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Six Feet Under: "Crossroads"

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“Crossroads” (Season 1, episode 8; originally aired 7/22/2001)

The fleeting thrill of imagined youth. In the back of a limo, a woman celebrates breaking up with her husband. She’s joined by two friends who are happy to help her indulge. “He’s fucking his old grad student,” she says with forced, champagne-fueled indifference. There’s a pointed choice of words. You’ve got to figure that the old grad student was the younger “other woman” who played some part in the collapse of this relationship. But hey, screw that. In this drunken haze, the grad student is the “old” one, and Chloe Yorkin’s life, like her night, is young.


She pops out the top of the limo’s sunroof, failing to notice the cherry picker doing utility work a little farther down the boulevard. She howls the mantra of Leonardo DiCaprio from Titanic, the baby-faced embodiment of youthful passion and possibilities. “I’m king of the world! I’m king of the world! I’m king of the world!” Thud. Chloe Anne Bryant Yorkin, 1959-2001.

With business in a lull, the Fisher sons revert to their stasis modes. For Nate, that’s sunning himself on the front walk. For David, that’s banging around the house in a suit. “You must really like wearing a suit,” Nate says—razzing that same old uptight David. But David’s a little looser this week (relatively speaking, of course). He even launches into Nathaniel Sr.’s old Walter Brennan impersonation, but if Nate is amused by David’s flash of humor, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he dips back into the melancholy that we saw in “The Mood,” mourning the wit of Nathaniel that he claims he never got to see.


There is no day-to-day noise of intakes, viewings, and funerals to distract the brothers in “Crossroads.” Amid that quiet, they’re practically forced to listen to each other and, consequently, rub off on each other. The two of them say, “Yeah, you’re right” to each other—explicitly or implicitly—more in this episode than in the entirety of the series so far.

Nate pitches David the idea of renting out the place to a seniors’ dancing group, but his brother is skeptical. Nate makes his case: “David, these old people have nothing else to do! They dance here twice a week, have fun—who do you think gets a call when they drop?” That last bit might be the most David thing Nate has ever said.

And Nate has to take another page from David’s book when he’s confronted with the Rico situation. Rico has spent the morning over at Kroehner Soulless Death Conglomerate H.Q., poring over the gruesome compacted skull of Chloe Yorkin. He can’t resist the challenge of making her whole again, and Gilardi is slavering at the chance to lure the Fishers’ star employee into the Kroehner fold. Having decided to take this “one-time” gig, Rico stops by Fisher & Sons to grab his jacket and steal some chemicals real quick, and oh hey forget about that jacket thing after all, gotta go.

David scolds Rico for showing up late, but when Rico spins a yarn about taking the afternoon off to join Vanessa for an ultrasound, Nate jumps in to declare that he’s—you guessed it!—totally OK with the whole thing. “Great,” says David. “Once again I’m the asshole, and you’re the cool guy.” Nate is happy with this arrangement.


Yet when it comes to Rico’s harebrained scheme, Nate’s the only one who’s in a position to be the bad cop. He’s the one who uncovers Rico’s deception, mostly by stumbling upon it. Columbo-level detective instinct aren’t really required for this case. Rico’s clever, sure, but his mouth runs a little faster than his brain.

The discovery tests Nate’s Kumbaya worldview. Later, he sits down with David in the younger brother’s apartment, where they idly watch koalas mate on PBS. (“The sexual habits of the koala are quite mysterious,” says the narrator, echoing a motif in this episode of the inscrutable Aussie libido.) Nate tells David what Rico has been up to and starts making excuses for their employee, because there must be a way that this is all copacetic, right? There isn’t. “He lied to our faces,” David says. Nate looks down and nods. “Yeah, he did.” And it’s not cool. You have to have some moral compass, Nate admits to himself, and sometimes that means deciding that someone else’s choices are wrong.


Just as Nate is embracing some of David’s moral certitude, David allows himself to be influenced by Nate’s more unrestrained approach to life. David checks in on the square-dance group renting out the slumber room and catches the eye of Kurt, the clean-cut, hazel-eyed dreamboat calling the dance. Kurt invites David in, and as David promenades and do-si-dos, he wears the dumb, open-jaw grin of a little kid getting his first pony ride at the state fair. Nate doesn’t fail to notice David’s delight—“I watch Will & Grace; I have gaydar!” So, using that combination of love and humiliation that big brothers wield so well, he sets David up on a date.

David enjoys his evening with Kurt, for the most part. Their conversation and chemistry makes David feel that Kurt is enough of a full-bodied human being to make this encounter less empty and depraved than his previous one-night stand. But Kurt isn’t quite a grown-up, either. He rattles off his beliefs and sexual preferences with the easy patter of someone who feels they have life all figured out, and it’s pretty simple really. He perceives David as the “older guy,” and you get the sense that despite Kurt’s proclaimed distaste for men his own age, part of him feels a certain righteous magnanimity for allowing old David to enjoy his hot, barely legal company.


While David may enjoy the thrill of the pony ride—putting on his sister’s black shirt and letting this cute boy hit on him—this isn’t going to bring him any lasting satisfaction. Before long, you realize that the pony is tied to the rope, and you’re going in circles. Kurt just isn’t as complex as David is, a reality that is summed up by the discussion of who’s going to be penetrating whom. Kurt sees sex in terms of a binary: “Top or bottom?” It’s not that straightforward for David, who perceives the relationship in richer, more ambiguous terms: “I’m versatile.”

Claire’s model of human nature is less developed than David’s. Like Kurt with his “top” and “bottom,” Claire’s instinct is to slap easy labels on people so she can pretend to understand their motivation. On her Outward Bound-esque hiking trip, everybody gets a category. Parker, the bright-eyed blond in the group, is a “Girl Scout.” Topher and Claire herself are the “anti-social losers.” And Dennis, the leader of the hike, is a gestapo-like “commandant.”


Most of these myths unravel almost as soon as Claire can invent them. “Little Miss Perfect” Parker turns out to be a remarkably destructive force. She has sex with Dennis and then essentially usurps control of the expedition by way of unspoken (but real) blackmail. She’s lonely, too—she surprises Claire by reaching out for some companionship. Meanwhile, Topher is the real Girl Scout. It turns out that he’s been taking hikes in the Sierra Crossroads program since he was 14 years old, and he’s going to Stanford. So why goof off with sarcastic, anti-establishment Claire? It’s a lark—he enjoys playing the role for a bit. Claire’s mistake was to buy it.

“Nobody’s ever who they seem to be,” Parker says to Claire on their drive home after being expelled from the trip. Claire qualifies it: “Nobody interesting.” Because some people are indeed who they seem to be, like Dennis. Claire had him pegged. He’s a control freak and a coward who recites quasi-spiritual pabulum to an adolescent audience that doesn’t know any better. When Claire and Parker make Dennis live up to his words—when they treat the Sierra Crossroads as an actual crossroads, with choices to be made—his fraud is exposed and he has to get rid of them. “You purposely led us off the predetermined course,” he explains, having a Willy Wonka moment: You lose! Good day, sir! (Except even Willy Wonka had an honest moral code in the end.)


Ruth’s crossroads is more authentic, as she really does have two ways to go. There’s Nikolai, embodied by his lunchtime snack, xinkali, a hunk of spicy meat wrapped in a doughy exterior. “Russians speak … from the heart, with their souls! Not like Fisher … like from little mouse.” Then there’s Hiram. His lunch is ham and Jamaican jerk chicken—a spicy dish just like xinkali. Yet in his case, it feels like a little bit of a put-on. There is something incongruous about the soft-spoken hairdresser cooking up a bombastic meal, and a jealous Nikolai calls it out right away. “You burnt it!” he blusters. The implication: Hiram doesn’t know how to handle fire like Nikolai does.

So Ruth drifts between two different reveries. As Nikolai drones on about those foolish businessmen who run the Ethiopian restaurant, Ruth fantasizes about Hiram’s gentle caress. Later, Hiram reflects on the bold transgressions of his youth: Reading Mad magazine and watching Ernie Kovacs. No wonder Ruth craves the hirsute, vodka-swilling bravado of her Russian suitor. As this fantasy wears off, she turns her attention back to Hiram just in time to hear him say, “Irreverence was my drug of choice,” a statement that is so far off the white-bread charts that it makes a loaf of Wonder look like Bob freaking Marley. In any case, it doesn’t look like Ruth feels any pressure to choose one path or the other. She just enjoys being desired.


Nate gets sucked further down into the Brenda vortex just when he thought he had reached the bottom. Silly Nate! There is no bottom. After a week of practically no contact from Brenda, Nate goes over to her house. He finds broken glass, a huge mess of half-eaten takeout, and a naked Australian man. Pretty much par for the Chenowith course. An upset Nate asks Brenda why didn’t she say anything to him about her old Aussie friend. “Because I knew you’d react like this!” she says. Yes, that old line. The next part of her two-step is also familiar: “Don’t blow this out of proportion. Please, Nate.” And good ol’ agreeable Nate says, “OK.”

The Insanity of the Week culminates with Nate attending just a terrible, terrible party. Brenda loves keeping her various social spheres separate and them bringing them together as quickly and uncomfortably as possible. Since she’s the only one with a personal connection to everyone in these situations, it ensures that she will be the center of attention. She did it with Nate and her parents, and now she does it with Nate and Random Australian Dude. And, of course, Billy, to whom she has a connection that nobody else could EVER match. Which is so convenient for her. Whenever he’s in the room, she gets to be the Princess of Wisdom.


Nate absolutely blasts bong hits throughout the evening, becoming more bewildered with every puff. And yet the hallucinations aren’t that foreign. His experience that night is just a concentrated form of his typical experience with Brenda: He says things that make complete sense to him, and Brenda rolls her eyes while bemoaning the fact that he just doesn’t understand. When it comes out that Connor has been sleeping with Brenda, and not on the floor as she claimed earlier, Nate is enraged. Once again, Brenda puts it back on him. “I didn’t tell you because I knew you would react like this.”

The difference for Nate this time around is that David has given him an epiphany: Not everything needs to be cool all the time. Brenda lied to his face, after all. So the next day, he apologizes for his outbursts, which is predictable Nate, and then demands she apologize as well, which is not. He wants her to apologize “for always asking me to adjust my behavior and feelings but never being willing to do that yourself.” It’s his most lucid expression yet of the imbalance in their relationship. Why should Nate have to live in the land of moral relativity while Brenda gets to be an absolutist? Brenda, at long last, finds it hard to argue with this.


Nate and David can’t keep Rico from going to Kroehner. While Nate makes a half-hearted stab, telling Rico that he’ll “just be a part of their assembly line,” David is remarkably, dare I say, cool with it. “He’s given us five years,” David says after Rico walks out. “He doesn’t owe us anything.”

Then a sunburned Claire arrives home from her ill-fated Sierra Crossroads trip. Is David going to say anything to their mother about the ordeal? Nope. He enjoys being the good cop for a change. Claire says that she did learn something valuable on the trip: “Everything I think I know is wrong.” Her thoughts turn to Keith, that guy who said that he loved her brother because they truly knew each other. You could see why she would yearn for that kind of comfort in this moment. She asks, “Hey, what happened to that guy Keith?”


“It just didn’t work out,” David says. “Life goes on.” A bus has overturned on the freeway,  which means bodies, so the day-to-day noise is about to start up again. David welcomes the distraction: “There’s work to be done.”

Stray Observations:

  • The “Everyone Has A Shiatsu Mat” thread is the special comment thread where you can talk freely about future episodes, foreshadowing, series-long character arcs, and so on. (In other threads, try to keep the all-knowing crystal-ball-gazing to a considerate minimum for the benefit of those who haven’t watched ahead.)
  • I love the range of expressions that wash across David’s face as he watches a pair of koalas do the eucalyptus mambo. His first reaction is a non-verbal “Jesus!” But then he blinks and decides, yeah, OK, I can watch this.
  • A great callback produces a telling lie: “I get out! I took a very enjoyable trip to San Bernadino, just a few weeks ago.”
  • A question for those of you who are in the business: Was Rico’s game plan for reconstructing Chloe Yorkin a fairly accurate rundown of the process?
  • So Kroehner burnt down its own house for the insurance money after using it to intimidate the Fishers. When Rico says, “Don’t turn your back on Matthew Gilardi,” he’s not kidding.
  • “Carlos Castaneda can blow me.”
  • “Stop acting like you’re honorary mayor of West Hollywood all of a sudden.”
  • “I guess I’m just a little weirded out that I keep running into naked guys at your house.”