Six Feet Under: “In Place Of Anger”
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Six Feet Under: “In Place Of Anger”

“In Place Of Anger” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 4/7/2002)

Every office has an asshole, and for the coworkers letting off steam on this party boat, that asshole is Matthew Collins. He interrupts a flirtation between a couple of mildly buzzed office mates to regale them with his full-on drunkenness. This company’s going under, he rants, because the boss has been cooking the books. But nobody wants to listen to this bloated, balding modern-day Cassandra, and soon he’s alone on the upper deck.

Matthew drops his beer into the water. “That’s not fair,” he whines. You can tell that those three words sum up his whole worldview. It’s not fair that nobody listens to him. It’s not fair that he isn’t rich, or handsome, or especially clever. And it’s not fair that he didn’t get to finish his beer. For once in his life, instead of merely whining about it, he happens to take action, stumbling over the edge and accidentally chasing his beer into the water. Instead of finishing his beer, he drowns amid the boat’s propellers. So unfair. Matthew Heath Collins, 1959-2001.

During her intake meeting with Nate and David, Matthew’s embittered widow, Catherine, reminisces about a college breakup: “I got dumped at a party once. Kappa Sig luau.” After her boyfriend ended it, she was left by herself in the waning hours of the party: “The sun was coming up, and I just sat there staring at this stupid pig carcass.” Then she flashes forward to the aftermath of the party that took place the night her husband died: “The lights were on, and you could see what a dumpy boat it really was.” When light dawns on Catherine Collins’ life, she hates the truth that she sees.

The Fishers spend considerable effort to avoid viewing their lives in full light—a behavior that hardly makes them unique in the human race. It can be pleasing to view existence in a dimmer setting, where pockmarks are harder to discern and we see only the elegant curves that we want to see. But as Catherine Collins knows, the sun has to rise, and the lights have to come up sometime. As we near the midpoint of Six Feet Under’s second season, which Fishers are letting the light in, and which ones favor a dimmer view?

It’s fair to say that Nate and Brenda are living by candlelight. Nate has a spring in his step at Brenda’s house. Basking in the glow of their new engagement, they’ve just had a night of sex that Nate has been anticipating for quite a while now. “Does this mean the ‘ebb’ is over?” Nate asks. Brenda considers. “For now,” she says. Best to keep that option in her pocket.

Nate wants to announce the engagement to his family and Brenda bristles. Do they have to spoil the fairy tale so soon? Can’t they just eat pancakes and have sex? But Nate wants to make it more real. Hence the little diamond ring and an appointment for another one of those wonderful Fisher family dinners.

When he and Brenda are apart, Nate is occupied with the realities of his business. Mitzi Dalton Huntley of the Kroehner death-services corporation is calling again, and she knows how to pick her moments. After another exhausting meeting with Catherine Collins, Nate asks David if their line of work ever gets him down. “I keep thinking it’s going to get easier,” Nate says, “but it just doesn’t.” David shakes his head. “No, it doesn’t,” he says. “It just gets more familiar.” The little brother seems much wiser than the elder during this exchange. In this moment of weary sorrow, bubbly Mitzi arrives and promptly blackmails the Fisher boys into joining her on “a little fuckin’ trip.”

On Mitzi’s private plane, Bobo makes a return appearance. Bobo was the inspiration for one of Nate’s happiest moments this season—the triumphant impromptu speech he delivered at the gathering of Southern California’s most stubborn independent funeral-home operators. Nate even referred to him as “my Bobo”! This is a changed man, though. The former restaurant-booth firebrand has been tamed with remarkable ease. He sips martinis with his best pal Mitzi and muses about his encounter with Merv Griffin on the links. Nate’s Bobo is dead. But this Bobo sure seems happy—if vapid.

No surprise: Mitzi’s lavish hospitality is a prelude to another offer to buy Fisher & Sons. The figure on the check makes the Fisher brothers’ eyes pop. Even so, Nate hesitates little in his rejection of this latest entreaty. And while David stands behind Nate (or, rather, soaks in the hot tub with Nate), he does tense up for moment when Nate rips the check in two.

“Why are we doing this—fighting so hard?” David asks on their hastily arranged flight back to L.A. “Maybe she’s right. Maybe this is a losing battle.” Nate’s response is not angry, but it is impassioned: “We can’t give up, David! We can’t. We just CAN’T.”

Nate needs to believe in the purpose of Fisher & Sons—his purpose in Fisher & Sons. Even though he enjoys the allure of his soft-lit engagement fantasy, he doesn’t fully believe in it. He recognizes that it’s not built on the most honest foundation—as evidenced by the next turn in the conversation, when David asks Nate whether he’s told Brenda about his AVM yet. Nate replies, “Yeah, a week ago.” He doesn't want to expose the real distance between him and Brenda, so he lies to David and to himself.

In the funeral home business, conversely, Nate sees the opportunity for truth—not merely an acceptable fantasy, but a deeper meaning that holds up to self-examination. He isn’t sure exactly how that result will come about, hence the lack of eloquence in his plea to David, but he feels that he could gain that sense of purpose somehow, hence his passion to keep following the thread.

David doesn’t press the issue. That’s partly because he knows that Nate is right about the morality of selling their business to Kroehner, but I think there’s a more intimate reasoning at work here, too. David’s not oblivious. He can tell that Nate and Brenda’s union is patchy. And he also recognizes how much his brother—once the blithe “prodigal son”—has grown to need this sense of a calling.

For his part, David isn’t getting that sense of purpose from Fisher & Sons right now. The business is merely “familiar” to him. He toys with thoughts of letting himself be happy rather than righteous. But for his brother’s sake, he lets those thoughts go. Nate needs Fisher & Sons more than David doesn’t need it right now, and that’s enough for David to carry on. It’s one of those beautiful, quiet sacrifices that, of all the Fishers, David is uniquely suited to make.

Mirroring Nate, Brenda continues on her own fitful search for authenticity. In her own way, Brenda’s quest is even more desperate than Nate’s. At the family dinner, when she characterizes therapy as “something habit-forming and expensive that completely destroys your ability to lead an authentic life,” even Ruth’s unflappable sister Sarah is taken aback—such is the venom in Brenda’s words. But Brenda’s just giving voice to an excruciating internal dialogue that she’s been having for a while now.

When a client invites Brenda to finish off the massage with a quick hand job, she decides to oblige him. She massages the guy first with nonchalance and then with determination, watching his face as she brings him to orgasm. In those few seconds, this person is simple and utterly comprehensible to her—nothing but a mass of simple urges that Brenda can manipulate at will. We’re all just impulses, and then we die; isn’t that about how Brenda’s professed theories of existence go?

We’re seeing a pattern now: Every time Brenda puts her theories into practice, she comes away disquieted by their emptiness. She tells her client not to return, disgusted with him and more so with herself. It’s as if with their little session she’s gotten another glimpse of herself in full light, and she doesn’t like the “real” Brenda that she sees.

At least what she interprets as the “real” Brenda. It’s not. The impulses and thrills that she experiences in her moments of transgression are certainly vivid, but Brenda’s error is to equate vividness with realness. It’s the way an adolescent thinks. That first fuck, that first buzz, that first brush with danger—they all feel like, “Ah! So this is life. NOW I understand!” Everything seems so real and wonderfully goddamn simple in those moments. So you mistake vividness for light, at least for a while, until the bottomless complexities of human existence start to come into view (and with them a whole new set of problems). Brenda’s doing a similar thing. The trouble is that she’s adult enough to see that her thrills leave her unsatisfied, but not adult enough to understand why.

Brenda seems younger than ever to me in this episode. And is it really any surprise that she’s thinking like a teenager? Her life is one long story of an adolescence deferred. She was stuck in therapy throughout her childhood, engaging and outwitting a phalanx of well-educated adults. Then, just as she was about to run off to college with her high-school sweetheart, she instead took care of her brother for a decade or so. That’s a lot of adulthood.

Brenda’s first encounter with Nate was a pleasure fuck in the airport janitor’s closet. Then Nathaniel Sr. died, and things got heavy really fast. They were both acting like silly teenagers when they met. Perhaps the difference is that Nate was at the end of an extended adolescence while Brenda was only at the beginning of hers. And now, unable to be delayed any longer, it’s underway in full force.

The trouble for Brenda is that it’s easy to explore the limits of experience when you’re still a dumb teenager and your world is small. When you’re a fiercely intelligent 30-something woman who has seen a lot of shit, those limits are harder to reach, and the potential pain much greater. They say chicken pox is worse as an adult? Try adolescence.

Ruth’s sister Sarah—such a mythical beast that Claire assumed she was dead—finally graces the Fisher home. Ruth has been working all season to view her life in a new light. She’s very proud of her work in The Plan. Sarah finds a way to shut all that down in 30 seconds. She says: “You did The Plan? … I did it myself back in the ’70s, when it was still called Transitional Focus.” Oh, and by the way, the founder of the whole program made a pass at her.

The preparations for Nate's dinner get at the core of Ruth’s grievances with her sister. Yes, Sarah connects with the budding artist in Claire. She sings Russian drinking songs with Nikolai (who, to his credit, shows at the end of the night that he still prefers the deeper—if restrained—soulfulness of Ruth). She trades bons mots with Brenda. Ruth finds all of these things irritating. If you really want to understand the roots of their estrangement, though, look to the cooking.

Ruth simply wants to follow the recipe. Meanwhile, Sarah swooshes in with her strange tarragon (not in the recipe!), and her weird hippie techniques, like instructing Claire to form the butter into little logs. Sarah’s philosophy is that cooking is alchemy—“it’s not a science,” she says. “It is if you want it to turn out right!” Ruth snaps.

That’s the rub. Sarah’s “alchemy” seems like a luxury to Ruth. It’s a worldview that an irresponsible person can afford to have. Not Ruth: She’s the one that had to take care of her sick family while Sarah explored the world. Does Sarah’s apology make it any better? “No!” Ruth says. “Because you had more FUN than I did!”

So Sarah runs down the fun that she’s had. “The only man I ever loved died when I was 21,” she says. Furthermore, her ovaries were “dry,” and she knows that she’s not as talented as the artists she surrounds herself with. Suddenly the lights are on, and Sarah’s boat looks a lot dumpier. Ruth can’t help hating her sister a little less.

Claire spends much of the episode enamored with the clarity and confidence of Sarah’s encouragement. Sarah offers spontaneous, detailed critiques of Claire’s art, and every statement has the ring of truth to it. You can see why a community of artists would love having Sarah around. And it takes about 30 seconds for Claire to be swept up in it. Meanwhile, Ruth can only offer Claire generic, false-sounding platitudes such as, “If you work hard, you can be good at whatever you put your mind to!”

That doesn’t cut it with Claire. She likes the specificity and urbanity of Sarah’s commentary. Ruth can’t match that, but her pride in her daughter is heartfelt. You can see it in Ruth’s face when she pauses to gaze at Claire’s self-portrait. And she proves it by bringing Claire a box filled with her childhood artwork. “I kept everything you ever did,” Ruth said. Claire glows. Suddenly, her art has a history, and her mother is an essential part of it.

David experiences his own moment in the light, too. It’s set up throughout the episode. He never stays at Ben’s house. He doesn’t invite Ben to the engagement dinner. He has a warm reunion with Keith’s niece Taylor after church. (She doesn’t care for Ben and makes no effort to hide it.) It all comes to a head when Ben says, in his delightful Adam Scott way, “I think I really love you, David Fisher.” In response, David’s face tries to shrink into itself. “Not quite the response I was looking for,” Ben says.

While he’s not entirely surprised, Ben still doesn’t take it too well when David confesses that he’s “in love with someone else.” What’s striking about this scene is how peaceful David is. At the same time he explains himself to Ben, he appears to be coming to terms with the words he’s speaking. David’s in love with another man who’s in a relationship, and David can’t be with him. It sounds like a speech that should be delivered through tears, but instead David seems relieved—as if a good part of the pain came from fighting to ignore the truth. He’s giving up that fight for now, the same way he was tempted to give up the fight with Kroehner.

Ben was David’s way of distracting himself, and David decides he no longer needs that diversion. None of this is terribly fair to poor Ben, of course, but I have a feeling he’ll end up okay. Maybe he’ll quit this crazy L.A. life, return to the heartland, and settle down with some nice girl from the Parks & Recreation department. CROSSOVER! Make it happen, NBC.

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.
  • I didn’t touch on the Rico storyline in the main review, but I felt for him more than usual in this episode. Vanessa’s dialogue verges on over-the-top emasculation, such as when she accuses him of being David’s “lapdog.” And Ramon is just a complete dick. The man who accused Rico of being “whipped” suddenly becomes Vanessa’s white knight. You think Ramon’s a little jealous of his cousin?
  • I love that Ruth was drawn to a self-help program called “The Plan,” with its blueprints and houses built on sturdy foundations that are so attractive to her. And Sarah got into a self-help program called “Transitional Focus,” which couldn’t sound more ’70s New Age-y. And it was the same program.
  • The ominous notes at the end of the hour are delivered with a heavier hand than you usually see in Six Feet Under—such as when Nate says to Brenda: “I don’t think I could ever hate you. Besides, we know what we’re doing here.” (I half-expected him to follow up with: “What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, that’s what.”)
  • Catherine Collins’ “He can’t hit me anymore” scene could have been pretty rough, but the actress, Harriet Sansom Harris, really took hold of the dialogue and owned the character, as she did throughout the episode. 

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