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Six Feet Under: “Twilight”

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“Twilight” (season three, episode 12; originally aired 5/18/2003)

The scariest things about Carl Williman are his eyes. They’re so clear and ferocious as he delivers his last words. Yes, the corrections officer tries to prepare the spectators by telling them about the mechanics of the death and the potential horrors of the inmate’s speech. But that’s all theory. “If anybody thinks the state of Texas is teaching anybody anything by putting this poison into me, they’re even dumber and crueler than I am,” Williman says, with a piercing blue-eyed gaze. At least he knew his killing was pointless, he seems to argue—the onlookers in the room suffer under the delusion that their killing will accomplish something. Yet none of them look away. They know who has to blink first. Carl Desmond Williman, 1948-2003.


“Twilight” is a bridge between last week’s episode, in which Lisa’s disappearance was made real, and next week’s season finale. The writers cleverly embrace this episode’s in-between nature. A line spoken by a nurse at the abortion clinic provides the episode’s touchstone as she describes the effect of “twilight” anesthesia: “You’re not really gone, but you’re not really here.”

Direct context aside, the line applies most obviously to Nate, who remains in a gray limbo. Even though he gets plenty of screen time, his presence is so deadened and numb that he almost seems to exist on the periphery of the episode. He’s only half-aware of Allison Williman, daughter of Carl, as she makes arrangements for her father’s funeral. Yet he flickers to life when Allison is so insistent in her loneliness that he senses, vaguely, a kindred spirit. He glimpses her tattoo: A pipe with people going in one side of her legs, being taken apart in the middle, and then coming out the other side all put back together. (Gee, you think they’re going to end up having sex? It’s not one of Six Feet Under’s most artful metaphors.)


Nate resists Allison’s advances for a while. He has dug himself into a pit of despair so low, he refuses to entertain the idea that someone could exist down there with him. Allison’s in a similar situation—both she and Nate bristle when someone else reaches out with sympathy, as in their minds, nobody can know how they feel. So Allison’s pit of despair is about as low as Nate’s. She’s just trying to tunnel over. Lying in his bed alone, Nate gives in and calls Allison. He calls her because he’s lonely, yes, but there’s something about that tattoo, too. Nate’s like the walking dead right now, and maybe he believes that if he lets Allison disassemble him and put him back together, it’ll serve as a jump-start. Perhaps the raw instinct of sex will restore him to a state where he can at least feel something.

The tattoo oversells itself. Allison is the one who’s reduced to her raw parts, letting out guttural cries of “Fuck me!” as Nate tries to quiet her for the baby’s sake. Nate emerges from the night largely unmoved, and he resents it. The next day, after Carl Williman’s funeral, Nate tells Allison that their tryst was a one-time thing, and she cries. This only further enrages him. “Have you seen what kind of fucking world this is?” he says. “You see what people do to each other, what your fucking father did to people, and now you’re going to cry? … You don’t get to cry.”

It’s one of Nate’s most vicious speeches of the entire series, and it comes because at the moment, crying is a privilege that Nate won’t allow himself. It’s too presumptive. Until he knows the truth about Lisa, he feels he can’t be sad, because what is he going to be sad about? Her death? But maybe she’s not dead. Her betrayal of him, then? But maybe she’s dead.

All he can do in his head right now is run through the scenarios, and we see a few of his visions. In one, Lisa runs off with a lover who has made Nate out to be a toxin in Lisa’s life (and we know how she feels about toxins). In another, Carl Williman prepares to lunge at her with those ferocious eyes. In another, she simply walks into the ocean.


Nate’s final vision closes the episode. He steps through his bathroom door and onto a beach bathed in an orange twilight glow. Lisa is seated at a table, waiting for him, “I wanted to love you,” he says. “I did love you.” He tells her that he feels like he had a once-in-a-lifetime chance with Lisa, and he fucked it up. “Hey. I’m not a chance. I’m a person,” Lisa says. It’s a crushing line that sums up their inability to connect with each other: Nate only really considered Lisa in relation to himself, rather than as an independent entity of her own. Lisa fed this tendency, too—her infatuation with Nate ensured that he was the star around which their marriage orbited. Only now does Nate perceive the depth of his mistake. Now he cries.

Part of the essence of Claire is that she never entirely occupies any of the spheres she travels in. It started at birth. She was born 14 years after her youngest brother, so while she’s loved by everyone in her family, she can never entirely shake the feeling that she lives in an annex to the Fisher clan. This is part of what makes her a talented photographer—she has plenty of experience observing life from a distance. And it also makes her fascinating when she’s paired off with one of the characters she doesn’t see too often, as is the case with Brenda in this episode. Her perspective, offered from a slight remove, tends to be enlightening.


Aside from logistical and medical concerns, Brenda doesn’t talk about or ask about the abortion with Claire, despite the fact that they end up spending the day and night together. When we see them driving to the clinic, Brenda has started a conversation about favorite foods. (Claire likes sushi, but not too “baroque.”) At no point does Brenda have a “You want to talk about it?” moment. Part of this is that Brenda doesn’t know Claire so intimately, and part of it is that touchy-feely isn’t Brenda’s style. On the other hand, direct confrontation of internal conflict usually is Brenda’s style—remember the death-bus ride and the magical mortuary tour.

So there are a lot of reasons that Brenda treads lightly here, but I still find it notable that she does so. As she continues to rebuild her life, she’s not self-assured enough yet to offer any insights to Claire. Instead, Brenda mostly reaffirms her presence—she helps Claire by being there, unlike the rest of her family, who are only half-there right now.


It’s Claire who does the emotional probing: “You’re still in love with my brother, aren’t you?” she asks. Brenda says no at first, then admits that she is, “in the way that I always will be.” Claire understands. We can see Claire’s expression shift as her thoughts turn to Russell for just a moment. But her common ground with Brenda is the more important connection here. Brenda provides a salve by treating Claire as a peer—by inviting Claire to understand some of what Brenda’s going through.

When she gets home the next day, Claire asks Nate to give Brenda a break. Nate says that it’s more complicated than that. Claire replies, “I’m sure I could never imagine.” Back to the annex.


David and Keith’s falling-out is triggered by an argument over telemarketers. David tries to engage the poor schmoe hawking newspapers on the other end of the line by providing reasonable counterpoints to every argument the cold caller can muster. Keith takes the phone out of David’s hand, says, “We’re not interested,” and hangs up. David gets pissed off, and it turns into an argument over the events at the Charles’ house in San Diego. The little tiff over telemarketers is a microcosm of that dustup, in fact. David felt that he had something to say and an argument to make; Keith cut him off at the knees because he believed there was no point arguing. The stakes may be lower with the telemarketer, but the dynamic is the same.

“I want you on my side,” David says. “I need you on my side. And it’s the one thing I never, ever have.” In other words, David believes that Keith is there without really being there. Keith is caught wrong-footed throughout their arguments in this episode, because he genuinely doesn’t understand where David is coming from. As far as he’s concerned, when he saves David from his own excessive niceness, he’s doing David a favor—he IS on David’s side. This is not to forgive Keith’s brusque behavior but rather to point out that in his own head, his “tough love” (for lack of a better term) makes perfect sense.


Of course, David does not want to be saved from himself. He’s built up enough inner strength that he doesn’t view himself anymore as a force from which he needs rescuing. “I look at you, Keith, and all I think about is how I can help you be whatever it is you want to be between now and the day that you die,” he says in a powerful moment. “You look at me,” he adds, “and all you see are problems.” David must wonder whether he got together with Keith because he used to look at himself and see the same thing—problems. Is it possible he’s outgrown Keith?

It’s a train of thought that David pursues with his choir buddy, Patrick. “It just feels like it should be the end,” David says. When they end up in bed, it makes a certain sense. David and Patrick have common interests and a shared gentle manner. If this were a simpler show, or if David had led a simpler life, he and Patrick might be made for each other.


But David only sleeps with Patrick because he is kind and safe. “There are times when you’re in the midst of all these voices, being carried along, and all you have to do is get to the end of the song,” David says in another scene. “For a few minutes, it’s that simple. Just get to the end of the song. It’s kind of a relief.” It does not require interpretation or squinting to discern Patrick’s affection. It needs no work at all, in fact. He can just let himself be carried along. That’s an alluring notion.

Father Jack’s advice to David is an exemplar of Six Feet Under monologues, as it so readily cuts two ways. David asks Jack whether he should be happy with Keith. Jack responds, “I think you should do whatever brings you deeper into the reality of your life. … Not the life you think you can have. The life you’ve got.” David could take it as an encouragement to work out his problems with Keith—under the assumption that they ended up together for a reason, and therefore their relationship is part and parcel of “the life you’ve got.” It’s not perfect, but it’s the hand they were dealt. Work it out.


“The life you think you can have,” however, is probably the bit that resonates most with David. Right now, David believes he’s been deluding himself over the notion of a happy life with Keith. He hears Jack’s advice as an admonition to stop pretending. “It’s never been right between us. It never will be,” David says to Keith on his way out the door. He refuses to hear Keith out, wary of being sucked back into the fantasy.

Yet at the same time, David seems to have plunged himself into a new, exaggerated unreality. When Keith pleads for David to stay, David says, “Or what, you’ll hit me?” It’s a strange response in a scene where Keith was showing no signs of aggression (aside from the normal heat of a break-up argument). In his eagerness to break off the fantasy of the tidy nuclear Keith-and-David family, David makes Keith out to be more monstrous than he really is. His vision of their relationship has swayed too far in the other direction—from idyllic to horrific. It’s no wonder that Keith can’t catch up. David is being carried along by a song he’s singing to himself, and Keith just has to wait to see what happens when David gets to the end of the song.


Ruth is swept up in a song of her own, as her chance meeting with George has led to an intense closeness in almost no time. Indeed, at the beginning of this episode—taking place less than two weeks after the last installment—Ruth’s children treat her visits to George’s place like they are old hat.

You can tell what draws Ruth and George to each other. They both are keenly aware of their age, and they value companionship above all—they’re not, as a younger couple might be, overly distracted by considerations of sex or children, or worried about exploring their options to find the perfect mate. (“I don’t have any other prospects,” George says, “and I don’t want any.”) There are touching poetic moments between them, like when Ruth expresses her advancing age in terms of seeing the stars moving faster than they used to—they “stream across the sky,” like in a movie, she says. Or when George says, in a cavernous hardware store, “I don’t want to come to places like this alone anymore.”


Yet there are faint warning signs. Maybe Ruth senses them, and maybe this is what leads her to pull back from her rush into marriage. (In addition to David’s earnest but loving dismay when she runs the idea by him.) Ruth gives voice to the dissonance between herself and George after she’s flipped through a textbook he wrote on plate tectonics. “To me, the state of California has always been here,” she says. “But to you, obviously, it’s just stopping by.” Permanence is an important concept for Ruth Fisher. She draws stability from it. Her marriage to Nathaniel Sr. was a marriage for life, even if they did grow apart, and even if she did cheat on him. But George has been married six times before, and his understanding of plate tectonics is an important metaphor: What others perceive to be permanent may be, to George Sibley, just another moving part that comes and goes.

Another red flag is the fact that George and Ruth are viewing each other more as ideas than as full-fledged human beings. “You may be my last chance at finding love,” Ruth says. “And you may be my last chance to be happy,” George says. The echoes of that exchange can be heard when Lisa ends the episode by telling Nate, “I’m not a chance, I’m a person.” George and Ruth may be eager to take a chance, but it remains to be seen whether they’re willing to take a person.


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.
  • I’m not sure why Rico, after being so petulant about the funeral for mass-murderer Daniel Showalter, handles the preparations for Carl Williman with such aplomb—even going so far as re-embalming Williman to ensure that he’s the right color. It seems dubious that he has grown up that much in the past few months.
  • Father Jack’s nervousness around David—after their encounter in the gay-porn-friendly video-rental store—is a nice touch.
  • The lone scene of Rico at home is oddly shoehorned into this episode. It seems the writers needed to remind us of what an enormous jerk Rico’s sister-in-law is. Mission accomplished.