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

Six Feet Under: “Perfect Circles”

Illustration for article titled Six Feet Under: “Perfect Circles”

“Perfect Circles” (season three, episode one; originally aired 3/2/2003)

“Great, now I got brain coming out of the wound” is not what Nate Fisher wants to hear, but what’s more remarkable in the opening moments of season three is that Nate Fisher is hearing anything. He is the patient on the operating table, after all. But as time skips and fragments of Nate’s life flash on screen, it’s clear that we’re seeing with Nate’s eyes. “Gotta stop all this bleeding,” the surgeon says, to no avail. Nate is hemorrhaging a life’s worth of experiences in a matter of seconds. Playing with David in the driveway. Furtively grabbing a smoke with Claire on the front porch. His mother. His lover. His child. Nathaniel Samuel Fisher, Jr., 1965-2002.

Is our hero (such as he is) truly dead? That’s the question on Nate’s mind, too. As he shifts through different versions of his post-op reality, Six Feet Under pursues two parallel lines of inquiry. Most obviously, we’re seeing different paths that Nate’s life might have taken. At the same time, in the subtext of each scene, we get a different hypothesis for what exactly is going on here—what is Nate experiencing? Death, or something else?

The first hypothesis is that yes, Nate is dead. He sits at a diner with Nathaniel Sr. as his father munches on a weird leafy green called fenugreek. Then he attends his own funeral. “God damn it, David, I told you I wanted to be cremated,” Nate says when he sees the casket. As soon as he says it out loud, though, it’s clear how little this should matter to him. He’s dead either way, after all.

Or maybe not. Nate walks into the next room and into a new reality. Judging by his hair growth, we’re a month or so after the surgery. Nate’s face droops, and he struggles to pronounce the words on David’s flashcards: cat, duck, goat. His speech gets worse as the exercise goes on. The show invites us to consider whether this is Nate’s true reality: He’s unable to express himself outwardly, but on the inside, his consciousness is alive. So these visions are the product of post-op Nate’s damaged mind.

He could be dreaming, too. That’s the theory hinted at by the next scene, in the next room, where Nate sees himself and Lisa doting over Maya, their daughter. Maya jerks awake when she’s falling asleep, caught halfway between lucidity and a dream. “I remember that feeling of falling when I was little,” Lisa says. “That always woke me up, like I was scared of what I was going to fall into.” Perhaps Nate is stuck in his own dream—scared but unable to jerk himself awake.


Nate’s back in the foyer of the Fisher house now, and Brenda makes her only appearance of the episode. In this reality, she’s the mother of Nate’s child, and she’s complaining that Ruth is going to tell the same old stories about gassy babies again. “Thank God we got high before we came,” she says. Another hypothesis: Nate’s on a bad trip here.

It’s in the following scene that “Perfect Circles” tips its hand and subtly advances the theory that will occupy Nate’s thoughts (and ours) for much of the episode. This reality, in the Fisher dining room, takes place in the past—Christmas 2000, the day after Nathaniel Sr. died. Except he’s not dead here. Instead, he’s listening to Nate’s rant about Bush winning the 2000 presidential election. Nathaniel Sr. says he doesn’t care which way it went—the candidates were just different versions of the same thing, anyway. Nate doesn’t accept that. “How can you not care? What about that bullshit acceptance speech he gave a couple weeks ago when he says, ‘I was not elected to serve one party but one nation’? Yeah, the operative words being, ‘not elected.’”


The 2000 election was a postmodern election: George W. Bush was both elected and not elected. Nate’s frustrated because something that we had perceived to be a matter of fact—who is president—proved to be a matter of interpretation. So is Nate dead or not? Well, that’s a matter of interpretation, too.

This line of thinking leads us into the next scene, where we get deeper into the metaphysical muck. At this Christmas dinner, Nate’s not even Nate at all. Nathaniel Sr. married someone else, and Nate is the dutiful milquetoast son who never left home. David and Claire aren’t here, either, but we do get a funny cameo from Tricia, the alternate-universe Fisher daughter who answers the question, “What would the opposite of Claire be?” Well, she’d probably be blond, skinny, vain, popular at school, and outwardly concerned with matters of decorum.


As Bizarro Claire exits, we come out on the porch, where Bizarro Nate takes the stage. This chain-smoking, cheese-puff-eating redneck doppelgänger is watching TV on the couch. “That was Dr. Schrödinger. Kitty didn’t make it.” says the woman on the show—an apparent soap opera/sitcom/sci-fi hybrid. It’s a reference to Schrödinger’s Cat, the famous quantum physics thought experiment. The premise of the experiment is that a cat is sealed in a box with a radioactive isotope that has a 50-percent chance of killing the cat within an hour. Until you open the box at the end of the hour, quantum mechanics implies that the cat is both alive and dead. It’s your opening the box and observing the cat’s state that “collapses” the probability into one reality.

And that brings us back to the funeral. Nathaniel Sr. asks Nate about quantum theory. Does he believe that his consciousness affects subatomic particles? Does he believe there are billions of universes? Nathaniel Sr. insists that it’s important—“you only get one choice, so you may want to think about this.” Yet Nate just wants to know whether he’s alive or dead.


From Nate’s point of view, the alive or dead question is a big one. But Nathaniel Sr. is telling him that it’s impossibly small. Nathaniel Sr.’s question is, out of all the infinite possible existences, which one will Nate choose to be in? It’s time for Nate to collapse back down to one reality—hence “you only get one choice.” And the reality that Nate observes will be determined by his own beliefs, just like W’s non-election election.

Nathaniel Sr. tells Nate to open the casket. Except Nathaniel doesn’t say “casket,” he says, “Open the box”—like Schrödinger’s box. Once Nate observes what’s inside, he’ll be back to one reality. No more of this flitting between all possible universes. It’s time to choose. And Nate chooses to be alive. Nathaniel Samuel Fisher, Jr., 1965-…


Back in the singular timeline, and one year later, Nate chats with a friend at a cookout and characterizes himself as “lucky.” After what we just saw, luck doesn’t have anything to do with it. Sure, Nate’s complete recovery from a near-fatal rupture in his brain is improbable, but in a multiverse where every possible outcome takes place, there’s no such thing as improbable. Everything happens. The universe where Nate is alive and well is simply the universe that Nate chose to observe.

The first 15-minute chunk of this episode constitutes a short film unto itself, a profound and exhausting one. “Perfect Circles” gets more mileage out of the overlapping-realities motif beyond the opening chapter, but it has even more to explore. The scene that gives the episode its name—Claire attempting to draw perfect circles in her sketchbook—establishes another important thematic touchpoint for the episode and the season to come.


Claire’s art-school exercise is simple: Learn to draw a perfect circle. It’s an infuriating task because the end result is so easy to envision yet difficult to achieve. Claire grows frustrated with her circles. When she’s hanging out with Phil—the crematory assistant whose music is Peter Gabriel, Tool, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Public Enemy all at once—Claire says that the exercise is “stupid and tedious and pointless.”

It’s pointless because she perceives it as such. Claire’s focus is on the circle, but while drawing a circle is an important fundamental skill for an artist, it isn’t the entire point of the lesson. As Claire experiments in her sketchbook, she creates any number of circles that don’t match the ideal. They’re imperfect because she’s made of flesh and bone, so every imperfect circle is a product of her humanity. The exercise isn’t so much about the perfect circle as much as it’s about observing the endless, myriad ways in which an artist’s humanity can manifest itself on the canvas.


I can’t be too hard on Claire for fixating on the ideal. It’s human nature to be a perfect-circler. We get a picture in our head of how things ought to be—a flawless version of our life that seems so simple yet proves hard to achieve in practice—and anything that differs from that ideal becomes intolerable. Everyone on Six Feet Under has been a perfect-circler at one time or another. This episode encourages us to look at who’s being a perfect-circler right now.

David certainly fits the bill. He’s in couples counseling with Keith now, and their arguments fit the classic model of Six Feet Under disputes. Nobody’s 100-percent right; it’s just two flawed human beings dealing with the juxtaposition of their respective hangups. Keith is unhappy with the way his life has gone, aside from his relationship with David (which isn’t altogether wonderful, either). Not only does Keith hate the lack of dignity in his home-security gig, but leaving the police force has also cut him off from his entire social circle. When he comes home and vents a little, he excuses it as “blowing off some steam.”


For his part, David has so much of his self-image tied up in Keith that every sideways glance or exasperated remark cuts David to the quick. “I’m afraid of pissing you off, so I’m constantly editing myself,” he says to Keith in the therapy session. “I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

The scene in the kitchen provides a case study. Keith’s desire to let his rough edges show and David’s hypersensitivity are both on display when Keith snaps at David for adding too much pepper to their stir-fry. “I feel shamed,” David says, eagerly following their therapist’s prescription for self-expression. Keith argues that he grew up in a family where people regularly expressed anger—something of an understatement—so his outbursts mean that he’s “comfortable” with David. “It doesn’t mean I don’t love you,” Keith insists.


Keith’s argument, in essence, is that when he lashes out, David could interpret it as disdain or as love. By choosing to observe disdain, that becomes David’s reality. If David could only choose to see love, Keith says, then everything would be okay. This would be awfully convenient for Keith—too much so to be fair, I think—but it’s doomed to failure in any case. David wants their love to be a perfect circle. He’s not going to reinterpret Keith’s actions because he doesn’t want there to be any room for interpretation in the first place. Their affection has to be simple, indubitable, and pure.

This unreasonable fantasy plays out that night in the most memorable non-Nate scene of the episode. “Are we having sex?” Keith grunts. “Just let me take a shower first,” David says. So he scrubs every inch of himself, brushes, flosses, rinses with mouthwash, and even—this is a great kicker—trims his freaking nose hair. He emerges from the bathroom a perfect circle, ready to engage in the Platonic ideal of lovemaking. But Keith is asleep. Perfect circles don’t have sex. Humans do.


We do learn in this episode, however, that David and Keith’s sex life is still, by their own estimation, “kinda great.” And that figures. In bed, Keith’s need to vent his roiling surplus of testosterone is more than welcome. So is David’s need to make himself open and vulnerable to the caprices of his partner. The passions of sex can recast and rehabilitate a wide range of dysfunction. That’s why people with terrible relationships can still tear it up between the sheets.

Rico’s perfect circle is his ideal of “partnership”—which appears to mean, as far as Rico is concerned, that he’s treated as a man of the Fisher house. There’s a great moment when Claire tells him that she’ll be delivering the body to the crematory, and Rico does not know how to process it. Claire solves the problem that Rico was bitching about—he demanded that someone other than himself make the delivery—but you can tell he’s not pleased with the solution. He wanted one of the Fisher brothers to make the crematory run, so that Rico would feel like their equal. Instead, Nate just introduced another stratum below Rico by hiring Claire as a gofer. The message Rico hears is, “Even our immature, foot-stealing, art-student little sister can do the kind of shit we usually have you do.”


Lisa’s boss, Carol, is such a perfect-circler that she makes everyone else look less neurotic. Carol is a high-powered film producer, and Lisa lives in her guest house, preparing all of Carol’s meals. Everything in Carol’s life needs to be perfect, to a ludicrous extent. She gets upset when Nate parks his car in the driveway, but she doesn’t want to appear upset—that would make her less than a saint—so she berates Nate with some high-test passive-aggression while insisting, all the while, that it’s not a big deal. Because who would make a big deal out of a little parking? Not Carol.

When Carol breaks down crying in the kitchen, we know that it’s because she’s terribly lonely. But she insists—and probably believes in that moment—that she’s upset because she used to swim laps naked in the morning, and it made her feel wonderful, and now she can’t, “because there’s a man living here!” Nate has forced Carol to differ from the ideal. That, to her, makes his presence unsustainable.


Carol is the pathological perfectionist in this episode—the other characters compartmentalize it to certain aspects of their lives. Lisa, for instance, that proud free spirit, goes nuts when she finds out that Ruth fed Maya some peanut butter. That’s against the rules, Lisa says in an angry phone call, as are honey, strawberries, and egg whites. (Those are all the verboten foods that Lisa can think of in the heat of the moment, but you get the feeling that, with time, she could come up with plenty more.) This is what perfect-circlers do. They come up with a set of rules in their head—rules that become more elaborate by the day—and tell themselves that if they follow those rules, everything will turn out fine. As you can imagine, the pursuit of new rules becomes an obsession in itself. Some people feed this obsession with scripture or self-help tomes. Lisa uses the baby books.

It’s an obsession derived from fear—the terror of being a new parent. Ruth knows it well. As she chats idly with her infant granddaughter, Ruth’s thoughts drift to her own first child. Ruth says that her mother-in-law suspected Ruth of getting pregnant on purpose to “trap” Nathaniel into marrying her. (The same suspicion has always been implied with Lisa’s pregnancy, too.) In fact, Ruth says, she never intended to get pregnant with Nate. “I was terrified when your daddy was born,” Ruth says. That’s a big reason that Ruth is so eager to spend time Maya—Ruth gets to nurture a child, which is one of her most fundamental desires, and this time she gets to do it without the fear. Maybe if Ruth shared her feelings with Lisa instead of with an uncomprehending infant, the two women could make a deeper connection.


Instead it’s Nate, eavesdropping from another room, who overhears his mother and learns for the first time that his birth—his entire existence—was unplanned. He talks it out with Lisa later that night. “I don’t like knowing that my whole existence is an accident. It’s just too fucking random.” Lisa brushes it off with some of her vintage New Age Mother Earth hoodoo. “Things happen the way they’re meant to, Nate.” And yet Maya apparently wasn’t meant to have a spoonful of peanut butter. Lisa may believe that her sweeping proclamations portray her as a beacon of calm wisdom, but now that we’ve spent some time with her, it’s clear that they’re just a way for her to avoid dealing with problems.

Nate has spent plenty of time with Lisa, so he doesn’t accept her attempt to recast everything as its own perfect circle. “That’s the kind of fatalism I just don’t buy,” he says. “We make choices. … Surely we’re more than just things that happen.” Then they have the conversation about Maya jerking awake, just like they did when Nate was dancing across the multiverse. It’s his most intense déjà vu experience in an episode full of them, and it appears to solidify Nate’s conviction that there was a meaning to those operating-table visions. He made a choice in that moment. He jerked himself awake. In the season to come, we’ll see when he chooses to pursue perfection and when he seeks the beauty in imperfection. In this closing scene, he’s sure of one thing: He’ll square life’s circle yet.


Stray observations:

  • In the pre-Disqus era, I used to set up the first thread of comments in advance as a place for people to discuss episodes that haven’t been reviewed yet. Since I can’t do that anymore, I’ll request that you keep discussion of upcoming plot details to that first thread. (People were pretty good about this last year, much appreciated.) For those of you who haven’t seen the whole series, you can collapse that thread into a singularity of nonexistence to keep yourself unaware!
  • Of course Nate voted for Nader.
  • In the second Christmas dinner scene, the actors who play alternate-universe Ruth and Nate sound a lot like Frances Conroy and Peter Krause. That’s a nice casting choice that allows us to experience some of the same disorientation that Nate does.
  • Nate doesn’t take a hit off that joint at the cookout, but he sure does take a long look at it. Carefree Seattle Nate isn’t dead yet.
  • Also in that second Christmas dinner scene: It seems this alternate universe features a more devout Fisher family. It’s “Fisher Funeral Chapel” here.
  • I can sympathize with David and Claire in the scene where Nate waxes poetic over the beauty of his child’s poop. Hardly a day goes by without one of my friends offering me the latest anecdote that serves as proof that their child is a prodigy. Oh, and that reminds me—young parents, nobody is impressed that your kid can work the iPad, so please stop telling this story, forever. The fact that your baby can work the iPad is not evidence that he is a genius; it’s evidence that the designers at Apple are geniuses.
  • From the moment Phil first shows up on screen, you know Claire is going to go all gooey for him.
  • Lisa doth protest too much re: her “fast” marriage to Nate: “It wasn’t that fast. We’ve actually been together eight years. You know, on and off. Between here and Seattle.” Speaking of the 2000 election, that is some seriously fuzzy math there.
  • David’s “nonchalant” description of couples counseling: “We’re just seeking the advice of a trained professional to help us establish appropriate boundaries and write the rules of our relationship together.”