"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)
Killing characters off of a TV show, when done right, can do so much more than simply write someone out of the script and out of the opening credits. So often, it feels like real loss — after spending a handful of seasons getting to know this person, they’re gone, leaving you to experience the subsequent seasons alone, their absence hanging over it all. This year saw a lot of surprising and depressing character deaths. Some shows introduced themselves with a tragedy early on, helping to define what sort of world they wanted to tell a story about. Others made decisions as they approached the end of their stories — killing characters because it was time to clean house, or because it was time to make good on conflicts set up a long time ago. The year had its share of casualties, some sad and poignant, others jaw-dropping and bloodstained. Below are 10 of the most memorable ones.
10. “Family Guy” – Brian Griffin
Even though Seth MacFarlane’s career has remained on our radar through directorial debuts, a derided new sitcom and an Oscar-hosting gig, you don’t really hear a ton about his breakout show these days even as it remains steadily popular. “Family Guy” can be annoying, and is criticized for being offensive, but it also has its share of hilarious moments, many of which were due to Brian, Stewie and the interactions between the two. So when “Family Guy” killed Brian by hitting him with a car in an episode that aired on November 24th, it was disappointing and confusing on multiple levels. If you were to take it at face value, the show’s best character was just offed for no good reason aside from a publicity stunt (MacFarlane voiced Brian and still voices Peter, Stewie and a bunch of supporting characters, so it’s not like he’s going anywhere). Fox had teased the character death in the weeks leading up to it, and executive producer Steve Callaghan later described it as “a fun way to shake things up.”
Killing a character on “Family Guy” doesn’t really serve any purpose narratively, and fans reacted negatively. A petition appeared on Change.org, garnering more than 100,000 signatures. As it turns out, things didn’t stick — Brian returned for a Christmas episode. So, file this one under heartbreaking because it was sad and jarring to see Brian go, sure, but it might be more heartbreaking to see the show spinning its wheels and resorting to shock tactics and slapping fans in the face in order to make some headlines.
9. “True Blood” – Terry Bellefleur
It can be hard to muster sympathy for any “True Blood” character these days. The show has wandered ridiculously far from its roots, losing sense of the community of Bon Temps both physically — as later seasons have been set less in the town — and conceptually, as the show’s storyline has fragmented into a bunch of little stories to the point where you forget certain characters even know each other, let alone technically work together. Terry Bellefleur started out as a recurring supporting character, and even though he couldn’t quite hold the weight of getting his own storylines in recent seasons, he was a steady source of charm. It was also worth actually having some likable human characters kept around, considering the ever-increasingly crowded supernatural docket of “True Blood.”
For all those reasons, it was sad to see Terry finally overcome by his PTSD and the knowledge of what he had done to the point where he asked an old Marine contact to assassinate him. After Arlene had a vampire friend glamor his past away, we got a fleeting glimpse at what a truly happy Terry would’ve looked like, before he was sniped outside of Merlotte’s. Terry will be missed — Todd Lowe’s performance made the character work beyond the comic relief he initially provided, and was often a bittersweet reminder of what the show was like before it strayed too far from its promising premise. While in some ways Terry’s death seemed abrupt and unnecessary, it may have served a larger purpose. Hopefully, if new showrunner Brian Buckner’s comments at Comic-Con are to be believed, Terry’s death is one step in the show’s course correction for its final season: refocusing our attention on Bon Temps as a town and a community, and tightening the show’s story back around these people and their relationships with one another.
8. “The Bridge” – Gus Ruiz
FX unveiled two of the most promising new shows on TV this year: “The Americans” and “The Bridge.” The latter was populated by an array of strange and mysterious characters, from Stephen Linder, Thomas M. Wright’s marble-mouthed coyote, to Demian Bichir’s world-weary Mexican detective Marco Ruiz, to Diane Kruger’s maybe-autistic detective Sonya Cross. These characters are dynamic both visually and thematically, distinct enough to carry an expansive and nuanced universe if “The Bridge” moves beyond centering around a murder mystery in subsequent seasons. Gus, Marco’s son, is not one of those characters. A loose sketch existing primarily to define Marco’s familial issues and shortcomings as a father, Gus won’t necessarily be missed, particularly when the show was already overcrowded with much more interesting and shadowy figures. What’s striking and memorable about his death, then, is that it represents a moment late in the game — the third-to-last episode of the season — where “The Bridge” announces just what kind of show it’s going to be.
Not that it had been gentle before, but the succession of the show’s grisliest moments usually occurred to characters introduced almost for the sole purpose of later being dispatched an episode or two later in David Tate’s ongoing killing spree. Agent Gedman’s head shows up in a duffel bag, teenaged Gina bleeds out in a parking garage after a gunshot to the stomach, Childress’ sniper bullet blows open Deputy Sheriff Stokes’ face, and wealthy Mexican playboy Santi Jr.’s throat gushes out onto the bathroom floor as his party continues outside. All helped establish the brutality of “The Bridge,” but Gus’s death was of the sort we’ve been trained not to expect as viewers. Tate hides him in a tank that slowly fills with water, and we’re treated to constant anxiety-building cuts between the water creeping up around Gus and the detectives’ race to find him and deal with Tate simultaneously. You don’t ever expect that Sonya won’t get there at that last moment and find him, though — that’s the sort of nail-biting finish the episode seems to build toward. Instead, she’s too late, and we’re reminded of Gus’s slow, isolated death with a shot of his bloated, waterlogged body. From that moment on, it’s clear that “The Bridge” is a show that can have real consequences and real danger for its central characters. Gus’s death was shocking because it was the first casualty of that prominence, and immediately let us know that life in “The Bridge” was even more precarious than it had initially suggested.
7. “Sons of Anarchy” – Clay Morrow and Tara Knowles Teller
“Sons of Anarchy” definitely didn’t pull any punches in its penultimate season, featuring two brutal deaths for two characters who have been around since the show’s start. Oddly, both deaths managed to feel inevitable and shocking at the same time. Jax killing Clay had been a long time coming. From the show’s earliest episodes, the conflict between Jax and Clay was brewing, becoming more overt once Jax realized Clay tried to have Opie killed, a botched hit that inadvertently resulted in Donna’s murder. They were openly threatening each other way back in Season 2, but while it was only a matter of time before we got to this point, it was still jarring to finally see it happen, with Jax viciously shooting Clay in the throat and then a few more times in the chest. And, because this is “Sons of Anarchy” and this is what “Sons of Anarchy” does, you get a good, long look at Clay’s body lying there in a growing pool of blood, a gruesome goodbye to one of the show’s defining presences.
As major a moment as Clay’s death was, however, it’s not one that engenders sympathy. Pretty much everyone wanted him gone at this point, and he deserved it for a whole host of reasons. After this episode, fans turned their concerns toward Tara, and it turned out those concerns were well founded. “Sons of Anarchy” went ahead and killed off two of its primary characters within the span of three episodes. Tara’s death was naturally far more tragic than Clay’s, as she merely associated with sinners rather than sinning herself. Jax gives Clay a somewhat pathetic facsimile of the outlaw’s death he was always destined for; Gemma shoves Tara’s face into a sink and plunges a carving fork into the back of her head. In the wake of Clay and Tara’s deaths, lots of recappers are focusing on the Shakespearean influences of “Sons of Anarchy.” Killing both Clay and Tara before the show’s final season suggests that there’s only more, not less, of that classic brand of tragedy to come.
6. “The Americans” – Gregory Thomas
The first season of “The Americans” took a world you’d readily assume to be played out — Cold War dramas — and imbued it with unexpected wrinkles and twists again and again. One of the most engaging of these was the introduction of Gregory, an African American spy recruited by Elizabeth during the Civil Rights Movement. Gregory’s crew aids Directorate S operatives with different jobs, but he’s also Elizabeth’s lover, someone she truly cares for amidst the murky existence that is her partnership/arranged marriage with Philip and their regular need to conduct affairs for the purpose of their job. After Philip accidentally kills Chris Amador, the FBI — and, specifically, Stan Beeman — are out for blood, immediately assuming it was the KGB’s doing. Through a series of events, Stan discovers the nature of Gregory and his crew, and Phillip and Elizabeth’s superiors start the process of setting Gregory up with an escape route and a new life in Moscow. Gregory, however, decides he doesn’t want to live in Moscow, and realizes that the FBI won’t rest until they have someone to hold accountable for Amador’s death, someone to enact their vengeance upon.
In one of the most crushing scenes of the season, Gregory serenely tells Elizabeth he’s not going to Moscow, that he’s lived for something, that’s enough, and this is the end of the road. Though this is customary for “The Americans” so far, it’s a remarkably complex scene, with a multitude of things swirling together — the impressionistic gestures towards the professional and personal past between Elizabeth and Gregory, the rift growing between Elizabeth and Philip as they navigate their identities and their marriage, and the conflict between serving the abstraction of their homeland vs. their loyalty to those who have fought on the ground with them. Gregory gets his way, calmly walking outside, waiting for some cops to find him. Roberta Flack’s “To Love Somebody” plays over a montage of Elizabeth serving her children dinner, Philip eating a pizza alone in his motel room, Stan staring at a photo of Gregory bloody on the ground, and slow-motion visions of Gregory’s last stand in a firefight with policemen. “The Americans” may hint at the lineage of spy thrillers, but it isn’t afraid to be meditative, and it gives Gregory’s last moments a fittingly elegiac tone.
5. “House of Cards” – Peter Russo
So many of the characters in “House of Cards” are ruthless — manipulative people playing against other manipulative people. As intoxicating as it is to spend time wading into everyone’s machinations with Kevin Spacey’s seductively evil coo of a Southern drawl as your guide, this quality could make “House of Cards,” a little cold at times. That’s where Peter Russo came in. Peter had his own host of problems — the prostitutes, the alcohol and drug abuse, his sniveling once Spacey’s Frank Underwood had him under his thumb. Corey Stoll played Russo perfectly, elevating a failed redemption arc to one of the most human of storylines in a show that often revels in calculations (even when it’s trying to contrast such intellectual games against the more amorphous qualities of human nature with characters like Claire). It was easy to root for Peter for much of the way, envisioning a several-season arc where he ultimately amasses enough experience to challenge his former master.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t get that far — according to Frank’s plan, Peter relapses. When Peter claims he’s going to reveal Frank’s entire plot, Frank leaves him drunk in a running car closed in a garage, faking Peter’s suicide. Much like Gus’s death in “The Bridge,” killing off Peter Russo was a startling turning point in the first season of “House of Cards.” Frank had seemed corrupt and twisted along the way, but we now know him as a murderer, and the ease with which he kills Peter raises so many questions. Is he just a sociopath? Is Peter the first person he’s killed or has had killed? It remains to be seen how “House of Cards” will go on to handle such a character shift in the long run, but Peter’s death seems to have opened doors to darker places.
4. “Game of Thrones”– The massacre of the Starks at the Red Wedding
Whether you’ve been reading George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” for years, or whether you first ventured into Westeros with HBO’s adaptation, three seasons deep viewers and readers alike are well aware that nobody is safe in “Game of Thrones.” One of the most admirable qualities of Martin’s series is how he takes classic tropes of the fantasy genre and turns them on their head, such as initially centering the story around characters like the Starks — moral, comparably modest royalty — and then setting about destabilizing the reader/viewer by killing them off (less admirable: his glee at threatening to kill fan favorites like Tyrion Lannister, which would be a terrible, terrible thing to do). This was all made evident back in the first book/season, when our supposed protagonist in Ned Stark gets his head cut off and his family winds up scattered. Even with all that precedent — and even if you had reader friends who might have slyly hinted at what was to come — the Red Wedding was likely the most shocking TV moment of the year.
It’s one thing to dispatch a regular character suddenly, it’s another thing entirely to kill three at once. The Red Wedding rightfully earned the distinction as one of the most merciless sequences in an already harsh series. Robb being stabbed and shot with arrows isn’t anything out of the ordinary for the show, but then there’s Talisa getting knifed repeatedly in her pregnant stomach, and finally those jaw-dropping last few shots of Catelyn screaming, getting her throat cut, and a totally silent credits sequence. While the Red Wedding is certainly a stunner, it’s not exactly pulling at the heartstrings, except for Talisa maybe. As the show goes on, the Starks — with the exception of Arya, and possibly Jon Snow — reveal themselves to be self-righteous and unlikeable, a further distortion of the typical fantasy protagonists they’re supposed to be. Aside from viewers who had a crush on Robb, these don’t seem like characters who will be greatly missed. While the ongoing tragedy of the Stark family is great thematically, the actual deaths here leave their mark more as great TV than as deeply emotional moments.
3. The twin tragedies of “Breaking Bad”
The last season of “Breaking Bad” had its share of death, and like much of the rest of the series it could all be traced back to Walt, whether it was score-settling or outright vengeance or innocents suffering because of his actions. Because of that, and because of the continuing deepening of Walt’s evil, the last half of Season 5 is where many viewers finally lost all sympathy for him. So, when we finally reached the point presaged all the way back in the pilot, the point where Walt dies, it seemed many felt Walt deserved a shriveling death from cancer or the cold while isolated in New Hampshire. Somewhat controversially — from many critics’ standpoint, at least — Walt got to fulfill a sort of tragic hero arc, returning to New Mexico to ensure his family received what remained of his money and to have a final showdown with Jack’s neo-Nazi gang. Some criticized it as an easy way out for the writers, giving us a season of increasingly dire repercussions for Walt’s actions only to let him have the final word after all. Perhaps that’s how it plays on the surface, but while Walt’s end is satisfying, it’s far from what some deemed the closest thing “Breaking Bad” could have to a happy ending. In a moment of bare honesty, he tells Skyler he did it all for himself. With that realization, he goes to confront not an equal like Gus, not someone deserving of Heisenberg’s last stand, but rather a rag-tag bunch of desert-dwelling thugs. It’s still a bleak ending, and there’s still real tragedy to it as Walt smiles wistfully in the meth lab before collapsing on the ground. As his face looks up at a receding camera, it’s still heart-rending to see this character arrive at this point, even after all he’s done.
While it takes some qualifying to feel sorry for Walt, there’s no question that one of the series’ most haunting images is when Todd murders Andrea as Jesse is forced to look on from the car. Unlike the other deaths in the final season, Andrea had done nothing besides know the wrong person. There’s a nightmarish quality to the scene, and the anguish Aaron Paul poured into Jesse’s scream felt like the audible manifestation of what it felt like to be watching this season unfold at home. It was a mix of a brilliant last run and a prolonged, anxious unraveling, on some level a punishment for spending years relating to these criminals. And as much as people joked about the show’s other loose ends — Does anyone ever go get Huell?! Does Jesse drive off into the night and into Aaron Paul’s “Need for Speed” movie!? — Andrea’s death reminds us of all the invisible consequences of Walt’s short-lived empire, as we’ll never know what happens to poor Brock, the kid Walt already poisoned, when he stumbles across his mother’s dead body on the porch. It’s amongst the saddest occurrences of the whole series.
2. “Boardwalk Empire” – Richard Harrow
Back in the finale to its second season, “Boardwalk Empire” did what had previously been unthinkable and killed one of its main protagonists, Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody. Since then, not only has it seemed like any character could be in danger of an untimely end at any moment, but it’s also raised questions about the roles of characters who had mainly been present in the story through their connection to Jimmy. By Season 4, that question loomed ever larger for Gillian and Richard, the latter particularly seeming as if his story had come to a close once he returned home to the Midwest and buried his gun. This was part of the logic about Jimmy’s death, too: that there was just nothing else to do with the character. Since this is coming from people who had Nelson Van Alden undergo a two-season transition from prohibition agent to one of Al Capone’s thugs, this argument doesn’t always hold water. Surely there was more to do with Richard Harrow. Nevertheless, it felt like only a matter of time until Richard would be killed ever since Jimmy died, and two years later “Boardwalk Empire” did just that with its Season 4 finale.
Richard’s death hurts not just because he was a fan favorite, and not just because he was one of the most intriguing and multifaceted characters the show has yet to produce, but also because he was, in many ways, the heart of “Boardwalk Empire” after Jimmy died. As much as Nucky is positioned at the center of the show’s narrative, it’s always been hard to really care what happened to him, with more engaging characters littering the show’s supporting ranks. Richard, in a way, seemed more representative of the show’s core — an expert killer who only did it because it was all he was good at, a career soldier without a war who sought a normal life. He was an apt moral center for a prestige drama with a complicated relationship to violence. Perhaps the foremost reason Richard’s death really stung, though, was that it was so random, seemingly so unnecessary, so loosely attached to his own arc. For a show that hasn’t avoided fan service, it seems odd that “Boardwalk Empire” would kill Richard by giving him one errant bullet to the stomach after his failed attempt to assassinate Narcisse, rather than having him go down in a blaze of self-loathing glory like last season’s climactic raid on Gillian’s brothel. Credit where it’s due, though — that sort of death wouldn’t have been fitting for Richard or for the show after where it went this fourth season. Compared to past outings, this season of “Boardwalk Empire” was a dark, murkily contemplative affair. Richard’s downbeat ending, as unwanted as it remains, was a fitting one for him and Season 4 alike.
1. “Breaking Bad” – Hank Schrader
It’s hard to think of another viewing experience quite like the final eight episodes of “Breaking Bad.” The show was simultaneously thrilling and gratifying, as tensions built up over the preceding five (or four and a half, or whatever) seasons finally came to a head. On the other hand, the ride was brutal and, as mentioned above, often punishing. Each week got significantly harder to watch and harder to look away from at the same time, as all those things we had been expecting and theorizing about for so long finally occurred, but always in ways more disturbing or barbaric than we could have predicted. This was perhaps no better executed than in the moment when Jack shot Hank in the head point-blank, with Walt looking on powerlessly.
This occurs minutes into the season’s sixth episode “Ozymandias,” which in some ways was the first ending of “Breaking Bad.” This was the episode that unwaveringly depicted Walt’s entire world and scheme crumbling permanently, starting with Hank’s murder, following through him losing his money, continuing with his family casting him out and concluding with him fleeing alone. The final two episodes felt like something of an epilogue, an ending but not the ending. Even “Granite State,” with the murder of Andrea, a glimpse of Skyler’s legal proceedings and Walt slowly dying in a remote New England cabin, didn’t cultivate consequence in the same way as all the horror of “Ozymandias” did. And it starts, and flows from, Hank’s death. It’s bizarre to think about Hank in the earliest episodes — kind of a meathead, an easy manly-man foil against which to contrast Walt’s milquetoast beginnings. Over the course of the series, the writers and actors of “Breaking Bad” deepened the central characters with far more complexity and nuance than would’ve reasonably been expected from their introductions. Hank went from comic relief to a potential antagonist or at least a nag and then to the show’s almost-hero. Even those who remained steadfastly Team Walt didn’t want Hank to lose; they just didn’t want him to win. But, for the show to work, Hank had to die. With a single shot, “Breaking Bad” stomped on our conceptions of these people and this situation; it forced Walt into a final realization of his folly. With a single shot, but also with years of building this world up, “Breaking Bad” delivered the year’s most heartbreaking death, and the year’s best episode of television.
Ryan Leas (@RyanLeas) is a freelance writer based in New York. He has also written for GQ.com, Stereogum, and the Village Voice's music blog Sound of the City.More Ryan Leas.
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)