Six Feet Under: “Can I Come Up Now?”
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Peter Krause
Peter Krause

Six Feet Under: “Can I Come Up Now?”

Not yet, but it’s not your fault—or is it?

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Six Feet Under

"Can I Come Up Now?"

Season 4, Episode 4

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“Can I Come Up Now?” (season four, episode four; originally aired 7/11/2004)

“Nothing is anybody’s fault.” Alone at the office, on a dark and stormy night, no one wants a fatalist to suddenly step out of the elevator. And if you do run into a fatalist at the elevator, you definitely don’t want him to turn around and stare at you while you wait for the doors to close. And if he does turn around and stare at you, you really definitely don’t want him to growl, “You’re beautiful.” All of these ominous things happen to the unnamed heroine of the opening scene, yet she survives. The creep with the gravelly voice has no such luck. Instead, he gets death by lightning, by way of a stolen umbrella. He can only blame himself, not that he would. Lawrence Henry Mason, 1938-2003.

The image of a lightning strike is often used as a stand-in for the hand of fate, a reading that Larry Mason would embrace. But then again, he does steal that umbrella, so you could argue that it was his fault. Would he have been struck by lightning regardless, or was his nihilistic transgression his downfall? More broadly, how much of our lives are we responsible for, and how much is beyond our control? That’s the eternal question that the Fishers et al., contend with in this episode as chapters from their past bubble up around them.

Claire intends to answer that question by asserting her force of will. She says that the old Claire Fisher “just waited around for the world to happen to her,” and she’s a new woman who intends to take control of her own story. We first see her trying on this new persona as she offers a withering but accurate assessment of Anita’s kittycat photo during a classroom crit session. The professor grows annoyed with Claire’s wisecracks, but she’s even more irritated by Anita’s apathetic attitude: “Surely it ended up meaning something to you,” she insists to a shrugging Anita, “or you wouldn’t have brought it into class.” Anita’s silence suggests that may this isn’t so “surely” true.

Claire’s day-seizing continues when she invites Jimmy, he of the all-night parties and scruffy good looks, to “hang out” sometime. He accepts her invitation in the smoothest manner possible, and Claire ends up on the verge of the casual sexual escapade she thought she wanted. Jimmy’s even a considerate lover, opening with the ought-to-be-standard request, “Tell me what you like.” But she refuses—either she doesn’t know what she likes, or she doesn’t want to talk about it. In any case, she won’t communicate with him, and he finally asks, “How else am I supposed to know what to do here?” She says, “You’re telling me you don’t?” The “new Claire Fisher” seems to be a lot like the old Claire Fisher, except this one is less shy about making smartass remarks.

The thing is, while she’s busy deriding his sexual prowess, Jimmy is giving Claire a real opportunity to take control of her life in a limited but rather direct sense. She’s just too self-conscious to accept it. Later, Anita and Edie try to give Claire some perspective. Guys are dumb, they say, so if you get a dude who wants to know what you like, you’re ahead of the game. You can’t just lie there and wait around for Jimmy to happen to you.

Claire’s thrown by this conversation because she never viewed sexual enjoyment as something under her control—that was up to fate, apparently. To her friends’ surprise, Claire doesn’t even masturbate: “I don’t find it that interesting.” We soon learn why: She’s never had an orgasm, either. Edie suggests that maybe she should do something about that, as Claire is “seriously missing out.” And that’s the key. Claire’s refusal to accept her role in her own pleasure has led her to miss out on one of life’s great highlights—a pretty strong argument in favor of personal responsibility.

But Six Feet Under rarely presents such pat answers, so in Nate’s story, we see that it’s also possible for a person to take too much responsibility for his plight. When Maya goes away for the weekend with Nate’s sister-in-law and her family, Nate has a weekend alone with his thoughts, a surefire recipe for angst if there ever was one. He first wanders over to Brenda’s place with a six-pack, where he interrupts Joe and Brenda’s sub-dom routine (with no protest from Brenda). As he sits there drinking his own beer, Nate assesses his state of mind. “I still feel like Lisa’s around, pushing me to move on. Wants me to, uh—but you can’t. You can’t rush it.”

That pivot halfway through the line is a clear glimpse into the machinations of Nate’s psyche—a verbalization of a phenomenon we’ve seen before. As soon as Nate finds himself on the verge of moving on, another part of himself assaults him with guilt. The internal retribution is swift and brutal. That force in Nate’s head is telling him, as ever, that he didn’t do everything that he could have done for Lisa—and maybe he can still do more to make up for it.

And so it is that, after last week’s episode concluded with Nate tossing his and Lisa’s bedsheets on the bonfire, this week sees a harsh overcorrection inflicted by his inner demons. The sequence with the psychic is notable for how un-mystical it is—the soothsayer’s most impressive talent is her dog-training ability: The pooch apparently trolls the nearby cemetery for potential customers. She makes transparently broad guesses about Nate’s background, but that’s the gig. Her business runs on people who are only too eager to fill in the blanks, which makes Nate an ideal mark.

Nate invents and then clings to the theory that Lisa might still be alive. It takes such a hold on him that he shares his deranged hypothesis with his family. They’re not impressed. Claire asks him if he’s high. Sister-in-law Barb invites him to seek help, “and not from a fucking psychic.”

Why does Nate torture himself? His current self-hatred is a big part of it—the part of him that says, “No, you don’t get to come up yet”—but there’s more. By suggesting that Lisa might be alive, and that he might be able to help her, Nate offers himself the illusion of control. His insistence on taking responsibility for her fate—after her fate has already been decided—is a reaction against the helplessness he feels. It feels better to pretend that her life is in his hands than to accept that her death was out of his hands, and thereby forgive himself. So if Lawrence Mason represents one extreme of personal responsibility, Nate in this episode represents the opposite extreme: Everything is his fault.

Those extremes don’t work in practice. Responsibility is a notion that needs to be calibrated on a case-by-case basis. And even that calibration can be hard work, as George and Ruth demonstrate in their argument over Kyle. Ruth is a fixer. When she sees a problem, she wants it resolved. But George’s approach to life is more minimal: His bias is toward inaction, letting problems play themselves out if it’s at all possible. So as the piles of crap have continued showing up on the Fisher doorstep, Ruth has worked herself into a froth—destroying the family’s relationship with Arthur in the process—while George has pleaded for her to ignore it.

Now we learn that the shit was coming not from Arthur but rather from an estranged son that George fathered when he was a grad student. He offered to marry the woman, George tells Ruth, but instead the mother’s family had him sign away his parental rights. So he considers the matter resolved. He did his duty, and that’s that. But for Ruth, being a parent is an unending commitment. You can’t just wash your hands of it like that. Having despised the mystery shit-mailer for so many weeks, she now feels an irresistible urge to play a part in this kid’s life. “This is important to me, George! I don’t ask for much,” she says as he continues to resist a visit. She says it with such bracing authority that he can’t help but concede.

The son, Kyle, lives a bitter and sheltered life. His instinct is to push people away, and he’s pretty good at it, so he’s nonplussed when Ruth resists his anti-charms. She’s so relentlessly nice that he doesn’t know how to deal with her, to the point that he finds himself going along on a Starbucks trip with his hated father and strange new stepmother. Afterward, Ruth is glowing with delight over their day in Burbank. She got to parent a little. She loves the responsibility, and she’s hungry for more: “He seems so lonely. Maybe we should invite him to dinner.”

David’s ex-fiancee, Jennifer, is the piece of his past that bubbles up in this episode, and her sorrow over her father’s death comes to a head with a ferocious tirade in the comfort room. She rattles off the series of misfortunes that have befallen her in her life, and then she makes David the focal point of it all. “Don’t you fucking take my hand,” she snaps as David tries to comfort her. “Are you serious? You broke my heart and stomped on it.”

It’s all well and good for Claire to insist that she won’t let the world happen to her, but the problem for Jennifer is that the world has indeed happened to her, in no uncertain terms. David is aware of this, obviously, and he offers her solace by telling her on his way out, “You don’t hate that I’m gay; you hate that I lied to you.” We can tell by their conversations that Jennifer had been quite understanding about David’s sexuality in the past, making an effort not to blame him. When she finally does point the finger at him, he readily accepts it. His parting words essentially take the collapse of their engagement out of the “nobody’s fault” category and into the “David’s fault” category. That may sound like a sacrifice, but really it’s just honest. It’s a healthful, empowering assumption of responsibility as opposed to the self-destructive kind that Nate forces on himself.

Brenda and Joe’s relationship is an interesting case in the context of this episode’s major theme, as Brenda puts on the outward appearance of taking charge, but only in the playful space of the bedroom. Even there, she’s game but not entirely comfortable—as mentioned above, when Nate comes by, she doesn’t seem all that eager to get back to her and Joe’s dom-sub festivities. And in the second bedroom scene, with Brenda straddling Joe, she gets distracted musing about all the ways her parents messed her up. Brenda’s still not ready to grab the reins of her life yet, and whenever she wants to hide from big choices, she returns to the old saw of blaming her parents. Maybe she’s not wrong, but fixating on the idea that everything is somebody else’s fault is not the most productive line of thought.

Thus when it comes time to talk about a real, weighty choice—when Joe stammers out his desire to have kids with Brenda—she once again punts. As in the last episode, when she met Joe’s earnest expression of vulnerability with a gentle, patronizing laugh, Brenda declines to meet Joe’s courageous words head-on. This time, after he finishes telling her about his desire for children, which sounds like the hardest thing he’s ever said, she leans down and gives him a little kiss in lieu of a real answer. Note: She leans down. It’s no accident that Joe frequently ends up lower in the frame than Brenda. She’s in the driver’s seat of this relationship; the trouble is that she’s not taking them anywhere. 

Stray observations:

  • As usual, please try to restrain discussion of upcoming episodes to the first comment thread, so those who haven’t seen the whole series can collapse that first comment thread to remain unaware of events to come.
  • George asks Nate how he dealt with Ruth’s exhausting anxiety all his life. Nate: “I moved away when I was 17.”
  • There’s an ominous moment where George tells Ruth that he hasn’t been dishonest with her, and he protests, “I just don’t want to burden you with things that don’t matter, that’s all. It’s what I would want from you.” George intends to operate the marriage on a need-to-know basis, in other words. Ruth is so stunned she forgets what she was going to say.
  • And now it’s time for this week’s Obligatory Mention Of The Rico Storyline. In this episode, Rico spends another afternoon at Sophia’s place, goes home, and tells his wife that he loves her. That concludes this week’s Obligatory Mention Of The Rico Storyline.
  • It’s such a delight to have both Joanna Cassidy’s Margaret Chenowith and Peter Macdissi’s Olivier return in this episode. That claws-out dinner party at Margaret’s place is all too brief.
  • Nate’s niece, Michaela, gives Nate a copy of Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human Cadavers for David. It was released back in 2003, and The A.V. Club’s reviewer, Noel Murray, enjoyed it if you’re interested.
  • Claire refers to Jimmy as the “Matthew Barney of LAC-Arts.”
  • Come on, Six Feet Under sound editors, I doubt that Nate’s nephews were playing Donkey Kong on their Game Boy Advances. (Okay, it’s possible.) Why do video game sound effects always get short shrift in film and TV?
  • Might be an interesting episode coming up next week.
Filed Under: TV, Six Feet Under

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