“Someone Else’s Eyes” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired 4/28/2002)
It’s a classic “lunch pail confab on the girders” scene. Two construction workers have a friendly competition to see who’s got it worse. One guy ticks off the classic symptoms of depression being exhibited by his wife. Then Guy No. 2 says his wife is lousy in the kitchen. Guy No. 1 replies: “At least your wife still fucks you.” Then the lunch pail goes tumbling down to the sidewalk, and just like that, there’s a corpse. Guy No. 3 wins. Dwight Edgar Garrison, 1945-2002.
Billy says in this episode: “I think it really is impossible for somebody to see themselves. You need someone else’s eyes.” The “someone else’s eyes” phenomenon cuts both ways. Maybe you want to imagine yourself in someone else’s eyes because you think they’ll see something good, something worth preserving, that you can’t see on your own. On other other hand, maybe you hate the thought of someone else gazing deeply upon you, for fear that they’ll see something you’d rather keep a secret.
This episode explores both sides of the coin, often with the same characters. Keith’s sister, Karla, for instance, hates the way she looks in Keith’s eyes: a deadbeat, addict mom who’s worthy of his bullying. She sees him looking at her the same way that their abusive father looked at her, and he makes her feel desperate and trapped. Is her breakdown at the drug clinic an honest expression of remorse and hopelessness, or is it a performance to convince Keith that she’s turned a corner—encouraging him to look elsewhere? It can and probably is both.
In any case, it’s obvious that Karla prefers to see herself reflected in the eyes of her daughter, Taylor. Even as she enlists Taylor to provide her urine samples, Karla can see, through Taylor, some glimmer of a happy fantasy: the loving, stable mother and daughter team. As the reality grows more distant from that ideal, she hangs onto that fantasy more fiercely. Karla didn’t make her triumphant return at Christmas because she’d managed to pull herself together; she came back because she’s running on fumes, sustaining herself on the tatters of hope she can get from Taylor’s gaze of unconditional love.
The “someone else’s eyes” for Keith belong to David, no surprise. David complains, with good reason, of “mixed messages” in this episode. Keith is alternately dismissive and then furiously affectionate, and David’s vision is too clouded by his image of Keith—the angel from above—to perceive what’s going on.
It’s as if Keith is stress-testing his lover. He gets snippy when David tries to help him with his sleep problems. David puts up with it. They have sex. Later, Keith says, “Maybe we’re moving a little too fast.” David’s understanding. Keith pulls him into the bedroom. Keith vents about Taylor and everything else. David says he misses Taylor, too. Keith: “I wanna do it on the floor.”
Keith seems unable to fully believe that he can be seen as something other than the heavy, the pillar of strength. He loves that David can perceive Keith’s weaknesses, because it provides some relief from the self-constructed myth of Über-Keith. But allowing this vulnerability also makes him nervous. So he tests David—rages at him a little, pushes him away. Then he checks to see what happened, and every time, David passes the test. He looks back at Keith with understanding in his eyes. That fills Keith with huge relief that comes out as passion. But note that every time Keith is the one calling the shots. Even when it’s about whether or not they should move in together, Keith first makes sure that David knows that it’s not David’s decision. And then he says, just kidding, of course we should move in together. Keith Charles has spoken. He might have human softness, and he might love that David can perceive it, but his instinct is still to operate from a position of strength.
For months now, Nikolai has enjoyed seeing himself through Ruth’s eyes—as the virile, jolly, world-beating Russian bear. The truth is now emerging that while he might be a bear, he’s a kept animal, deep in hock to the local chapter of the Russian mafia (or at least a bunch of Russian thugs). Nikolai resists Ruth’s efforts to look at him more closely—he’s furious when she says she checked out the flower shop books, which tell the story of his life’s disarray.
But he’s in no position to resist. Ruth loves this new phase of their relationship. Nikolai’s infantilization is progressing nicely—his first scene in this episode sees him giggling at the Teletubbies. Robby is bemused as Ruth exults in sing-song tones over Nikolai “allowing me to see him at his most vulnerable.” Wait, Robby says, “He is bedridden, right?” Is this really the type of thing that ought to make her so happy?
After “Yuri” pays an intimidating visit to the flower shop, Nikolai has little choice but to explain his money problems and the dire spiral of debt in which he now finds himself. Ruth might be enjoying this newfound honesty, but she should be careful of what she wishes for, because Nikolai might not like what he sees the next time he looks in her eyes. He’s already fretting that Los Angeles has turned out to be just like Moscow—a place that he was eager to flee.
The reflected-gaze theme of the episode shows yet another way in which Brenda and Nate’s union is a star-crossed affair. They both love seeing themselves in someone else’s eyes—just not each other’s. Having waited as long as possible to tell Brenda about his brain disorder, now Nate’s pouting over the fact that she knows. No matter how much Brenda protests—and her protestations that he’s “not some car I want to trade in because it has faulty transmission” sound heartfelt—Nate can’t help but imagine that Brenda sees him as a burden. Dude’s projecting all over the place.
Shortly after she suggests that they live in the moment, that Nate should “be here now,” Nate’s suggesting that “this really cool rabbi” could officiate their wedding. Because he’s not there right now—he’s imagining the way that the rabbi looked at him, and enjoying that so much more.
Since I’m focusing on eyes in this review, how about Lisa’s eyes during her encounter with Nate in the grocery store? They are absolutely wild. When Nate says that he’s engaged to Brenda, Lisa’s face practically crumbles into itself. Because, by the way, she’s five months pregnant. “Don’t you remember when you came to Seattle last August? And then left the next day like it didn’t mean a fucking thing?”
After we watched this episode, my wife and I were talking about why we dislike Lisa so much. I think it’s because of lines like the one where she calls Nate “a fucking coward who’s never owned up to the way you feel about me.” Even in her moment of catharsis, she maintains that all of her problems are the result of other people failing to be in touch with themselves, and not at all about her own obsessions or denial. She claims to be so very authentic, yet she’s just as delusional and, in a way, fake as anyone else. It’s sort of terrible that I find it hard to sympathize with Lisa in her current predicament, but I do.
Nate argues with a vision of his father as he debates whether to tell Brenda about the baby. Lisa says that Nate doesn’t have to have anything to do with the kid, so once again he can postpone the truth—maybe forever. It’s strange to watch Nate via Nathaniel Sr. fret that Brenda is already looking for a way out of the marriage after learning of Nate’s AVM. That certainly seems to be his perception, given the way he keeps offering to let her out of the engagement, but if anything, finding out about his condition has only made her a bit warmer to him. (He interprets this as an obligatory show of sympathy on her part, which isn’t unreasonable, but then again, Brenda’s not really one for niceties.)
Lisa’s diatribe spooks Nate because part of him feels that she spoke the truth—that he is an unfeeling coward. If he tells Brenda about the child, then she’ll finally see him for what he is, too. Or, more to the point, he’ll have to see himself for what he is. With the benefit of her eyes.
While Nate panics over the verdict that Brenda will render on his being, Brenda’s on a similar track, getting further entangled in her own neuroses. It’s not so much that she places a lot of stock in Nate’s judgment, but rather that she can’t bear for him to confirm her suspicions about herself. There’s another parallel, too, in that Brenda gets her own earthshaking news in this episode when Billy comes by for a visit and tells her, “You have contributed a lot to my condition.” Brenda was so nurturing, Billy says, that he was never able to develop his own strategies for engaging with the broader world. While the explanation is a bit pat, it also has a ring of truth to it.
This is a hard scene to watch. I find myself sympathizing more with Brenda as I watch the series again. It’s hard to get close to Brenda at first because she’s really good at maintaining a superior distance from others, and Rachel Griffiths portrays the character so well that we end up feeling that distance, too. Yet even though Brenda keeps her guard up—multiple layers of it—Griffiths also conveys Brenda’s pain. So when Billy says, “I’m not saying you did it on purpose, but I do think we need to disengage from each other,” it’s like we’re watching him hollow Brenda out. She spent her whole adult life trying to take care of her brother, and here he is saying that in fact she only succeeded in fucking him up further. It was the one piece of her identity that she thought she could count on, and just like that, it’s up in smoke.
Brenda’s arc this season has seen her feeding on one gaze after another. She forces people to look at her, to see the piece she wants them to see, and then discards them before they can look any closer. She thrills in glimpses. In one brief scene, we see her sorting through the phone numbers she’s picked up in any number of barroom flirtations in the past month. She tears the numbers up—those men won’t do. Their eyes are too stale. She needs a fresh, ripe gaze. She finds one at the bookstore, provided by the author of The Lie Of Romance. They fuck in the bathroom and revel in his thesis that to pursue any deeper connection would only be inauthentic.
The dissonance between these moments of carnal nihilism and the person Brenda truly wants to be is growing unmanageable. Brenda’s latest visit with Melissa devolves into scattered raving. She sounds like Nate did when he was high on ecstasy at Thanksgiving—some business about how she’s pure energy, pure nature, and so on. Then a sudden mood swing: “What if I’m losing my shit?” And then her rant is off in yet another direction. “You know, I can give you the name of my therapist if you want to talk to somebody,” Melissa says. Brenda says no thanks, she doesn’t need a fuckin’ therapist. Why would she, when she can get Melissa for free?
Near the end of the episode, Nate comes home to Brenda’s, and they have a strained conversation of fibs and idle chatter. It figures. Nate and Brenda’s thoughts are almost entirely consumed by matters that they can’t bear to share with each other—to air their failings, with all the potential to be judged and exposed as broken human beings, is too frightful a prospect. So they talk about nothing. And throughout this whole scene, they avoid each other’s gaze. It goes unsaid but not unfelt: Don’t look at me with those eyes.
While Nate fears being seen, Claire delights in being the seer. Her relationship with Billy is remarkably similar to the one she had with Gabe Dimas. Once again, she’s supposedly the only one who can see the humanity in this flawed, beautiful creature before her. Billy, always the discerning judge of someone else’s weakness, gently indulges this idea: “I wanted to thank you for being the only person who kept in touch with me,” he says. The only one! She gets the message, because it’s exactly what she wants to hear.
Because of her desire to be the One Who Understands You, Claire endures Billy’s surprise nude photo shoot longer than her instincts would otherwise allow. She obligingly photographs Billy’s backside and even asserts herself in her own way, manipulating the frame to contain what she wants to look at rather than slavishly following his own imagined vision of himself. Even in a moment where she’s ill-at-ease, she’s able to own her role as the seer. It’s only when Billy turns around and gives her the full frontal—manipulating a gaze in a way she doesn’t desire—that she leaves. She might be spooked and confused, but I also see this as a moment of strength for Claire. There are certain things she won’t allow him to manipulate.
This is Billy we’re talking about, though, so it can’t end there. He emails her the photos that she took, and as she looks them over, a familiar, glowing satisfaction spreads across her face. Look at the vulnerability she uncovered with the camera! Once again, she can see things nobody else can see. She loves the way that Billy appears through her eyes. And so does he. Is it any wonder that he wants her to keep gazing upon him? She makes a great “someone else.”
- 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 get to talk much at all about the decedent of the week in the main review, but in keeping with the theme of the episode, it was entertaining to watch Dwight Edgar Garrison’s wife and daughters try to shift gaze even after he was dead. Look at me for all eternity! No, look at me! I felt for the widow Garrison in particular. Nobody wants to find out that they were ultimately viewed as the second wife.