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Classic Television Rundown: Six Feet Under, Season One, Episode Twelve: "A Private Life"


Six Feet Under
Season One, Episode Twelve: "A Private Life"
Written by Kate Robin
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Ruth: What part of you isn't my son? You're all my son.
When this originally aired on HBO, the network aired this as a "double episode" season finale. This seems unfortunate, because in my opinion, a penultimate episode of any season should be savored as much as possible. Some series throw in as much action into the penultimate episode as possible (Breaking Bad, Deadwood, The Sopranos, and The Wire come to mind), which is the approach that Six Feet Under uses as well.

As much as the middle section of this first season occasionally seemed to meander (albeit, more entertainingly than most shows can manage), the plot points went into overdrive at the end of "The New Person", continued through "The Trip", and accelerate at breakneck pace through "A Private Life." Some of the big questions that eventually started forming - "Will David come out to his family?" and "How will the Billy stalking situation play itself out?" are answered, in some way.

Yet, I credit writer Kate Robin for developing a beautiful script and director Rodrigo Garcia for shepherding a stunning visual palette for the episode. What could have played out as a frantic check-in-on-everybody episode instead served as a companion piece to the Garcia-directed episode "The Room" (which, obviously, was great.)

The episode opens with the hate-violence-related death of a gay man named Mark Foster. Natch, this is a good opportunity to use the "case of the day" as a metaphor for what is going on in the Fisher's lives, and Robin/Garcia do not miss a beat. David does the intake with the parents, and recommends to them that they have a closed-casket funeral. The semi-hateful things Mark's father says about his son also, natch, gets David to start wondering what his pops would have thought had he come out to him.

Later, David would share a dinner with Ruth, who, while attempting to see if she could get David to confess that he is gay, says, "Sometimes I do see Hiram on occasion. And I know you don't like that. But I also know you love me no matter who I see in my private life." At the flower shop, Ruth tries to get Robbie to tell her what to expect about her son being gay. Somewhat offended that she's prying into his private life, he only tells her, "A child knows what his parents need him to be."

Brenda, fresh off the discovery of the photos Billy snapped of she and Nate in Las Vegas, confronts Billy about getting himself some help. And, natch, he doesn't take that too well:
Billy: You're the most important person in my life.
Brenda: Yeah, well, did you ever stop to think that maybe that's fucked up?
Brenda confronts Billy with obvious compassion. As we saw in previous episodes ("Brotherhood" comes to mind), Brenda is frequently more protective of her younger brother than anybody else in her life. Yet, at this point, with her relationship with Nate beginning to develop into something that she wants, something has to break.

Unfortunately, Nate takes this opportunity to act like an a-hole again, getting angry with Brenda for not going the extra step of having him committed to a mental institution. "Do you even comprehend what it's like to be responsible for someone your whole life? Do you even get the concept of loving someone that much?" she says to him before walking out on the dinner they were sharing. Good choice, Bren.

Claire, meanwhile, sits in on an extended school counseling scene with her school counselor. The scene serves both as the heart and soul of the episode and as a template for what Garcia would eventually bring to "In Treatment", where he was a showrunner in season one. In digging at why Claire has been sad, the counselor gets her to open up:
It's like, a sadness, or, fear maybe. It's like, you know, everybody's so scared that they're gonna say the wrong thing. Because, like, you know, when you bury someone, it's the most sensitive time in a person's life. So, it's like, my family, they're just so careful. It's like they almost become invisible. That was heavy.
Nate gets a call for an intake that turns out to be an elaborate prank set up by Billy, who then happens to pull out a knife on him. Clearly, the man is having mental health issues. Later, Billy appears at Brenda's place to cut off the Isabel tattoo from her back, having already cut off the Nathaniel tattoo off his. What sets him off is Brenda telling him, "Nathaniel and Isabel are not real." A heartbreaking, mostly dialogue-free scene near the end shows Brenda mournfully signing the papers for Billy to enter the mental institution. Although there were a few "Billy's gonna die" scares along the way, something about this "resolution" feels like a death. Symbolic.

In the episode's strongest storyline, David continues to do the work on Mark, who was beaten badly. The ghost that talks to David tells us a little bit about David's self-hatred:
David: It's not a choice. God already made the choice for you.
Mark: That's just liberal propaganda to justify your depravity, Jim. No matter how nice you fix me up, I'm still going to Hell, and you know it. Because you're going there, too.
Finally, in the beautiful, haunting few scenes that close the episode, David attends the funeral of Foster (which, by the way, is filmed in slow-motion set to a gorgeous, ambient musical cue), gets into a fight with some protesters(*), then has a conversation with his mom, where he finally outs himself. The scene is brilliantly constructed, with David and Ruth talking at each other about two completely separate things: David, starting and staying braced for Ruth to reject him, and Ruth, hurt and betrayed that he didn't tell her earlier, then starts talking about how when he was young, he would tell her everything. It is a great scene that expertly depicts a realistic dynamic between family members.

(*)Thankfully the signs only say "God Hates Fags" instead of "God Hates Fangs." Hate speech is terrible, but hate speech jokes that are puns are more terrible. I'm shaking my fist at you, Alan Ball.

In the end, David is no more comforted by his outing than he was before. In fact, he sees the beaten ghost of Mark again at night, then gets on his knees and prays to God to take away his loneliness:
Fill this loneliness with Your love. Help me, God, please help me.
A haunting, heartbreaking scene in an excellent episode.

Grade: A

Memorable quotes and trivia
  • I put most of the memorable quotes in the post above because I needed to illustrate how the great dialogue fit into the context of the episode.
  • Writer Kate Robin, credited in each episode as story editor for every episode in season one, most recently wrote a play that debuted here in Minneapolis called ANON. Had I been aware, I totally would have gone so I could report to you in this post about her current writing. Mpls reprezzzzent! Robin will write one of my favorite episodes of the series, the season five episode titled "All Alone". I'll leave it at that for now.
  • Last episode Garcia directed was "The Room". And again he nails a striking visual palette like "The Room" had. That scene with ghost was amazing.

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  1. Blogger chris | 12:11 PM |  

    Oh man remember when the Brenda/Billy storyline was exciting? I do now, thx Qualler!

    Also, I like the quotes-integrated-throughout format. I might steal it!

  2. Blogger qualler | 12:13 PM |  

    Haha yeah, I was thinking that actually while watching S1EP13 how much I was...actually...interested and cared about their relationship. I think the problem is, where do you go from "I had my brother committed despite my reservations" for four more seasons? I look forward to examining that conundrum as the series goes on.

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