"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)
Here’s what’s ironic and terribly, terribly sad about what happened on this week’s episode of “Breaking Bad,” in which a desperate Jesse Pinkman finally decided to bring down his meth-cooking coach and HAZMAT-suited father figure, Walter White. Right up until the final moments of this episode, the one person who really cared about Jesse, who gave even a partial crap about that kid’s well-being, was Walter White.
Saul Goodman suggested that Walt should treat Jesse like a beloved, rabid dog in a famously tear-jerking Disney movie: just take out a gun and shoot him. Upon realizing that Jesse had nearly burned down her house, Skyler White looked her husband in the face and, matching him euphemism-for-euphemism, said, “We’ve come this far. For us, what’s one more?” Meaning: what’s another body on the pile at this point? Which is an interesting question since Skyler doesn’t fully grasp how many bodies are actually on Walt’s pile.
Not surprisingly, even Hank Schrader — who persuaded Jesse to back away from the match that could have ignited Whites’ living room carpet, then took Jesse back to his house like he was already under witness protection — wasn’t really on Jesse’s side. When Gomez suggested that maybe sending a wired Jesse to talk to Walt wasn’t a good idea and that perhaps Jesse’s fear about Walt trying to kill him was a legitimate one, Hank’s response was cold-ass-blooded: “I’m hoping he’s right. Pinkman gets killed. And we get it all on tape.”
But Walt — who really is the devil in so many ways, as Jesse said — was essentially fighting for Jesse’s life, a battle in which what’s left of Walt’s heart was at war with his own brutal instinct. Walt tried to remove all evidence of Jesse’s arson attempt by hiring carpet cleaners and, when that didn’t work, dousing himself, his clothes and his car in gasoline, then concocting a patently idiotic story about the most epic pump malfunction in the history of Exxon stations. In those moments early in this episode, when he was trying to do his usual smoke-and-mirror tap dance fake-out with his family, Walt didn’t seem intimidating or frightening. He seemed more like a pathetic Jack Tripper going to extreme lengths to explain to Mr. Furley why he was just spotted kissing a woman. (“I am the one who knocks, so … come and knock on our door. We’ve been waiting for you…”)
And it was all because of Jesse. Jesse, a kid who Walt does care for, at least within the confines of his megalomaniacal, unethical, completely myopic and messed-up reality. Jesse, the business partner Walt tried to pay off, placate and reconcile with via arranged meetings in both remote deserts and very public plazas. Jesse, the pseudo-son he would not even consider killing when Saul and Skyler suggested it, not until episode’s end when, after yet another threat from Jesse, Walt clearly felt he had no choices left. By then, Walt had to call Todd, aka Heisenberg Jr., aka Young Yeller, and request that his hitman uncle do another job for him.
Speaking of uncles, surely I wasn’t the only one who noticed that, while at the Schraders, Jesse picked up a copy of “Dutch,” Edmund Morris’s Ronald Reagan biography, while nervously waiting to record his Walt-implicating video confession. That touch wasn’t simply a reminder that Hank’s a Reagan-era Republican. It may have been a subtle allusion to the term “dutch uncle,” which refers to an adviser who tends to use blunt or harsh language with his mentee. That’s exactly what Walt was to Jesse. And, adding to the richness of that sly book choice, if Jesse really was a son of sorts to Walt, then his kinda-sorta uncle would be … Hank.
It’s fascinating how intertwined the lives of the Schraders and the Whites continue to be, in ways that neither couple can grasp right now. In this episode, titled “Rabid Dog,” both centered their judgment calls around that so-called rabid dog: Jesse. Both Hank and Walt suggested that it would be best for their families to check into cushy hotels. And both Skyler and Marie chose to stand by their men (“Is this bad for Walt? Good. I’m staying. I’ll heat up lasagna,” Marie announced) while showing off the more ruthless sides of their natures.
That ruthlessness bubbled up in multiple characters this week, perhaps a deliberate decision on the part of Vince Gilligan and company to make Walt seem slightly more empathetic and also to remind us that every living, breathing human being is just one life-altering revelation from going full-on Heisenberg themselves. Skyler — so hellbent now on preserving the sanctity of the colossal lie that is her life — had no qualms about ending Jesse if that’s what it took to protect her family. Some may misconstrue her behavior as motivated by greed. I don’t think that’s what’s pushing her at all. I think she feels that she and her husband have spent a lot of time concocting a complicated cover story and that she’s invested too much in that facade to let small obstacles — an accusatory brother-in-law/DEA agent, say, or a kid with access to gasoline — destroy it.
Meanwhile, Marie, so shaken by the betrayal of the sister and brother-in-law she loves, was not above admitting to her therapist that she’s been doing some Internet research on poisoning people. (“It just feels good to think about it,” she said.) That was yet another phenomenal bit of irony since technically, the whole reason we are where we are in this story is because Walt had the audacity to poison a young boy, an act that led to Jesse Pinkman standing on a gasoline-soaked carpet while screaming, “He can’t keep getting away with it!” No one’s immune to the impulses that drove Walt; it’s just a question of if or how one acts on those impulses. Some people actually wind up poisoning kids with lily of the valley berries; other people just talk to psychiatrists, then come home and heat up Italian food.
Which brings us back to Jesse, who miscalculated in this episode because of one of his most enduring faults: his capacity to think he knows a better way than the authority figures from whom he resents taking orders. All Jesse had to do during that Walt appointment was sit down on a bench, talk with him long enough to record an admission to poisoning Brock (which, based on his conversation with Saul, Walt clearly would have done) then dash back to the Schrader mobile with a legitimate confession in-hand. But he didn’t. He spotted a guy whose aura screamed hit man, so he got a better idea, called Walt from a pay phone and suggested that he would soon get Walt “where he really lives.” What did Jesse mean by that? Obviously he’s referring to Walt’s family. But if Jesse’s truly thinking eye for an eye, then the only way to get revenge for what Walt did to young Brock is to imply he’s going after — and I’m honestly getting chills as I write this — little baby Holly White.
In retrospect, it’s tempting to say that Jesse should have just taken on that new identity and gone to Alaska in last week’s episode, as Walt instructed. (The fact that Walt arranged for him to slip away may have been the last truly generous act we’ll ever see Walter White commit.) But the truth is that even if Jesse hadn’t had his ricin realization while standing in front of a cemetery-esque backdrop, he probably would have had it a few months later, while taking a smoke break from his job on a fishing boat near Juneau. Either way, it would have driven him crazy. This way, at least, it’s driven him crazy at a time when he can theoretically still do something about it, even if that something will probably get him killed.
As flawed as Jesse is, it’s still impossible not to feel enormous sorrow and heartbreak for him. That’s partly because of the teary vulnerability Aaron Paul brings to the part but also because we, as the viewers of Breaking Bad, see the whole picture of what this kid has been through, even the stuff — like the specific nature of Jane’s death — that Jesse doesn’t even know he’s been through. He’s not, as Hank calls him, “the junkie-murderer who’s dribbling all over my guest bathroom floor,” or a rabid dog, or even, as Skyler describes him, a threat to her family who must be handled. He’s a person, as Walt notes. He’s young man who always had the potential to learn and, unfortunately, only harnessed it when one of his teachers finally decided to break bad. But sadly, all someone like Hank — and for that matter, most people — will ever see is the Jesse Pinkman inside the frame of that camcorder, the burn-out who admitted to aiding, abetting and participating in an astonishing number of drug-related crimes. They won’t see the broken, good-hearted, misguided human being who sat on an unfamiliar sofa, recording that confession under duress. Jesse will likely be dead before the wider world, including his own parents, realizes how sad it was to lose him.
So here we are, halfway through the final leg of a drama that finds new ways, every week, to send us all one step closer to the cardiologist. At this juncture, it seems appropriate to commend the Breaking Bad team for doing such a remarkably strong job of winding this thing down right, not only by keeping the plot firing along toward a conclusion that we still can’t fully predict but doing so with such careful, considered attention to detail. In every scene, there’s some delightful piece of business to notice, whether it’s Dutch, or the perfect purpleness of Marie’s personal luggage, or — one of my favorites in this episode — the way the eyeball of Hello Kitty peered out ominously from behind Hank’s grip on Jesse’s newly acquired cell phone as he listened to the voice-mail pleas of his brother-in-law/nemesis.
Since volume two of season five began, fans have assumed that at least one crucial character would die before this is all over and done. Some figured on Walt. Others have surmised that Skyler, or Hank, or perhaps even poor, relentlessly clueless Walt Jr. will eventually bite some dust.
But with just four episodes left to go, it would seem, based on the latest developments, that Jesse Pinkman is the one — or at least, one of the ones — not long for this world. Then again, if Breaking Bad has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. The writers have surprised us many times in the past. Perhaps they’re thinking: we’ve come this far with our unexpected plot shockers. For us, what’s one more?
Jen Chaney is a pop culture writer whose work appears regularly in The Washington Post, New York Magazine’s Vulture and The Dissolve. She’s currently working on a book about the movie “Clueless,” to be published next year by Touchstone.More Jen Chaney.
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)