"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)
Claire Danes is patently an incredible actress, and there’s one thing that she does better than any one else in the game, excepting “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston, who is a magician at this particular skill as well: convincingly, seamlessly conveying not just when Carrie Mathison is lying, but when Carrie Mathison is lying to herself.
Carrie, like Walter White, has many occasions to lie. Lying, and lying well, are part of the basic competency requirements of their job. We, in the audience, can hear when they’re doing it just from the tone in their voice. Both Carrie and Walt add a soothing register to their timbres when they are trying to get someone — Brody, Skyler — to do what they want. Carrie’s voice gets a little more innocent, a little happy-go-lucky, while Walt’s becomes flat out syrupy (he’s trying to cover up something much more disgusting than she is, after all).
Even more impressive than this vocal trick, is that they have a third voice, distinct from their lying tone and their truth tone — they have a self-deception tone. When Walter White goes into his self-aggrandizing, self-glorifying, “I’m doing this for my whole family, I’m a victim” shtick, his voice and manner are different from both simple, truthful Walt’s and saccharine, wheedling, lying Walt’s. His voice is rawer, more desperate, impassioned and unhinged. He’s overly committed to making this untruth convincing.
On last night’s “Homeland” when Carrie first claims she has no feelings for Brody, you can hear the self-deception in the beat right after her denial. Peter questions her about her objectivity with regards to Brody. “In the interrogation room you said you wanted him to leave his wife and run away with you,” he says. She fires back all standard issue react-first-think-later Carrie, “And you put a knife through his hand. The difference is that what I did worked. So don’t worry about my objectivity, worry about your own.” But in the moment right after, she calms down very, very fast — much faster than she usually does when someone insults her, presumably because there is some part of her that knows Peter has a point.
Later, when she and Saul are talking about Brody, she says, “You don’t know what it’s like, having everyone assume you’re at your worst, like you can’t see straight.” So far, so plausible, but then she takes it too far: “It’s not like before Saul. I saw his suicide tape, my eyes are open. How could they not be?” With one rhetorical question, Carrie goes from being convincing to trying to convince herself. Self-deceiver Carrie’s tell is that she gets too attuned to what everyone else thinks of her. We know Carrie well enough to know that she does not give a damn what anyone believes when she’s made up her mind. But about this subject she’s a little hesitant, a little conciliatory. You can hear her uncertainty.
And Carrie is uncertain. Again, she’s not lying to her colleagues, she’s lying to herself. It’s not that she knows she has inappropriate feelings for Brody and is trying to cover them up, it’s that she can’t quite believe she might still have romantic feelings for Brody at all. Last week when Carrie told Brody she wanted him to leave his wife, it was strategy — go back and listen, it’s a very bright line-reading, it sticks out as all sorts of unnatural. When she touches Brody’s neck in the car, it is strategy, and he calls her out on it. But none of this is just strategy. Carrie knows what he did to her. She knows who he is and what he is capable of. She saw the suicide tape. How could her eyes not be open?
But they’re not, because there she is at the end of the episode, storming into Brody’s office, screaming, dangerous, irrational, about to blow his cover with his wife and maybe terrorist handler. After everything, Carrie can still feel betrayed by Brody. After everything, she can still be comforted by him. She breaks down in his arms sobbing, the lie to herself revealed.
Danes’ ability to get the audience and the performer in on something the character is unaware of amounts to a sort of actor-ly telepathy. It’s such a dazzling skill that I just spent a whole bunch of paragraphs talking about it instead of the episode’s genuine “oh shit!” moment, when a terrorist SWAT team took out a squad of FBI agents and then walked out into the streets of Gettysburg, PA with what I assume is a dirty bomb or pocket nuke, though I guess it could be chemical weapons or a swarm of killer bees or something. (Random question: Why hire “The Wire’s” Carver to show up for one episode, only to get shot? Suspicious!)
“Homeland” exists in a post-9/11 America that feels very similar to the real post-9/11 America, but that’s strange. On “Homeland” there have been two terrorist attacks on American soil in the last 12 months: Last season’s D.C. bombing and the Elizabeth Gaines assassination. America has had its share of disturbing, horrifying tragedies in the last year, but none have been planned and executed by a former American soldier-turned-terrorist working for a major jihadist in the nation’s capital. If Tom Walker were real, we’d be living through a much more skittish, freaked out and jingoistic moment than we are right now. And yet despite Tom Walker’s exploits, “Homeland” still feels like it exists in a geo-political head-space very similar to ours. I wonder how long that synchronicity can last if a terrorist cell sets off a nuclear bomb somewhere in the continental United States.
Last night’s episode also shifted the focus back to two more ancillary stories: Mike’s investigation of Brody and Dana’s car crash. Presumably, both of these stories are going to develop in such a way that Brody becomes more actively ensnared by them. Mike will figure out Brody was turned, and Brody and the vice-president will have new opportunities to damage and leverage each other thanks to their children.
For the Mike story line, I mostly just wish Jessica would leave Brody and take up with him: He’s a good dude. The Dana arc is more alarming. After last week’s episode a number of writers were quick to label it a mistake, a “big, obvious” one at that. I’m too enamored of “Homeland” right now to deny its creators the benefit of the doubt, even though a teenage car accident story line does seem like a “Landry Clark is a murderer”–style misstep. I find myself hoping that this story will go the way of many of “Homeland’s” more ridiculous moves and be rendered moot. The silliest things that “Homeland” has done — Carrie’s memory wipe, Brody texting a terrorist from the situation room — were all made irrelevant by future plot developments, which doesn’t eradicate their lameness, but at least silos it. Maybe Dana’s story line will largely be a character beat, and not point of entry into a whole convoluted conspiracy. I know that’s almost certainly wishful thinking, but “Homeland” has earned it.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.More Willa Paskin.
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)