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Classic Television Rundown: Six Feet Under, Season One, Episode Thirteen: "Knock, Knock"

Six Feet Under
Season One, Episode Thirteen: "Knock, Knock"

Written and Directed by Alan Ball

Traci: Why do people have to die?
Nate: To make life important.
We have reached the end of season one of Six Feet Under, and after watching and analyzing each episode from the perspective of someone who has watched a decade's worth of serial dramas that came after the first season of Six Feet Under, the up and down nature of the series really sticks out. On one hand, individual episodes and individual moments of this first season work as well as any show I have ever seen; on the other hand, entire plot threads feel flimsy at best and annoying at worst. All of these aspects really come to life in the season finale, "Knock Knock", written and directed by showrunner Alan Ball.

No doubt, Ball created a series in its first season that has a number of great strengths. The main characters, the Fisher family, are a fascinating bundle of quirks, and the people important in their lives (namely, Rico, Keith, Brenda and Billy) are surrogate members of the family that are interesting in their own right. As Ball indicates in the commentary track of this episode, he is interested in writing characters who have flaws. It's true -- television characters would not be very interesting if they didn't have flaws, and the Fisher family is full of them.

And yet, there is a somewhat maddening undercurrent to the first season that makes it less perfect in my eyes than what I originally placed it in my mind. The sitcom elements combined with the rich drama and powerful statements on life and death give the season a fairly inconsistent feel. Ball himself indicates as much in the commentary track. Near the end of the episode, he states that, looking back, there are definitely things about the first season that he would change.

On the other hand, one must look at the first season in the context of when it was made. At the time, The Sopranos was HBO's only other mega dramatic hit (Oz was successful in its own right but not the type of crossover hit The Sopranos was). Cable television in general had very few original scripted series. And. the entire first season was filmed before a single episode had aired, so Ball and the rest of the writing staff had very little idea of how the series would go over.

This method of writing informs how the season finale goes. After Brenda and Nate visit Billy in the mental institution, Brenda and Nate get into a minor fender-bender. Nate's fear of death comes to the forefront when he shares an ambulance ride with Brenda. In one of the most memorable scenes of the first season, Nate, still dazed, looks down at Brenda in a head brace and says, "Is she dead?"(*)

(*)Something about the way Peter Krause delivers this line is chilling. I haven't given many props to Krause's work here, mainly because his character Nate comes off as such a jerk so often, but he is excellent.

Of course, as we learn, Brenda is fine, but an MRI on Nate reveals that he has a condition called Arterio-Venous Malformation, or AVM(**). For all his fear of death, the fact that he has a condition that could bring him to his own early demise is a most appropriate plot twist to end the season. After his doctor tells him that he should hold off on running, Nate goes on a wicked intense run, perhaps running away from his own problems. At the end of his run, he finds himself back where he started: with AVM.

(**)In the commentary track, Ball mentions that he always has doctors act rather coldly toward people, telling them about their medical issues with little compassion. Yet, Nate is the one who sounds like a jerk in the scene, when he says to the doctor, "You fucking tell me!" about his medical issues. Jerkiness works both ways, Alan.

David, having just come out to his mother, is asked to resign from his deaconship after he votes for some gay-friendly business at his Episcopal church. Father Jack, whom he assumes is a kindred spirit, offers no help to David, claiming that he is not gay like David thought. David is then asked to give his testimonial to his church, where he rails against the hypocrisy of the church telling people to accept everybody, yet shunning its own gay members(***). Although his life is not perfect, he finds the ghost of Mark Foster reformed, symbolizing the fact that he feels whole again.

(***)Ball rather obviously reveals in the commentary track that he intended these scenes to show that churches are political organizations, just like everything else. Yes, Alan, we realize that politics come into play everywhere we go. Ugh.

Ruth, having been dumped by Hiram rather coldly, finds herself in bed with Nikolai after all, despite Nikolai firing her from her job earlier. And Claire attends a party with Gabe, who finds himself in some trouble. In the end, Claire and Ruth are looking for some purpose in their lives -- Ruth in the form of moving on from a loveless marriage that ended abruptly with her husband's premature death, Claire in the form of high school angst and being the black sheep of the family(****).

(****)In the commentary track, Ball reveals that Claire is the character most like him. He, too, was a third "afterthought" child.

Near the end of the episode, though, we get a series of scenes that work as mission statements to the first season, and as a whole, the entire series. Tracy, the talkative character ripped straight from a sitcom herself, has trouble coming to grips with the fact that her aunt, the only person who understands her, is now dead. Nate, perhaps reflecting on his own mortality (and perhaps in a better mood), delivers the monologue to her that informs the soul of his character that would live on throughout the rest of the series. Interestingly, it is one of those aggravating sitcom characters who ends up helping deliver the point of the series(*****).

(*****)One might say to "look closer" like the marketing tag line for Ball's American Beauty.

In the final scene, Nate looks upon the christening of baby Augusto, sees his loved ones, the ones who occasionally rub against each other, getting along, and the shot goes all slow-motion like it always does when it tugs at my heartstrings. In a shot that would have worked as a series finale, the ghost of Nathaniel Fisher shows up to check in on the characters, appearing on his own and not in the mind of any of the other characters. Bam, end season one.

All in all, Ball's episode pretty much nails everything that is great and occasionally exasperating about the series. Like he mentions, there are things that he would change. And, having watched a decade's worth of other series that take similar themes of this series and improve upon them (Friday Night Lights comes to mind), it would be easy to dismiss this season, and series. But the undeniably great parts of the season stand apart as some of the best, most addictive drama of its time.

The ups and downs get even more wild in the next four seasons, and I for one can't wait to continue down the path.

Grade: A-

Memorable quotes and trivia

  • "I'm so lost inside. I wish that I could get out. But I don't think I ever will." -Billy, in the heartbreaking final scene between he and Brenda.
  • "It's alright. It's alright. It's okay. You're so beautiful." -Billy, to Brenda, always on the edge of loving and creepy.
  • "I'm so fucking tired of being ashamed." -David
  • "Hey, shut up. My brother's a faggot." -Claire, in response to Gabe calling a guy at the party a faggot.
  • "You ought to be thanking your fucking stars that you're alive and healthy. And that you don't live in a place where you have to work like a dog just to starve or get shot in the street." -Nate. He has a point, but can't possibly make his point without being just a tad self-righteous.
  • "I will be your friend and your lover but I will never be your wife. I spent the first half of my life doing that. I don't need to do that again." -Ruth
  • "Thanks for staying in LA and helping me run the business. Things have been a lot more fun around here since you've been home." -David. Nate gets a little choked up, and it pulls at my heartstrings.
  • One thing Ball talks way too much about in the commentary are props and extras. Stick to the interesting stuff -- what the actors were doing, how particular storylines came into place, etc.
  • According to Ball, the AVM story was not intended when they started doing the season. I would be interested to find out what they planned to do with Nate instead.
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  1. Blogger Brigitte | 11:10 AM |  

    What a show, what a first season. I've enjoyed the recaps, Qualler. It makes me want to rewatch it all. I still think that Six Feet Under would be one of my top ten series of all time.

  2. Blogger Unspar! | 11:52 AM |  

    As I read your recaps, which I continue to enjoy, I'm learning that it's not that I dislike the show as much as I dislike Alan Ball. I've seen him talk sometimes, and he always bugs me, but reading about him here helps me see that annoyingly self-satisfied, self-righteous approach to storytelling more clearly. I can barely even stand to think about it. GAH!

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