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Classic Television Rundown: Six Feet Under, Season Two, Episode Twelve: "I'll Take You"; Episode Thirteen: "The Last Time"

Six Feet Under
Season Two, Episode Twelve: "I'll Take You"
Written by Jill Soloway, Directed by Michael Engler
Season Two Episode Thirteen: "The Last Time"
Written by Kate Robin, Directed by Alan Ball
Brenda: Don't you throw that ring at me. That's such a fucking cliche. I'll fucking barf.
Nate: (Tosses ring) There, barf.
Well, hello new readers, to our dear TV blog. For those of you who knew us in our previous life as a general pop culture blog with the occasional dalliance in television, you may have read my very traditional-TV-criticism episodic reviews of Six Feet Under. I reviewed seasons one and episodes one through eleven of season two in a very AV Club-kind of way, before losing steam. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with doing the AV Club way. As a daily reader of The AV Club, as well as Alan Sepinwall's episodic review, as well as the numerous excellent voices out there that are on the blogroll of this here blog, this is a format that works very, very well, and is very successful in building the television community that has exploded in recent years.

But, in the spirit of this weekend's release of The Cabin in the Woods, I'm gonna get all meta on you and write about writing. (Go see that movie, by the way. It is great.) Ryan McGee's blog post about his proposed TV criticism punk rock movement has made me think a lot about my approach to blogging. Let's face it: there is no reason for me to write about television on a voluntary basis unless it was fun for me. And, writing about essentially the same set of circumstances for every episode of Six Feet Under (Nate's a jerk who wants to be a nice guy, David is insecure about his sexuality, Ruth is finding a new life after her husband's death, Claire is coming of age) over and over stops being as fun. Sure, watching the actual episodes again after a long time is great to do, and watching again with commentary for the first time is very educational. But it eventually starts feeling a little like banging one's head against the wall for the average mid-season episode.

Which brings me to McGee's thesis of a TV criticism punk rock movement tenant number one: "Write only when you feel the need to write."  So, I feel a renewed sense of TV writing in this particular review of the last two episodes of Six Feet Under when I think of it in the sense of something I want to write. Part of the reason I was putting off these last two episodes was not the contents of these two episodes, which are among the most memorable episodes of the series, and contain some of the most haunting, memorable scenes of the series, but because of the idea of how I could format the reviews in a way that fits in with the template I developed over those past 24 reviews. As McGee points out: "Less can be more, especially if it is passionately written."

And a scene that I could write about passionately is Nate and Brenda's vicious, highly satisfying and emotionally draining breakup scene. It essentially bubbles out of nowhere; a chance encounter with the Ying Yang symbol hat guy who Brenda slept with in a previous episode causes all the tension that has built over the entire second season. The shakycam mixed with the multiple different incidents that happened over the life of their relationship that Nate and Brenda both brought up culminates with the aforementioned quote that includes Nate's tossing his engagement ring at her. If there's one thing that comes into my mind in that scene, it's that Nate's the biggest a-hole this side of Brandon Walsh in Beverly Hills 90210, or Dawson Leary of Dawson's Creek, or Dan Humphrey in Gossip Girl. It's an archetype, sure, but an archetype that exists because of the way men are supposed to behave. (Thanks, patriarchy.)

Which takes me to McGee's second tenant of the TV punk rock movement: "All criticism should be subjective, personal, and unique." The general consensus toward Nate and Brenda seems to be: Nate is a good guy, Brenda's crazy. And, for a long time, before re-watching this season, I held that same belief. And, in fact, in the commentary track for "The Last Time", executive producer Alan Ball references the fact that most of the audience thought Brenda was a horrible person when the show aired. Which is absolutely ridiculous, in my opinion. Here is a complex, brilliant woman who has clearly faced numerous challenges throughout her life, got involved romantically with Nate, and, as the season wraps up, ended up realizing that she had to face her own demons rather than jump into marrying Nate. (Nate, by the way, is an a-hole. Did I mention that yet?) And yet, to think that the basic narrative to the average Six Feet Under fan is, "Nate is a good guy and Brenda's nuts." That probably says more about our society than it does anything else. Ugh.

As Ball says in the commentary track: "I love Nate; he's really got his heart in the right place, but he just stumbles." Well, I would respond that, of course he has his heart in the right place -- in fact, I think every person on the show (not just that but every person ever) starts with their "heart in the right place" but ultimately are defined by the choices they make. Brenda's clearly got her heart in the right place, and ultimately is one of the most admirable characters of the show, but through this point in the series, makes better choices than Nate.

In addition to Nate and Brenda's relationship dissolution, Nate comes to grips with the fact that he needs life-threatening surgery for his AVM and, ultimately, lets the final shoe drop in letting his mom know that he has this condition and needs the surgery. Which brings us into the aspect of Six Feet Under that is probably my favorite -- the Fisher family dynamics. When Ruth finds out, her instinct is to insist on David still attending Claire's high school graduation, a shrill-yet-well-meaning decision. She wants to protect her family more than  anything. David's instinct is to go straight for comforting Nate, without tending to his own emotional needs. And Nate and Claire's budding rebels-without-a-cause relationship continues to allow beautiful little scenes to bloom like the one near the end of "The Last Time". Even the flashback scenes with Federico and Nathaniel carry the weight of family-like bonds. (And, as we learned from The Cabin in the Woods, any amount of acting by Richard Jenkins is a good amount of acting.) If I've learned anything about this show in re-watching with a critical eye, it's that, under the HBO-ey sex, drugs, and swearing, it's ultimately a family drama.

Which leaves me to one of my all-time favorite sequences of any TV show, ever: Nate's dream(?) sequence into his surgery. All the messiness of life ultimately does not matter when faced with the thin places between life and death. And the image of Nate facing that thin place with the image of him standing outside the metaphorical (literal?) bus that takes him to the next stage of his existence really just deserves its own space to exist. So, look at the top of this post and stare for a few minutes.

And although I earlier compared writing about essentially the same thing over and over akin to banging my head against a wall, I can't end this review without mentioning the excellent acting, writing, and directing that the show really relies on. Nate being strong for his mom before ultimately shifting into the traditional parent-child relationship, with Ruth comforting him, holding him, and telling him "I'll never let you go" is just a testament to the great acting, writing, and directing the show uses throughout the series, and especially in key episodes like these. It's these moments that make me forget about the occasionally awkward Alan Ball-ian instincts the show gets into (more on these in season three and, especially season four) and allows me to just reflect on how fortunate we were to have this show in our lives. It's the wordless sequences, like the one with Ruth sitting with baby Maya and the mostly wordless one below that give the series its edge.

So, back to the whole meta-TV-criticism thing: here at The Blogulator, we are very much interested in reflecting on TV as a medium in a way that others have not done, or that contributes to a new normal. We're interested in the passion around the medium, whether it's passion about something we love or passion about something we find entertainingly ridiculous. Passion is a good thing, and with the multitudes of television out there (punk rock movement tenant #4: "Niche is the new mass market") it's easy to find something to be passionate about. Ultimately, I plan to continue recapping seasons three through five of Six Feet Under, but I'm still mulling the ways to do it in a way that tap into my immense passion for the show, and in a way that doesn't feel like a chore. (Bonus: season three is when they started filming in widescreen! My HDTV is thanking me!) In fact, sitting down and writing this here post about the show pretty much spilled out of me very easily and quickly. I wouldn't imagine you would be very interested in reading a review about a show you may or may not have seen if it was merely me rehashing the events of the show in a passionless infodump sort of way.

So, in a Cabin in the Woods-type way (I absolutely cannot go further into this movie without you seeing it, by the way), I hereby have commented on the genre of television criticism in a piece of television criticism that is also an exercise in me trying to redefine how I perform television criticism.

I'll do my best, folks. Nevermind the bollocks. And see Cabin in the Woods.

Season grade: A-

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