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Six Feet Under: “The Black Forest”

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A woman in a cream-colored bridesmaid dress kicks the shit out of her husband, who lies in a parking lot next to a puddle of vomit. “You have three beautiful girls, and they are never going to be able to take a drink. They are never going to be able to have cocktail hour!” she screams as her high-heeled foot thuds against his torso. She’s so mad, she could kill him. That won’t be necessary. Robert Duane Wething, 1958-2004.


Suzanne’s regrettable outburst isn’t really about the girls and their hypothetical future cocktail hours, is it? It’s about her profound disappointment with her alcoholic partner. The silliness of her remark—and the image of martini-tippling tweens it conjures—hints at the depths of her despair. The underlying message Suzanne wants to convey to Robert is straightforward: His choices affect the people who love him. You can tell that she’s tried to get this message across a hundred different ways before, and this roundabout formulation is only her latest exasperated attempt. Having run out of sensible ways to make her plea, she delves into nonsense.

By using her kids as a proxy, Suzanne sets a tone for “The Black Forest.” Everywhere you look in this episode, self-respecting adults are using children to play out their own emotional dramas. As he agonizes over whether to travel to Idaho for Lisa’s memorial ceremony, Nate first protests, “I just don’t want to be with the Kimmels!” Then his glance turns toward Maya, playing on the floor, which leads him to continue: “And I really don’t want to put Maya in that situation: death, death, death.”


Given that “blinking” and “not interfering with dialogue” appear to be the extent of Maya’s talents at this point, it’s fair to say she doesn’t have the conception of death that Nate projects onto her. Nate realizes that he’s being stubborn and selfish, and he also realizes that it comes off better to act like you’re thinking of the children. Brenda performs some deft emotional jiujitsu when she uses Maya to turn the tables on Nate to put him at ease about the trip. “You want to go so that when Maya grows up, you can say to her, ‘You were there.’”

This is Brenda’s therapist side emerging. What she says in regard to Maya is certainly true, but Brenda’s hidden subtext is that Nate ought to go so that he won’t have any regrets, either. Brenda is kind and shrewd enough to express this in the gentlest way possible. Exchanges like this one lend credence to a conversation later in the episode in which Brenda and Nate realize that, for the first time in their relationship, they’re really “here” for each other.

Still, there was an underlying emotional truth to Nate’s “death, death, death” remark. For him, Maya embodies the good that came out of his time with Lisa, and he wants to preserve her as that avatar of hope. So in Idaho, he has to tamp down his latent fear that Maya might somehow be tainted by a family that he sees as a source of eternal gloom. Lisa’s mother hits this home: “You think you’ve gotten to the bottom of the feelings, and then there are more,” she says to Nate. He nods haltingly in agreement, hesitating because in fact, he has finally reached the bottom of his feelings. Does this make him less of a loving person than Lisa’s blood relatives? Was he wrong to stop mourning? These familiar questions surely crop up again in his mind, but he manages to stave them off.


It’s not just Nate who sees Maya as Lisa’s legacy. The Kimmels understandably see her that way, too, so there’s a lot of subtle jockeying over the toddler. When Nate tires of the barbecue, Lisa’s sister, Barb, encourages him to head back to the inn early and leave Maya with the Kimmels for a few hours. “We’re family,” she says. Not coincidentally, at that moment Nate shouts at his brother-in-law to be careful with Maya. The subtext: “Remember whose daughter this is.” And when Barb runs into Nate’s happy little family—Brenda included—at the cafe, her confusion curdles into disdain as she watches Nate’s old flame play with Lisa’s only child. Nate does nothing to welcome Barb into the circle. She may be “family,” but she’s not this family.

If Nate is feeling raw and protective, so too are Lisa’s parents, who are alarmed when their mortician says that he doesn’t think the ashes they interred were actually Lisa’s cremains. Which they weren’t. The timing of the revelation creates a juxtaposition to keep in mind as this storyline unfolds. If Nate gets antsy when the Kimmels are hovering around his daughter, how did he think the Kimmels will feel if they found out that he absconded with the dead body of their daughter? (Not to imply that he thought about it at all.)


Unlike his brother, David Fisher doesn’t have kids, and the world is eager to remind him of such. When he asks the newly minted mother of a Guatemalan child about her adoption agency, she squirms a bit and says, “They’re kind of religious, if you know what I mean. … You might want to try Rainbow Kids or some place like that.” Because you’re gay, David, so obviously you go to the place that keeps babies for the gays in stock. None of these regular babies for you! Later, David engages in a bit of freelance parenting by encouraging Suzanne to maybe let her children shed a few tears over their dead father, and in turn, she encourages him to shut the hell up. David grimaces, and you can see him thinking, “This monster gets to have a whole bunch of kids, and I don’t.”


David’s baby fixation peaks one evening in his kitchen. Keith opens the refrigerator and finds nothing to eat but dozens of eggs. “Yeah, sorry, I thought we needed them. Twice,” David says. He does need eggs, just not that kind of eggs—he’s been experiencing Freudian slips in the refrigerated section. But that latent ovarian preoccupation is nothing compared to the daydream that ensues when David opens the kitchen cupboard…to discover an adorable Chinese baby, all diapered and ready for parental love! Keith wonders who would leave a Chinese baby in the cupboard, and David offers, “I don’t know. Someone Chinese!” A solid guess.

It’s also pure fantasy. The question is why David is so baby crazy at this moment in particular. Kids have been part of David’s hopeful life plans for a while, but he’s especially fixated now, as he continues to recover from the trauma of the carjacking. Those two things aren’t unconnected. The events of “That’s My Dog” were a dehumanizing experience for David, and his storyline for the remainder of season four has seen him haltingly attempt to feel fully human again. Becoming a parent is a fundamental human experience—not an experience that’s essential for everybody, but one that would hold special resonance for an instinctive caretaker like David.


It’s worth noting, too, that when the woman at the wedding reception recommends Rainbow Kids, she is, after all, offering a practical path forward for adoption. Yet David focuses on the demeaning qualities of a separate institution for homosexuals. He has a point, but his reaction tells us that it’s not just about having a child for David—the corresponding sensation of full personhood is crucial as well. He’s drawn to babies because in his eyes, they promise to make him feel whole, and a second-class, gays-only track to adoption doesn’t jibe with that fantasy.

David’s need to feel human helps explain his crazed outburst at the sushi place. The guy at the end of the bar is being impolite to the restaurant staff, to be sure, but he’s not outlandishly rude. David reacts with pique, though, because the customer treats the chef like a food-dispensing robot. To David, with his wounded psyche, the sushi eater’s casual disregard is just a variant of the carjacker’s dehumanizing behavior. In both cases, an aggressor declines to treat his fellow human beings as fellow human beings. “Who do you think you are?” the customer demands after David calls him out. David answers, “I think I’m a member of the human race, which makes me want to treat my fellow humans with a certain amount of respect. That’s who I think I am.”


Indeed, that’s who David thinks he is. As evidenced by the horror on his face after he bites off the rude dude’s earring, though, David’s conception of himself might not line up with reality. He’s conscientious and righteous, that much he knows. But he hasn’t yet accounted for the depths of his lingering rage.

“I’m going to miss this,” Ruth says as Bettina and her daughter bicker over a game of Scrabble. It’s not the board game acrimony she craves, but she is starved for family interaction. That’s why, when she goes back to George, she insists, “I want a healthy continuous flow of family around here, like making a space for Kyle and Becky.” That would be George’s estranged son and the fabric store woman whom Ruth set him up with—successfully, it appears. (If you didn’t remember who Becky was, don’t worry. George doesn’t either.) Ruth also wants to meet George’s other kids, and he appears to hate life more with each one of his offspring that she mentions.


The demand for quality time with the Sibley kids stems partly from Ruth’s desire to uncover George’s secrets, as she senses that he still has plenty of them. She also recognizes, though, that George alone isn’t going to provide her the emotional stimulation she needs. Even if they can move past their present discord, it’s clear that George will always be prone to moody, distant episodes. Ruth looks to the next generation to pick up some of George’s slack. While George doesn’t like the idea, he appears to recognize its practicality—or at least its inevitability.

So it’s a surprise when Kyle and Becky visit for dinner and George hits it off with the son he left behind. They bond over their mutual love of doomsday scenarios and have a spirited debate over how, exactly, we will all be destroyed. “The problem is not nuclear war. The problem is what’s going to cause nuclear war.” It’s one of the George-est sentences in Six Feet Under history. So what will spark World War III? George says it’s water. Kyle says it’s God. Let’s call the whole thing off! (“The whole thing” being the entire human race.)


After Kyle’s visit, George no longer struggles to operate the Fisher household PC (kids are good like that), but Kyle’s technical prowess may have further enabled George’s dark obsessions. We like to imagine that children inherit our best qualities, and we like to forget that our failings can have a generational staying power of their own. Kyle has been blessed with some of George’s worst tendencies—his remoteness, for one, and his unquenchable urge to glimpse the end of days.

The upshot is that Ruth’s compulsory family reunion has unintended consequences, and she finds George hunched over the keyboard in the middle of the night, peering at a site where, he says, “You can literally watch the world’s potable water supply dripping away.” She convinces him to step away from the Internet, but as they head to bed, the drip-drip-drip sound continues playing on the computer—and, we can presume, in George’s head. Will she want to be there when the dam breaks?


Children have become proxies in Rico and Vanessa’s messy separation, too. They focus on Julio and Augusto because they can’t talk about their problems with each other. When Rico’s on the phone with Vanessa early in the episode, he doesn’t say, “I want to see you,” he says, “I want to see my kids.” Vanessa wants Rico to see something else: their high school buddy Kenny Simms, who happens to drop by at the same time that Rico is at the house, playing with his sons. Just one of those crazy coincidences!


Later, Rico tells Vanessa that he has a problem with Vanessa bringing Kenny over and “parading him in front of my boys.” These highly visible dalliances are going to “confuse” the children, he argues, and he’s not wrong, but his own extracurriculars have deprived him of any moral authority. In her anger, Vanessa is making the most of that power imbalance. “You don’t live here anymore, and you can’t tell me shit,” she tells Rico in lieu of defending herself. She doesn’t care about being the world’s best mother because she’s too busy trying to prove that Rico is the world’s worst husband.

Only Claire manages to steer clear of kiddie issues in “The Black Forest.” Her storyline sees her exploring the power of her gaze. At Jimmy’s party, she pathetically attempts to re-seduce her almost-lover, Edie, with an enchanted staredown from across the dance floor. Claire uses her eyes to reel Edie in (or so Claire thinks in her cannabis-induced haze), and when Edie recoils from a kiss, Claire says, “You just look so fucking beautiful tonight!” Claire seems to think that Edie should be flattered by this. It’s like Claire’s mere perception of beauty is an honor she bestows on her jilted ex-friend. Edie rebukes her: “The world’s not your own private fucking chemistry set.” So Claire retreats to the willing arms of Jimmy and tries to inflame Edie’s jealousy with a different kind of gaze—an “I don’t need you anyway” look—but by then Edie is gone, unwilling to be the object of Claire’s beholding.


That’s fine with Claire: She has other people to ogle. “You know, sometimes, when you’re strutting around up there, pointing at shit?” she says to Billy when they’re alone in the darkroom. “I just kind of stop hearing what you’re talking about and stare at your legs, ’cause they’re really long.” Her gaze has become practically predatory, and she revels in it. So it makes sense that, when Russell tears her eyes out of a self-portrait and places them on her face, Claire perceives the resulting photograph as a revelation. The arresting composition accentuates the potency of her eyes, making them seem like separate beings of their own. She’s thrilled to discover an image that matches her own experience—even if she did need someone else’s eyes to see it.

Stray observations

  • Let’s talk Scrabble strategy. Bettina plays COLITIS on a triple-word-score tile by building off of ANTI to form ANTIC. Including the 50-point “bingo” bonus for using all seven of her tiles, it’s a 98-point play for Bettina. Her daughter, Marcie, proceeds to bitch about the game-changer, but Marcie has no room to complain. Instead, she should blame herself for leaving ANTI open right next to the triple word score, leaving an obvious opening for a C on the end (and, less obviously, an S). Bettina was only taking what her daughter gave her.
  • And then there’s Ruth, who whines about her rack of letters, U M U R A W I. Stop whining and get your head in the game, Ruth: You can play WARM/WE/AD on the bottom triple word score for 51 points.
  • At the end of Vanessa’s “You don’t live here anymore!” tirade, Rico whips his key across the room. When Nate and Brenda break up in the second season episode “I’ll Take You,” Nate flings his engagement ring at Brenda. The men of Six Feet Under like to punctuate big fights by throwing little things.
  • Becky and Ruth share a moment of contented bemusement over their partners’ obsessive Internet habits. “Kyle loves online!” Becky enthuses after the men have left the room. Ruth: “George too!”
  • Edie, being correct: “This should be illegal. … People trying to get other people to dance. It doesn’t work.”
  • Nate’s niece really wants David to read the book Stiff; she first gave it to Nate (so that he could give it to David, which he didn’t) in “Can I Come Up Now?”.
  • Thank you for tolerating multiple long hiatuses in these reviews. My professional schedule looks quite different than it did a few years ago when I started writing about Six Feet Under (read: I’m busier), and I regret that the posting frequency has suffered. But I intend to see this project through, since we’re getting close to the end of the series now. So here’s the plan. I’ll wrap up season four by the end of April. Then I’ll tackle season five this summer—I’d like to get to the finale, “Everyone’s Waiting,” around its 10th anniversary, which is August 21, 2015. For extra motivation, here is my promise to you: If I fail to meet these goals, I will post a message to my dozens of Twitter followers that reads, “I was too slow with my Six Feet Under reviews, and therefore I am a poop.” So now you can rest assured that I will get the reviews done to stave off career-destroying humiliation. I appreciate your readership and apologize again for the delays.