"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)
After last week’s uneven, plot-bomb-dropping episode of “Homeland,” some viewers may have been ready to just chuck this show in a drawer like some discarded, irrationally hoarded pregnancy test. But of course, “Homeland” wouldn’t be “Homeland” if it didn’t regroup and rebound; as Willa Paskin said on this very website nearly a year ago: “’Homeland’ jumps the shark one episode, but then swiftly steps back to the other side in time for the next.”
Sunday night’s installment, the best of Season 3 so far, swiftly stepped back to that other side. It was an hour fraught with tension, brimming with conflict over the CIA’s role in fighting terrorism and, not coincidentally, completely devoid of the Dana Brody Story. It was also an episode in which Saul Berenson locked an arrogant U.S. senator in a conference room against his will, causing viewers to rise from their sofas and applaud while whispering, reverently, “Mandy Patinkin … holla.” Really, at one time or another, who among us hasn’t wanted to lock a member of Congress in a room without explaining how to dial out? This was wish-fulfillment fantasy, in delicious, premium cable form.
As satisfying as the Lockhart lockdown may have been, though, let’s be clear: “Homeland” is still far from perfect and murky as hell about some key details. The writers were extraordinarily vague, for example, about how Javadi is going to function as an effective spy for the CIA. Once he’s back in Tehran, who will make sure he’s gathering the sort of intel the U.S. needs? (Even Javadi didn’t understand what would stop him from vanishing once he left U.S. soil.) How is Javadi going to get that intel back to Saul and co. without being revealed? And if Saul’s only acting director of the CIA for another two weeks, how can this mission even be accomplished considering that, following his triumphant escape from the conference room, Lockhart will most certainly try to shut it down? (No wonder the good senator asked if Saul was “f—in’ high.”)
These are questions that need to be addressed and probably won’t be. But the writers also raised larger narrative questions this week, and implied they plan to answer them before Season 3 ends. This was Episode 7, just beyond the halfway point, which meant it was time to map out where the rest of this part of the “Homeland” journey is going to go. With that in mind, here are four key points and themes raised during Sunday’s installment that I believe will become crucial elements in the six episodes ahead. (Note: This does not include Carrie’s pregnancy and the inconvenient crime-scene morning sickness it tends to cause. Obviously, “Homeland” will be getting back to that, too.)
If Brody wasn’t responsible for the bombing of the CIA, who was? Javadi provided the finances that enabled 219 Americans to get tragically blown to smithereens. But who actually planted the bomb that caused all that death and destruction? Javadi confirmed this week to both Saul and Carrie that Nicholas Brody, the fugitive last seen shooting heroin in Venezuela, wasn’t responsible, even though the explosion was orchestrated to make him appear to be. It was one of Abu Nazir’s guys who planted the bomb, Javadi said, although, maddeningly, he wouldn’t reveal who. After a drawn-out car ride conversation, Saul’s BFF also told Carrie that the guy who built the bomb is alive, still in the U.S. and potentially findable with some help from the lawyer who first connected Carrie to Javadi. (If this is true and the CIA doesn’t know it, maybe the agency really is, in part, the clown act Sen. Lockhart accused it of being.)
Carrie will clearly follow that lead because this season has to answer the question dangled at the end of the last one: If Nicholas Brody didn’t cause the explosion at Langley, who did? I have a theory about that, which I’ll get to shortly.
The Mira connection: Both this episode and the previous one spent a lot of time on the unraveling marriage between Mira and Saul. That time hasn’t been invested for no reason. As Saul’s old photos indicate, he and Mira used to hang out in Iran with Javadi and his wife, pre-plum-wine murder. Since Javadi presumably won’t go quietly into life as a top secret spy for Saul, it seems logical to assume that he or one of his minions may attempt to endanger Mira in order to leverage his way out of his arrangement with the CIA. The fact that Saul and Mira sort of made up at the end of this episode only makes that seem all the more likely.
I mean, does Mira truly know who her lover from Mumbai is, apart from a hot guy who apparently has room in his schedule for a nooner? It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if that guy’s working for Javadi, mainly because “Homeland” practically requires us to assume that everyone on the show is a potential mole. Hell, I live in Bethesda. It wouldn’t surprise me if I turned out to be a mole on “Homeland.”
Also, if Saul is put in a position where he has to save Mira from the clutches of a known terrorist, this will mirror the situation in which Brody found himself last season, when Carrie was held hostage by Abu Nazir. These two relationships seem to have more than a little in common. Saul clearly once saw himself as someone capable of saving Mira, much the same way that Carrie still thinks she can save Brody from being perceived as a traitor to his own country.
Terrorism: The long game vs. quick vengeance. This theme hung thick throughout this week’s episode, particularly in that war of words between Saul and Lockhart, who could not believe that Saul allowed Javadi to leave the U.S. “We fry Javadi’s ass publicly,” Lockhart insisted. “That’s justice.”
“That’s short-sighted,” Saul said. “It’s ineffective. Because back in Tehran, he’s replaced by someone just like him, who we can’t control. And the attack that happened here, happens again and again and again.” He made sense, assuming that one doesn’t consider the vague nature of the logistics of Operation Undercover Javadi.
Saul, determined to play his long game, then lured Lockhart into that conference room and trapped him there long enough to get Javadi’s plane well on its way back to Iran before Lockhart could complain to the president. It was a devilishly smart move, but one that presumably will do him no favors politically. And it was surprising that Dar Adal — who seemed so happily aligned with Lockhart — played along. Does he really think Saul made the right call, or is Adal just throwing his support behind whoever seems to be winning at any given moment?
It’s worth noting that the other person in this episode who shared Lockhart’s “fry Javadi now” perspective was Fara, a woman that a guy like Lockhart would undoubtedly deem a terrorist threat if he saw her in an airport security line. “Homeland” is at its smartest when it subtly does things like this: showing us that white male senators and Muslim female CIA analysts can be ideologically aligned, for different reasons and without even realizing it.
The real reason for Peter Quinn’s guilt: Somehow Quinn was lucky enough to show up on the surveillance camera of the neighbors next door to Javadi’s family, making him Suspect No. 1 in the murder of the daughter-in-law and the ex-wife. His only option was to confess to the crime and claim “classified national security” as his defense, which seems to have worked. But as a result, Quinn seemed more eager to quit working for the CIA, an organization that — in the words of that detective, aka actor Clark Johnson, aka Meldrick Lewis from “Homicide” and Gus Haynes from “The Wire” — always makes things worse.
“I just do not believe it anymore,” Quinn told Carrie. “[That] anything justifies the damage we do.”
Naturally, Carrie — who probably should not have shown up again outside the double murder house if the CIA wants to distance itself from that crime — asked Quinn to help her track down the mysterious bomb builder Javadi mentioned.
Did you notice, when she asked that, how Quinn grimaced, just briefly? Did you also notice how he said “Wrong crime, right guy,” to describe his cathartic confession to a murder he didn’t commit?
Maybe you can sense where I’m going with this: I think Quinn may have been working for Abu Nazir and may have been responsible, on some level, for the bombing. Yes, I remember that last season he was secretly in cahoots with Estes and was supposed to take out Brody on Estes’ orders, but opted not to. Is it possible that decision was by design, so Nazir and his cohorts would have a scapegoat?
Look, I’m sure it’s possible to poke multiple holes in this theory. But “Homeland” loves its shockers, whether they make sense or not. And it loves a turn, whether it’s the turning of a war hero into a potential terrorist, or a terrorist into a U.S. spy, or its own narrative trajectory from something completely absurd to something semi-intriguing.
Maybe Peter Quinn’s not a bad guy. But I’m willing to bet he’s got a secret, at least, that he’s hiding. And I’d bet that whatever it is has something to do with the blast that killed so many of Saul’s and Carrie’s colleagues, a blast whose impact continues to give this uneven Season 3 of “Homeland” a sense of meaningful purpose.
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)