“Back To The Garden” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired 4/14/2002)
Jeff Shapiro has a ritual. A lemon, a glass of ice water, and a porn tape in the exercise-room TV. He hangs his belt from the weight machine. It’s all so routine that he doesn’t even bother taking off his suit before he pops out the lube and starts working himself over. This is a lunch break for him. The lemon goes in his mouth, and he slips his head into the makeshift noose. But then the lemon falls out. We get a sudden close up on the lemon, cluing us in: This is not part of the routine. With one last “what a way to go” orgasm, and with the strains of Generic Porn-Fest VII in the background, a life ends in the throes of ecstasy. Jeffrey Marc Shapiro, 1963-2001.
Six Feet Under often likes to give us a misdirect with the opening death scene, but in “Back To The Garden,” it’s the first post-death scene that pulls a little switcheroo. David shows up at Keith’s apartment, soaked from the rain. “I love you,” David says. “I love you,” Keith says, and they kiss as the camera swoops around them. Obviously another one of David’s fantasies, right? No, this time, it’s Keith’s dream.
This seems as good a time as any for Eddie’s festering discontent to finally come to a head. After Eddie offers some passive-aggressive parenting advice, he and Keith have it out in a remarkably brief parting fight. Once Eddie says, “This is way more than I signed up for,” he’s acknowledged the reality in the room, and all that remains are the logistics. Eddie helpfully offers that if Keith finds any of Eddie’s stuff, Keith can simply stuff it up his “tight white ass.” It has a strange ring to it—what about Keith’s behavior is white?—until you consider that maybe Eddie wasn’t talking about Keith’s own ass, but rather the tight white ass that never stopped haunting Keith’s dreams.
The nice thing about getting back together with an ex is that all the pre-relationship games take a lot less time. After Keith lets David know that he’s broken up with Eddie, they play “who’s going to make the first move?” for about half a day before they give it up and make a date to reunite. Presumably the two men have done this before, so they fast-forward through the rerun. Then David grows out his sexy stubble and shops for new clothes—nervous date prep that Nate calls out as such in an amusing scene—and waits for David and Keith’s “first date” to get underway.
There’s no time and no need for a first date, either, though. Taylor is in the operating room for an emergency appendix removal, so David rushes to the hospital, where the two men zip along to the next relationship step. They have their “maybe we’re moving too fast, maybe this isn’t such a good idea” moment. Keith is angry at himself for ignoring Taylor’s pleas for help with her pain—doesn’t he know that when an unreliable character complains of a stomachache in a TV drama, it always means appendicitis?—and David tries to pull Keith out of his self-abuse spiral. It doesn’t work. “You are so self-righteous sometimes,” David says. Keith: “Yeah, and you’re a doormat.” That’s about the cruelest thing he could possibly say, especially given that David’s doormat-ness is the reason that Keith has a friend by his side for this ordeal. You don’t insult the doormat if you’re the one wiping your sorry feet on it. “Do I really come off as being a doormat?” David says, which doesn’t exactly disprove Keith’s assertion.
But Keith’s anger dissipates, and the couple’s accelerated reconciliation marches past this moment of doubt. Alone with Taylor in her recovery room, Keith tells her that they need a codeword for when her pain is real rather than just “play.” She agrees, but she’s a little confused: “The pain was always real!” It figures that a man who assiduously refuses to express his own pain—who lashes out at David when he even suggests that Keith might be (forgivably) less than perfect—wouldn’t be so great at recognizing pain in others.
After a long night, Keith steps out into the hallway and finds that David stayed the night, too. Keith shakes his head in quiet appreciation of this man. This is who Keith needs—a companion who not only is unimpressed by Keith’s “I can be perfect” bluster but who ignores it altogether. If Keith isn’t going to allow himself to be flawed, the next best thing is to have a lover who will.
This episode’s title is “Back To The Garden,” and the Garden is famously the place of original sin. Claire’s journey to Topanga Canyon marks the Fisher family’s return to the site of Nate’s original sin, where as a 15-year-old he lost his virginity to some hopped-up hippie type. The question is, who’s Eve here? Who ate the apple? That’s up for interpretation. Ruth’s steadfast belief is that Nate’s partner—that generation-jumping interloper—snatched away her precious son’s innocence. But Claire sees Nate as the knowing, willing sinner. “In case you haven’t hung out with any 15-year-old guys lately,” she says, “they’re like total hornswogglers.” With her vision unclouded by raging hormones, Claire maintains, she’ll be safe.
But then she tries another tack—she steals Ruth’s house metaphor and invites her mother to build some “scaffolding” on her house. And a great way to build scaffolding, Claire says, is to revisit old experiences but try them in a new way. It doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t make any less sense than the verbal blueprints that Ruth has been drawing for the past few months, so Ruth is disarmed. How can she respond? To call out Claire’s dubious reasoning would be to admit her own fraud. That’s the trouble with cantilevering your veranda on overextended metaphors! It’s only the first time in this episode that Ruth has her own hollow language turned back in her face, and she already doesn’t like it.
The wonderful thing about the Topanga Canyon sequences in this episode is that you can almost watch them through the eyes of all the Fisher children at once. Claire is bemused, apprehensive, and a bit put off as she observes Aunt Sarah’s drug-fueled bacchanalia, but at the same time we see Claire looking askance at this spectacle, we can imagine Nate being delighted by the atmosphere of unbridled expression and freedom from expectations. And David fleeing down the canyon to escape the same.
Claire rolls her eyes at the baby boomers’ campfire hullabaloo, but she takes interest in Toby, the poor kid who’s been dragged along to “Howl Night” for a number of years running. When they retreat to a sequestered treehouse and start to make out, Claire pulls away so that she can play the grown-up: “We shouldn’t be doing this. … I didn’t bring any condoms.” But she’s misread Toby: “I would never hook up with anybody I just met, like ever. … I’m 19, okay, Claire? I’ve had the major life experience to know, it just sucks to enter the body of another human being you’re not in love with.” Toby is a charming mix of maturity and naïveté. He’s smart enough not to be driven by his hormones, yet young enough to refer to his past as “major life experience.” There’s something perfectly self-contradicting about that phrase, insofar as anybody who had actually been through “major life experience” probably wouldn’t feel the need to puff it up with language like that.
Claire doesn’t catch the callow side of Toby’s words, though. She just finds herself intrigued by someone who treats her as a peer without forcing her to be the reasonable, mature one in the relationship—a role she was compelled to take with the human train wreck known as Gabe Dimas (not to mention Parker McKenna). With one more year of life under his belt, Toby’s just a little further along than Claire is, just a tiny bit more experienced, and she finds herself content to swim in the calmness of his wake for a bit.
Sarah pushes Claire to grow up a smidgen, too. When Claire laments her fuddy-duddy mom on her way out the door, Sarah pauses a beat and then says, “You know, I think she hides inside of herself because she’s so afraid we’ll reject her, so let’s don’t, okay? She’s had enough heartache for one lifetime.” The underlying admission: The difference between Sarah and Ruth is not a difference in souls but rather in the expression thereof.
Ruth’s timid sing-along at the end of the episode gives Claire a demonstration of the soulfulness that Ruth holds suffocatingly close to the vest. As I watched this, my thoughts returned to Ruth’s blustery, ineffectual plea for “intimacy” from earlier in the season. The Fisher children gave Ruth a tacit rejection at the time. I wonder, if Ruth’s plea had come after the events of this episode, would Claire still have remained silent? In all honesty, maybe so. I don’t want to overstate the change that Claire undergoes here. The gulf between Ruth and Claire isn’t going to be bridged by a couple of poignant moments. After going “Back To The Garden,” though, Claire is at least examining her reflexive instinct to reject Ruth, which is significant progress for an 18-year-old woman.
After he gets an education from Rico on the details of Jeff Shapiro’s auto-erotic asphyxiation—according to Self-Pleasure Hints From Heloise, the lemon wedge provides a shock at the moment of climax “to wake you up, so you don’t die”—Nate finds himself anxious about his own secret: the time-bomb AVM in his head. Shapiro’s death left his loved ones filled with questions. As Nate puts it, “Is it accidental suicide or just plain old suicide?” Maybe the guy didn’t mean to kill himself, but then again, if you’re entrusting your entire existence to a piece of lemon, how much could you have loved life?
At Shapiro’s funeral, the sorrow is tinged with the unease of these unanswered questions. Nate has a vision of a weeping Brenda in the crowd, looking back at him in shock and doubt as she holds their young child. Brenda’s implied questions are a little different: Did he know he was going to die? And why didn’t he tell Brenda if so? If Nate were to drop dead today, his death would be overshadowed by this uncertainty, and that’s a disquieting prospect for him. He doesn’t want a legacy of questions.
But just as a poignant moment doesn’t instantly bring Claire and Ruth together, neither can it magically heal the rift between Nate and Brenda. Instead of going to his fiancée with the truth, and taking a step to eliminate some uncertainty from his life, he seeks out the company of Shapiro’s rabbi. Nate asks Rabbi Ari questions that he knows she can’t answer, at least not to his satisfaction. How does she cope with the knowledge that she’ll die? “I try to live my life every day in a way that honors God,” she says. “I don’t even know if I believe in God,” Nate replies.
He’d like to know, though. He clings to Ari, almost as if he hopes that some of her confident belief will rub off on him. Ari not only senses this, she regards it as somewhat dangerous, because she wants to feed his need and “save” him. She has a bit of a “messiah complex,” she says. (You get the sense that Nate’s past romantic exploits have also been fueled by women who feel a need to save the poor boy.)
Only half-jokingly, Nate says, “You can save me. If that’s what you need to do, you can save me.” Ari deflects by saying that his soulmate, Brenda, can save him. Ari reckons that a soulmate is “the person who makes you the most ‘you’ you could possibly be.” Nate recoils from this, and we see Ari’s “saving” instincts kick in. She reconfigures her definition. “Maybe your soulmate is the person who makes you grow the most—not all growth feels good,” she says with an air of triumphant profundity. That hits Nate’s sweet spot. Brenda makes him feel not so good all the time; she MUST be the one!
But Brenda can’t save Nate; she’s too busy struggling to save herself—a struggle that isn’t helped by fresh encounters with her mother. At their first meeting over lunch, it’s the usual Brenda & Margaret Are Awful To Each Other Show. Brenda mutters the news of her engagement, and Margaret, newly separated from Bernard, laughs in her daughter’s face. Brenda replies, “It’s almost as funny as the notion of you trying to build a life on your own.” The scene concludes with the two women emitting these spiteful, terrified laughs—who knew a laugh could be used to such unpleasant ends?
Later, at Margaret’s new condo, Brenda brings a housewarming gift—a cactus that “doesn’t need water or caring about in any way”—and the usual mutually destructive sparring is underway. Except that Brenda, by no fault of her own, has misread the situation. Margaret doesn’t want to tear down or be torn down today. Yet as long as Brenda’s around, what alternative does she have? Her relationship with her daughter has become nothing but a scab. What can they do except pick at it? So Margaret asks Brenda to leave. “Oh, Mom, let me help,” Brenda pleads. But by this point, Margaret is a cornered cat; she’ll do anything to banish the threat represented by the daughter she created. She brings out the big guns: “I’m not Billy. If you want to help me, just leave.”
One of the striking things about the exchange is that Brenda really does want to help. This is important to note, because from what we’ve seen, it can be easy to conclude that Brenda is a naturally hateful or cold person. I don’t believe that’s the case. As Margaret so ruthlessly points out, Brenda has spent the majority of her life trying to help her brother—an immense undertaking that yielded little reward. The tragedy of Brenda is that she is inclined to help people, but years of experience have led her to conclude that she’s not very good at it. Even with the dedication of her whole being, she couldn’t save Billy.
Along those lines, Rabbi Ari is in this episode not so much to provide a contrast to Brenda but rather to evoke this helpful, soul-saving side of Nate’s fiancée that has vanished from view. It has disappeared because Brenda is actively trying to suppress it. She’s exhausted by the failure of her helping instincts. Life is somehow easier, or more straightforward, if Brenda conceives of herself as a manipulative sociopath who’s “incapable of anything real.” If she doesn’t try to help anyone or connect with anyone, she can’t fail, either.
Brenda’s most telling line of the episode is when she casually volunteers to her prostitute friend, Melissa, “I would totally take my clothes off onstage, at least once, if I didn’t harbor a deep hatred of my body.” Melissa rolls her eyes at this dubious notion. She’s right to do so, because Brenda doesn’t hate her body. But she does hate everything else about herself. Brenda hates the brilliant mind that she uses to overanalyze herself and most of all the soul that she regards as broken—when, in fact, it’s just wounded. It can be hard to tell the difference.
After however many months on The Plan, Ruth finds herself right back where she started, cooking for one. She eats one of the saddest dinners in television history: a beige pork chop, three brussels sprouts, and two unadorned potatoes. It could be her signature dish. Loneliness à la Fisher.
The next day, with her dinner invitation rebuffed by Nikolai, Ruth instead has Robby over for dinner—desperate as she is to avoid another night of solitude in that kitchen. But Robby spends the evening nattering on and on about his house and his blueprint and his foundation; it enrages Ruth. As she listens to this self-indulgent tripe, she hears what she has been sounding like since she graduated from The Plan. How mortifying. She fantasizes for a while about stabbing Robby in the heart with a fork, and then she has a classic Ruth moment. She says, “Robby, I have to tell you something now. I do believe I have learned everything I needed to learn from The Plan, and I no longer feel the urge to speak in building metaphors, or talk about myself and my feelings in this way any longer.” Ruth was silent for years, and then she started expressing herself. And what did that get her? Nothing but humiliation. And so she returns to silence.
- As always, the first comment thread is for discussion of future episodes. If you want to stay unaware of upcoming developments, collapse that thread.
- I’ve complained about the writing for Rico and his family this season, but I loved the scene where Rico discovers Ramon pounding away at another dude. It’s just a delirious flurry of F-bombs, concluding with “What the fuckin’ fuck?” A hilarious expression of Rico’s complete disorientation in that moment.
- Rico uses his kids as a fake excuse to get out of work: Take one drink.