“The Last Time” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 6/2/2002)
The first images of this season were of Rebecca Milford, a young actress who, as I wrote, lived a life of fragments. When we see her, Rebecca is self-aware enough to wish that those fragments—her on-screen persona, her career, her real-world relationships—added up to a coherent whole, but she wasn’t able to reconcile them. And she ends up tearing herself apart.
Nate Fisher is no different. None of us are. We all have our own contradictions. Nate has spent much of this season (and the previous) trying to reconcile those contradictions—to discover the Grand Unified Theory of Nate Fisher, the universe, and everything. At various times he’s searched for the answer in marriage, children, Judaism, Seattle, Fisher & Sons—heck, he even starting riding a motorcycle, because maybe some of that enlightened biker mojo would show him something new.
Nate can certainly be self-involved, but self-involvement and self-exploration aren’t the same thing, and Nate does plenty of the latter, too. Most of us can empathize with Nate’s search for greater meaning; it’s just that his search is a little more concerted and desperate than most. Perhaps it is more motivated by fear. He feels his proximity to death so intensely, for obvious reasons, that it stokes his desire to get the definitive answers about his life before he crosses that divide. And because he’s so eager to arrive at the big solution, Nate doesn’t get as much out of his self-exploration as you might hope. Whenever one of these various ventures fails to banish his doubts and fears—as they all must—he gets bored with it and casts it aside. There’s often the sense that Nate hasn’t learned much from his various travails, but paradoxically, it’s because he’s trying too hard to learn something from them. He has the noble quality of expecting (even demanding) a great deal of purpose in life and the curse of never being able to find it.
Amid all this casting about, Nate’s unstated hope, his measure of last resort, is that you get all the answers when you cross the divide. Because wouldn’t that be perfect? Maybe when you die, you get a pamphlet, or an informational video, and all of existence falls into place. Clearly, Nate would like to believe that. His visions of the late Nathaniel Sr. depict his father in various moods and guises, but the common thread through them all is a self-assured knowingness. In Nate’s imagination, Nathaniel is never quite able to communicate all these profound truths, but the foundation of the fantasy is that Nathaniel does indeed know them.
So it is that the last moments of Aaron Buchbinder’s life are spent in a sort of argument with Nate, as Nate insists that Aaron’s death is something profound, and Aaron rages against the empty sterility that accompanies the end of his biological existence. In this scene, Nate is fueled both by an earnest desire to ease Aaron’s way and a need to believe that this effort matters. Yet as he gasps his dying breaths, Aaron insists that Nate’s presence doesn’t matter at all. “I’m right here for you,” Nate assures him. “So what? I don’t know you,” Aaron says. He mocks the myth of profundity: “‘Go into the light’? There’s no fucking light.”
Perhaps most devastating to Nate is Aaron’s insistence, to the very last, that there is no peace in death. “Just let it go,” Nate says. “I don’t want to!” Aaron wheezes, his eyes blazing with fear. And then, with Aaron still clinging fiercely to life’s reins, life leaves him anyway. “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” says Nate, more of a hope than an assertion. He would like to have all the answers, to possess knowledge that would elevate him to a higher plane of existence where death didn’t matter so much. Barring this, however, he would at least take an assurance that death will be okay. That’s what he wanted most from Aaron. Aaron doesn’t provide it. Aaron Buchbinder, 1976-2002.
Finding himself just as adrift as ever, Nate is newly seized by the need to distance himself from his own demise. He needs more time. He calls his doctor’s office and demands to schedule an embolization procedure for his AVM condition as soon as possible. At the hospital, Nate learns that an embolization isn’t going to be enough at this point—there’s a bleed in his brain.
Nate’s prickish doctor informs Nate of all the mistakes that have been made—incorrect medication dosage, delayed surgery—either by Nate or by the doctor himself. If anyone is at fault here, it’s hard to tell who it should be. Probably both of them. The doctor seems more interested in not being wrong than in helping his patient, and it also seems like he conveniently remembers a more sage, informative version of himself in retrospect. (“You must have misheard me,” he says when Nate points out inconsistencies between past prognosis and current diagnosis.) Then again, Nate is also the type of person who wouldn’t want to hear what the doctor was telling him. Together, they are a picture of flawed personalities getting in the way of medicine. How scary it is that this life and death stuff has to be handled by human beings, with all their foibles and vicissitudes.
The doctor says that Nate needs brain surgery, adding that he has a “good record” performing this type of operation. Should Nate trust the guy, or is this just more puffery and ego? Another question that Nate isn’t able to answer.
Because he hasn’t reached life’s one solution and faces the possibility of the ultimate end, in “The Last Time” Nate surveys the fragments of his life and tries to make as much sense of each one as he can—even if they stubbornly refuse to cohere into a whole.
One of those fragments is Brenda, who’s trying to deal with her own contradictions. Over lunch with a member of her new sex-addiction support group, she says, “I don’t want to hate my parents more than I already do.” Scott—who was introduced to the persona of “Candace Bouvard” when Brenda was near the top of this season’s downward spiral—tells Brenda that if she sticks with the 12-step plan, she’ll probably end up forgiving her parents. “Well, I don’t want to do that, either,” Brenda says. “I don’t want to be one of those horrible people that walks around in pain all the time. … I feel like it’ll kill me.”
That’s the precipice that Brenda has been perched upon—digging her heels against—since Billy was forced out of her life. She’s in pain, but she refuses to experience it, because the pain is so vast, it seems like it could easily consume her. Scott insists that it won’t. Brenda appears to realize that he could be right, but self-enforced numbness is still the safest position from her vantage point. She’s not ready to leap off that cliff.
So it makes sense when Nate visits later and Brenda tells him: “I really love you. And I don’t think I would have done what I did if I didn’t really love you. … It was the fear of feeling something real.” If she allowed herself to feel her authentic love for Nate, then she’d be opening the floodgates to all the pain, too, and she wasn’t ready for that.
Nate accepts Brenda’s confession with warmth. But he came to deliver his own postmortem of the broken engagement. He talks about his feelings of fear, and how he’s been spending his life running scared. It’s the first time that Nate exposes himself this way to Brenda—it’s easier to be honest at the end of a relationship than in the middle of it. And Nate’s treating this as the end—“The Last Time,” as the episode title says. He comes to Brenda as he does with all of his loved ones in this episode, in the interest of tying up loose ends, stepping back, and looking at some sort of complete package that maybe adds up to something more. That sense of finality is most clear-cut in Brenda’s case. When she hints at a future when they might be able to experience a healthier sort of love, Nate says flatly that he can’t think about the future. He’s evaluating his life as it stands right now, and that’s it. He tells her about the surgery and leaves for what he believes may well be the final time.
Nate’s not so willing to part with David. As distant and valedictory as he is with Brenda, he’s just as yearning and close with his brother. They sit together in the funeral home filling out Nate’s pre-need form together, a process that David struggles with: “I don’t think we should be doing this right now.” They joke around a little bit, and then Nate crumbles and says, “Fuck, I’m really scared. … I wish you could come with me.” David quickly volunteers that he’ll skip Claire’s high school graduation and go with Nate to the hospital. “No,” Nate replies, “go to the graduation. That’s not what I meant.” It’s a beautifully written exchange, and David immediately understands. Indeed, who would be a better companion for Nate in death than David?
Both brothers possess an instinct for compassion and caring, but they come at it differently. As we saw with Aaron, Nate has an impulse to help those around him because it helps Nate convince himself that life makes sense. David helps people because he knows from experience that life often doesn’t make sense. Right now, Nate needs the latter perspective. He hasn’t been able to divine the logic of his existence, and he feels himself running out of time. David is the one person, above all, who could convince Nate that everything really will be okay.
The mutual adoration of the brothers’ relationship contrasts with David and Keith, whose home life is vacillating right now between ennui, anger, and lust, with little glimmers of affection tossed in there. Taylor is gone—Keith has unilaterally decided she’ll live with Keith’s parents. David is heartbroken, but Keith, as usual lately, doesn’t want to hear or see it. David knows this. Later, when David is on the couch sobbing with despair over Nate, Keith comes home. David quickly wipes away the tears. Keith has grabbed some fast food, but David can still make dinner if he wants. Says Keith: “I might be a little hungry later.”
You get the feeling—as must David—that Keith only keeps David around in case he gets a little hungry for something: food, companionship, sex. David lists off the wonderful dinner he was planning to cook—one small piece of the aspirational visions David had for this fledgling family—and Keith simply clicks on the TV. They settle down in front of a tiny, televisual image of paradise that couldn’t seem farther away.
Their fight late in the episode is obviously a scene dominated by anger, but there’s also an edge of humor to it. Keith says things that are so oblivious that it’s hard not to laugh. “In case you haven’t noticed, I have a lot to deal with right now,” Keith says, with a haughty sneer, to the man whose brother might die the next day. “Which you can’t deal with,” he adds, “because you’re the one who always needs to be taken care of.” David calls this out as bullshit, and he’s right. David has been taking care of the Charles family for a large part of this season.
But that’s the David we’ve come to see in the latter half of season two. Keith would have more of a point if he were talking about season-one David. And in a way, he really is. Keith seems to have subscribed to his sister Karla’s philosophy that people don’t change, they just get older. Of all the characters on the show, we’ve seen perhaps the most change in David this season; but Keith doesn’t want to see it. He’s so engulfed in his own anger that right now, he seems to prefer the needy, helpless David that Keith could push around and take for granted.
After their mutual rage once again dissolves into furious sex, and they lie on the floor with scratch marks across each other’s chests, Keith dabs blood off his mouth and looks at it in confusion. In the post-coital calm, he has a moment of realization that this image of his lover—as a receptacle for rage—is more than a little off.
Claire’s college interview demonstrates two countervailing aspects of her character at once: her clarity of vision and her youthful naïveté. She breaks down at the end of the interview with a striking, eloquent (if meandering) portrait of a young artist’s genesis: “When my dad died … I started to make stuff that was about that, and stuff that was about other things, too. I guess I just want you to know that I feel like I have this way, now, of dealing. And it’s so much better.” She later characterizes this response as a disaster. That’s what a nervous 18-year-old woman would think. In fact, the catharsis demonstrates to Claire’s interviewer not only her expressive drive, but also her awareness thereof. The interviewer sympathizes and sees some of herself in Claire. Just like Billy says, Claire’s more beautiful than she’ll ever be able to perceive. She’s her own blind spot.
In a similar vein, Nate’s farewell to Claire works off the tension between Claire’s roles as budding visionary and as the little sister of the Fisher family. She speaks truth to Nate: “You have the tendency to dole out the wisdom like the Dalai Lama or something, and it’s not like you’re so incredibly together that I’m dying for your advice.” Nate lamely volunteers that he’s still older than her. And suddenly a lot of his big-brother act makes sense. As lost and unwise as Nate has felt, with Claire he could at least rely on the mathematical reality that he has lived more life than she has. When she tries to place herself on equal footing with him, he can’t concede his ground because, damn it, all that life experience has to be worth something, right? Nate would like to think so. But Claire demonstrates her characteristic insight when she tells him, “I just get the sense you’re not fully dealing. … Give me advice, just don’t try to act like you really know anything.”
After a surprise inspection puts the business in dire straits, Rico finds himself in the position to play a role that he has yearned for—and one that both David and Nate have avoided granting him: a de facto “son” of Fisher & Sons. “It’s not Fisher & Sons & Diaz,” Rico tells Vanessa when she suggests he make a partnership offer with their inherited riches. He decides to offer the brothers $50,000 for an equal share of the funeral home. On the eve of his surgery, Nate has a new willingness to consider Rico’s offer, telling David that perhaps this is an opportune moment to find a new partner for himself. David grudgingly agrees, but: “Not equal, no way.” Rico will not be a Nate replacement if the worst comes to pass. He’ll always be something less.
Rico is fine with being the little brother. When Nate makes a counteroffer of $75,000 for a 25 percent share, Rico’s hardball act evaporates and he springs to life: “Done! All right! okay.” What was unofficial becomes official: He’s part of the family.
Bringing Nate to the hospital falls to Ruth. She’s euphoric over baby Maya—someone who accepts her mothering without question—and she grows even happier when Nate decides to join her on a visit and meet his daughter. That joy is replaced by devastation when she learns that her son has a life-threatening brain disorder—and worse yet, she’s the last to know. The fact that Nate kept her in the dark is just the latest (and the most potent) sign that her own children regard her from a distance.
When it’s time to take Nate to the hospital, Ruth first says, “You haven’t even eaten!” Food is her default reflex in times of need. Then she grows petulant. There must be something wrong with her as a mother, she says, because Nate didn’t allow her to protect him from this pain. Nate says that there was nothing she could do, and she says that’s not the point: “It’s the trying that makes you feel loved!” Nate replies, “You loved me fine.”
Yet in this moment, Ruth’s offer of intimacy—which she has made implicitly and explicitly so many times in the past year—proves irresistible. He breaks down in tears and curls into his mother’s arms. She locks into protective-mother mode instantly and with determination. “I won’t let you go,” she practically growls. “I’ll never let you go.” It is, as Nate pointed out just seconds before, an impossible sentiment. But Ruth’s trying, and on the verge of a life-or-death operation, Nate sees that value in that.
Ruth does let go, as she must, and so does everyone else. That leaves Nate in the operating room, counting back from 10 as the anesthesiologist puts him under. He finds himself running down a desert road. A bus drives by—it looks much like the one that sent his father to the afterlife. Nate walks up beside the vehicle as its front door opens. He looks inside, and in a reverse shot we see that the bus is empty—in particular, the driver’s seat is vacant.
Of course it is. A driver would know where the bus is going. But nobody knows where this bus ends up, and certainly not Nate. That’s the reality that he’s been running from all season: He faces a journey where nobody can know the destination. And after all that running, here he is, steps away from that very journey. After searching so hard for the answers in life, is it time to move on and find answers in death? Or does the search itself carry meaning? To put it another way, does he get on the bus at long last, or does he keep running? As Nate stands there, stilled by indecision, the screen fades to white before he can choose—suggesting that perhaps the choice itself is an illusion anyway.
- As always, the first comment thread is for discussion of future episodes. If you want to stay unaware of upcoming developments, collapse that thread.
- Aaron Buchbinder is placed in the Fisher & Sons storage room. The result of a life: a box on a shelf.
- You’ve got to love David’s impression of Nikolai’s “Lord, have mercy” moment.
- For the second time this season, we learn that cremations used to produce a “chunkier” grade of ashes than they do in the present day. Something to keep in mind.
- Brenda’s whole life fits in a Volkswagen Golf.
- Thanks for reading another season of these reviews. I’ve enjoyed your comments. They’re thought-provoking and often allow me to see things I didn’t see before, which to me is the ideal result of criticism, so bravo to you all. The “spoilers” thread has often provided me with a sort of cheat-sheet for themes to look out for in upcoming episodes, so I’m grateful for the thorough knowledge of the series on display in those comments. I also appreciate your words of encouragement. Thank you so much for your readership and your insights.