“Driving Mr. Mossback” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 3/24/2002)
A bus tour makes its way to Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Narrating the sights is “Once Again, My Name’s Karen!” the tour guide, one of those unsustainably cheery people that Six Feet Under loves to feature. Sure enough, after Karen has finished her spiel about the origins of the market—chock full of feel-good-grassroots goodness—she turns to the bus driver and mutters, “I don’t know about you, but I sure could use a cigarette.”
In a seat halfway down the bus, a man goes limp. Karen tries to rouse him. She sighs. “We’ve got another dead one back here, Larry.” Harold Mossback, 1932-2001.
In terms of meaning, Harold’s death might be the most inconsequential show-opening demise to date. Everything we learn about him mainly serves to drive Nate’s plot—i.e., to get Nate and Claire to Seattle—but Harold provides little, other than some light metaphor. The theme-setter in this opening scene is not mute Mr. Mossback but rather Karen, who embodies that central Six Feet Under maxim: Nobody is as healthy as they seem. Karen presents herself as the embodiment of wholesome organic nourishment in one beat and then aches for a cancer stick in the next. If only it were as easy to overcome your weaknesses as it is to pretend that you don’t have any.
Nate has built his entire self-image on his lack of weakness and, to some degree, on a lack of strength. Nate is convinced that he just is, with the subconscious implication that if he can just be, then maybe he’ll never cease to be. So when Mr. Mossback’s body needs to be transported down from Seattle, of course Nate is willing to fly up there and drive him down. But he’d have to leave tomorrow, David says. Even better! Nate thrives on these go-with-the-flow moments. They’re a chance to demonstrate how untethered he is from humdrum mortal concerns.
Yet in this episode, we find him asking, however briefly, is this any way to live? Impulsively, like he’s grabbing a Snickers bar at the checkout counter, Nate asks Claire to come with him on his Seattle trip. That night at Brenda’s place, he seems surprised with himself. First he asks Brenda, repeatedly, if she’s mad that he didn’t ask her to take the trip. Then he asks if it’s weird that he didn’t ask her. She’s not mad, but he’s upset. He’s not upset with her, or even with himself, exactly. Rather, he’s perturbed that it didn’t even occur to him in the moment to have Brenda come along.
From our perspective, the non-invite seems to be partly a factor of Brenda’s increasing aloofness toward her supposed boyfriend. As he voices his self-doubt in the bathroom, Brenda grumbles, “Nate, I’m trying to read, and you know I hate it when you floss in front of me,” as she strikes a rather unattractive pose of hunched micturition in front of Nate, who doesn’t complain. (In fact, he apologizes.)
But Nate is also wondering if there’s something wrong with him. In this and last week’s episodes, we get plenty of reminders that Nate has never even held onto a relationship for the paltry two-thirds of a year that he’s stuck with Brenda. And now we see Nate entertaining the worry that perhaps there’s something inherently wrong with him—that perhaps his ongoing pursuit of the untethered life has left him unable to form a lasting connection with someone. There’s some truth to his concerns. Then again, there’s also the reality that Brenda can sense Nate’s nervousness, and she exploits it when it fits her aims. Just one more way in which these two were made for each other.
In this episode, we meet Nate’s ex-roommate-with-benefits Lisa, who’s what Karen would be if she never allowed herself to have a cigarette. Lisa not only lives her life by a code of assiduous selflessness, she claims that this brings her only bliss. As Claire discovers, Lisa has a sign in her bathroom inscribed with that old chestnut, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” And there you have it. When Brenda takes a piss, she somehow finds a way to do it selfishly. When Lisa takes a piss, she’s thinking of the world.
Lisa’s no different from the rest, though—she’s not as healthy as she seems to be, either. Lisa talks in huge terms, so big that it leaves nobody any point of purchase to question her. She regularly leaves Nate speechless, because what can you say to platitudes like, “It’s all good” (re: Nate and Brenda) and “My life is really full here” (re: a job offer in L.A. that would bring Lisa closer to Nate).
Yet Lisa and Nate’s relationship is less about fullness than a denial of emptiness, and this emerges in their conversations with Claire. As Nate tells Claire about the “friends with benefits” arrangement he had with Lisa, he insists that he was “always honest” with Lisa, which is both a denial and an implicit admission that the hollowness of their sex might have caused her some pain.
Later, Lisa tells Claire, “I’m not still in love with your brother, if that’s what you’re thinking.” She adds: “I used to think one day, he’d realize I was the one for him. He never has. You think he ever will?” So, yeah, not the most convincing “totally not in love with him” speech that Claire has ever heard. And still Lisa continues to smile that unsustainable earth-mother smile.
Lisa and Claire have this conversation in the midst of Lisa’s attempts to reason with ants, an infestation of which have formed a spindly black void on her kitchen floor. Lisa refuses to kill the ants or otherwise harm them. Instead, she’s decided to “reason with them.” She believes she can reason with the darkness of the hurt Nate has caused her, too. She’s an emotionally stable adult, she tells herself, with strong moral principles, so nothing can bring her down. Maybe she learned this approach from Nate, who believes that he can blissfully ignore a brain malformation out of existence. In that respect, Lisa might be the one for Nate. Except in this episode, Nate at least concedes that he needs to take some medicine for his AVM. Will Lisa take her medicine, or will her pain metastasize into something larger?
Brenda spends much of this episode in a parked car with Margaret Chenowith, as Margaret stakes out her husband’s car to catch the new mistress he’s been seeing on the side. While they wait, Brenda and Margaret engage in an extended and enjoyable lack-of-self-awareness contest.
Brenda truly is her mother’s daughter, which we see as the two of them have a number of exchanges in which the lines of dialogue could be reversed and sound just as plausible. Brenda: “This client of mine is a prostitute.” Margaret: “So? Is that supposed to shock me?” And then Brenda accuses her of being a narcissist. Later, after Margaret catches the other woman in the spa parking lot and throws a grabby tantrum, she turns the tables on Brenda. Brenda: “Why am I here? Why was it necessary for me to be here with you for this? Because you needed a fucking audience.” Margaret: “Not everything’s about you, Brenda.” This is what happens when you get two oblivious narcissists in the same car.
And it’s pretty great. The writing throughout these exchanges is dense with subtext because with almost every line, Brenda and Margaret are talking about both women at once. Both of them are determined to prove that they’re more realistic and emotionally healthy than the other, when the truth is that they’re both wrecks. The showdown culminates in Margaret’s complete and devastating summation of Brenda’s psyche: “You’ve spent 32 years being your little brother’s nursemaid to avoid having ay emotional life of your own. And now that he’s been put away, you’re going to have to face your own demons, and sweetheart? They’re legion.”
Holy moly. Brenda slaps her mother, hard. Of course she does. Brenda hates being understood, hates being summed up by a psychoanalyst’s pat analysis. Margaret just did it in three sentences. When your self-identity is founded on the notion that you have an immeasurably complex identity, a moment like that is an emotional cataclysm.
Later, Brenda talks on the phone with Nate in monosyllables. She’s wounded, but she doesn’t want to suffer the further indignity of relying on Nate for emotional support. Nate’s scared—he had a seizure earlier that day—but he doesn’t want to burden Brenda with his pain. So they mumble at each other in mutual misery. Sorry, Lisa, Brenda’s clearly the girl for Nate.
Ruth is another character who spends this episode declaring her healthy, balanced perspective to anyone who will listen. Her speech is full of references to to her “house” and “blueprints” and being an “architect”—the lexicon of enlightenment she picked up at that self-help seminar. Like most jargon, it also grants the speaker the added benefit of feeling superior to others who can’t speak the lingo. This pleasure only takes Ruth so far, though, and when people such as ex-lover Hiram and estranged sister Sarah aren’t eager to wipe away years of shared history just because Ruth has repaired her “foundation,” Ruth gets frustrated and her calm exterior frays.
When it comes to pretending that she’s healthier than she is, Ruth just isn’t as talented or well-practiced as Brenda, or Lisa, or Nate. Ruth is used to being the martyr and the put-upon, disapproving mother. And over the course of the episode, she slips back toward that role, and the architecture language morphs to serve those purposes.
Ruth’s storyline is on a collision course with David’s in this episode. Amid his loneliness, David is experiencing a glimmer of happiness. When Keith’s boyfriend can’t be bothered to pick up Keith’s niece, Taylor, from school, Keith asks David to help out. It’s a big favor, and you get the sense that Keith is using David a little bit, because of course David is more than happy to worm his way this much further back into Keith’s life. Keith knows this, and he’s conflicted. He might have his problems, but being a user isn’t one of them, and he’s aware that he’s taking advantage of David.
David seems to genuinely enjoy his time with Taylor. He’s even better with her than Keith is. Keith is all tied up in justified anger at his niece’s situation—anger at his sister, Taylor’s deadbeat mom. That anger just sends him further into his default authoritarian mode. Taylor knows exactly how to push those buttons. She uses profanity around Keith, and she argues with him. His response is to escalate. “I know a lot worse words than ‘shit,’” she says to him. “So do I,” he says pointedly, eager to win their face-off.
David’s approach with Taylor is less sparring and more jiujitsu. Taylor lives for the combat, but David doesn’t let any of her verbal attacks land. When he brings her back to the house, they get in a fight over coloring books, and before long, David asks her if she wants to watch TV. Taylor’s face falls. She recognizes this for what it is: David is giving up the fight. Because she can’t get a rise out of him, though, they’re able to have a more meaningful conversation on the basement steps, as Taylor shares her fears about death. Pretty deep stuff to get into with a guy she’s only met twice. And David responds beautifully, talking to her like an adult, but still gently—not too much like an adult.
Taylor notices, complaining at the dinner table with Ruth and David that Keith’s boyfriend Eddie talks to her like she’s stupid, in implicit contrast to David. “Some people don’t know how to talk to children,” Ruth says, which is funny coming from her because she talks to everybody like they’re children. But she means it as a subtle barb at David, who was talking to Taylor earlier about being gay. “What words do you use” to talk about “fudge-packers,” Taylor asks Ruth and David. In a telling moment, Ruth can’t come up with any words; David simply responds “homosexual” matter-of-factly.
After this, in Ruth and David’s final scene together, the transformation of the architecture language is complete. Ruth struggles to express her disapproval for David’s homosexuality in a way that keeps with her newfound supposed enlightenment. Maybe if she pours enough “house” references in there, she’ll still be enlightened! “You have to be careful with children, David,” she says, “because their blueprints are still being drafted by the adults in their lives. And this little girl—it seems her foundation might be unstable enough without you bringing….” She searches for the words. Finally she says that perhaps his relationship with Taylor’s uncle might be “confusing” for her.
You don’t press David like this. He’s an undertaker; he knows where the emotional bodies are buried, so to speak. And when he’s pushed like he is here, that David Fisher snarl appears, and he unearths the pain, exposing it to the open air. He says: “Mom, I’m happy for you if this Plan thing has helped you draft your own blueprint, patch up some of the cracks in the foundation, but just between you and me, you’re starting to sound like a crazy person. I think it’s time you kept that shit to yourself and minded your own fucking business.” In other words: You’re a fraud, and everybody knows it. Ruth looks completely drained, so much so that even though David was right to be angry, it’s hard not to have sympathy for her. Man, there are some killer monologues in this episode.
Claire, once again, provides contrast to the episode’s theme. She’s the only character who, rather than denying her mortal weaknesses, actively indulges in them. In her first scene, she hesitates at her counselor’s offer to let off a little steam and throw something against the wall. After a minute, though, she suddenly knocks over his mug, the one with the big, happy “Gary!” printed on the side. Coffee spills everywhere. “I do feel better, thank you.”
Throughout this episode, Claire is more than willing to admit and give into her selfish urges. She tosses the mug. She ditches school. She flushes Lisa’s disgusting meatloaf down the toilet instead of eating it for the good of the earth. She openly yearns for a hamburger the same way tour guide Karen pines for a cigarette.
Claire is also the character who sees things most clearly, which isn’t a coincidence. She can tell that Nate brought her along on the Seattle trip in part out of his sense of nobility, because he thought she “needed a distraction.” Lisa’s still-strong feelings for Nate aren’t lost on her, either. Throughout the episode, whenever Lisa or Nate lies to her, she can see right through it, even if, with Lisa, she’s polite enough to pretend otherwise. Perhaps her greatest insight comes at the conclusion of the episode when she says to Nate, “It’s comforting to know that you’re just as fucked up as the rest of us.” (Naturally, Nate denies it, and half-believes himself.)
It’s not that Claire can see everything. She’s still young, and there are still a lot of secrets that the rest of the family hasn’t shared with her (although that’s becoming less and less true). But what Claire can see, she sees clearly. That’s her primary role in Six Feet Under’s story—her name is Claire, after all—and in this season, we see her growing into that role more and more with each passing episode. As she says in so many words, Claire is no more or less human than the rest of them. It’s just that she’s more willing to admit it, and with that honesty comes a special vision.
- Reminder: The first comment thread is for discussion of future episodes. Reply to that thread if you’d like to talk about the ghosts of Six Feet Under yet to come.
- There are so many scenes in this episode that take place in or around cars. It made me realize that a lot of Six Feet Under takes place in one car or another, including some of the series' most memorable moments—its very first scene, for instance. The show is suffused with L.A. car culture.
- Get a load of the disgusted look on Brenda’s face after her mother freaks out in the parking lot. She’s repulsed by this show of human emotion, because really, how GAUCHE.
- Lisa straddles the line between funny-annoying and annoying-annoying.