Six Feet Under: “I’ll Take You”
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Six Feet Under: “I’ll Take You”

“I’ll Take You” (season 2, episode 12; originally aired 5/19/2002)

A hair salon is abuzz with preparations for a quinceañera. A playful, flirtatious hairdresser serves as the impresario of this pre-party windup. The girl and her family are the honored guests. In the center of the room is a woman, her hair up in curlers, an eye of calm in the storm. Leticia Perfecta Pered, 1922-2002.

The terminally ill Aaron explains his loneliness to Nate this way: “Most people just pick someone. I never looked at someone and just said, ‘Okay, I’ll take you.’” He says it with a sneer—by his lights, picking someone is equivalent to “settling” for someone. And that can certainly be the case. Aaron’s choice of words, though, is interesting. “Most people pick someone,” he says. Well, yeah. How the hell else could it work? It’s like he believes that any choice a person could make would be inherently flawed—that the only true union could come when two people join together without having to choose.

“I’ll take you” can cut different ways. The act of choosing can be an act of resignation, as Aaron views it, or it could be an act of joy, as Margaret and Bern Chenowith view it in their heartfelt renewal of vows. The choice of another human being comes in many different colors, and this episode explores them.

Rico knew Leticia Pered. His family used to live across the street from her, and her kids called her Abuelita. He used to clean out her gutters and bring her little desserts that Vanessa cooked up. He didn’t view any of this as great charity. It was just something he did. As we see, though, it was this kind of filial warmth that Abuelita was desperate to enjoy, neglected as she was by a son who called her “every other Sunday,” at least when he remembered. Rico thought he was bringing her a snack, but those visits were more like a glass of water for a woman in the desert. The fact that it all came so naturally to him explains why he’s stunned when Abuelita leaves him $149,000—and why she left it to him in the first place.

Rico enjoys being the good son as much as Abuelita enjoyed being the good mother, and her death leads him to reflect on another de facto parent who came into his life, Nathaniel Fisher Sr. We flash back to the intake meeting where Rico encounters Nathaniel Sr. for the first time, and Rico weeps over the disfigurement of his dead father’s face. Rico had to see the horror close-up, to the extent that he even warns Nathaniel (who gently reassures Rico that he’ll be able to handle it). Then we see Nathaniel’s handiwork, having restored the elder Diaz to pristine condition. Rico is in awe of the change.

As an origin story, it adds much-needed depth to Rico. The most poignant flashback might be the last one, when Rico drops by the funeral home and offers Nathaniel his services—odd jobs, part-time work, whatever Mr. Fisher would see fit. Nathaniel nods and says, “I’ll keep that in mind.” From anyone else, you’d assume it was just the polite thing to say, but throughout the series, we’ve seen that Nathaniel meant what he said more than most people do. (Or maybe the words of the dead just carry more portent after the fact.) With the benefit of hindsight, we know and Rico knows that what Nathaniel was really saying was, “I’ll take you.” That gesture changed the course of Rico’s life; it allowed him to pursue a newfound calling. Nathaniel reconstructed Rico’s vision of a father in more ways than one.

Sometimes you don’t choose a child—as Lisa and Nate have learned—and sometimes you do. Keith and David have done the latter with Keith’s niece Taylor, and now they’re seeking permission from the state to keep doing so. David is confident about their choice, but Keith is uncertain. The smallest dust-up with Taylor shakes his confidence, and he wonders anew if he’s suited to be a parent.

Outwardly, Keith blames his trepidation on the fact that they’re a gay couple, but the real source of his concern is his father—namely, Keith’s continuing worry that he’s going to turn into the old bastard. When Keith lashes out at Taylor, he hears echoes of a past generation in his voice. Still, Keith isn’t ready to confront the specter of his father head-on, so he fixates on the gay thing in advance of a visit from a social worker. Is this Esquire style guide too gay? No, don’t be ridiculous. Is this picture of a guy’s nude ass on our living-room wall too gay? “OK, that’s pretty gay,” David concedes.

When the meeting with the social worker is over, it becomes clear how much of a non-factor the homosexual-parent thing really was. The heretofore humorless fellow asks Keith and David where they got their coffee table. They say it was Restoration Hardware. His response: “God, don’t you just love that store? I swear I could live there.” Ever-astute Taylor sums it up: “That man was totally gay.”

Being gay was never Keith’s problem. Being angry is. Shortly after he’s let off the hook for his fatal on-duty shooting from a few months back, he goes ballistic on a domestic-violence call and pounds on some wife-beating asshole’s face. And Keith’s right back in hot water again. As much as Keith might earnestly want to be a good parent, this isn’t something he can solve by taking a picture off the wall.

The sad, quiet end to Ruth and Nikolai’s relationship presents another angle on “I’ll take you.” Conscious of a growing distance between them, Ruth said “I’ll take you” to Nikolai the way someone might point to a pair of shoes in a shop window and say, “I’ll take them.” She has essentially bought Nikolai, to the tune of an $87,000 debt bailout. It’s like a bachelor auction where the term of servitude is indefinite.

Nikolai has traded in the occasional terror of the gangsters for the continuous banality of Ruth. That’s a good trade, but Nikolai isn’t so sure. At least the thugs have the courtesy to break his legs and get it over with. Ruth, on the other hand, plans compulsory companionship for three—no, four days out of the week, and she’s already booking further chunks of Nikolai’s life all the way into the next year. Nikolai’s face droops (even more than usual) as he digests this loss of freedom.

He tries to be sporting about it. She did save his life, after all. So he nods and says “OK” and “whatever you decide” to Ruth’s incessant planning. But if Nikolai strikes you as the type of guy who’s able to go along with this sort of fiction for long, you haven’t been paying attention. At the movie theater, he decides that it’s time to recapture his agency. He’s going to see Blade II, and Ruth can go see “Murdering By The Numbers” if she pleases.

Ruth is dignified in her heartbreak—at least, as dignified as one can be when you march into a theater halfway through Blade II to break up with your boyfriend. She eloquently admits the reality: He’s only sticking around because he feels indebted to her, and she doesn’t want that relationship, so it’s over. “Well, OK,” Nikolai says, as he thinks, “Woo! I’m free!”

Ruth returns to her own theater, and as she cries, the camera lingers and invites us to consider the depth of her loneliness. How pathetic would it feel to be so desperate for companionship that you ended up spending $87,000? And receiving, in exchange, a few weeks’ pale simile of relationship bliss? That’s a cold way to put it—her gesture was, on the whole, a hugely benevolent gift—but in this low moment, she doesn’t feel the benevolence. She’s far more conscious of the self-interest that factored into her generosity. All that money, gone, out of a desperation to hold onto a feeling.

So when Ruth hears from Lisa that Maya has been born, the shock of Nate’s infidelity barely registers. She’s swept up in the joy of a grandchild, a new baby that, by every right and expectation, Ruth ought to hold and nurture and love unconditionally. Compare the dark gloom of the cinema—her low point—with the pastoral glow of Lisa’s home, where she holds baby Maya and everything is right again.

In an earlier scene, Ruth tells Claire that she gave up college to become a mother, and then she says she didn’t give anything up, because being a wife and mother was what she wanted to be. Claire questions the apparent contradiction (which flusters Ruth), but there’s a truth to it. Perhaps Ruth did feel like she was giving up something at the time, but in retrospect, it doesn’t seem like a sacrifice, because in the present moment all she knows how to want is motherhood—she wants it so badly. Maya gives her a chance to be a mom for a little longer. That’s all Ruth asks, just a little longer. She’s not ready to want something else yet.

Well, that about wraps it up for this episode. Oh, wait! I almost forgot. There’s this little lover’s quarrel between Brenda and Nate. More of a spat, really.

The final, terrible foreshadowing of Nate and Brenda’s end comes when Nate reads some of the novel the Brenda has been working on. It’s the first real glimpse we’ve gotten of Brenda’s prose, and it’s startling to see that she has laid down her experiences verbatim, with little embellishment. Nate reads aloud her chronicle of the guy in the yin-yang cap with the fat, crooked penis—the one who departs with an obnoxious surfer-dude “Late,” as he walks out the door. “It’s really, really weird hearing it out loud,” Brenda says. 

Nate visits terminal-cancer patient Aaron Buchbinder again in this episode. Aaron resonates with two parts of Nate at once. As we saw in the last episode, he stokes Nate’s fear that he might be unable to commit to a person, to form a lasting union. Aaron only exacerbates that worry this week. Nate is struck by Aaron’s speech about the psychological “superball” on the back of his neck that forms when he’s in a relationship: “It would just throb: ‘Leave, leave, leave.’ And as soon as I got my life back,  the ball would disappear.” By the expression on Nate’s face, we can tell that Aaron is describing a more extreme version of Nate’s own doubts.

Yet Aaron also appeals to a more self-assured and beautiful side of Nate, the side that yearns to heal people. So Nate fuses his doubts about commitment with his innate benevolence and makes a promise to Aaron: “I am hereby committing to come see you every day without fail.”

The remarriage ceremony batters the defenses of Brenda’s angry cynicism almost to her breaking point. “I don’t know why you have to be so cynical. It’s just fear,” Margaret tells her daughter, accurately. Margaret and Bern’s newfound happiness is becoming too real and thus too hard for Brenda to deny. You can see her clinging to the belief that it’s all bullshit, especially when Billy starts buying into the spirit of joy, too. While Brenda flails for new, impossibly vile words to describe the ceremony—“vomitrocious,” she volunteers—Billy describes it as “sweet.” Brenda sneers, and Billy pleads, “I don’t want to talk that way anymore. I don’t believe we have to perpetuate the negativity.”

He might be right from his own point of view, but Brenda does have to perpetuate the negativity. From her perspective, it’s bad enough that she’s always been the product of a fucked-up family. Now, if all the other Chenowiths find harmony while Brenda is still so lost, she becomes the black sheep of a fucked-up family. That’s even worse. This is why her eyes narrow and she redoubles her venom when Billy refuses to wallow in the muck with her anymore. She was supposed to be the smart one, the relatively well-adjusted one. And now he and Margaret and Bern have all decided to find happiness and become better people than her? How the hell did that happen? How dare they?

After the ceremony, we see Nate and Brenda in an elevator. “Are we even moving?” Nate asks. Brenda says, “You forgot to push the button.” Their relationship has been in an uneasy stasis for however many months—suspended in midair, like the elevator cab, with nowhere to go but down.

In their next scene together, Nate pushes the button, and the two of them descend. Or maybe “plummet” is the word. The fall begins when the surfer dude comes by for a quick chat and a quick toke. As he leaves, Nate sees the yin-yang cap and hears the guy offer a parting, “Late.” And indeed, Nate finds it really, really weird to hear that out loud.

The ensuing argument reminds me of the fight that Brenda had with Margaret earlier in the season, when they sat in the car tearing each other down with bald, vindictive statements of each other’s deepest flaws. But in those scenes, we got the sense that the two women had a history of these spiteful, spot-on attacks. It was part of their mother-daughter fabric, this routine bloodletting.

Brenda and Nate, on the other hand, have tended to deal only in glancing blows. What’s most shocking about their stunning collapse is how clearly they have seen each other all along. They have an absolute bead on each other. Nate says that maybe he slept with Lisa because he “felt safe with her.” Brenda: “Oh, you felt safe with her. Yeah, because you were leaving the next day.” She knows just where to twist the knife. “You are so in love with the idea of ‘Nate the good guy, Nate the hero,’” she says. And Nate, for his part, tells Brenda that he didn’t need to hate her, because “you did a pretty damn good job of hating yourself.”

With their disdain for each other laid bare, it’s natural that they question how they got together in the first place. Keying off the central theme of the episode, Brenda cries, “You picked me, you know!” She says that Nate knew exactly how fucked-up she was and that it made him feel good about himself to have “picked” her. It’s a fair point, but by the same token, she picked him, and Nate is damaged goods himself. Both of these people possess an urge to heal and a preternatural refusal to admit that they need to be healed. That tension has held fast for more than a year now, building up as a huge source of potential energy, and in this one scene that energy becomes kinetic all at once. “The only reason you stayed with me was because I was never really here,” Brenda says. As soon as they’re really there, in the same room, it’s over.

That’s the remarkable thing about the conflagration. At long last, they both ARE “really” there, exposing portions of their authentic selves (or having them forcibly exposed). Because of this, there’s a point where we get a glimmer of hope—too little too late, but hope nonetheless—that things could have worked out differently. Confronted with her infidelities, Brenda cries, “I don’t know why I did it! I don’t know. I fucking wish to God that I did.”

Amid all the accusations and anger, it’s the one pure admission of personal failure and weakness in the whole scene. The line is heartbreaking because it’s an expression of authentic humanity that has been missing from this couple for so long. It’s the outreach that could have saved them, but it only comes under duress. Maybe if this moment had happened before the diseases that afflict the relationship had festered to such an intractable degree, it would be something to build on—the “new beginning” that Bern mentions when he’s chatting with Nate.

Instead, it’s just an end, and somehow an old and familiar one. Brenda pleads with Nate not to throw his engagement ring back at her, because it is “such a fucking cliché.” That’s what Brenda hates the most about this cataclysmic breakup—it’s all so crushingly predictable. This is exactly what she expected to happen, and yet there was nothing she could do about it. She’s not just broken. She’s helpless.

After the breakup, Nate goes to visit Aaron, and he tries to be upbeat about it: “Told you I’d be here every day, didn’t I?” Trouble is, after having it out with Brenda, this forced bond with Aaron seems less an expression of Nate’s most noble qualities and more an example of his worst. Of course Nate can commit to Aaron, of all people—he’ll be dead any day now. In terms of personal dedication, it’s the easiest commitment one could make. Nate doesn’t feel like “Nate the good guy” or “Nate the hero” here. He’s just Nate, the guy who can’t say “I’ll take you” unless there’s an imminent “goodbye” in the offing.

Stray observations:

  • As always, the first comment thread is for discussion of future episodes. If you want to stay unaware of upcoming developments, collapse that thread.
  • Vanessa on the $149,000 inheritance: “That’s like $150,000!”
  • When Billy looks over Claire’s self-portraits, he has a new spin on the “someone else’s eyes” speech from earlier in the season: “You will never be able to see yourself the way other people see you. … I really think you have no idea how beautiful you are.” It’s interesting to watch these two explore the power of the gaze, both in literal and abstract terms.
  • Nate visits Aaron while Ruth visits his newborn daughter: He’s fraternizing with death when he probably ought to be celebrating birth.
  • Fired guidance counselor Gary on successful artists: “Nope. I don’t know those kinds of people.”
  • Note that Brenda left the computer out in the open for Nate to discover, and she doesn’t seem to mind terribly when he peruses her work. Of course it behooves her to play it cool as he reads her “fiction,” but it also seems that part of her wants to be discovered so all the corrosive tension can come to a head.
  • Controversial opinion: Rachel Griffiths and Peter Krause are good at acting.

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