“The Plan” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 3/17/2002)
A man’s packing up the station wagon for a long trip. “Don’t forget the dog, honey,” he says. But he’s actually in a hospital room, a cancer patient who’s dreaming it all between bouts of intense pain. “I’m going to beat it,” he says to his wife, Eileen, in a moment of lucidity. “But maybe you can’t. You don’t have to,” she says. He’s shocked. He was expecting more platitudes, more gentle ritualized lies that could momentarily distract him. His mother, sitting nearby, tries to provide some—“You’re going to be just fine”—but Eileen rebukes her: “Lying doesn’t help anyone but you.”
Yet one person’s truth can be another person’s lie. As the cancer patient slips away, Eileen tells him in all earnestness that death “is just your body; it’s not you.” His reply: “That’s bullshit, Eileen.” Michael John Piper, 1952-2001.
“The Plan” is full of people who insist on telling comforting lies that don’t help anyone but themselves—and they’re not doing much to help themselves, at that. Nate is still trying to characterize his illness as an actuarial statistic rather than something with massive import. When David tries to provide him with some literature about his brain disorder, Nate brushes off his brother’s pleas for treatment with a forced shrug. You could die from this, David says. “I could be in the wrong airplane at some point,” Nate says. “So could you.” And so could everyone! Therefore, it’s no problem at all, Nate insists, over and over again, Q.E.D.
It’s amusing to have the Fisher brothers look askance at Eileen, who carries on a conversation with Michael’s persisting spirit as “they” peruse the casket wall. “I’m a psychic,” she explains. “That must be very interesting for you,” David says. We’ve seen Nate and David carry on conversations with the dead any number of times by now, so we know that their sideways glances at Eileen are more than a bit hypocritical. Of course, they’d never admit it. “Sometimes, I feel like Dad’s around. You ever feel that?” Nate asks David tentatively. David quickly shuts it down: “Nope.”
That’s one example of how “The Plan”—and Six Feet Under in general—does a great job of portraying the complex levels of truth and lies that loved ones maintain with each other. Every person is like their own complex of secrets to which friends and family have varying levels of access. Nate is willing to grant David access to his half-formed sense of the afterlife, as long as David will do the same; request denied.
Nate spends much of the episode having his requests denied, in fact. As his sex life has withered to nothing, he asks Rico and David what sex has been like in their long-term relationships. David shuts him right down, as is David’s wont, and Rico does essentially the same by claiming that his orgasmic timetable has “slowed down” to a mere “three or four times a week.” Sorry, Nate, you only have clearance for level-one bravado and posturing. Don’t feel bad, though—Rico’s feeding everyone the same Mr. Testosterone bullshit right now.
It’s sad to watch Nate come up against all these walls, because he’s ready to make some halting progress if only somebody would give him a hand. Yes, he’s still espousing the “my death is no different from anyone else’s” line, but that particular falsehood is providing him with less and less comfort. He’s groping around in the dark for greater meaning, and so his most painful rejection comes from Brenda. It’s not just the physical sex but the complete lack of intimacy that’s hurting him—as much as he would like to get laid, what he needs even more is someone with whom he can explore this new portent he feels in his finite life.
Yet over dinner, Brenda seems to delight in swatting away his search for meaning in existence. “No, there’s definitely no plan,” she says with an affected lack of interest. “Just survival. Should I have ordered the salmon?” She explains that her nihilism stems from a report on nuclear war that she read when she was six years old. It’s an irritating, too-perfect story, one that is designed to fit Brenda’s all-important self-image as an extraordinary, eternally precocious being. Nate’s trying to come to terms with the reality that he isn’t above it all, Brenda can only reply, gee whiz, how’s the weather down where you are? You look like an ant from way up here!
To reinforce her notion of herself as the smartest person in the room, Brenda signs up for a class on the ethics and social effects of genetic engineering. That’s where she meets a more obnoxious version of herself. The professor of the biogenetics class is another woman who needs to be recognized as the best and the brightest. The trouble for Brenda is that the professor is not only in a place of authority, but she has even more practice with the “I’m smarter than you” routine than Brenda does, having spent her life before a rotating audience of sycophantic pupils. The professor deftly steps around all of Brenda’s well-reasoned arguments, emasculating Brenda with one sneering brush-off after another.
Darn it, none of this is making Brenda feel very special at all! In that classroom, it’s awfully hard to believe the story Brenda likes to tell herself, about herself. So she flees. “Academia is one big circle-jerk,” she says to Nate at dinner. You get the sense, though, that she wouldn’t mind it so much if everyone in the circle were thinking about her while they jerked.
Finding her familiar stories of self-exceptionalism less convincing, Brenda tries on another identity in this episode. After catching the interest of a gentleman at a bar, she introduces herself as Candace Bouvard, cynical sign-language teacher to the newly deaf. “It’s quite lucrative,” she says to her barstool suitor. “Candace” doesn’t really flirt with this poor fellow so much as she mind-fucks him, declaring, for instance, “I really enjoy communicating with my body.” It’s an icky spectacle. Brenda takes advantage of the guy’s compromised position—he’s horny—to revel in her intellectual superiority. Then Nate arrives, which means she doesn’t get to indulge in the lies anymore, and she grows sullen again.
Unlike Brenda and Nate, Claire doesn’t tell lies to protect herself, but rather to protect Gabe. She says to her guidance counselor, “I really just thought he needed—I don’t know.” The guidance counselor completes the sentence: “You?” She says, “No, but someone.” In other words, yes. So when a police detective comes around asking questions about convenience-store-robbin’, embalming-fluid-stealin’ Gabe, Claire withholds the truth.
But she’s not helping anyone, which becomes abundantly clear in a painful reunion with a drugged-up Gabe. After he fires a gun at a man in another car, Claire finally realizes that Gabe is beyond her capability to rescue him—“I can’t help you! I can’t help you anymore!”—and tells him at gunpoint to get out of her car and, practically speaking, out of her life.
I feel especially bad for Claire here because of all the lies told in this episode, Claire’s are different. Eileen lies about the walking, talking presence of Michael’s ghost; Nate lies about his fears of dying; David lies about his continued struggles with Nathaniel Sr.’s death; Brenda lies about her specialness; Keith’s mother lies to herself about her drug-addict deadbeat daughter; Rico lies about his indefatigable penis. All of these are fronts put up by people looking to protect themselves from pain. But Claire’s lies actually cause her pain. She lies to keep someone else from hurt. “Why are you protecting this loser?” Nate barks when she comes clean. Keith answers for her: “Because she loves him.”
And then there is the character who experiences a cathartic moment of truth. Inspired by her florist-shop buddy, Ruth signs up for The Plan, which Nate characterizes as “one of those self-actualization things from the ’70s where they yell at you for 12 hours and don’t let you go to the bathroom.” (“Should I bring a jar?” Ruth asks.) The Plan isn’t that brutal, but Nate gets the gist of the thing. It is something of a psychic assault, a weekend-long workshop presided over by an emcee, Alma, who implores attendees in velvety but hard tones to rebuild the house of their lives. The increasingly tortured house metaphor seems to function mainly as a device through which Alma can play mind games with her students. Brenda would probably love this gig.
After enduring two days of this nonsense, Ruth stands up and lets loose with a profane catharsis worthy of The Big Lebowski. “Fuck all of you, with your sniveling self pity,” she says to her Plan-mates. “Fuck my lousy parents, while we’re at it. Fuck my selfish Bohemian sister and her fucking ‘bliss.’ Fuck my legless grandmother. Fuck my dead husband and my lousy children with their nasty little secrets!”
Another benefit of being the emcee of a self-help seminar is that you can turn any moment of drama to your advantage, so Alma smoothly declares, “Congratulations, Ruth. You have just leveled your fleabag hovel. Now you can build the house of your dreams from the ground up.” It’s more of the spiritual-carpenter hokum, but the funny thing is, Alma’s not wrong. This is a breakthrough success for Ruth—a moment in which she doesn’t, as Robby had put it, “tiptoe around everyone.” In an episode full of lies that people tell themselves, it’s appropriate that Six Feet Under’s grandmaster of self-delusion tacks in the opposite direction.
- There were too many great small moments in this episode—one of the high points in season two—for me to touch on them all in the review. One of my favorites is David declaring that “there are consequences to the way we live our lives” as he picks all the nuts he doesn’t like out of the mixed-nuts jar. The kicker is Claire coming down and saying, “Nobody likes the Brazil nuts, David.” That scene gets a lot of mileage out of a nut jar.
- Nate sure enjoys himself at the confab of local independent funeral directors. He gets to whip himself into a righteous management-vs.-labor, money-vs.-people frenzy again, just like the old times! He directs his big-brotherly moralizing in the direction of Stan, who the other directors accuse of false advertising. But it turns out that Bobo, Mister “I will ram a plastic screw up my anus before I give in to those fucks,” is the real false advertiser. He sells out a day later, and Nate is so caught up in his indignation that he ignores Claire’s plea for help.
- Speaking of Claire, in the last writeup, I observed that David is the person that his loved ones turn to when they’re at a low point in their lives. Claire seems to learn that lesson in this episode after Nate leaves her high and dry and then adds to his jerkishness by berating her after she comes forward in desperation with the whole truth.
- Keith says that Eddie has “poor depth perception.” Sounds like the shallow thrills of Eddie are wearing off. Say, David’s pretty deep!