"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)
In the second-to-last episode of the season, it looks like we’ve finally landed in the eighth circle of hell, Fraud. Don starts the episode curled up in the fetal position on Sally’s bed, clearly undone by Sally’s discovery of his affair with Sylvia Rosen (“You make me sick!” Sally says), and ends the episode in the fetal position after Peggy confronts him (“You’re a monster!” Peggy says). In between, every action Don takes is fraudulent: He pours booze into his orange juice and hides the bottle from Megan, he lies to Betty about drinking and about missing Sally (when he’s visibly relieved that she’s not coming for the weekend), he lies to Megan about not being interested in Peggy and Ted’s relationship, he calls Harry back and presumably reverses his edict on Sunkist (thereby double-crossing Ted), he lies to Jim and Ted and agrees there’ll be “no more surprises,” and then he surprises Ted by lying to St. Joseph’s about their ad being Frank Gleason’s idea. Finally, when Peggy confronts him, he lies and tells her he’s just looking out for the agency.
Thanks to that original sin — trading in his identity as Dick Whitman for Don Draper’s – Don handles extreme stress by lying. But – surprise! — there’s another fraud in the mix. Bob Benson has evolved from shameless suck-up to outspoken interloper to lovestruck admirer to, finally, mini Don Draper. After Kenny gets shot in the eye by the Chevy guys (a sly callback to Dick Cheney accidentally shooting his friend in the face years ago), Pete and Bob are paired up on the Chevy account. For the first time, we see a more menacing side to Bob, who drops the smile, claims that his profession of love for Pete was just an expression of “admiration,” and warns Pete,” You should watch what you say to people.” But thanks to a little research by Duck Phillips, Pete discovers that Bob has been lying since day one. His résumé is fictional, he grew up in the sticks of West Virginia, and he was a “man servant” at his last job. He’s basically a gay prostitute version of Don Draper.
Does that mean that Bob was just trying to play Pete by hitting on him? Definitely not. Pete may be confused but he’s almost never wrong about other people’s true motivations (when he’s paying attention, at least). What’s interesting is that Pete decides not to expose Bob.
Pete: Where you are and who you are is not my concern. I surrender.
Bob: So what does that mean to me?
Pete: I want you to graciously accept my apologies. Work alongside me but not too closely.
Bob: Again, I don’t understand.
Pete: Yes, you do. I’m off limits.
So Pete is disgusted by Bob’s deception, but he mostly just doesn’t want Bob hitting on him. As long as he can use his knowledge of Bob’s deception to keep Bob from making passes at him, he’s OK with their working together on Chevy.
This is quintessential split-personality Pete: His rigid, old-fashioned side hates the idea of his mother having sex with her male nurse (even though Bob keeps assuring him that Manolo likes men, not women), and hates the idea that Bob is gay and might gaze at him or touch him when they’re together. But his flexible, modern side dictates that, despite his moral outrage over Bob’s lies, he shouldn’t behave vindictively (the way he did with Don). Are we supposed to feel that Pete has grown a little bit since the first season, when he discovered Don’s past and showed him no mercy?
Maybe, particularly when you consider that Pete’s behavior is the polar opposite of Don’s in this episode. Both men are disturbed by personal behaviors in the office that shouldn’t necessarily affect them, but where Pete sets boundaries in a straightforward manner but resolves not to meddle in Bob’s life, Don is devoid of boundaries and messes with Peggy and Ted instead. (Likewise, last week, Pete shared in Peggy’s joy over Ted, whereas Don is bothered by the two of them.)
Sally, meanwhile, is engaging in some fraud of her own as a means of escaping two parents who, even at their best, can barely pretend they want her around. Clearly cheered by the idea of Sally slipping off to boarding school, Betty chats happily with her in the car, sharing fries on the way to the school and sharing cigarettes on the way home (not exactly ringing endorsements of her concern for Sally’s welfare). Sally plays the responsible teenager (“I want to be a grown-up but I know how important my education is”) and Betty plays the concerned, adoring mother at the interview.
Then Sally winds up in a room with two jaded girls from the school who expect her to hook them up with liquor and pot in exchange for delivering rave reviews. And the next thing you know, good old creepy Glenn is climbing in the window. Another surprise here, maybe as big as Pete resisting the urge to take Bob down: Glenn makes out with one of the girls, but defends Sally when she says Glenn’s friend tried to force her to kiss him. Instead of behaving selfishly, insisting that Sally be cool and play along with his idiot friend, Glenn is loyal to Sally, defends her honor, and leaves without making Sally or the other girl feel bad about what happened. It’s fitting that the girl asks Sally, “You like trouble, don’t you?” considering how allergic Sally was to trouble last week, when she bumped into her dad and Sylvia getting it on. But Sally plays along with the girl’s perception instead.
I like that Matthew Weiner and the writers have resisted the urge to make Sally a rebellious wreck of a kid who has no respect for the law, like those criminals in Nixon’s campaign ads (Oh, the irony!). Instead, she’s just a shy girl who doesn’t really want to drink or make out with a stranger. She just wants someone around who cares – and the only person who truly cares, once again, is Glenn. As she tells an upset-looking Betty in the car on the way home, “My father’s never given me anything.” Sally’s honest disillusionment dovetails with both Peggy’s and Ken Cosgrove’s, who finally refuses to good-naturedly accept a role that’s ruining his life (“It’s not funny. Chevy is killing me. I hate Detroit. I hate cars, I hate guns, I don’t even want to look at a steak anymore”).
Don, though, is becoming less and less clear about what he wants. By the time he’s manipulating Ted into a position where he can shame him about Peggy, it’s hard to tell if he has any sense of his own motives at all. He really doesn’t seem to know what’s acting on him. (“The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”) He can’t feel any joy in his life, so when he sees joy, he wants to crush it.
Is there more to it than that? Does Peggy’s growing disgust with Don echo Sally’s disgust because Don has served as a hero to both of them, only to find himself outshined by far less selfish, more genuinely heroic guys like Glenn and Ted? Certainly that’s been the running theme of this season: From Arnold Rosen to Ted and yes, even to Pete, Don has been forced to confront the heroism of others over and over again. Arnold skis away to perform heart surgery, Ted saves Arnold’s son and sits by his dying friend’s bedside (whereas Don allowed Anna to die alone). And whenever Don steps in and tries to play the hero lately, it’s either an act, it’s ineffectual, it backfires, or all of the above. He just can’t win.
Don is once again facing a scandal that threatens to overturn his life, just as he did at the end of the first season. But this time, he’s also being openly confronted by two of the most important women in his life, Sally and Peggy. Sure, Peggy’s been confronting Don with his bad behavior all season long, but Peggy’s angry attack on Don in the last scene of this episode was obviously more stinging and more accurate than anything that came before.
“I know what you did. I just don’t know why you did it,” Peggy tells him first, but Don acts like it’s all about the account. Peggy doesn’t skip a beat.
Peggy: Stop hiding behind the ad. I know what you did.
Don: I saved both of you. How do you think it looks?
Peggy: You hate that he is a good man.
Don: He’s not that virtuous. He’s just in love with you.
Peggy: Well, you killed him. You killed the ad. You killed everything. You can stop now.
Don: I’m just looking out for the agency.
Peggy: You’re a monster.
Don’s condescending paternalism, his insistence on talking to Ted and not Peggy, the shame he lays on Ted for doing something (falling in love with a co-worker) that he himself has done before (utterly without shame, too), comes off like a one-man reenactment of the tail end of the ’60s. “I know your little girl has beautiful eyes,” he tells Ted, “but that doesn’t mean you give her everything.” Where Ted sees in Peggy a beautiful person, full of possibilities, whose dreams he wants to support (however paternalistic that is), Don sees a child and an underling, an echo of those shiftless young people in Nixon’s ad, who dare to threaten this great country of ours. Bring the hammer down, give that kid less and less, and what happens? The answer lies in Sally’s school visit: She’ll disregard you entirely and take whatever she wants. (And truly, it’s not hard to imagine Peggy and Joan running the whole show in the end.)
Sally and Peggy see Don for who he really is: A monster who compulsively seeks to destroy happiness wherever he sees it. The look on Don’s face at the end of this episode tells us that Don’s starting to see the truth about himself, too, which feels pretty devastating. In next week’s season finale, we can probably guess who will become disillusioned with Don next: 1) Betty (who has almost stepped into Anna Draper’s shoes this season), 2) Megan (ever his loyal wife, supporting him and trying to cook him breakfast even when he’s sullen and hung over) and 3) Arnold (his admiring neighbor and close friend).
Is it going to get ugly? Just think of Don and Megan, reacting to the end of “Rosemary’s Baby.” “That was really scary,” said Megan, and Don agreed: “That was disturbing.”
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)