Six Feet Under: “Falling Into Place”
-
Jonathan Tucker
Jonathan Tucker

Six Feet Under: “Falling Into Place”

Emphasis on “falling”

“Falling Into Place” (season four, episode one; originally aired 6/13/2004)

“The motherfucking moments, man, they just keep on coming.” That’s what moments do, and under normal circumstances, we take little notice. But Bruno Walsh and his lady friend have dropped acid, so they’re not operating in the realm of normality. In their state, every instant bursts with sensory input, and they marvel that each second follows inexorably from the last. It’s an experience that alternately fills Bruno with euphoria and makes him want to tear his face off.

Bruno senses a way to escape this march of moments: He just has to go higher. He drags his increasingly nervous companion to the roof. “We shouldn’t be up here,” she protests. “No,” he says, “we should always be up here. That’s the tragedy of life.” He intends to elevate himself and transcend our second-to-second reality. So he leaps off the roof, going as high as he can. For an instant, Bruno’s friend sees him hovering there, and it appears that he’s successfully detached cause from effect. Then we hear a crunching thud in the near distance. The moments will not be refused. Bruno Baskerville Walsh, 1951-1972.

Bruno’s death lends a macabre reading to the “falling” in this episode’s title. That’s an effective way to set the tone for Six Feet Under’s fourth season premiere, which finds many of the Fisher clan nudging their lives toward familiar and/or predictable patterns. They seek the kind of pleasant contentedness that typically comes to mind when you hear the phrase “falling into place.” But with that opening scene, the episode introduces a touch of doubt. Are the members of the extended Fisher family falling into place or just falling?

In contrast to last season’s premiere, which leapt forward a year, this episode continues where “I’m Sorry, I’m Lost” left off. Nate is at Brenda’s place, and she’s patching him up at least enough to get him through the night. She puts him to bed, and they have sex, as they’re both swept up in the momentary intoxication of deep familiarity. The way Nate slumps into bed after he’s finished, his orgasmic grunt might as well be a death rattle.

In the morning, Brenda starts to give him the obligatory “what happened last night didn’t mean anything” speech, but Nate waves her off: “You don’t have to say it.” They both know that their sex was an act of necessity, not love. It was basic, functional. Nate was a picture of desperation, and she was the last person on earth who could do anything, however inadequate and temporary, to salve his pain. Nate used Brenda, but he doesn’t have the energy to care, and she’s not about to press the issue.

The central conflict of the episode emerges as the arrangements for Lisa’s funeral take shape. Nate’s insistence on a natural, chemical-free burial—in accordance with his late wife’s wishes as he understood them—comes up against his in-laws’ desire to have Lisa cremated and placed in the family mausoleum. As Lisa’s family members make their arguments, Nate senses their belief that his love for Lisa is a second-class affection, inferior to theirs. (Lisa’s mother, Peg, basically comes right out and says it.) And even if that belief weren’t there, he’d still hear it. We never listen so intently as we do when other people echo our misgivings about ourselves.

It’s easy to sympathize with Nate’s side here, not only because of the flashback in which Lisa disdains the embalming process, but also because the idea of returning her body to the earth jibes with everything else we know about Lisa’s worldview. It’s what we’d expect, so we’re predisposed to believe it. On the other hand, who knows? The flashback depicts a relatively casual conversation; maybe it was a momentary impulse that wouldn’t have endured if she gave the issue deeper thought.

The show purposely denies us certainty, as this conflict isn’t about Lisa’s wishes at its heart, anyway. Nate needs to be right about this argument because it would indicate that, whatever their problems, he was closer to Lisa than anyone else. So he proclaims with ever-rising force that he knows what Lisa would prefer—it’s the type of thing a good husband ought to know. It’s his last chance to prove that he was the companion Lisa should have been with.

But Lisa’s mother, Peg Kimmel, also has a point to prove. “I think I have a little better idea than you of what she really wanted,” she tells Nate, “if she hadn’t been so busy throwing everything in my face with her strange beliefs.” Yes, what a nuisance it is when your daughter’s desires keep you from giving her what she wants. It’s a funny and telling line. There’s a stubborn righteousness to Peg’s bluster, but underneath, she’s also regretful and afraid just like Nate. She and Lisa have clearly butted heads for years. Is Peg really going to choose this moment to lower her guard and accept Lisa’s worldview? That would only deepen Peg’s pain, as it would be a tacit admission that she could have and should have reconciled with Lisa earlier, when it would have mattered.

Nate and Peg aren’t so different. Like Nate, the one option she sees is retrenchment—to assign even greater meaning to the conflicts of the past. Peg decides those differences were important because that’s the only way to rationalize holding a grudge against her daughter until the very end.

David Fisher, on the other hand, is terrible at holding a grudge against the people he loves. He and Keith reconnect again in this episode, as they have so many times before. They sense the repetition. The two men are torn between their love for each other and the nagging suspicion that they’re falling into an old pattern (even if they’re not quite sure what that pattern is). “Things would really have to be different, Keith,” David says. Keith agrees. David: “I mean it!” A bit later, Keith says that he needs to find a new job. David agrees. Keith: “I mean it this time!”

Boys, boys, calm yourselves! So much insistence! Past failures loom large, and their nervousness is understandable. At the same time, it’s troubling that both Keith and David are naturally inclined to assume that the other man isn’t taking them seriously. (Keith’s “I mean it!” also sounds like it’s intended to convince himself as much as David.) In the midst of a conversation about avoiding old habits, they’re falling into their old habits.

Earlier, Claire had spoken with David about the difficulty of “breaking your eye open” to see familiar images from a new perspective—free from well-worn preconceptions.  David cites this idea to express his hope that with a fresh viewpoint, he can return to the boyfriend who makes him comfortable without repeating the strife that made him miserable. Keith and David’s conversation is a case study of Claire’s assertion that this reformation of perspective is “the hardest fucking thing in the world.” But they’re working on it.

Claire has some success breaking her eye open, even if she stumbles into it. When she tells her ex, Russell, that she got an abortion shortly after they broke up, he’s angry that he wasn’t there with her. The two of them quickly fall into place, assuming the combative stance that characterized the heated final days of their relationship. Russell concedes that she wasn’t going to have the baby in any case, but “I could have comforted you,” he offers. “With what?” Claire answers. “Flowers, balloons? Believe me, you’d already done enough.”

At this point, the arc of the scene is still curving into something more tender than another Russell-Claire shouting match. When the scene begins, our sympathies naturally lie with Claire, but as it proceeds, Russell grows more sympathetic (to us and to her). He’s not so much angry at her for declining to bear his child as he is upset by the notion that he came close to being a father and screwed it up. Now that’s a permanent chapter of his story: “Just give me a second to get used to living with this for the rest of my life,” he says.

Their exchange pivots on one question that Russell fires at Claire: “Did you cry? Did you?” It sounds accusatory—as if he’s accusing Claire of heartlessly making this choice—and she responds accordingly, telling him spitefully that she “cried more than you’ve cried in your entire life.” As it turns out, this is what he wanted her to say. He points out that, since she knows how sad it is, maybe she can give him a moment to be upset about it, too. Claire claimed earlier that she reached out to Russell because she was lonely. Russell’s response essentially says, okay, I’m here now, experiencing this with you—this is what not being lonely anymore looks like. Claire is struck by this. It makes her see Russell from a new angle. She breaks her eye open, with an assist from a fellow artist.

Ruth isn’t trying to break anything. She’s in full-on return-to-normalcy mode. After a torrid and vocal lovemaking session—“I never knew the word ‘George’ could sound so obscene,” David says the next morning—she bathes in the glow of matrimony. “I’m married again!” And although she certainly savors the sex (as the Fishers’ neighbors can attest), she looks just as happy in a later scene when she watches George sleep. Ruth was lonely, too, and for her, this newfound companionship is summed up by the sight of George just being there. It’s a big bed that easily accommodates two people—a husband practically belongs there. And now he’s in his proper spot.

But George could be falling into place all too easily. This is, after all, a fellow who has been married [consulting notes…cross-referencing appendices…adjusting slide rule] six times before. It’s worth keeping that in mind when Ruth asks about George’s apparently estranged children, and he puts her off with a series of pat proclamations. “If people don’t like the way I’ve done things, that’s their business,” he says, and he’s “looking forward, not back” in any case. “Looking forward, not back”? Are you running for office, George? Those responses sound awfully well-practiced. He has said all of these things before, maybe to his last wife, or the one before her. Given how those marriages turned out, maybe Ruth should be more wary of George settling into familiar routines.

Ruth may be drunk on matrimony, but Rico might be more eager than anyone in this episode for a return to nuclear-family mundanity. When Vanessa finally realizes that Angelica has transitioned from “staying a while” to “mooching indefinitely,” she encourages her sister to find a place of her own. Rico is delighted. He just has one bit of business to take care of before he can feel that life is back on track, so he heads to a church—not his own—for one of the quickest confessions of marital infidelity in Catholic history. If there were a drive-through option, Rico would have taken it.

And just like that, it’s all settled! By Rico’s logic, he visited a strip club because he was fed up with his sister-in-law meddling in his marriage, and now that Angelica is going to leave, he can return to marital bliss with a cleansed soul. (Or at least a soul that has been wiped down with a moist towelette.) Remove the cause of the disease, and the symptoms disappear. Easy, right? Except Rico finds himself driving by that same strip club on the way home, looking for the woman who gave him that illicit moment of ecstasy. He still desires her despite himself. Perhaps Angelica wasn’t the whole problem after all, and it won’t be that easy for Rico to shake the aftereffects of that night in the parking lot.

Nate solves his standoff with Peg Kimmel by getting creative. He pulls a jar of unclaimed cremation ashes from Fisher & Sons storage and presents them to Peg as Lisa’s cremains. It’s crass and heartless, but that’s how much Nate needs to win this one.

The ashes belong to Bruno Walsh, which is fitting. We don’t know much about Bruno, but in the glimpses we saw of him, he always wanted to get higher, in every sense of the word. Lisa, too, always sought higher ground. In every choice she made—how to raise her child, what to eat, when to flush the toilet and when to “let it mellow”—she strove to picture the world from an elevated and enlightened point of view. She saw herself as someone who could hover above existence, look down to see all the ways we were connected and all the earthly harmonies that are obfuscated by the noise of daily life.

In practice, though, Lisa was still human, so she had to slog through the muck of survival like the rest of us. She couldn’t truly ascend to a higher plane in this lifetime; she could only aspire to do so. As Bruno put it, “That’s the tragedy of life.” Bruno fell off a building, and Lisa drowned, but they both were killed by the same thing: gravity. Falling into place, indeed.

Nate fulfills Lisa’s wishes by burying her directly in the earth. As the sun rises over the grave, Nate smoothes over his work with a shovel. Then he uses his feet. Then he drops to the ground and uses his hands, reducing himself further. Because that’s what this is really about: reducing himself.

In the flashback, Nate and Lisa’s conversation about her burial begins when she smells chemicals on Nate. First she smells cavity fluid on him—the artificial substance that fills voids within people—and then she smells a sweet moisturizer that’s meant to mask the aroma of the other chemicals. It’s a metaphor for their life together. Nate is tormented by the existential void in his being—a search for his life’s deeper meaning—and he tried with only fitful success to fill that void with love for his wife and child.

It never took hold because it’s artificial, just like the cavity fluid. Nate put up a good front. He cultivated the outward appearance of a dutiful husband and father even when he didn’t feel it inside, just like the moisturizer attempts to create an aromatic veneer of sweetness. Lisa, whose nose has always told the truth, could smell it all. She perceived the emptiness, and she perceived the mask that Nate placed over that void.

“When I die, I don’t want that stuff in me,” Lisa says in the flashback—“that stuff” being everything she smells on her husband. Her final wish is, essentially, to reject Nate. So that’s what he tries to give her. It’s not such a sacrifice: He wants it too. In his mind, he ruined her life. By impregnating her. By marrying her. By living with her and pretending to care about her more than he did. If only she had spurned him in the first place, she would have been so much better off, he imagines. This is the root of Nate’s mania in the latter half of “Falling Into Place.” By carrying our her wishes, he’ll help her reject him at long last—absolving his original sin is the only thing that can close this circle.

Except there is no absolution. Nate falls to the ground and sobs because once he’s completed the act, he realizes that his quasi-heroic act changes all to little. No matter how much he wishes Lisa had rejected his empty, deceptive self sooner, you can’t just go back and rewrite the script. Time doesn’t work that way. The motherfucking moments, they just keep coming.

Stray observations:

  • In the interest of fairness to people who are still working their way through the series, let’s continue longstanding tradition by restricting talk of future episodes to the first comment thread. That way, if you want to remain unaware of what’s coming up, just collapse that first thread and chat with your fellow readers without fear of learning something you didn’t want to know yet.
  • Brenda and Joe both don’t like mushrooms. “They’re too much like parts of people,” she says. “Just tastes dirty to me,” he says.
  • The awkward conversation between Ruth, George, and Lisa’s parents is a nice mix of humor and poignance. It’s funny to hear Ed Kimmel prattle on about the greatness of Mapquest, but it also encapsulates the strangeness of funeral conversations: Even in the wake of a terrible tragedy, our social compulsions are so strong that we feel the need to make insipid small talk, saying anything to pass the time.
  • Immediately after Keith and David pledge themselves anew to each other, Keith turns on the TV, and it says, “Very, very cool. Isn’t this great-looking?” Yes, Keith and David do indeed look great. Right now.
  • Related: When David steps back into Keith’s home, he’s disoriented by the familiarity of it. You can see him wondering whether this is progress or regression.
  • Claire tries to break her eye open by studying photographs by Nan Goldin.
  • George Sibley drinking game: Take a drink every time George tries to mediate a tense situation and one of the Fishers semi-politely invites him to fuck off.
  • I love that when Nate and David are driving to get Lisa’s body, Nate—even in his severely depressed state—still does the big-brother thing of teasing David about his boyfriend. “So, Keith! … You guys back together?” David says he was just being polite by letting Keith say over. Nate: “Polite and horny.” Major life events come and go; big brothers are forever.
  • Program note: These reviews always start up again right before the E3 video game trade show, which unfortunately means I have to take an immediate break from my TV Club Classic duties. Most likely, I won’t be posting a review next Wednesday, so I’ll see you again on June 18, Six Feet Under fans.

More TV Club Classic