"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 OPENING CREDITS of Showtime’s “Homeland” are a fever dream. The title appears in negative over a full-frame shot of a small, blonde girl sleeping as anxious music plays under audio of Ronald Reagan’s 1986 speech announcing an attack on facilities owned by Muammar Qaddafi. Cut to the girl sitting on the floor watching television as the radio newsman announces that the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 has crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland. The little girl practices a trill on her trumpet in her bedroom; she stands in a labyrinth wearing a dress and a lion mask. Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush address the nation, emphasizing the words America, aggression, terrorism. The girl, now older and looking weary, opens her eyes. Panicked people run through the streets of New York City; a smoke plume rises in the distance over the Brooklyn Bridge.
“Homeland” won this year’s Emmy awards for Outstanding Actress in a Drama (Claire Danes), Outstanding Actor in a Drama (Damian Lewis), and Outstanding Drama — three honors that had been given for the majority of the last half-decade to AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” But the most common comparisons “Homeland” must endure are to the show produced and written by its two creators, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon: the Bush-era juggernaut “24.” Where “24″ reflected an early-aughts jingoism that might look naïve in retrospect, “Homeland” is the output of an America thoroughly saturated in post-millennial dread: the product of a weary citizenry settling into the understanding of the deeper existential issues currently plaguing the nation. If we can say that an effective thriller reflects the anxieties of its day, then the great point of frisson for “Homeland” lies in a fear of what America has become, and the intractable ambiguities into which it has become lodged.
The tense opening scenes of the pilot episode show CIA field operative Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) receiving a piece of information that sets off the series. In a Baghdad prison cell, an Al Qaeda bomb-maker working under the terrorist leader Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) tells her that an American prisoner of war has been “turned” to Al Qaeda. Ten months later, in a briefing room at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Carrie watches a video of American soldiers rescuing POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) during an assault on a hostile installation in the Korengal Valley. While all the other operatives applaud, a shot of Carrie indicates that she has connected these two points — the turned American and the rescued soldier — into a line.
Carrie’s credibility is brought under suspicion immediately. Her supervisor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) explains the absurdity of her theory: why would an Al Qaeda leader plant intelligence within the U.S. military and sacrifice 13 trained fighters just to introduce a turned American back into the system? Why not drop him near a checkpoint as if he had escaped? Because Abu Nazir is playing the long game, Carrie explains, so that no one will suspect anything. “Except you,” Saul says. “Yeah, except me,” she responds. When Carrie argues for permission to pursue a warrant to install a surveillance system in Brody’s home, Saul denies it. She installs it anyway.
From there, her credibility deteriorates: the surveillance technician discovers Carrie’s hidden stash of the anti-psychotic medication Clozapine. When he confronts her about it, she explains that she has been dealing with a mood disorder since her twenties. He calmly voices his fears about installing an illegal surveillance system for a mentally unstable woman, and she replies: “What are you saying, that I’m making this shit up? Well, maybe I am. Maybe it is all in my head, but you’re in it now Virgil, up to your fucking neck.”
Nicholas Brody is no lodestar, either. In a debriefing during the pilot, Carrie subjects him to a line of questioning that is perfectly designed by the writers to play to her paranoia, and Brody’s duplicity, at the same time. Her questions are prodding. She points out that captured military personnel can give “actionable” intelligence for only the first 72 hours after their capture, and asks Brody if he knows why he was kept for eight more years. He doesn’t. She asks him about his partner’s death. She asks him who his interrogator was and if he has ever met Abu Nazir. He says he hasn’t. She pushes more aggressively, asking him a second time. The next scene is a flashback: in a dusty room, a naked Brody hangs from the ceiling by a rope tied to his hands. Some unseen person cuts him down then Abu Nazir holds a bowl of water to his mouth. Back in the debriefing room, Brody looks directly at Carrie and says, “No, I never met him.” This is only one of many lies that Brody tells with unsettling fluency. Throughout the first episode and those that follow, he misleads Carrie, his wife, his friends, and his former partner’s wife. It remains unclear whether Brody is obscuring his participation in a violent terrorist plot or living out the effects of the physical and psychic damage he incurred during eight years of torture and captivity.
For a time, the first season of “Homeland” uses these blank, unreadable spaces to great political and narrative effect. Because we cannot be certain whether Carrie is right or not — and consequently cannot be certain of Brody’s guilt — the boundary that separates the protector and the threat is confused. Within this indistinct place, Carrie the government agent tirelessly works to protect the country and acts out a paranoid fantasy, while Brody the soldier lives as both a damaged man and the American organ of an Islamist radical. By maintaining this suspended potential, the narrative plays it both ways, rendering the line between us and them indistinct.
The show’s aesthetic is drawn from genres shaded with ambiguity and hidden truths: notice, for instance, how the fractured introduction references the anxious and unsettling end of Surrealism, or how Carrie’s preoccupation with jazz colors certain moments with the solitary, chiaroscuro feeling of film noir. But the architecture of the narrative, the presences haunting the margins of the action, and the show’s overall mood of dread make “Homeland” a horror tale at heart. And of all horror tales, it most resembles Shirley Jackson’s 1959 psychological ghost story, “The Haunting of Hill House.”
This is easiest to see in the use of a psychologically unbalanced female character at the center — a premise that may be traced through Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Henry James’s 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw.” In Laura Miller’s introduction to the 2006 Penguin Classics edition of Jackson’s novel, the outline of the figure of Carrie Mathison is clear:
The literary effect we call horror turns on the dissolution of boundaries, between the living and the dead, of course, but also, at the crudest level, between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside. In the psychological ghost story, the dissolving boundary is the one between the mind and the exterior world.
In “The Haunting of Hill House,” the woman who undergoes this particular mental dissolution is different in character from Carrie — Eleanor Vance is mousy, adolescent, and meek — but she is also a lonely, persecuted outsider who holds a suspect grasp of whatever objective reality exists within the story’s universe. (The first film adaptation of Jackson’s novel, Robert Wise’s 1963 “The Haunting” — the 1999 version is probably best forgotten — makes the parallel between the two women clearer: Julie Harris’s Eleanor, like Danes’s Carrie, explodes when challenged with the unexpected intensity of someone just barely holding herself together.) Jackson’s novel describes Eleanor’s trip to the isolated, imposing Hill House at the request of Dr. Montague, who intends to use Eleanor and two other participants (all with previous experience of psychic phenomena) to provoke supernatural manifestations for study. Not long after her arrival, the manifestations begin: late in the night, something unseen moves and bangs thunderously on the doors and walls outside their bedrooms; red fluid resembling blood is sprayed around the room of another participant; strange writing appears on the wall begging Eleanor to come home. The question is not, as in James’s novella, whether these manifestations are real — each of Eleanor’s companions in the demented Hill House experiences them as well — but whether they result from the house’s amplification and actualization of what lies in Eleanor’s own mind. “Eleanor may be the target of the haunting of Hill House,” Miller writes, “or she may be the one doing the haunting.” Likewise, Nicholas Brody seems to be the reflection of Carrie’s worst fears, the ghostly double of the terror threat she claims to have missed “once before,” 10 years ago. In Brody, it seems as if Carrie’s paranoia has taken a material form.
Both “The Haunting of Hill House” and “Homeland” are modern gothic tales built around the fear of one’s own self. Just as “Hill House” leaves a lasting impression on its readers by evoking the horror that lies in the inability to escape one’s familial past, “Homeland” suggests that America will never be able to suppress the fallout of its obsessive approach to self-protection. Once “Homeland” dispenses with the remaining ambiguities in the plot — in short order, Brody learns that Carrie had been watching him and that Tom Walker (Chris Chalk), the partner he believed he had beaten to death, is alive; we also learn that Brody is working under Nazir — the fog of war that characterized the first major portion of the season melts away in a strange sort of anticlimax, only to reveal an earnest attempt to depict the nightmarish America that, the show’s creators seem to believe, we refuse to acknowledge.
To this end, “Homeland” presents us with scenes of political horror: Carrie installs cameras and microphones in Brody’s house without a warrant, Saul blackmails a judge to obtain retroactively said warrant for Carrie’s surveillance, and the CIA operates on American soil, regularly watching and tracking the lives of terror suspects at a high level of detail. When Walker, who has now supplanted Brody as the prime terror suspect for both the CIA and Carrie, ducks into a mosque while the FBI gives chase, the agents following him shoot and kill unarmed people at prayer. The FBI’s response to Carrie’s concerns about the fallout of this shooting is cavalier: “Call him a terrorist; what happened here won’t matter much.”
But if anything is truly horrifying about these events, it is how banal they seem to anyone exposed to the news or to popular entertainment in the United States since the early aughts. A more remarkable horror the show presents us with is a reflection of America in Brody himself, the American soldier turned terrorist. Here the show implicates the country in the creation of its own enemies, ultimately finding its monomania capable of corrupting even its own most violent protectors. It is “Homeland’s” most radical gesture to suggest that Americans, in the single-minded pursuit of their own safety, have made the ghosts they perceive and project a reality.
“Homeland” is remarkable for its dramatization of political ambiguity and the toxicity of the American empire, but also for the essential humanity with which it portrays the lasting damage of war, the complications of family, and the conflict of cultures. But, for all this, it would be a mistake to assume that it is an essentially political show. Choices made by the writers and creators throughout the first season have demonstrated that the show’s major flaw is the uneasy balance it strikes between plot mechanics and any extended focus on the moral, emotional, and political implications of its universe. “Homeland” has an aggravating tendency to discard the implications it introduces.
This becomes especially obvious in its treatment of Carrie’s heavily foreshadowed breakdown in “The Vest,” the penultimate episode of the first season, when she finally succumbs to a fit of mania. While attempting to apprehend Walker, Carrie endures a bomb blast in a public square and wakes up in a hospital with no medication in her system. Saul arrives to find Carrie frantically demanding a green pen from the hospital staff, yelling, alliterating excessively, and speaking in what seems to be a code: “We’ve got to hop-to, we’ve got to haul ass to Langley. They have to understand, Saul. Nazir’s movements in green after a fallow yellow always creeping toward purple are methodical, meaningful, momentous, and monstrous.” However unlikely it may be, we learn later that what seems to be cryptic nonsense is the first step of Carrie’s deduction, with the help of a color-coded timeline on her wall, that Nazir’s imminent attack is blowback for some great act of aggression he has endured. Carrie, while appearing more unhinged than ever, zeroes in on knowledge of a drone strike that killed Nazir’s young son Issa and proof that both Brody and Walker are tied to Nazir. “The Vest” juxtaposes this narrative thread with another in which Brody, on a subtext-heavy family trip to Gettysburg, retrieves the explosive vest with which he will kill himself, the Vice President, and a number of other prominent government figures he feels share responsibility for Issa’s death. The oscillation between these two narratives generates the story’s forward momentum by suspending two imminent outcomes: either Carrie will prove her theory in time or Brody will flip the switch on his vest; or perhaps even both.
“Homeland” delays the first outcome by playing to the dramatic possibilities of Carrie’s bipolar disorder. In the finale of the first season, her practically divine lucidity is in inverse proportion to how sane the other characters find her to be. When Carrie deduces the truth about Brody, though without conclusive evidence, she attempts to warn those who can prevent him from seeing his plans to completion. No one believes her; Saul attempts to have her detained, and Brody’s daughter succeeds in having her arrested. The police drag Carrie away as she shouts about the end of the world.
This confluence of circumstances is as knotty as any in the show’s first season. Here Carrie — a rare type of female character on television: the exceedingly competent anti-hero — is forced to overcome the difficulties of her chemical imbalance, a professional network composed almost entirely men, the most powerful among whom assume her to be hysterical, and a world that refuses to believe her. “Homeland” could play her situation as critique or even tragedy, but instead plays it for dramatic irony: we watch Brody approach his goal while Carrie is whipped attempting to expose him. The irony becomes all the more cruel when Brody, having aborted his plan, and in full knowledge that Carrie has deduced the truth, comes to her to deny any involvement with Nazir and implores Carrie to seek mental help. As she is about to undergo electroshock therapy, in the very moment before her memory is wiped, Carrie remembers a crucial piece of evidence that proves her to be correct. Then she forgets, not even given the opportunity to know the precision of her insight. Carrie will wake believing herself to be crazy.
The timing of this scene — Carrie remembering literally seconds before the shock is administered — attests to the show’s ease with slipping into a blank and unbiased point of view when the plot calls for a cheap thrill — a fact which problematizes, if not flat-out negates, any arguments that could be made for the greater significance of Carrie’s narrative. So while “Homeland” can be given credit for creating a female character as compelling as Carrie Mathison, it should also be remembered that the show is willing to punish her insofar as the story is made more suspenseful. Was Jack Bauer ever made to look this pathetic?
Ultimately, as a thriller on Showtime, “Homeland “will choose to entertain rather than prolong the unpleasantness that a trenchant critique of mental illness and gender politics would present its audience. Not even “Breaking Bad” manages to excite its audience without requiring that we gloss over the moral and political implications of Walter White’s increasingly hellish personality and decisions. As Emily Nussbaum has pointed out in her recent New Yorker essay on “Breaking Bad,” the show turns some of us into enablers, and she’s right; for all its misery, it is still a joy to watch White’s competence and resourcefulness as he works himself out of increasingly tough binds. If “Breaking Bad” is an experiment in how long an audience will stay with a central character as she or he becomes less and less likeable, then the conclusion is, apparently, that as long as what happens is tightly plotted and compelling to watch, the political and moral implications can easily be ignored.
“Homeland” is in an interesting spot: it has built a politically and morally charged universe, but is willing to betray this when it threatens to diffuse a simpler sort of cat-and-mouse tension. The show’s first season displays a trend toward emphasizing momentum over difficulty, toward simplifying all of the complexities that made it worth watching in the first place. If this trend continues, it risks treating its most radical central theme — that of the soldier who turns on America because he is sickened by what it has become — in bad faith, using it as just enough gray-area window-dressing to make the show palatable to those who decried the jingoism of “24.”
At the beginning of its second season, “Homeland” continues to strike a precarious balance between politics and plot. The season begins with Carrie, now stable, brought in by the CIA to retrieve sensitive information about a possible terrorist attack from an informant who will speak to no one else. At first, this plot reads as a possible redemption for Carrie who, when entrenched in a delicate international operation, is able to demonstrate her genius for intelligence work. But by the second episode the show has begun to use Carrie’s mental illness in an all-too-familiar way by putting her in situations that exploit our sympathies and maximize the potential for dramatic irony. “Homeland” still appears intent on emphasizing suspense to the detriment of all its other virtues, which gives an impression of what it might become in the worst of all possible worlds — a series blessed with potential that turns out to differ from “24″ only in that it presses on the pleasure centers of a different portion of the population who enjoy a clear view from their particular moral and political high ground.
It is worrisome to think that this show, so tantalizingly close to expressing a bracing pessimism about its subject matter, may be setting itself up for the predictable optimistic ending. Do we really believe that the United States of America, that old institution, will not come out on top against the creeping threat of terror? That sides will not continue to be drawn more clearly between us and them? That Carrie will not simply overcome her mental illness and fall in line as dictated by the misogynist CIA, as if all her difficulties were just a hero’s trial? If “Homeland” dives deeper into the implications of the powerfully unpleasant ideas floating at its margins, then it could manage an incredible feat, something like what Jackson achieved with “The Haunting of Hill House”: an unsettling, haunting depiction of the void into which we are swept by the forces beyond our control. Unfortunately, that might not make for very thrilling television.
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)