Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Six Feet Under: “Making Love Work”

Illustration for article titled Six Feet Under: “Making Love Work”

“Making Love Work” (season three, episode six; originally aired 4/6/2003)

Let’s play “one of these things is not like the other.” Three friends are standing in line for The Dr. Dave Show, eager for a glimpse at the good doctor himself, whose slogan is “Making love work.” They each have problems they would like Dr. Dave to address, and they write their problems down on a little card. One friend says, “I feel that I should be happy because I have everything, but I’m not happy, and that makes me feel guilty on top of it all, and then I hate myself.” Another comes right out and tells Dr. Dave she’s in love with him. And Karen says she wants to know how she can stop being so competitive with her mother-in-law.

So we’ve got two women who express their inner thoughts to the brink of oversharing, and we’ve got Karen, whose stated problem is so modest and generic that her friends have to cajole her to spice it up a bit. She does—she amends “mother-in-law” to “chain-smoking bitch of a mother-in-law.” But her natural inclination is to hold that rage in and to pin her problems on herself. We can tell that “chain-smoking bitch” is a rare bit of release. Then a release of a different sort trickles out of her right nostril. And it won’t stop. Karen Postell Pepper, 1964-2003.

If other shows have “bottle episodes” where all the action takes place in one setting, then you might say that Six Feet Under has “bottle-up episodes” (forgive me for that) where all the action takes place in one character’s head, ratcheting up the internal pressure. That’s the case for Nate’s storyline in this episode.

Rico explains that Karen died because scar tissue from plastic surgery put pressure on a major artery for years—such that the blood vessel was doomed to give way at some point—and Nate remarks, “We’re all just ticking time bombs, aren’t we?” He knows of what he speaks. Karen got plastic surgery to maintain a certain appearance, just as Nate is struggling mightily to maintain the image of the dad and husband he thinks he ought to be. (The fact that Karen had a vessel burst in her head, like a certain firstborn Fisher son, drives the parallel home.)

As Lisa and Nate prepare for a camping trip, it becomes evident they have different conceptions of this weekend in the wilderness. Lisa frets over whether she should bring just one spatula or two, and Nate fantasizes about a difficult hike to Suicide Rock. (Which is an actual place and not just a bit of high-test symbolism.) Nate views camping as a desperately needed escape while Lisa is merely content to do the same old parenting thing in fresher air.


At the campsite, Nate berates Lisa for bringing only one six-pack of beer—in addition to his weed. He sighs and explains to his idiot, beer-not-bringing wife that he wanted to “seriously unwind and kick back, and forget about the fact that I spend my day surrounded by death.” Nate half-mumbles this line because, for Lisa’s sake, he’s sanitizing his full account of the things he wants to forget. You’d think that if Nate were merely hoping to forget about work, one form of intoxication would be enough.

Lisa’s response here is telling, too. She’s fine with the beer and weed; she just doesn’t want him to smoke cigarettes. Nate’s secret smoke breaks are one of the most prominent ways in which he not only lies to Lisa but insults her intelligence. They are a literal and figurative smoke screen with which he blocks her view of himself. At home, she can smell it on his clothes—her nose for truth never fails—and she has to pretend she doesn’t notice. But “out here, where the air is so pretty,” all she asks from Nate is honesty.


The intercut sequence of conversations—bouncing between Nate’s chat with Todd and Lisa’s with Dana—reemphasizes contours of Nate’s marriage that we’ve mostly been able to discern already. Todd and Dana are in it for each other; Nate’s in it for the kid; Lisa isn’t entirely sure why she’s in it. But she knows that her sex life stinks. She hasn’t had any orgasms since she had Maya—a period of time that matches up with her marriage to Nate. Crazy coincidence! It must have been childbirth, Lisa muses to Dana, who is semi-reassuring. Lisa also confides that lately, she’s faked an orgasm or two. Dana takes this to mean that Lisa fakes all of them, which is probably right. The question is how much more of her married life Lisa is faking.

After Nate pounds the bejesus out of a snake as if the poor thing is original sin itself, he shouts, from the primal depths of his newly cleansed soul, “Don’t any of you fuckers want to go for a fucking hike?” The shot changes to a picture of two women holding their children and one man holding his wife. Nate hikes alone to Suicide Rock.


Nate’s vision of Brenda is best understood if you consider that, on some level, Nate knows it’s a vision. He’s not yelling at Brenda so much as he’s screaming at the idea of Brenda for reappearing in his head—or, put another way, screaming at himself for conjuring thoughts of his ex. Nate insists he doesn’t miss her, protesting too much. “Oh, remember that feeling,” she says after they kiss. “Flowing into each other like water.” These aren’t the thoughts of a man who has left the past behind.

Nate and Lisa’s frustration with each other boils over when the other couple practically forces them to go on a “private nature walk” (ugh) together. Six Feet Under always does fights well, in part because the writers realize that arguments rarely provide complete catharsis, no matter how much a lazier screenwriter might wish they do.


In this latest Six Feet Under blowup, Nate rails against Lisa’s “fuckin’ fairytale idea” of marriage: “You made up this story about us, and you cast me in this role.” He’s right. Lisa shoots back, “You cast yourself in that role.” She’s right, too. Yet Lisa’s the only one who ends up apologizing here. “Honey, I want to get better at this,” she says. What exactly is “this”? Lisa probably means “marriage,” but the script leaves it ambiguous because in practice, she means that she wants to get better at playing the same made-up roles she was just railing against. Nate responds by telling her exactly what she needs to do for him to make her come and screw her senseless.

Their ride home is one of the most devastating scenes of the season. Lisa reflects on the previous, rare instances when she and Nate had sex like that—both when they were living in Seattle. The first time was when Nate had just broken up with a girlfriend. The other came after a different woman stood Nate up. Lisa says it without saying it: On both occasions, Nate wasn’t inflamed with passion for her but rather taking out his frustration that he couldn’t be with another woman. “It’s nice now that it’s just us,” Lisa says. “I love you, Nate. God, I’ve loved you for such a long time.” She’s fulfilled. Her face is calm and beaming.


Nate’s face is tight. Lisa doesn’t know about the “encounter” with Brenda at Suicide Rock. She doesn’t know that this time was the same as those other times, really. At a moment when Lisa feels like they’ve reached a new level of honesty in their marriage, it dawns on Nate that he’s simply compounded the lie. So what does he say to her proclamation of everlasting devotion? “I love you too, hon.” “HON”! Nate has been suffering with the burden of his and Lisa’s self-deception, and this conversation marks the reality that he’s inadvertently shifted more of that burden onto himself. Now that Lisa views him as a more perfect lover, he’ll have to work even harder to keep up appearances. It’s going to be a long ride home.

This episode focuses mainly on Nate and Lisa, but we do see progress in other relationships. Russell and Claire’s worship of Olivier has evolved into more of a love-hate phenomenon, as they’re growing weary of his mercurial and often humiliating critiques. After Olivier accuses Russell of creating “elephant art”—art that self-consciously announces its importance—Russell grows despondent. (The term is “white elephant art,” and maybe if Russell knew this, he could have shown up Olivier. Then again, it’s impossible to show up Olivier. His weapon isn’t his knowledge. It’s the ineffable, undefeatable aura of the artist.)


And so Russell sits with Claire in her bedroom, staring into the abyss and lamenting his own inadequacy. Little does Russell know that Claire can’t resist broken men who need to be healed. What does his failure matter, he says, since the world’s going to be “blown to smithereens” anyway? Claire responds by kissing him and blowing his world to smithereens.

Later, basking in a post-coital glow, the newly deflowered Russell says, “I feel really safe with you, Claire.” She loves that. That’s exactly how she wants him to feel. Olivier, on the other hand, is not so interested in safety, so the haranguing resumes when these two crazy kids with their streaks of blue hair return to class. Olivier can see that Russell is still smarting from the critique the other day, and he challenges Russell: Why does he care? “Because you’re my teacher, and I respect you.” At this, Olivier launches out of his chair in a fit of pique. “Don’t you fucking respect me,” he seethes. “I’m an idiot, see? I’m not God. Don’t you ever respect anyone except your fucking self.”


It’s another case of Olivier moving the true-artist goalposts, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong or disingenuous here, because he’s neither. He enjoys having talented students like Claire and Russell idolize him, but that’s different from respecting him. Respect confers authority on Olivier, and he resents that. In Olivier’s mind, “respect” is a construct that can only weigh him down, by giving him an outsize role in the work and worldview of two artists who aren’t himself. He didn’t ask for that, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let these two “fucking babies” suck him into their orbit like that. Still, there is also the matter of Olivier’s ego, which needs constant care and feeding. So this could get complicated.

Ruth and Arthur’s dalliance is still in its initial stages, but Ruth is doing her best to hurry it along (keeping in mind that we’re working on the relatively tame Ruth Fisher schedule here). She’s wearing her infatuation a bit more boldly now, although it’s lost on Arthur. As he blows heaps of wet, noisy snot into his handkerchief, Ruth coos, “Isn’t that wonderful?”


They bond over the sci-fi movie Silent Running, a movie about a man who cares for a spaceborne bio-dome with the help of three squat robots. Arthur is delighted that the astronaut “has to teach them everything.” It’s a line that oozes with maternal instinct, so you can see how Ruth, who appears to be less engrossed in the film, would watch it with Arthur anyway. If Claire loves tending to the wounded, Ruth loves tending to the infantile. Arthur is the complete package: He shares some of that caring instinct, and he’s something of a man-child himself.

Ruth is already running into a roadblock with Arthur, though, which is that his commitment to the dead trumps all. When she visits him in the embalming room to see if he’d like her to pick up another video, he’s polite but uninterested. Later, after the very funny moving-the-dead-fat-guy ordeal, she offers to bring Arthur some hot chocolate while he works to reconstruct the decedent’s face. He declines: Chocolate makes him queasy. How about tea? No, thank you.


Ruth and Arthur are similar in so many respects, but this is one important point on which they diverge. Having lived in a funeral home for so long, death has become almost banal to Ruth. Listen to her as they all stand over the bloated corpse: “Claire, I’m sorry that I raised you around so much death.” She treats it as a nuisance.

For Arthur, though, death is a calling. When he phones Rico to tell him about the casket mishap, we can only hear one half of the conversation, but it sure sounds like Rico is understanding about the whole thing. Yet Arthur is beside himself—no apology is enough. The upshot is that in her quest for Arthur’s attentions, Ruth is matched up against death itself. So this could get complicated, too.


We see little of David in this episode, and he has only one scene with Keith, as David reflects on the straight life that he tried to live for a long stretch of his life. He was going to be the devoted husband and father—he pictured an idyllic life with twin girls named Coco and Clementine. “All the while,” David says, “I was just trying that guy on to see if I could make it fit.” Then he turns on the TV. Instead of his nuclear-family fantasy, he’s living a life where half-watching porno DVDs is part of the evening routine. You can see why we dwell on the stories we invent for ourselves.

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.
  • Dana describes Unitarian Universalism as “about as ‘not religious’ as a religion can be.” Lisa likes the idea because you get to be around people. But for Nate, a person who’s so eager to believe in something, no religion could be less interesting.
  • Arthur is so perfectly inoffensive that even interpreting a film is too forward: The robots in Silent Running are adorable but “benign, obedient—much like television itself. Perhaps the writer’s comment on how technology can be controlled and used effectively for humankind,” he says. He hastens to add: “Perhaps not.”
  • Nate tokes up at the campfire, but everyone else passes. Which makes me realize: It would be a lot of fun to hang out with a stoned Nate Fisher. The conversation topics would be freaking cosmic. (I also love that Nate takes a second hit after everyone passes, on account of he doesn’t give a shit.)
  • Arthur, upon spotting a man in Claire’s bed: “I’m sorry, I can see you’re entertaining!”
  • The Dr. Dave bit in the opening—an obvious stand-in for Dr. Phil—made me realize that Dr. Phil has been a figure on our national cultural scene for more than a decade now. Sigh.