Six Feet Under: “You Never Know”
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Six Feet Under: “You Never Know”

“You Never Know” (season three, episode two; originally aired 3/9/2003)

Now that we’re into season three of Six Feet Under, we expect some misdirection in the opening deaths. So when we see a bachelor struggling to light his gas-powered stove at the beginning of “You Never Know,” some viewers are bracing themselves for the kaboom, and veteran viewers are bracing themselves for the thing that’s going to be even worse than the kaboom.

But neither camp can be prepared for the 30 seconds of horror that ensue, when a crazed ex-employee rampages through a telemarketing office with a shotgun and then offs himself. The shock doesn’t only stem from the fact that, as the widow of the office manager later says, “It just never occurs to you that a madman will walk into your husband’s office.” The scene is especially arresting because it humanizes the telemarketers in the instant before it snuffs them out. The setup with the lonely bachelor casts the telemarketer as a script-reading stiff. Then the “Oh, my god!” mom transforms those faceless people on the other end of the line into human beings who can suffer and die. That way, when their names fade on and off the screen, they’re more than just lines in the obituary section. Matthew Clark Hazen, 1962-2003; Martin Jacob, 1978-2003; Andrew Wayne Milne, 1952-2003; Daniel Grant Showalter, 1928-2003.

Where “Perfect Circles” was occupied in part with each character’s notion of perfection, “You Never Know” takes the other side of the same coin and examines how the Fishers et al. struggle with imperfection. Rico's struggle is one of scattershot anger. We see this in an early scene when Rico handles the intake meeting for Dorothy Milne (the aforementioned widow). Nate walks into the meeting halfway through, and Rico’s first instinct is to snipe, “Glad you could make it.” With a grieving widow sitting across from him, Rico’s instinct is to make a bitchy remark about Nate’s laziness. His insecure, officious side is his ugliest one.

Or maybe not. Rico grows uglier when he learns that Fisher & Diaz will be handling the funeral for the family of the shooter, Daniel Showalter. Rico reacts with sustained, forceful petulance, to the extent that David has to protect the Showalter family from his vindictive sniping. When Rico has a moment alone with the bodies of the shooter and a victim in the embalming room, he has a vision that sheds some insight into his disquiet. Showalter and the deceased office manager get into an argument, with Showalter insisting that the troubles of life simply pushed him too far. “When I snap,” Rico says, “I throw something. I punch a wall. I don’t pick up a shotgun and start killing people.” The killer offers a disarming reply: “Yeah. So far.”

We’re seeing Rico’s fear of what lies within himself should he “snap.” Events like a mass shooting naturally raise these questions. It’s so shocking to us that such monstrousness could exist within any human being that, once you see it happen, you fear your entire premise of humanity wrong. And the logical conclusion of that fear is, could this awfulness grow within me, too?

On the society level, this fear plays out in the news media and in our political institutions with the ferocious search for a reason. We always need to know the causes. We need an explanation of exactly where and when someone fucked up and allowed this to happen. Rico conducts his own hasty search, settles on an explanation—the Showalter kid wasn’t raised right—and clings to it. He uses it as a basis on which to hate Showalter’s family and friends. The blood is on their hands. Rico needs this story because the alternative, in his mind, is that the shooting was simply a horrible act by an aggravated individual. Since Rico is no stranger to aggravation, he surmises in his more desperate moments that maybe his own angry imperfections are likewise just the tip of something darker.

Rico’s upset is only deepened when David says, in the speech that gives the episode its title, “You can’t ever really know a person. If you think you can, you’re living in a fucking dream world.” It gets at the root of the problem: Rico needs to know, and he can’t. He needs for the problem of Daniel Showalter to be solved in his mind, but it’s unsolvable. There’s no way for him to know all the variables. For a person like Rico who grounds his outlook in a self-assured moral certainty, the unknowable variables hold an outsized power.

Lisa deals with imperfection by seeking it out in others, so that her own failings seem insignificant by comparison. At the end of “Perfect Circles,” she makes the rather pat observation that everything happens for a reason, and thus everything exists as it is meant to be. We’ve already seen how hypocritical and unworkable that worldview is for Lisa, and “You Never Know” continues the thread.

Because Six Feet Under loves the interplay of a dinner party, the writers contrive to bring Nate and Lisa together with David and Keith at a little family barbecue. As they sit down to eat, Keith excuses himself for the bathroom, and Lisa tells him not to flush: “We don’t want to wake Maya.” It’s an echo of the first time we met Lisa, when she similarly told Claire—by way of a homey placard—to let her yellow mellow in the pot. So what is it with Lisa and flushing? Does she have some sort of vendetta against modern plumbing?

You never can tell with Lisa, but no, I don’t think that’s it. Lisa serves as a contrast in this episode to Rico. Where Rico struggles because his worldview is so rigid and inflexible, Lisa struggles because hers is so wishy-washy. I mean, honestly, “everything happens for a reason”? She doesn’t believe that, but like so many of the characters on Six Feet Under, she wants to believe something—to at least have the sensation that she has it all figured out. 

For Lisa, this manifests in her tendency to make others conform to her lofty standards. She finds fleeting solace in high-minded rules. So Claire isn’t supposed to flush the toilet because it would hurt Mother Earth. Keith isn’t supposed to flush the toilet because it would hurt baby Maya. The reason changes because the reason doesn’t matter. What matters is the compliance and the implicit validation that comes with it.

By the way, in both cases, the toilet gets flushed. Because nobody takes Lisa that seriously. You think she doesn’t notice that? It’s an essential part of her pain.

I don’t want to spend the whole review talking about toilets, so let’s move on to another key Lisa moment. We’ve already seen that her default move, when faced with the prospect that her life isn’t perfect, is to sweep imperfection under the carpet. That behavior reaches a ludicrous height during dinner when the topic turns to Keith and David’s couples counseling. Lisa doesn’t work hard to hide her disapproval, and she notes, with that glowing I-am-one-with-the-world smile, that she and Nate never fight. Keith is rightly incredulous. So are we—she had a fight with Nate that very morning while she was cleaning the baby’s ears, after all. But see, Lisa doesn’t count that as a fight. She files it away as just another glorious thing that was meant to happen!

Toward the end of the episode, we glimpse the fatal flaw in Lisa’s “everything’s hunky-dory no matter what” stance. As she chats with Nate, she picks up some laundry and smells it. Uh-oh! We know from “Perfect Circles” that laundry-smelling is trouble. This is how Lisa picked up the scent of peanut butter and with it a premise on which to berate Ruth for poor child care. Now the Nose Of Proper Child-Rearing detects that Nate has used an improper brand of laundry detergent. But when she puts Nate on the defensive, he says, “I didn’t know. Now I do. Are we okay here?” How can she answer anything but “yes”? If she answers “no,” they are not okay, and for Lisa, it is not okay to be not okay.

The way that Lisa and Nate contend with interpersonal imperfection is tragically complementary. Lisa wants everything to feel good, to the extent that she’ll pretend. And Nate likes to be the cool healer, the guy who makes other people feel good with a minimum of effort on his part. Nate has now figured out how to game the system—he merely needs to present the possibility that their relationship is in bad shape, and Lisa will instinctively react and insist that everything is fine. Problem solved!

I’ve heard it said that season three is a season where not much happens early on. There is truth to that. Six Feet Under needs time to establish this couple’s complacency, though, and when people are complacent, it can seem on the surface that not much is happening. Look closer and you can see a Gordian knot tightening, as two people fight to maintain an outward placidity rather than hashing out their true fears with each other.

David and Keith aren’t fooling themselves to the degree that Lisa and Nate are. They’ve come clean about the imperfections in their shared life. Their issue is more a matter of interpretation. David views the tension in their relationship as a spot to be buffed out to create a gleaming picture of gay harmony. When Keith says that his job “pretty much sucks,” David jumps in—with the same vigor that he interrupted Rico during the Showalter’s intake meeting—and says, “It’s temporary. We’re both going through a lot of changes right now. All good, though!” Well, no, David. The changes are not “all good.” Do you know how we know that? Because Keith JUST SAID SO, an instant before you swooped in on your magic carpet and whisked us all off to David Fisher’s Shangri-La Of Healthy Relationship Bliss.

But maybe (that is to say, definitely) David reacts the way he does because he observes that Keith interprets every flaw in their relationship as a potential deal-breaker. Nothing causes David more hurt than when Keith cops his “maybe it’s just not worth the effort” attitude, and Keith does that a lot. When, during a heated conversation about their future, David says that he’s optimistic, Keith tosses off this matter-of-fact reply: “Oh, get real. You and I are living day-to-day, and you know it.” He activates Keith Charles Shrug Mode partly out of authentic frustration, and partly to wound David, which it does.

And so the two men feed off each other, with David insisting the badness will be over soon with just a little elbow grease, and Keith wondering if the end result will be worth the bother. It’s a cycle that ends up amplifying every point of disagreement. Listen closely when the therapist asks Keith to pretend he’s telling David everything that he hates about him. Keith tells the imaginary David that he hates that “little buckwheat pillow,” and David’s nose spray, and the little bites David takes when he eats. These are all minor things. Keith doesn’t hate David. He loves him deeply. The only real problem that Keith mentions is this: “I hate the way you always make me feel like my father by letting me walk all over you.” That’s something that Keith hates as much about himself as he does about David. It also feels like a problem they could fix together, if they’d stop magnifying all the other crap.

Claire’s dalliance with Phil, the crematory technician who has His Own Band, inevitably loses some of its shine for the youngest Fisher sibling in this episode. After a delightful evening of casual sex—at least, Phil thinks it’s casual—Claire bitches about yet another art school assignment to “read and critique some conceptual, theoretical bullshit.” Phil agrees and notes that he dropped out of music school because he, too, was fed up with the way the establishment wanted to “reprogram” his mind and make him just like everyone else. Phil isn’t much of a character in himself, but he’s a good foil for Claire as we get a read on her in the early stages of this season. When Phil mentions he’s a music-school dropout, you can see Claire hesitate for just a moment as the thought occurs to her, “Wait a minute, is this where I’m headed, too?” She may like rebelling against the supposedly hemmed-in thinking of her art school instructors, but on the other hand, she doesn’t want to end up as the body-burning frontman for a no-account band.

The moment passes, though, as Claire loses herself in Phil’s sweet talk. She smiles coyly and laughs it off when he talks about her pretty face and her soft skin. When he compliments her talent, though, it gets serious. She sobers up and says, “You really think so?” This matters to her. And when he says that yes, she’s talented, she looks deep into his eyes. When Claire falls for someone, part of her love is always self-love: She loves the fact that someone else would love her. This is true of most people, so I don’t mention it to cast her as a narcissist. It’s just that the self-love bubbles so close to the surface with Clare. When she gazes into Phil’s eyes, you can see her looking at herself in the reflection on those eyes, as she did with Billy and with Gabe. (And you can see it because Lauren Ambrose is such a fine actor.)

For all her professions of world-weary cynicism, Claire still does get swept up in these moments of infatuation, so it comes as a rude awakening when Phil expresses his belief (and desire) that their relationship will be non-exclusive. “Until you really get to know someone, it seems the way to go!” he says with chipper realism. And since David notes in this episode that you can never really get to know someone, Phil’s philosophy amounts to “Fuck whoever you want, forever!” That makes sense. With Phil’s youth, his cute brown eyes, and his steady supply of indie-band groupies, life has naturally led him to this conclusion.

Again, watch Claire’s face, and you can see her struggle to contain the damage: Be mature, be cool, don’t show the pain, it’s not okay to be not okay. “Are you mad? Do you want me to go?” Phil asks. Claire’s answer to the first question is “yes.” Her answer to the second question is “no.” She settles for “no.” That’s where Claire is as we begin this season: not quite to the point of maturity where she would say “yes.” But she thinks about it.

Ruth’s storyline, in which her sister, Sarah, fights with Vicodin withdrawal, leads Ruth to meet the free-spirited, earthy Bettina. This plot is mostly here to lay groundwork for upcoming episodes. It is, however, a fun way to lay groundwork. Bettina’s friendly indifference toward Sarah’s suffering and Ruth’s fuming disdain make for good comedy. Sarah summons Ruth because she knows Ruth loves to play caretaker, but in Sarah’s haze, she forgets that Ruth will dispense with bedside manner when she disapproves of the patient. And Ruth finds a friend in Bettina who is so adept at rolling with life’s punches that she gives Ruth the courage to try something new—even if that something is as simple is lying in a hammock without the fear that it will swallow you up.

Stray observations:

  • As usual, please make an effort to restrict your conversation of upcoming episodes to the first comment thread. This way, people who haven’t seen all of the show yet can collapse that thread to preserve the surprise if they so desire.
  • One recurring motif throughout Six Feet Under is Ruth Fisher expressing her state of mind through food. In this episode, Ruth reacts to an answering-machine invitation from Sarah, complete with promise of potato salad, by fuming, “You liked her potato salad! I hated it.” Then Ruth looks down at her double coupon for Beef Blast Pizza Rolls. She may not love potato salad, but it’s probably better than Beef Blast Pizza Rolls. So just get out of the house already, Ruth!
  • Carol’s passive-aggressiveness reaches new heights as she once again complains about cars in the driveway. Last time, when Nate offered to move her car, she insisted it wasn’t a problem. This time, when David offers the same, she doesn’t even respond to him.
  • It’s a brief scene, but note how Nate lingers at the Fisher house longer than he needs to, even after Lisa calls to ask him when he plans to get home. That scene plants an important seed.
  • Here’s one way you can tell that Lili Taylor is a talented actor: When Lisa is smelling that laundry, I find myself bracing for the imminent rebuke as if I’m the hapless idiot who used the Tide detergent instead of Dreft.

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