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Classic Television Rundown: Six Feet Under, Season Two, Episode Ten: "The Secret"

Six Feet Under
Season Two, Episode Ten: "The Secret"
Written by Bruce Eric Kaplan
Directed by Alan Poul
Brenda: The lines are only in our heads. In actuality, there are no lines at all, which is really fucking terrifying, if you think about it.
I love commentary tracks on DVDs. And episode ten of Six Feet Under's second season, "The Secret", features a commentary track by director Alan Poul. While it's irritating how much time Poul spends on things he wishes he would have done differently, he gives that extra added bonus layer of information that helps one understand how or why an episode of TV turned out a certain way. And that's helpful for an episode that definitely has some flaws that become, while not totally forgivable, at least understandable.

The episode begins with a Buddhist man dying of a heart attack, which, as Poul establishes in his commentary, becomes the center of the episode both visually and plot-wise. Visually, the scene is set up with only three shots and no dialogue, establishing the whole Hindu backdrop to a series of many very simple shots.

And this lends itself to the content of the episode, which features a lot of stark conversations between two people. Let's start with the most compelling character in the episode - Brenda. As the season has gone on, Brenda's sexual compulsions clearly stem from her inability to commit to a monogamous relationship with Nate, which are also clearly stemmed from her intense guilt in cutting loose from her brother Billy and her highly intelligent, highly manipulative parents Margaret and Bernard. As I type this, I feel like the therapist that her friend Melissa recommends to her that Brenda visits.

The scene with the therapist epitomizes what is great about the episode and what holds it back from totally sticking the landing. In a scene that would have worked very well on In Treatment(*), Brenda comes to realize the therapist that Melissa recommended specializes in sexual addiction, something that she clearly doesn't think she needs, and something Brenda wants to be able to push through herself. It's a beautifully realized scene, with superb acting by Rachel Griffiths, who really seems to be coming into something special in this season. But the scene doesn't stick the landing, when Brenda imagines the therapist making judgy comments about Brenda, an awkward attempt to make a stone-cold serious scene into wacky humor that just doesn't work(**).

(*)I so want a new season of In Treatment where Gabriel Byrne puts HBO Series All-Stars into therapy. Imagine Al Swearengen from Deadwood getting therapy. Holy crap, I want to see that right now.

(**)To be fair, Poul pointed out that the script had Brenda imagining sex sounds from the therapist, which would have been an even worse attempt at wacky humor.

Now that David and Keith are back together and have moved in with each other, their relationship shifts into some new territory. David feels intimidated by Keith's somewhat controlling personality, and Keith feels annoyed by David's constant need to be loved. As usual, David and Keith's relationship is the most real relationship on the show, epitomized by David frantically trying to get a coffee stain out of the couch and Keith, not knowing David was responsible for it, complaining about the spot to David. Their domestic bliss is strife with regular relationship problems that come with moving in with each other. As usual, their relationship feels very real.

Claire's journey toward her art career and college start coming together in this episode, with her photography of dead folks and her potential entrance to East Valley Community College. One thing that Poul comments on that always gets my goat is how Claire's art was produced in a way to make it seem like quality art, and the inherent challenges that arise in doing that. Essentially, an artist was brought in to create visual art that would personify Claire's desire to produce something with the many dead bodies that come into her home; that is, she photographed dead people for her Spoon River Anthology unit at school. That her English teacher gave her an "F" because it wasn't a real paper and also mentioned that he went to the drab East Valley for college was a nice touch.

Ruth's desire to go forward with Nikolai and her sadness at Nikolai deciding to move out added yet another somewhat-slight-yet-nice touch to the episode. As Poul points out, actor Ed O'Ross is very good at shifting between Nikolai's mostly-comic tone into a very genuine, almost sweet tenderness. So when Brenda and Ruth come together at Brenda's wedding shower, where Brenda imagines her confession of how terrified she is of what she's becoming and Ruth gives her an actual admission, perhaps spurned by Ruth's life changes, it comes off as one of the more touching scenes of the series thus far.

Of course, as is wont to do for an episode setting up the final three of the season, this happiness is short-lasting. Keith's sister Karla gets involved in a hit-and-run accident, and David finds out about it from Taylor spilling the beans of the "secret" (hey! That's the title of this show!) she's been keeping. Brenda goes to an orgy party, has that conversation with Ruth, and then has a friend break-up with Melissa, perhaps in a way to try to get control of her own life(***). And Nate, in what he thinks is his moment of grace after attending the beautiful Buddhist funeral, gets his reality check when Lisa(****) realizes that he hasn't told Brenda about the new Little Nate that's gonna be running around soon. Naturally, this moment of grace was also delivered by a fantasy involving his intense guilt at the many unborn children he conceived in his young, philandering years. Ultimately, this is Nate's big (fatal?) flaw -- his intense desire to "do what's right" without confronting what's lacking in himself first.

(***)Now there's another scene Gabriel Byrne would play perfectly on In Treatment: All-Star Edition. "Brenda, you have to get control of your life before your life gets control of you." OK, maybe that's more Dr. Phil than Dr. Weston.

(****)Poul admits in the commentary track that Lisa was intended to be a one-off character earlier in the season, and the writers eventually decided to bring her back. That seems to explain Lisa's somewhat inconsistent characterization quite a bit.

The final sequence is one of the show's more haunting, beautiful sequences, with the Buddhist funeral as the centerpiece of snapshots of how the characters end the episode - Karla going to jail for her hit-and-run, David coming home to see a distraught Taylor, Brenda and Ruth sad (and Bernard Chenowith hitting on Melissa - gross!), and Nate in his dumping the water in the oldest tree in the yard in his momentary moment of grace. It's an episode that sets up the final three hours quite nicely, and I'm looking forward to re-remembering how the last three episodes wrap season two up.

Grade: A-

Random Quotes
  • "When I die, I want to be one big mess. That's how life is - messy." -Lisa
  • "Nikolai your apartment is so...it's very...it has a lot of charm." -Ruth
  • "Maybe that's just what a relationship is. Constantly doing things you have absolutely no desire to do." -Nate (groan, Nate. Groan.)
  • "Mom was one of dad's patients. It's actually kind of disgusting." -Brenda, after her dad's return to her parent's marriage.
  • "Get your shit together and don't blow it. Because you are a major handful." -Margaret, always so good at going from batshit crazy to cold and accurate.
  • "Isn't this fun? It's a surprise sleepover!" - Ruth
  • "I had no idea East Valley was so close to the freeway. It's very convenient...I bet some famous people went here. Someone like...David Spade." -Parker
  • "I know the secret to everything. But you'll never know because you killed us." -one of Nate's aborted children.
  • Hey! That's Bill from 24 at the sex party! Gross!
  • "Are you sick dear? Or are you always this deathly pale?" -Margaret, to Claire. Joanna Cassidy is a delight.
  • "I love you because you are so independent and spirited and you make no apologies at all... You accept Nate as he is, and that is beautiful." -Ruth, to Brenda
  • "What steps have you taken to treat your daughter's depression?" -Bern, to Ruth
  • "I'm sorry, I have to use the bathroom." -Ruth, to Bern

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