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Six Feet Under: “Out, Out Brief Candle”

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“Out, Out Brief Candle” (season 2, episode 2; originally aired 3/10/2002)

Sam and Josh prepare for a hot, sunny football practice under the hot, hot sun. “Don’t stop running, you’ll be in that starting lineup,” says Josh. He’s well-built and self-assured. But Sam is wiry, and he doesn’t look or feel like a sure thing. They run. We get more shots of the hot sun in all its sunny hotness. This is not the most subtle of Six Feet Under opening scenes.


As the players run sprints, we’re just waiting for Sam to collapse, and he does. The coaches and players gather around in concern. Meanwhile, away from the crowd, model athlete Josh crumbles to the ground. In the background, as Sam wakes up, the coach proclaims, “This is the spirit of a real football player here!” But Josh isn’t a real football player; he had the nerve to succumb to mortality. Joshua Peter Langmead, 1981-2001.

As he wolfs down breakfast, David informs Nate that Fisher & Sons will be handling Josh’s funeral. Nate hasn’t been following the news—he finds the news too stressful and sad—so David fills him in on the story. “Twenty-one years old, perfect health, until his brain fried.” Young, virile, health-food-eating, AVM-afflicted Nate takes an extra moment to absorb that.


Nate has tried for much of his life to live a detached existence—to hover above the vicissitudes of human life—and now, as he faces the limited nature of his existence, he senses the emptiness of his avoidance tactics but is too afraid to let them go. In the previous episode, this was framed as a need for Nate to “get in the game.” Now, in an intake meeting with Josh Langmead’s parents, he confronts a kid who played the game with ferocity and still lost.

Josh has played football all his life, his dad says. “It was his dream to play pro. I think he could have, too.” The father asks Nate if he ever played football. “My dad wouldn’t let me. He said it was too d—I played a little baseball,” Nate says, catching himself. So Josh is established as Nate’s foil for the episode. The guy who “played a little baseball” has to confront a kid who lived the game.

Nate has visions of Josh throughout the episode. In most of them, Josh is sobbing, speaking to the inner fears that Nate would like to defer. “I’m scared. What’s gonna happen to me now?” Josh says. Nate snaps, “That’s not my problem,” but as we know, it is his problem, and that’s why he’s so annoyed. “Did you think you were immune to this?” he barks. “Everybody dies!”

That’s no comfort, of course. It’s easy to think about death when you spread the fate across the billions-strong mass of humanity. “Everybody dies” is so un-disturbing that you could practically emboss it on the front of a Hallmark card. Nate’s problem is that he is going to die; that the reality shared across the billions has now been condensed and focused on his one lonely being.


“What makes you so fucking special?” Nate screams at Josh/himself. In truth, the question is, why should death shake Nate in such a different way—so profoundly—when it’s knocking at his own door? Why should an obvious fact of life be this disorienting? He should be stronger than this, damn it—above the fray.

There’s an alluring rationality to that approach, but logic isn’t going to solve Nate’s problems right now. Eventually, Josh has to force the issue. “Look at me!” he insists in a final vision. “I want you to see me. Look at me!” Nate does, and in that moment, Josh isn’t afraid or uncertain anymore. He’s quiet, as if suddenly, he just is. Nate will die, but as he looks at Josh, he realizes that in the meantime, it’s possible to continue living.


It sounds like a banal truth, but since his AVM diagnosis, Nate hadn’t been allowing himself to live. Instead, he’d held himself in a sort of limbo, refusing to advance because every step forward could bring him closer to the end. After Nate “looks at” Josh, it’s not that Nate is suddenly sprinting forward without fear; he’s simply accepting the possibility and inevitability of stepping forward.

Brenda has also been holding herself in assiduous reserve since committing her brother, Billy, to a psychiatric facility. Yet when we first see her in this episode, she’s bubbly and playful—almost too much so. Depression isn’t necessarily one long trough. It can also be like a sine wave, and Brenda appears to be at an unsustainable peak of that wave. We know her well enough by now to notice that in her first few scenes, her smile is a little too broad and her eyes too wide. (Rachel Griffiths turns in admirably subtle and convincing performances throughout this episode.)


Brenda’s preparing for a dinner party with Trevor—the boyfriend she parted with at 19 so that she could stay in California and keep an eye on Billy. Trevor’s bringing his wife and kid. Nate asks if he should be jealous of Trevor, but once the party gets started, it’s clear that the night isn’t about Nate. Brenda doesn’t even bother to introduce Nate when the guests show up; he just stands there like a mope until Trevor finally reaches past Brenda to shake hands.

One reason that Brenda’s eyes are so wide for this affair is that she’s on the lookout for any scrap of meaning that Trevor’s visit might lend to her life. As she tells Nate after the dinner—when they’re alone and she’s crashing from her high—“I spent my childhood performing for clinicians, the rest of my life taking care of my train wreck of a brother, and I have no idea who I am.”


Brenda enjoys Dawn, Trevor’s wife. Dawn read Charlotte Light And Dark—the chronicle of psychiatrists’ years-long examination of young genius Brenda. She sees the book’s “borderline personality” diagnosis as “a misogynistic attempt to pathologize women.” Brenda warms to this notion of herself as a standard bearer for the proto-feminist rebel.

Brenda’s less enamored with Trevor. At dinner, when Brenda talks about her shiatsu business, Trevor has the temerity to say that there’s a “girl” at his gym who doesn’t do shiatsu but is so “gifted—gif-ted!” Oh, no, no, no, Trevor. You never compare Brenda to the normals! “You know, there’s a science to shiatsu,” Brenda replies with barely concealed indignation. “Chinese medicine dates back more than 2,000 years.”


She’s miserable here, and it only gets worse when Trevor and Dawn learn that Nate is a funeral director (a fact that seems like it would have come up earlier if Brenda hadn’t made herself the focal point of the evening). They find this fascinating, and when Nate says, “I was born into it—sort of like being born into the mafia,” the Trevors are filled with delight and intrigue. For Brenda, the only thing worse than not being special is Nate being more special than her. She pours herself another glass of wine.

Trevor’s mistake is to assume that Brenda has, like most people their age, come to terms with some of the predictability and banality of adult life. She hasn’t. She went through a childhood in which she was constantly treated as extraordinary, and then she latched onto her unstable brother, extending the singular, rules-don’t-apply-to-me period of her life. Now she faces a reckoning with normality in much the same way that Nate faces a reckoning with mortality.


Those are both problems of aging. Claire has to contend with her youth. One of the reasons that Claire was drawn to Gabe after his brother died was Claire’s idea that she could see something in Gabe that his family and his peers at school could not. She could detect the warmth and goodness in him, so she decided to foster that and be his savior. In this episode, though, Gabe shatters that illusion.

After Claire’s stoner classmate Andy collapses in the hallway, Claire learns that Andy was doing “fry”—a joint dipped in embalming fluid. Wherever would Andy have procured embalming fluid? Perhaps from his buddy, Gabe “Sticky Fingers” Dimas, who recently paid a visit to the Fisher & Sons basement? This betrayal alone would be bad enough—a sort of reversal of the time that Claire stole a foot from the freezer to spite Gabe—but when Gabe tells her about the convenience-store robbery (from last season), she’s horrified. “Who are you?” she cries.


She already knows who he is—he’s exactly the guy that everybody else said he was. She wasn’t the wise one; she didn’t have some deeper wisdom that allowed her to see into the soul of Gabe Dimas. “Everyone was right about you,” she cries to her horror. He has turned her from the patient oracle into the naïve fool—more specifically, the young naïve fool. “You are the only good thing I have left!” he sobs, on his knees. But she never wanted to be the only good thing. She wanted to be the only one who saw the good in him. She doesn’t see it anymore. There’s still so much left to learn, damn it.

Ruth’s trip to the self-help seminar generates a number of fun moments—my favorite is her defiant, out-of-nowhere speech in the viewing room: “I am speaking FIERCELY from THE I! Do you MIND?” (Let’s wait a bit to pull on that thread, though, as there’s not a lot of meat on this bone just yet.)


The same goes for Rico’s storyline in this episode. I remember liking Rico more the first time I watched the show. This time around, I’ve grown so tired of his “I’ll smile when I want something and turn into a pouty bitch when I don’t get it” shtick. But Rico isn’t nearly as insufferable as the rest of his family. You’ve got Vanessa, the wife who puts a down payment on a new house without even consulting her husband, and then acts like Rico has no right to be upset over this. And then there’s cousin Ramon, with his troglodytic “You been acting like a candy-ass bitch ever since you got married” business. Ramon’s just a jerk, and jerks abound on this show, but still, as the symbol of Rico’s need to be perceived as The Man Of The House, Ramon is a pretty ham-fisted device. But Vanessa’s house-buying monomania is even more problematic. The trouble is that often, the characters on the Rico end of the Six Feet Under universe aren’t written with the same level nuance as the rest.

Rico does have some grounds to be upset with the Fisher brothers’ behavior—it was pretty low, after all, for Nate and David to shop for a new casket wall mere hours after Rico made his plea for help. The unspoken question hanging over this episode is, would Nathaniel Sr. have given Rico the money? Rico thinks that the answer is yes. In fact, that’s a source for a lot of Rico’s irritation in these first two seasons. He feels that he paid his dues with Nathaniel under the implicit expectation that the patriarch would take care of him down the line. And now he’s been left high and dry. Then again, who knows what Nathaniel Sr. would have done? As we’ve seen, it isn’t beneath Rico to exploit Nathaniel’s legacy and to use it as a negotiating tactic.


That leaves David. Despite their contentious phone call near the end of “In The Game,” he and Keith are spending more time together—playing racquetball, for instance, a nice callback to the “he’s my racquetball partner” explanation that David used before he came out of the closet. David’s storyline is my favorite of this episode, because we get to see why Keith and David, despite their problems, make such a great couple.

Proud, heroic EMT Eddie may be a fun partner for Keith. Eddie’s the guy that takes Keith parasailing and hang-gliding—a good companion for the highs in life. But it’s easy to find a companion for the highs; David is the best man for the lows. Keith knows this, so after the racquetball match, he invites David along to his niece’s birthday party. To David, it must sound like a benign way to spend the afternoon. Only Keith knows that it might not be.


Yet when David walks in to the saddest birthday party in television history—Keith’s niece Taylor is sitting by herself in a messy apartment, eating an Entenmann’s cake straight out of the box—he doesn’t hesitate or stumble. David knows from loneliness and pain. So while Keith has it out with his drug-addled sister in her bedroom, David finds common cause with Taylor. Undaunted by the cold hello she gave him at the door, David finds bonding points that are both sweet—they both love to play with an Easy-Bake Oven—and solemn. “You have a daddy?” asks the fatherless Taylor. “I used to,” David says.

Is it any surprise, then, that as Nate searches for the right person to tell his AVM secret, he chooses to unburden himself with David? He fantasizes about telling Brenda, even imagining the dramatic words he’d use: “Brenda, I’m dying,” but as she lapses into self-psychoanalysis, he too reverts into helper mode.


No, David has to be the one. He’s built for pain, trained for death. Michael C. Hall does a beautiful job with this last scene. When Nate says he has something to tell David, David is in his default mode: the scold. “What did you do now?” he sneers at Nate. But when the seriousness of Nate’s news becomes clear, and they sit down together, David’s body language loosens dramatically. Instead of stiff and guarded, he’s slumped, receptive, and extended, lightly grasping Nate’s hand as the older brother’s body shakes with fear and despair. David may not be Mr. Parasailing Hang-Glider—he may be the type of guy who’s like a kid on Christmas morning when he’s inspecting a shiny new casket wall—but those who are close to him know that when the sine wave of their life hits a low ebb, David is the person they want nearby.

Stray observations:

  • As always, please use the first comment thread to discuss future episodes of the show (i.e., the ones that haven’t been reviewed thus far in these pages). If you’re new to the series and haven’t watched it to the end yet, collapse that first thread to avoid future plot details.
  • Kroehner’s back! Mitzi’s back! Gilardi’s back! His firing was as satisfying as it was abrupt. And the casket-wall bluff was a nice twist.