"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)
Just when “Mad Men” was starting to sag under the weight of its own hefty ambitions, we get two truly satisfying episodes in a row that remind us all of the reasons why we love this crazy show in the first place.
First, there’s the dialogue. As longtime viewers, it’s easy to get bogged down by the symbolic significance of every scene, and get distracted by Don’s downward spiral into damnation, so much so that we can’t see the trees for the forest. Maybe we tend to take the crackling, unpredictable dialogue of “Mad Men” for granted; this episode it was too good to ignore.
Second, there are the satisfying scenes. The best TV writers figure out ways to serve up some really tasty payoffs for viewers. On “The Wire,” even against a dystopian backdrop, you had these great moments of connection between McNulty and Bunk, or Omar and his boyfriend, among others. On “Six Feet Under,” Claire and Nate and Rachel may have been struggling or sinking into a funk, but they’d always have ways of gaining leverage on the people bringing them down. For all of its gloom and doom, “Mad Men” still offers some of the most satisfying payoffs of any drama on television.
This episode brought moments of redemption to some of the show’s best characters. Ted Chaough, for one, has moved into SCDP headquarters and has assumed the role of the anti-Don Draper. Ted is respectful to women and underlings, unlike Don. He can’t hold his liquor, unlike Don. But most tellingly, Ted is capable of getting close to people and revealing his weaknesses and doubts to them, which makes him about as far a cry from Don as he could possibly be. Where Don let his closest friend in the world, Anna Draper, die of cancer alone, Ted sits by his dying colleague Frank Gleason’s bedside and reveals his uneasiness with Don. The relaxed intimacy of their relationship is beautifully portrayed in the scene, and it feels like a salve for the petty injuries and ego clashes taking place at the SCDP office. First, Ted tells Frank that Don “seems more interested in me than he is in the work.” “But you’re not very interesting,” Frank answers, and Ted doesn’t bristle a bit, demonstrating that he’s secure enough not to mind ribbing. Then Frank quotes Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” saying, ” If I wait patiently by the river, the body of my enemy will float by.” He adds, “Give him the early rounds, he’ll tire himself out. Go home, shower. Walk back in there like you own half the place.” It’s touching to see poor Frank, eyes closed, about to disappear, still willing to dish out good advice to his friend. Giving Ted a smart, tragic confidant was a really nice way of letting us understand him better, and allowing us yet another way to root against Don.
Apparently that’s what this strange season is about: rooting against Don. Despite his many flagrant missteps, I think plenty of viewers (including me) have stuck by his side up until now. Certainly Betty’s reckless child meets remote beauty queen act never elicited our sympathies all that much; it wasn’t that hard to see why Don wanted to be with other women back then. And when Peggy worked closely with Don the first time around, there was someone for Don to advise and help and confide in occasionally. Once those two elements of Don’s life (along with his closest friend, Anna Draper) were eliminated, it got harder for Don to stay in our good graces. Throw in Megan, who, for all of her flaws, is trying her best to have a happy life (unlike Betty, who seems doomed to paint herself into a dependent corner no matter what her circumstances might be), and you’ve placed Don in a situation where his bad behavior no longer seems all that palatable or sympathetic.
Don’s scenes with Sylvia in this episode made his ego appear more fragile than ever. First, Don overhears her upbraiding her husband, Arnold, which clearly upsets Don. Sylvia mocks Arnold for the fact that he thinks he’s a big deal – something Don would never stand for from his own wife, because he’s too insecure for that. Arnie Rosen actually is a big deal, and he knows it, so he can tolerate this attempt to shame him. But Don’s pride in himself comes and goes like the weather, and never feels entirely justified. When Sylvia berates Arnold, Don feels like he’s being berated, because his interest in Sylvia has always been a displacement of his admiration for Arnold. Hearing the argument makes Don worry that Sylvia might have the upper hand in their relationship.
After Don feels threatened by Ted’s chivalry and pilot license in the first partner meeting, he meets Sylvia and bosses her around. And look, I don’t know if there’s any show on television where it’s less clear what a given character will do under duress. The suspense of not knowing how people will react is an integral part of the joy of watching “Mad Men.” I love that Sylvia first announces to Don that she can talk about whatever she wants, then she refuses to crawl to retrieve Don’s shoes. Still, she ends up staying open to this game of obeying Don’s commands, as long as it’s just about pumping up the intrigue between them. (Insert overly analytical recap disclaimer here, but Sylvia and Don are in room 503, which is also the SMTP error code for a “Bad Command Sequence.”) When Don tells Sylvia that she exists only for his pleasure, though, that mirrors her complaints with Arnold’s attitude about her. Maybe this is when she starts to see that Don is insecure and he has something to prove through their affair. Don accepts Sylvia’s copy of Dante’s “Inferno” at the start of the relationship, and now he demands her book from her, signifying how his power over her has dwindled.
“I had a dream that you crashed in that plane,” Sylvia tells Don somewhat coldly when he gets back from his trip. “I dreamt I went to your funeral and Megan cried on my shoulder. And I went back to Arnold and I made love to him, and I said, ‘I’m home.’” Notice how Sylvia is the hero of her own dream, the one who takes decisive action that other players in her dream must accept. She goes to Don’s funeral, she comforts Megan, she returns to Arnold, she makes love to him, and then she announces to him that she’s home for good. “I can’t fall in love,” Sylvia has told Don in the past, and of course we’re meant to take that literally; she is incapable of falling in love with Don. She was willing to pretend that she was being swept away by her passion for him, yet her affair with Don may have merely been a way to seek revenge on her husband for being such a big deal while she has to sit around at home in a head scarf and housecoat all day long. “There’s no room for me to worry about anyone but Arnold,” she told Don, implying that her lack of power in the world infuriates her, but also that she has no room for Don himself. After a long succession of women falling for Don, this affair takes us back to the days of department store heiress Rachel Menken, who dropped Don the second she discovered that he wasn’t an honorable man.
Speaking of honorable men, what could be more pleasing than seeing Joan shepherded to the hospital by that adorable, suck-up youngster, Bob Benson? Bob’s discreet, gentlemanly help in getting her to the E.R. is so gratifying to witness after all of the dismissiveness and abuse Joan suffered at the hands of her ex-husband. Bob’s ability to get Joan in to see a doctor without throwing his weight around is pretty impressive, and just the sort of cleverness and political savvy that may bring him success, despite any apathy toward him at the office. Of course we’re hoping that Bob might have genuine interest in Joan beyond the political – why else do we even know this kid, right? So that sets us up to relish a rare bit of wisdom from Joan’s mother, who tells her, “Honestly, Joan. Every good deed is not part of a plan.” Joan decides to believe her mother, and when Bob is about to be fired in the partner meeting, she uses her own cleverness and savvy to make sure they keep him around.
More satisfaction comes from Peggy, who scolds Don for being a competitive baby and getting Ted drunk. She tells Don that she’d hoped Ted, her new hero, would rub off on Don, her former hero, and not the other way around. That has to sting for Don, who once took real pride in mentoring Peggy. The Don who gave Peggy a chance to forge a new life (and even visited her in the hospital) is long gone now, replaced by a guy who’s too lost and too desperate to help anyone but himself.
We see Don’s sorry state most clearly in the last major payoff scene, where Don is sweating and shaking as Ted pilots his plane through a storm. As they clear the clouds, Ted puts on his aviator sunglasses and smiles smugly, knowing for sure that he’ll get to play the hero at their client meeting with Mohawk, while Don is reduced to the role of sidekick.
Masculinity in crisis! Don has been upstaged at work, scolded by his former admirer, abandoned by his loyal secretary (but what’s going on there?) and dumped by his mistress. And when he returns home to Megan, even though she’s planning to ask for time off in order to save their marriage, he tunes her out. He’s all alone.
And then, Bobby Kennedy is shot and killed. (Luckily, it doesn’t take over an entire episode, though it does feel a little bit tacked-on here.) This time, Megan is distraught, but Don can only think about himself. His hero status has taken a bullet it may never recover from. “Reach out in the darkness, and you may find a friend,” we hear as the credits roll. Don better hope he finds a friend, because he doesn’t have any left here. Arnold, Sylvia, Peggy, Megan, Betty, Anna Draper, his own son: They’ve all left him behind. “It’s easy to give up something when you’re ashamed,” Sylvia told Don earlier, but she almost seemed to be speaking for everyone close to Don (and for Americans disgusted with their country in the wake of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination). That’s what Don’s been handing out this season: shame. He’s ashamed of himself, so he can’t stop dishing up shame for everyone else. But one by one, they’re giving up on Don Draper for good.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
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)