“I’m Sorry, I’m Lost” (season three, episode 13; originally aired 5/25/2003)
A man and his young daughter say goodbye to a pigeon they nursed back to health. “When we do something kind,” the father says, “even for a little lost bird, we give a gift that resonates throughout humanity.” Then he sets the bird free. Then the bird craps on an actor practicing his lines (or, to be more accurate, line) on the street. Then the actor goes into a gas station bathroom to clean up. Then the owner of the gas station has to deal with an overflowing toilet. Then he calls his wife. Then she goes outside to get better reception. Then she’s crushed by a block of blue airplane-toilet ice. (And you thought the gas-station toilet would be the killer!) This is probably not the kind of “resonating” that the father had in mind. Anahid Hovanessian, 1951-2003.
“Is that all life is?” David asks his late father. “We just go through it replacing people?” Nathaniel Sr. says that he’s pretty much right, and the only difference is that “some people just do it faster and more often than others.” But “I’m Sorry, I’m Lost” takes a more nuanced view than that. The third season finale examines our tendency to replace what we’ve lost, and it suggests that we do so in myriad ways. The pigeon parable that sets up the episode shows us that the energy of a living thing—a dove, let alone a human—is unpredictable and messy. It’s hard to pin it down when you’re close to it. But when you lose someone’s energy (either through death or separation) and seek to replace it, your choice of replacement can speak volumes, both about yourself and about the person you’re trying to replace.
Sometimes we fill a void with a person who’s markedly different from what came before—in an effort to apply what we’ve learned. That’s what David does in the midst of his break with Keith. He sleeps with Patrick in part because Patrick is everything Keith isn’t: slight, expressive, quiet. It’s the classic rebound case. David had made up his mind that his decision to be with Keith was all wrong, so he sought out the opposite—because by definition, that should be right (or at least closer to it).
If only interpersonal relations were so tidy and logical as all that. Since we haven’t seen any more of Patrick after they had sex, it seems David recognizes that Patrick isn’t going to fulfill him. You can feel David re-situating himself in the Fisher household—out of necessity, sure, but also because David craves the feeling of home. We’ve seen this all season, and we’ve seen him grow upset when Keith’s chilliness or all those three-way guests upset his sense of a familial place.
Yet his childhood home proves to be a wanting replacement, too. “Hey, don’t forget to bring back your coffee cup,” he tells Claire as she walks out of the kitchen, leaving him alone. “We’re running out of coffee cups in this kitchen. People keep leaving with them.” It’s a symbol of the disconnect within the Fisher clan at this moment. The kitchen has always been the gathering place for the Fishers. They grab a bite from Ruth’s endlessly restocked refrigerator, or they check in for breakfast before going about their days. Something has changed, though, and David feels it more acutely than the rest of his family. Now, people are just stopping into the kitchen before retreating to their own rooms—their own compartments—to stew in their own anxieties. (Even Arthur does this, taking a piece of wedding cake to avoid the sorrow of watching Ruth with her new husband.)
The inadequacy of the replacements leads David to reconsider Keith. In recent weeks, David has wondered why he ended up with Keith. Their reunion at the church provides a slew of answers to that question. It also lays out some of the simple reasons that David grew frustrated. “Don’t you know I think you’re beautiful?” Keith asks. “And kind and smart and loving? You didn’t know that?” David answers, “No.” David probably could have listened better in the past. And Keith certainly could have expressed himself better—but for him, just not using his fists marks generational progress. In any case, this was the conversation they needed.
The chat ranges into religion and morality, a topic that shows clearly why these two ended up together: Their values are the same. Until now, the show has expressed these shared values implicitly (although it’s not hard to discern), and maybe that common ground has only been implicit between David and Keith, as well. This conversation makes it explicit, and it certainly seems to affect both men—you can watch their faces and body language brighten as they reconnect on fundamental matters of what constitutes a “good” person.
The language in these church scenes is straightforward and simple. Neither man is tiptoeing, and that’s why they can take such great strides toward each other. “I love you with all my heart,” Keith says. “And I’ll do anything I have to do to work through this, because I don’t want to lose you.” On another show, that line might seem trite. In this context, it comes as a hard-earned moment. Finally, these guys are talking to each other, not in anger or defense, and not in self-aware therapy-speak. As a result, they rediscover the sort of bond that is hard to replace.
If you buy David’s theory, Ruth is marrying George to fill the absence left by Nathaniel Sr.’s death. There is some similarity between the two men, mostly in the easygoing dignity with which they carry themselves, and the confidence they have in their moral codes. But even though our picture of both men is incomplete—especially in the case of George—there are some glaring differences. George’s default expression is a warm, gentle smile; Nathaniel’s is a smirk. Nathaniel is a sometimes compassionate, sometimes cynical expert in the immediate vicissitudes of life (particularly death, the greatest vicissitude of them all). George’s view is longer—the scholar of plate tectonics tends toward the big picture. He speaks of his half-dozen marriages as if they mere blips in the course of human events. Yes, George has compassion just like Nathaniel does, but George’s brand is more contemplative and less visceral.
It’s this contemplative compassion that initially drew Ruth to George, during their first meeting when she was in such despair. Aware of her advancing age, she, too, is inclined to the long view. She wants a stable presence with whom she can live out her days. In her vows, however, Ruth doesn’t start off by talking about permanence and eternity. Instead, she begins by saying, “George, I have fun with you.” And indeed she does, doing trivia in bed and spending lazy afternoons by George’s pool. Arthur was fun, too, but he lacked maturity. George offers both. From what little we know about Nathaniel Sr., he used to give Ruth a similar mix of playfulness and steadiness, until the fun wore off over the decades. This marriage offers Ruth a chance to go back and relive that initial glow (except marrying out of choice this time rather than out of necessity). David’s theory might not be so crazy after all.
The replacement instinct is harder to manage when you don’t even know where your feeling of loss comes from, and that is Claire’s plight as the third season draws to a close. When David invites her to share her problems with him at the kitchen table, there’s a stretch of silence before Claire responds. It’s obvious that she has something to say, and Six Feet Under allows this pause not only because Claire has to find the right words, but also to let us wonder about how she’s going to answer. Is she going to talk about Russell or Olivier? About the abortion? About their father?
Claire’s response is unexpected, yet it makes perfect sense after you hear it. “A year ago, I was like, maybe if I get into art school, then my life can start to be about something. … Now I just despise the thing that was, like, my only hope.” She’s mourning a lost sense of purpose, and she’s exhausted by an unending search for meaning. (It runs in the family.) This exhaustion provides a lens through which all of Claire’s other sorrows can be viewed.
After she talks to David, Claire is inspired to visit Nathaniel Sr.’s grave. Earlier in the season, she told Ruth how sad it made her that she never really knew her father as an adult, and you can imagine how that informs her thinking here: Maybe if she somehow gets in touch with her late father—gets to know him—he’ll provide the piece that she’s missing.
At the cemetery, amid the block party of the deceased, Claire spots Gabe Dimas—perhaps the first person that gave her a sense of purpose. He was broken, and she was going to save him. She failed, because here he is. (“He’s dead?” Claire asks. “Don’t ask me,” Nathaniel Sr. says. “This is your thing.”) Claire wishes she could have helped him more, and Gabe tells her that “there was nothing you could do.” She knew that already. We saw it in the way she dealt with Russell—where she had little tolerance for his self-destructive brokenness. As she mourns Gabe, Claire also mourns that idea she had, for a brief but enchanting stretch, that she could be the savior of the misunderstood. That fantasy provided some purpose while it lasted.
Then she encounters Lisa, still dutifully cheery in the afterlife: “Please tell me you’re just visiting” the realm of the dead, Lisa says. Claire glimpses the baby who grew from her aborted fetus, and for a moment, she wonders if motherhood would have provided the meaning that she desires. But Claire doesn’t desire that all-consuming life change (not yet, anyway). More to the point, she doesn’t want her life’s purpose to arrive by accident. She wants to go out and find it. Still, she comes up with a compromise by way of her vision of Lisa. “I’ll take good care of him,” Lisa says, “and you take care of Maya for me, okay?” This is a taste of parenthood that Claire finds appealing. The last shot of the episode sees her dancing with Maya.
At his burial plot, Claire asks if Nathaniel Sr. is “pissed off” over the wedding. “No, that’s you,” he says. The dead make such convenient figures on which to project our own anxieties. That’s what Claire is doing, and when she realizes it, her vision of her father disappears. She’s left to stare at his gravestone. “FATHER, HUSBAND, CARE GIVER,” it reads. Not much to go on. This is a far cry from the profound insight into her origins that Claire was hoping for.
Claire gives her blessing to Ruth’s new marriage, but at the ceremony, she bursts into tears. People do cry at weddings, but these are heaving, uncontrollable sobs. They come right after Ruth tells George, “I want to be yours!” and this is important. Earlier, at the cemetery, Claire tells Nathaniel Sr. that she feels like he’s being erased by her mother’s new marriage. Now, as she watches it happen before her eyes, the feeling is much more potent. We’re not seeing Claire cry over a marriage, we’re seeing her undergo a final stage of mourning. Her mother belongs to somebody else, and Claire perceives it as Ruth severing the final link to her father. How can he be so far gone? Claire never even got to know the guy! And she sobs because now, it hits her that she never will.
Nate has two flashbacks to Lisa in this episode. In one, they’re happy to see each other. In the other, they have the ugliest argument of their lives. As Nate seeks to replace Lisa—without fully understanding that he’s trying to replace Lisa—these are the two ingredients that surface again and again: companionship and conflict. (As Nathaniel Sr. puts it late in the episode, “You’ll take anything if they’ll fuck you or fight you.”)
The companionship that Nate seeks is raw, emotionless sex. He’s too desperate and wounded to consider building something more meaningful. Nate’s night with Allison Williman in “Twilight” may have seemed hasty and unwise, but that encounter seems downright homey compared to the depths of Nate’s sexual pursuits in this episode. When he walks into that rundown apartment and watches his paramour’s grade-school kid get shooed off the couch—so that Nate and the kid’s mother can fuck there—part of Nate sees the depravity of the scenario. But he’s not fully in control of himself right now. The pain is in control. It’s so strong and so bottomless that Nate’s overriding instinct is to numb it (as David explains to Claire when they’re cleaning up the countless beer bottles at Nate’s place).
Neither Allison Williman nor the random barfly provide the balm of companionship that Nate deliriously sought, so instead he recreates conflict. Does he ever. When his family comes into his house to comfort Maya, Nate’s enraged by the implicit accusation that he’s a poor father, which is an echo of Lisa’s frequent criticisms. (If Ruth happened to smell the laundry, Nate might have thrown himself out the window.) Likewise, when George comes by and encourages Nate to draw closer to his family, all Nate hears is the accusation that he’s a bad family man. And so George ends up as the target of more rage. It’s a hopeless position for those around Nate. Whenever someone draws near, he sees it as an affront, and they receive a high-test version of the guilty irritation that Nate used to direct Lisa’s way.
In his screaming match with Ruth, Nate exhibits a different color of rage. He starts out by telling Ruth that she’s “making a big mistake marrying George,” and before long, he’s berating her for not supporting him enough. Maya needs her, he says, and having George around will distract her from her obligation to provide his child with a mother figure. When Ruth protests this rather insane proposition, he lowers the boom: “I stayed after Dad died!” he screams. “I changed everything in my fucking life because of you. And maybe if I hadn’t, none of this fucking shit would have happened!”
When Nate flashes back to his fight with Lisa, he specifically remembers the moment when she said that she left a good life in Seattle and moved all the way to Los Angeles. “Not for me, you didn’t!” he said at the time. Now, as he argues with Ruth, Nate casts himself in the Lisa role—he’s the one who uprooted his Seattle life to come to Los Angeles. And that means Ruth is unwittingly playing the part of Nate. He’s not yelling at his mother for ruining his own life; he’s yelling at himself for ruining Lisa’s. This argument is a vocalization of an extreme self-hatred that has been festering ever since Lisa disappeared.
And then she’s gone. The call comes when Nate is lying in bed. The trooper on the other end of the line tells Nate to sit down; he sits up as if bracing himself to take a punch. When it comes, the punch isn’t enough. There’s just more emptiness. He returns to the same bar where he found the basest form of companionship and seeks out the basest form of conflict. The man who pisses Nate off could have been anyone—Nate wasn’t likely to leave that place without a fight—but the target happens to be a fellow who lights matches just to watch them burn and die out.
Maybe when Nate looks down the bar at this strange beast, he sees a cruel master. He sees the flames being brought to life and snuffed out like so many poor souls who have come through the doors of Fisher & Diaz. He sees a flash of excitement giving way to wisps of empty smoke, the same way that every time he thinks he understands what he ought to do with his life, the thrill of certainty gives way to a miasma of confusion. “It’s driving me fucking crazy,” he tells the matchstick man. And then they fight, although it’s a one-sided affair. Nate ends up lying on the floor. Then he sits up and demands to take another punch. “FINISH WHAT YOU STARTED!” he growls.
Nate doesn’t really want to die, though, and ultimately, this is what torments him the most. He’s decided that he deserves to die—that he’s responsible for destroying Lisa’s life, and it’s only fair that he ends his own. As he tears wildly down the streets of L.A., he sees Lisa in the backseat of his car, egging him on to suicide: “Come on, honey, it’s the least you can do for me!” she says. His father likewise tells him to “quit grandstanding” and just off himself already. But by the end of the scene, all Nate can say is, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.” He’s not pleading. He’s saying it out of shame.
He ends up at Brenda’s place. His face is destroyed, and his clothes are smeared with blood. It’s the lowest point of his life. Brenda invites him in. She is, at long last, a suitable replacement. Or maybe Brenda’s the one Nate was trying to replace all along. Lisa Kimmel Fisher, 1967-2003.
- As usual, please make an effort to restrict your conversation of upcoming episodes to the first comment thread. This way, people who haven’t seen all of the show yet can collapse that thread to preserve the surprise if they so desire.
- Let us now praise Richard Jenkins. The man plays Nathaniel Fisher Sr. as seen through the eyes of three different family members in this episode. Each time, his reaction to Ruth’s marriage is different. In David’s vision, he bristles at it. In Claire’s vision, he’s at peace with it. And in Ruth’s eyes, he sobs quietly in the corner. Jenkins is able to construct a consistent character through all these scenes—it feels like everyone is talking to different moods of the same man. We witness the emotional arc of a dead man who exists only in the memories and projections of the living. Somehow, Jenkins nails this every time.
- Rico’s storyline inches forward in this episode. His sister-in-law treats him like crap—again. Vanessa is unsympathetic—again. He gets a blowjob from a pole dancer—that’s new! Now Rico’s thread is finally off and running, and in the fourth season we will surely watch as his gangbusters subplot takes twist after spine-tingling twist!
- Nathaniel Sr. tells Claire that death is good. “Made some new friends. Joined the chess team.” That’s progress—at the beginning of season two, it was Chinese checkers.
- That does it for this year’s Six Feet Under reviews in TV Club Classic. Thank you for journeying through season three with me. The comment threads are always illuminating, and your readership is gratifying whether you comment or not—I truly appreciate it. Some commenters have expressed concern that the Six Feet Under reviews will go away. I intend to review all five seasons of the show, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t happen. So put your worries aside, and let’s meet back here again next summer for season four.