Six Feet Under: “The Liar And The Whore”
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Six Feet Under: “The Liar And The Whore”

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Six Feet Under

“The Liar And The Whore”

Season 2, Episode 11

“The Liar And The Whore” (season 2, episode 11; originally aired 5/12/2002)

You can’t spell “Ramona” without “moan,” and Edith Kirky appears to have taken that to heart. She utters the word “Ramona” not as if it’s the name of an actual person—her roommate—but like it’s the anguished cry of this modern nursing-home Prometheus, bound to the rock. “Oh, I’m in such pain. Oh, I’m in such agony.” Edith wishes that the good lord would take her right now. Request granted. Edith Kirky, 1929-2002.

Ramona Kippleman and Ruth Fisher have something in common: When they see someone in pain, they both try to shove food down the ailing person’s throat. Sure, Ramona’s method—a hot dog lodged in the trachea—is decidedly more permanent and self-serving than Ruth’s method. But still, it’s an impulse.

Ruth’s focus on food provision is hardly unique to this episode, but “The Liar And The Whore” does accentuate it a bit more than usual. I counted five different food moments for Ruth. She offers to make Claire breakfast. She offers to pick up a frozen pizza for Claire’s little sleepover with Parker. (Note that she doesn’t just offer to pick up a pizza—Ruth needs her cooking to be a step in the process, even if it’s just heating something up in the oven.) She makes sandwiches for Claire and Parker while they’re high on mushrooms. She offers to make Nate something to eat. And then she offers again. Only this final advance is accepted.

When Ruth meets with Gary, Claire’s guidance counselor, he tells Ruth that “Claire’s the kind of person who needs her life to be meaningful.” Ruth replies, “Who doesn’t need their life to be meaningful?” It’s a deep-seated need shared by everyone in the Fisher clan. For as long as she can remember, Ruth has found meaning by providing for her family. She took care of her ailing mother, married at a young age, and moved right into caring for her children. When Nate found the Polaroid picture of a nude Ruth this past season, he was seeing a snapshot of a terribly brief moment in time, an instant when Ruth didn’t have to be the provider.

Now, with Claire about to head out for college—or at least independence, Ruth is flailing to maintain that bond of mother and child a little longer. She’s subsisting on scraps, and it’s hard to tell which is the more desperate act in this episode: shelling out $87,000 to make Nikolai’s problems go away, or wearing the “harlequin pants” that Claire makes for her in a drugged-up euphoria. The former is an outlandishly generous act that’s also somehow selfish, and Nikolai only reacts to the selfish part.

But the latter is more poignant—when Claire gives the pants to Ruth and declares her abiding love for her mother, Ruth acts just as she would if Claire were five-years-old and had brought home a project from kindergarten. Not only does she fail to find the gift weird, she finds the whole situation perfectly delightful—that’s more like it! The next day, Claire has come down from her high, but Ruth refuses to do so, even at the expense of her dignity. “I may just wear these pants until the day I die,” she says. She’ll certainly try her best.

Taylor’s giving David a lot of lip at the beginning of this episode, and David is letting it roll off his back. Keith has given him plenty of practice with that. Of course, Taylor is a nine-year-old, so that’s not the most flattering comparison. It’s a fair one, though. Keith is acting like a petulant child himself. As David gently encourages him to give the kid a break, Keith says, “You want to pick a fight with me this morning?” David answers, “You want to pick a fight with a nine-year-old about her attitude?” Keith: “This morning, I do.”

Keith isn’t just acting like any child, he’s acting like young Keith Charles, the kid who was cowed by the ever-present specter of his father’s rage. The elder Mr. Charles and Keith’s mom, Lucille, are in town for a visit. Mr. Charles—apparently David is expected to address him as such—doesn’t waste much time before telling Keith that he intends to take Taylor back with him and Lucile, to an environment where she’ll have more “stability.” Keith’s response: “Fine.”

David asks Keith what we all are wondering: “What happened to the Keith who knows how to fight for something he believes in—for something we both believe in?” Keith tries to slough it off, but David, gentle and persistent, finally presses the issue. He at least has rediscovered the David who knows how to fight for his beliefs. So David cuts to the quick: “You’re afraid of him. … As much as I hate you treating me like a doormat, it’s even worse seeing your father treat you like one.” In the moment, Keith is less upset by the accusation that he’s afraid of his father—he barely notices it—than the accusation that he’s just like Mr. Charles. Keith has heard this from Karla before, but it was easy to ignore the desperate ravings of an addict. It carries a little more weight from David.

So at dinner the next day, Keith says that he’s going to keep Taylor with him and David. When his irate father flinches at him, Keith locks eyes and says, “Do it. I dare you.” It’s a victory, but not an unalloyed one. After all, the only way for Keith to stand his ground against the intimidator was to become the intimidator himself—exactly the thing that, in his better moments, he’d been hoping to avoid.

David might be calm with Keith and Taylor, but it takes a huge amount of restraint and concentration for him to navigate those choppy waters so deftly. When he’s out of the house, he needs to release that energy somehow. Easier said than done. Wherever he looks, he finds a situation where David has to be the responsible one. He arrives at work in a grumpy mood, and Nate’s not having it. “Dave, you need to lighten up,” Nate says, unaware of how assiduously light and sweet David is every time he goes home.

Nate gets served with papers—turns out Mrs. Collins, the wife of the boat-accident victim, is suing for emotional distress because Nate showed her the mangled body. After all, she was really insistent, so what was he supposed to do, say no to her? (Answer: That is exactly what he was supposed to do.) Put your game face back on, David! You’ve got to be the grown-up again. Just like you had to be the grown-up in last week’s episode when you wanted to complain about traffic and video stores but instead had to arrange a traditional Buddhist wedding at the drop of a hat. And just like, oh, the entire rest of your life.

Nate never wants to accommodate the shit that David has to deal with. It’s always the other way around. Because David handles everybody else’s shit with such grace. He’s polite when Mr. Charles treats him with such disdain. When Taylor gives him the brush-off. When Keith tells him to shut up. When Nate shows up late to the meeting with the lawyer. When the lawyer tells David that he’s fucked. When Mitzi comes by Fisher & Sons to preen and threaten and gloat.

Catherine Collins has the misfortune to run into David when his tank of grace hits empty. This is one pile of shit he refuses to shoulder. Mrs. Collins blinks in shock and fear as David places her woes right back on her own damn doorstep. “You know it’s not my fault or my brother’s fault that you allowed your husband to smack you around all those years,” he says, with bracing viciousness. “You’re the one who chose to be a doormat”—there’s that word again. “You’re the one who stayed in an abusive marriage and wasted God knows how many years of your life. … You probably spent your entire miserable life blaming others for the mistakes you made.” She tears up the lawsuit and tells David to get out of her house. Taken aback, both by her and by himself, he stands up straight and buttons his suit jacket, a reliable signal that Responsible David has returned. He’s never away for long, but that certainly was a cathartic vacation.

The Liar and the Whore themselves visit with Rabbi Ari for pre-wedding counseling. (Nate envisions himself as the Liar, and Brenda sees herself as the Whore, but really, the labels are interchangeable here, aren’t they?) Always one to bristle at those who offer her advice, Brenda resorts to a familiar tactic: reminding everyone that she’s the smartest person in the room, or at least as smart as everyone else. “I’m sorry, I’m curious, have you ever been married before?” Brenda asks with a sneer. Nate rolls his eyes. Ari is unperturbed, and she continues on. “The one thing I can say without hesitation is that you cannot have a good marriage without honesty.” Brenda sneers again, and Nate sums it all up: “That kinda goes without saying, doesn’t it?” Almost everything in this relationship goes without saying. That’s the problem, and the good rabbi has an inkling of it.

After the session, Brenda muses all the ways that “total honesty isn’t always the best thing.” What about privacy? The “mystery of a relationship”? (That last one always bemuses me when I hear it. As if life doesn’t have enough mysteries already without having to wonder about your partner, too.) Nate, on the other hand, has reached the limit of his own ability to rationalize. He tells Brenda about Lisa and the unborn child. She walks out of the synagogue in a daze.

The shock for Brenda is twofold. There’s the obvious trauma of having been betrayed by somebody that she trusted. With Nate’s confession, there’s also the added pain of Brenda having her deep fears confirmed. While she was trying to dodge honesty with her bullshit life philosophies, Nate took the message to heart and laid himself bare. He has placed himself in a position to be judged, a position to which Brenda has no right. He’s an irresponsible, selfish jerk—and he’s still a better person than she is. It completes Brenda’s descent into self-hatred.

Brenda tries to call Billy, but he’s not answering her calls. All the years she spent caring for him, nursing him through every crisis, it’s bad enough that it turned out to be a thankless chore. On top of that, Billy resents her so much that he can’t even reciprocate the favor in a small way. “Billy, God damn it, I need you,” she says into the phone. Nobody picks up.

Like I said last week, there are plenty of moments this season where it seems that Brenda hit rock bottom. This time, though, it’s unmistakeable. Her tryst with the two anonymous dudes is more reckless and soulless than any of her other encounters, sure. But in all Brenda’s previous sexual dalliances this season, she has successfully maintained the illusion that she’s the one in control. She’s the one copping a feel, or climbing on top, or watching from an implicitly superior distance. With Dude 1 and Dude 2, though, there is no sense of command. She lies there, expressionless, as a stranger drunkenly thuds into her. The illusion is gone. Brenda isn’t calling the shots—she’s being dominated by her compulsion.

Meanwhile, Nate experiences a small rebound after letting himself speak the truth. He’s not clicking his heels with joy, but he’s at least able to listen again. Rabbi Ari comes by with the name and number of a man who wants to fill out a pre-need. Apparently she doesn’t have email, or a telephone, or a fax machine. She’s got to come by in person. She’s the friendliest rabbi in town! No, really, she is exceedingly friendly, and she seems to say things like, “I am a rabbi, unavailable to you” with a little too much relish. Or perhaps she’s trying to reassure herself. She does enjoy caring for Nate more than she should, what with her self-confessed messiah complex.

Rabbi Ari tells him to treat Lisa’s pregnancy as a blessing. She says, “What if you’d never known?” She’s talking about the child, but she could just as well be speaking of the AVM diagnosis. What if Nate had never learned that he was mortal? What sort of mundane path would his life have taken from there?

What if he’d never met Aaron, the rabbi’s pre-need referral? Aaron represents the logical conclusion of Nate’s fears for himself. “What if you’re not leaving anyone behind?” Aaron asks. He claims to have made no real connections in his life—echoing the worries of both Nate and Brenda. He makes Nate uncomfortable, and at one point Nate gets up to leave. Aaron makes him sit down again. He and Nate have something else in common, a terminal diagnosis, although Aaron’s is more certain: pancreatic cancer. He was supposed to die in six months, but he’s made it a whole year. “I bet you’ve never met anybody as lucky as I am,” he says with a sarcastic smile. The man is disfigured by his anger and self-pity. Something at the back of Nate’s mind tells him that this is the way he’s headed, too, if he doesn’t make a change.

Brenda represents one possible change. So it’s to Nate’s great relief that she returns to him, folds herself up in his arms, and tells him that she loves him. “As fucked-up as you are, you’re the sanest thing in my life,” she says. She means it more than he knows.

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.
  • Why are process servers in TV and film always such smirking, spiteful assholes? Is that how they are in real life? It’s not like this guy had to hunt down Nate to notify him of the Collins lawsuit.
  • When Claire’s guard is down and her energy is desperate for an outlet, she makes things. She even fantasizes about being alive in an era when people had to make their own soap.
  • The scene where David tells off Catherine Collins is an incredible mix of triumph and horror. Great that he gets rid of the lawsuit, but the means to that end are certainly breathtaking.
  • It’s fun seeing Rico do some detective work with Edith’s body. He clearly enjoys it, too. And he doesn’t seem too broken up over Vanessa losing her job, either. Money might be tight, but at least he has uncontested claim to “man of the house” status now. 
  • Keith and Karla sum up one of the great conflicts of the series in two lines. Keith: “People can change.” Karla: “People don’t change. They just get older, that’s all.” Six Feet Under could be considered one long, difficult fight against the latter viewpoint.