with everyone else, is worried she isn’t up to the task.
But she perseveres, even as she looks drawn and nervous, entering the Beirut airport. After passing through customs, she heads to the hotel where she receives details on her meet with Saul. Saul is sitting at a café when Carrie calls, and quickly notices someone watching him. He tells Carrie not to stop: She is made and pursued. Saul instructs her to let herself be arrested, that her cover will hold, but Carrie is energized now, and insists she can lose her pursuer. She throws her cell phone away and finds shelter in a bazaar, where she dodges into a stall and changes her headdress. Her ruse nearly works until the pursuer catches sight of her face. But Carrie thinks fast: She knees the man in his groin, and throws his gun away. As Carrie briskly walks away, she is beaming — this season opener is called “The Smile.” Because, despite her inner torments, Carrie thrives on being relentless, fighting hard, no matter the odds — and this is why we root for her. In decisive moments, she is faithful to who she needs to be.
As does Brody — this is one of the qualities he and Carrie share. At home, his wife, Jessica, is infuriated with their daughter, Dana, who exclaimed that her father was a Muslim during Quaker meeting at the high school, when another student said disparaging things about Arabs and Muslims. Dana says it was a mistake, but no one believed her. It matters not at all to Jessica, who cannot abide this, as if there is some unspeakable shame in being Muslim — and for her, perhaps, there is.
But Brody opts for honesty in moments where his interior life begins to breach his calm surface. He affirms his daughter’s words, that, yes, he is a Muslim. Jessica is speechless until she storms out to the garage, rifling through boxes and cupboards, looking, it would seem, for an explanation as to why her husband has become someone she no longer understands. No matter how much Brody tries to explain, Jessica is implacable, angry and hurt Brody has lied. She finds Brody’s Qur’an and throws it on the floor “That’s not supposed to touch the floor,” Brody says in horror, with gritted teeth. In this moment, his faith eclipses everything.
At the CIA, Brody meets with Estes for the security briefing when they are interrupted by Roya Hammad who insists on speaking to Estes, to give Brody an opportunity to be alone in Estes’s office. He is visibly conflicted, but he knows what he has to do, what he’s going to do: he finds the safe and copies the encryption key like a good disciple.
As the episode draws to a close, it’s two in the morning. Brody can’t sleep. He goes to the garage and retrieves his Qur’an, tenderly wrapping it in a clean white towel, bringing the Qur’an to his lips. In the backyard Brody digs a hole and places the Qur’an inside, uttering a quiet prayer. Dana finds her father there, and asks what he’s doing. Brody explains, “Your mom threw my Qur’an on the floor, tore some pages. It’s desecrated so I am burying it out of respect.” He begins shoving dirt over his Qur’an and Dana offers to help. The episode ends with father and daughter on their knees, working to fill the hole Brody has made in the yard and, perhaps, in their lives. We see exactly who he is in that moment, and wonder how he will evolve throughout the season, and how he will struggle to remain faithful to who he is.
Roxane Gay's writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Oxford American, the Rumpus, the Wall Street Journal and many other publicationsMore Roxane Gay.
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)