"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)
Now we know.
Thanks to the breathlessly anticipated, satisfying finale of “Breaking Bad,” we now know who was meant to receive the ricin Walt snatched from his only daughter’s former bedroom: Lydia, who, as predicted by many, dumped the slowly fatal poison into her tea, thinking it was mere Stevia. Finally, one of Walt’s ricin-related plans went off without a single hitch.
We also now know why Walt acquired all that ammunition: to jerry-rig an epic shootout of his own, one that would take down Uncle Jack and his crew in a final, bloody act of one-upmanship. The fact that Walt was able to single-handedly create a car-key-triggered machine that wiped out all those neo-Nazis in mere seconds sent a clear message: “Hey, guys, remember how it took all of you firing multiple guns to kill my brother-in-law and his partner? Well, I was able to do that to all of you, with just one gun, all by my damn self.” How Walt was able to devise that device so quickly while hacking up half a lung, I have no idea. But it proved what Jesse told Hank and Gomez a few episodes ago: Walt really was smarter than everybody else, at the table and in the game.
And of course we now know, at least within the context of this series, who else died: Lydia. Uncle Jack and his cronies. Todd. And, finally, Walter Hartwell White Sr. But not Jesse Pinkman. Thankfully, the final episode of “Breaking Bad” allowed us to get a long, last look at Aaron Paul’s beautiful cry face, and to see that face finally celebrating freedom.
“Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan always said that this series was about one man’s transformation from Mr. Chips into Scarface. Certainly, in the finale called “Felina” — which, while very, very good, did contain a couple of flaws that I will discuss shortly — Walt displayed some Scarface tendencies.
He poisoned Lydia and devised a way to exact revenge on Jack and company, using his manipulation skills to the very end. (“You’re his partner now,” Walt shouted at Jack, knowing full well that the implication of Jesse and Jack as equals would irk the ponytailed jerk long enough for him to pause, and maybe get Walt close enough to grasp his trigger-pulling car keys.) In a scene that may have been the highlight of this finale, Walt also broke into Elliott and Gretchen’s vast museum of a home, terrorized his former friends and blackmailed them into promising to give all $9.7 million of his hard-earned money to Walt Jr. on his 18th birthday.
Still, there was clearly a softness in Walt, a reticence to permanently hurt the people he loved most, that suggested his promised Scarface fate was only partially met. To be clear: that doesn’t excuse any of the horrible things Walt did, nor does it suggest that we should cheer for Walt because he went out like a likable badass. What it implies is something much sadder: that a good man turned into someone really awful but still, just before he died, could recall his goodness well enough to realize how irredeemable he had become.
When Walt managed to connive his way into getting the Schwartzes’ address, then snuck into a house so huge that neither Gretchen nor Elliott even realized he was there, it was natural to assume Walt intended to kill the Gray Matter multi-millionaires. Instead, he made them promise to be a delivery system that would funnel money to his family — something, it should be noted, they were willing to be four seasons ago when they offered to pay for Walt’s treatment. Then, he threatened that two hitmen would be watching their backs, as well as fronts, if they didn’t follow through on that promise. “Cheer up, beautiful people,” he reassured them in a sardonic reference to their frequent acts of charity. “This is where you get to make it right.” That’s a line that will be quoted forever in every media studies term paper that attempts to argue that “Breaking Bad” served primarily as a commentary on the extreme nature of America’s economic desperation.
The beautiful part of Walt’s threat, of course, was that the alleged “best hitmen west of the Mississippi” he hired to track Gretchen and Elliott were really just … Badger and Skinny Pete, who are neither hitmen nor the best west of the Mississippi at anything, other than concocting ridiculous “Star Trek” script ideas. The reveal of their involvement was the best, truly unanticipated surprise this finale delivered. Really, though, we should have realized right away that something was off; watch that moment again in which Gretchen and Elliott stand paralyzed with fear while two red dots supposedly aim straight for their hearts. Those red dots can barely stay in one spot for five seconds. They’re all over the place, yo.
Not only did Walt make sure his family was taken care of financially, he also took steps to come to more direct terms with his own demons. In a risky move, he went to see Skyler one last time, in a scene that was both devastatingly sad and also surprisingly unemotional. There were no “I love yous” between these two; husband and wife were basically shells of their former selves. But Walt made sure to advise Skyler to take that lottery ticket, whose numbers revealed the location of Hank’s and Gomez’s graves, and use it as a bargaining chip to get her off the hook with prosecutors. And he finally admitted that, really, he wasn’t just doing all this meth-cooking and nursing home-exploding for his family. “I did it for me,” he said. “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really: I was alive.”
But in the end — with the promised establishment of that trust for Walt Jr. (and, by extension, Holly) as well as that literal ticket to Skyler’s freedom — Walt ultimately did look out for his family, the best he could after all he had done to ruin them. (Man, that apartment they were living in was awfully tiny and bleak, and undoubtedly reeking from all the cigarettes Skyler’s been smoking.)
Then there was Jesse. These two had every reason to be supremely angry with each other. From Walt’s perspective, Jesse sold him down the river. From Jesse’s, Mr. White’s cold-heartedness led to the deaths of the only two women, Jane and Andrea, he had ever loved. But after all those months in isolation, Walt had clearly gotten over his bitterness, enough to throw his body on top of Jesse’s just before he hit the button that would unleash the bullets at Uncle Jack’s compound. Walt saved Jesse’s life. As for Jesse, well, he couldn’t bring himself to shoot Walt, perhaps because he realized his meth mentor already had been hit by gunfire, and that letting him bleed out would make him suffer longer. Personally, I thought Jesse’s reluctance to shoot Walt was an indication of his still-intact sensitivity and humanity, as well as a final act of defiance. “You want this? Then do it yourself,” he said, making it clear that he would no longer be taking orders from Mr. White or the recently strangled Todd anymore. (Note re: Todd: I’ve never been so happy to see a TV character get choked out in all of my life.)
There was a moment early in the episode when Jesse, then still in shackles and forced to cook crystal, daydreamed about building a small box. That box was a callback to the piece a younger Pinkman once made in woodworking class, an object that symbolized the potential Jesse possessed but had never fully tapped, as he described in the season three episode “Kafkaesque.” It’s unclear exactly what might be ahead for Jesse, now that he’s out of that meth pit. It seems like the DEA might have enough evidence to stick him with some of the charges they clearly can no longer level against Walter White. But let’s assume Jesse Pinkman finds a way to wiggle around that. Let’s assume that after he drove his car through that fence he previously tried but failed to climb, he started over. He became a father figure to Brock. And, for Brock, he made a really gorgeous, perfectly sanded Peruvian walnut box, something in which that little boy can store some things that belonged to the mother he lost. I like to think of Jesse’s path taking him in that direction.
I used the word satisfying earlier to describe this finale, and it absolutely was that. It tied up nearly all loose ends. (Although, personally, I still would like to know what the heck went down between Walt and Gretchen to cause their break-up.) It allowed us a moment to say a final goodbye to the characters who were still standing, right on down to little Holly White. (When Walt said his farewell to that baby girl, that was the one time I cried during this episode.) But it also allowed Walter White to go out on his own tidy terms, which, depending on your perspective, was either entirely appropriate or entirely unfair. Walt spent five seasons making things incredibly messy, for himself and his loved ones. A snafu or two in this last episode might have brought these very compelling and right 75 minutes of drama to official perfection. Then again, we can’t really complain, considering that “Ozymandias” was official perfection. That episode was really the climax of everything that happened on “Breaking Bad,” while the last two weeks were all denouement. And denouements are never quite as thrilling as climaxes.
Vince Gilligan directed “Felina,” and did a fine job of capturing both the broad strokes and the small details, from that first close-up of a sheet of ice on Walt’s car window, an image reminiscent of a piece of fresh meth glass, to that last, “Lost” finale-esque shot of Walt taking his final breath next to the instruments of chemistry that made him feel so alive. The music choices — from Marty Robbins’ foreshadowy “El Paso,” a cowboy song about a man facing death due to his love for a woman named Felina (“Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel/A deep burning pain in my side./Though I am trying to stay in the saddle,/I’m getting weary, unable to ride”), to Todd’s ring tone of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” — were also solid, with, in my opinion, one exception: the closing use of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue.”
Maybe I’ll feel differently after the finale has sunk in more deeply, but the lyrics in that ‘70s hit felt too on the nose, and the tone of the track felt off, out of tune with the other right notes this finale hit. There were also some moments that required too much suspension of disbelief. (Why didn’t the guy who frisked Walt notice he had managed to retrieve his car keys? He was sitting mere inches away when Walt slid them into his hands. And why didn’t the person who takes messages for Gretchen and Elliott look at caller ID, which would clearly indicate that the guy from the New York Times was really just a cancer-stricken old friend, calling from a New Mexico pay phone?)
But these are quibbles. In the end, “Breaking Bad” did what any show would hope to do: bring its narrative to a natural, organic conclusion while also leaving us wishing the story could just go on and on.
Sure, we have “Better Call Saul,” the forthcoming Saul Goodman prequel, to look forward to. But what excites me even more is the hope that, 15 years from now, there could be a “Breaking Bad” sequel. Gilligan, of course, would executive produce that series, which would focus on a teenage girl with a vast trust fund she’s managed to tap into so she can fund her drug habit.
That teenage girl’s name will be Holly White. She’ll be a good kid, one with a lot of issues but who has the potential to redeem herself. We’ll meet her in the very first scene. At first we’ll just see her hand, hesitating to rap on a door. And then the camera will show us her pretty, determined face, revealing that now, it’s up to her to decide whether she wants to be the one who knocks.
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.
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)