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“A Private Life” (Season 1, episode 12; originally aired Aug. 19, 2001)

Two 20-something guys tease each other as they get money out of the ATM. They’ve got separate bank accounts, but they seem to share everything else: their joy, their silliness, their space. They’re lost in each other’s giddiness, so when a couple of meatheads pull up in a sports car blasting a deep cut from some forgotten hair band, they take it as fodder for another joke: “Does bad music make people deaf, or do deaf people just have bad taste in music?” asks the brunette.


The two music lovers in the car aren’t feeling so silly. We don’t know if they had been watching the couple from afar or just happened to come across the scene as they pulled up to get some cash. In any case, they’re angry. Something about these two kids unsettles them, and they need to make it go away. “Do you think you can do that kind of offensive shit like that in public?” says one of the muscle-car dudes.

The couple gets separated as they flee. One escapes; the other doesn’t. “Read a fucking Bible, you pervert,” says one of the attackers as he beats the kid who didn’t make it. The statement makes the crime even starker than before, both raising and answering the question of which is more perverted—having sex with another man, or stomping another man into oblivion? Marcus Foster, Jr., 1978-2001.

Marc’s arrival at Fisher & Sons initiates a painful reckoning for David. It begins when he walks into the funeral home to find everyone fawning over Rico’s new baby, Augusto. The baby talk is benign but telling. Ruth notes, “Nate was an extremely gassy baby, always crying. David, on the other hand, hardly ever made a peep.” When Rico wonders when the Fisher boys are going to give Ruth some grandkids, there’s an edge to it, at least from David’s point of view.

Although it’s a tough reconstruction job—Marc’s face was mangled by his attackers—David decides to handle it himself. To Rico, it’s just another gig, and fodder for his usual wisecracking swagger. (“Men don’t make passes at girls with big gashes!”) The body lying on the table means more than that to David. In Marc, he sees the specter of his own self-hatred, and he determines to exorcise it.


David has had conversations with many of the deceased this season, but none of those dialogues have been as raw and brutal as the one he has with Marc. Unlike those other visions, David doesn’t see Marc as he was in life. He sees the grotesque, bruise-riddled visage of a man deformed by hate. This is the face—and the voice—of David’s own fears and his disgust with himself.

Marc’s appraisal of gay life is vicious. His attackers aren’t the problem, he says. “I’m the one who’s sick. I could have had a family. I could have had a normal life” David says that such a life would have been a lie. Not so, Marc argues—not if he chose to have faith. “God challenges us like this, so we’ll choose good.”


This strikes deep. We are getting a look at the fundamental knots in David’s moral fabric. He tells Marc that being gay is not a choice—that “God already made the choice.” Yet he’s not as firm as he had been a minute ago. Marc is undeterred. David’s reassurances contain traces of doubt, while the hatred embodied by Marc is absolute. “No matter how much you fix me up, I’m still going to hell, because you’re goin’ there too,” he concludes.

Later, David drives by the crime scene, where a small group stands over a mass of flowers and holds a vigil. David sees Eddie, the EMT who was dating Keith. They exchange a look. We can see that David’s comparing himself to Eddie in his mind. The comparison is not a flattering one. Eddie’s out in the open, courageously expressing his love for a fellow man. David’s in a moving car, peeking from the window—a tourist to the compassionate values he claims to espouse.


“You should have left me the way I was. Let the world see me for what I really am: an abomination of nature,” Marc tells David when the restoration job is finished. David speaks of the people who were out at the parking lot, standing over a shrine built in Marc’s honor. “There are people who love you,” David says. Marc replies, “But not as many as hate me. And you.”

It’s a calculus that has haunted David for most of the season. He has probably been willing to admit that he’s loved, but he’s terrified that on balance, he’s more hated. After these confrontations with Marc—with the worst parts of himself—David’s outlook changes. It’s not that his fear goes away. That would be too pat and easy. But he does determine that he can either continue to suppress himself and endure the hell of Marc for the rest of his life, or he can become more truthful and see where the balance of love and hate actually does stand.


His first bold move doesn’t go so well. Rico comes into the basement and praises David’s work. It’s the best that David’s ever done. (Is that because he’s especially inspired to restore the pride of this young man, or because he’s especially adept at covering up a gay man’s wounds? Some of both, I’d say.) Rico shakes his head at the “homo” well-wishers gathered outside the home. “You know, Rico, I’m a homo,” David says.

Given his allegiance to the Fishers, his easygoing nature, and his youth, we might expect Rico to apologize and suppress his shock. Instead, he sets his jaw. “Don’t talk to me about that, all right?” he says. Yes, there are gay men where he comes from, “but they don’t leave their wife and kids. They’re still men.” David yells, “I am a man!” It may seem like a setback, but it’s progress. At least David isn’t just yelling at ghosts anymore.


The ghost continues to torment him. Marc appears again, at his funeral, still contorted and difficult to look at. David slugs one of the right-wing protesters chanting hate slogans, and Keith—who’s there to keep the peace—kind of enjoys it. David apologizes to Keith for how he behaved when they were together. The warmth between them has never faded.

Then, finally, he sits down with Ruth. She has been waiting for this moment. Frustrated by her abortive attempts to get chat David up about his sexual tastes, Ruth spends much of the episode in an extended dialogue with Robbie, her co-worker at the flower shop. At first, he’s not inclined to chat with her about his coming-out experience. After all, he and Ruth have never been friends to begin with, and now she’s trying to cut straight to the deep-painful-sharing part of their relationship.


But she’s determined, so she shares her most horrifying private moment—learning how to masturbate for the first time, after half a century of life, for the benefit of her lover/hairdresser. If only because he loves some good dish, Robbie listens intently and then admits that he never told his parents he was gay. “My mother was one of those women that never did anything but raise children, so if you came out ‘wrong’ … her whole life is a failure.” Ruth’s eyes water and she half-swallows her words as she insists that she’s not like that. She and Robbie know that he’s gotten at the core of her frustration: Her son’s inability to talk openly with Ruth is an unwelcome judgment on her talents as a loving mother.

So when David does say, simply, “I’m gay,” Ruth is angry. Not because he prefers men, but because he took so long to say it. So he ends up having to explain this hesitancy, which results in this wonderful line: “You and Dad—no one talked about anything. None of us are like that. Except Nate, and that’s just because he has no other way to distinguish himself.” It crystallizes the “gassy baby” sentiment from earlier.


David says that he knows Ruth loves “the part of me that’s your son.” It’s a bizarre way to put it, and she says so—all of him is her son! But David believes he knows best: “I don’t think you know me very well.” It’s such an impossible worldview that David has ended up with. Any love he receives must be fraudulent, because if only they knew the truth.

All Ruth wants is to take care of David, yet she doesn’t know how anymore. “Let me take care of myself,” David says. She fears that he doesn’t, showing that her motherly intuition isn’t entirely gone. “I do,” David insists. He corrects himself: “I will.”


And still the demon is there. “What are you doing here?” David says when his vision of Marc reappears at his bedside. Marc was supposed to be gone. David exorcised that monster. He came out to a friend and to his mother. He reconciled with Keith. He was honest. What the hell? “Stop, stop,” he pleads as Marc taunts him with more threats of damnation. He doesn’t know what to try anymore. So he falls to his knees and begs God to fill the void of his loneliness.

The demon in Nate and Brenda’s life resides in the corporeal sphere, and he’s less direct than Marc. Billy prefers passive-aggressive games, and Brenda is tired of playing. When she demands her house key from Billy—an act of separation that’s more symbolic than practical—Billy blazes through his usual tactics with unsettling desperation. He denies he did anything wrong. He compares Brenda to her mother. He threatens her. He pleads with her. He bargains with her. None of it accomplishes what he needs. “You’re the most important person in my life!” Billy says. Brenda disarms him: “Did you ever stop to think that maybe that’s fucked up? You have to take care of yourself now. I can’t do it. Not anymore.”


Late in the season, there have been more scenes with Brenda and Billy on their own, a change in the storytelling that makes Brenda a more full-bodied character. She’s a more independent character, too, less reliant on Nate’s presence to justify her role in the story. Because we see Brenda by herself, telling Billy to leave, we know how difficult it is for her. This is a lifelong relationship, and while she’s not ending it, she is changing it irrevocably. The scene plays out almost as if she’s breaking up with Billy.

So we understand why she’s upset when Nate reacts to the news of her ordeal with, “That’s it?” He doesn’t comprehend the import of what she’s done. “Do you think that was easy for me, just cutting him off like that?” she says. It’s not that he thinks it was easy; it’s just that he thinks it was obviously necessary. His urgent need to get rid of the Billy situation causes him to be more callous with Brenda than she deserves.


Of course, it’s easy to see where Nate’s coming from, too. He’s faced with an unstable, jealous, bomb-making mental patient who broke into a Las Vegas hotel room to photograph Nate with his girlfriend. You’d probably want a restraining order, too. Thus he’s furious with Brenda’s pride over what she sees as a huge step, and even angrier when she reacts to his frustration by walking away. He says, “Oh, you dumped Billy, so now you’re going to dump me?” Brenda snaps at him. “Don’t you fucking analyze me!” she says—indeed, that’s the thing she hates most. But then she tells Nate to throw away his key to her house, just as she did for Billy. So maybe Nate isn’t wrong, either.

Nate certainly must feel vindicated, if unnerved, after his experience in Billy Chenowith’s house of horrors. Called to an empty loft where he expects to pick up a body, Nate instead finds himself browsing an impromptu art installation created and curated by Billy himself. The exhibit features pictures of Claire and a photo, taken through a window, of Nate going full-on missionary with Billy’s sister. Nate turns a corner and walks into what is basically a Fellini dream sequence, awash in candles and capped by a body at the end of the room. It’s Billy, lying under a sheet in a Christ pose, with his wrists seemingly slashed.


Surprise! It’s all a practical joke, one that gets even less funny when Billy waves a knife in Nate’s direction and starts raving about Brenda’s ex-boyfriend Trevor. Nate says, “What, Brenda’s not allowed to love anyone as much as she loves you?” Not quite: “Able. She’s not able,” Billy explains.

Nate tells Billy that in fact, he broke up with Brenda that day. Billy’s rightly suspicious, but it’s too tempting a reality for him to deny it. Nate and Brenda split—it makes too much sense! He lets himself believe it: “That’s probably for the best. You and Brenda, never a good idea.” Nate snarls, “Yeah, tell me about it,” as he runs out the door. The camera lingers on Billy. In this final shot, he looks extraordinarily pathetic, standing in his little room with the elaborate freak show he constructed to impress his sister’s boyfriend.


Billy isn’t pacified for long. As he had promised, he breaks into Brenda’s house. “I know how to fix it!” he barks. He shows her the gaping wound in his lower back where “Isabel” was once tattooed, a reference to the Nathaniel And Isabel children’s books that provided them such solace in youth. Now he wants to slice Brenda open as well, so that they can become “new people.” The current reality is too broken for Billy. Every avenue that he can perceive leads to loneliness and anguish. The only option left is to hit the reset button. To slice out the old reality and hope that the impossible pureness he craves will flourish in the open wound. “I need to do it,” he says, as he leaps at her.

She overpowers him and gets him to the hospital. There, she finally admits the grim reality that her mother was right; Billy needs to be committed. With this, Nathaniel and Isabel are dead. And it must exasperate Brenda to accept that the evil nurse has won.


Claire is still trying to be the best companion possible for Gabe. Her efforts to guide him to a safer place lead her to make some startling insights about herself. “Somehow, teaching you makes it more interesting,” she says to him. She’s talking about trigonometry homework, but she might as well be talking about life.

Her experience dealing with death, both in the long-term and in the more immediate past, make Claire well suited to brush off the triteness of high-school social politics. When Gabe is worried about how people will view him now that word of his overdose has spread, she tells him not to care about what the other students might think, treating him to this bit of paradoxical genius: “Everyone is too obsessed with what everyone else thinks about them to think about anyone else.”


What I love most about Claire is that she’s wise beyond her years but still so young. She can be adult, but she’s not altogether grown up. “The people in this school have the mentality of teenagers,” she says to her guidance counselor. He says, “You are a teenager.” And yeah, she is. She thinks everyone is dumber than she is. She imagines that Charlotte Light And Dark is about her. She pretends to be other people on the Internet. Teenager stuff.

Yet she can also be profound, especially when it comes to her family. She tells the counselor, “Burying someone is the most sensitive time in a person’s life. So it’s like, my family, they’re so careful. It’s almost like they become invisible.” She calls it a “silence” that hangs over her like a shadow.


She senses that this silence isn’t going to be enough with Gabe. She begs her counselor to tell her what she can do for him. “Try not to make yourself invisible,” he says. So later, in the back of the hearse, she confesses to Gabe that she’s scared—“scared that you’re going to disappear,” she says. He says that he’s scared, too, that he’s not going to finish his math homework. But she doesn’t want to hear his lame joke. This isn’t like her fake online flirtations or her silent, handle-with-care family. It’s the one relationship she has that she feels is based entirely in truth.

So Gabe admits that he’s scared he isn’t good enough for Claire. There’s a sense that it’s the truth but perhaps not the whole truth. Still, he lays at least that much of his soul bare, and the last picture we see of Gabe and Claire in “A Private Life” is the two of them in the shower, savoring each other’s nakedness.


Stray observations:

  • The “Everyone’s Waiting” thread is the special comment thread where you can talk freely about future episodes, foreshadowing, series-long character arcs, and so on. (In other threads, try to keep the all-knowing crystal-ball-gazing to a considerate minimum for the benefit of those who haven’t watched ahead.)
  • David, after admitting his sexuality to his mother: “That’s all I wanted to say.” Ruth: “All right. We’re having veal.” Even though she doesn’t know how to take care of her kids, she can always cook for them. Whenever she can see they’re hurting, she offers to make them something to eat.
  • “I may not dress like Jackie Kennedy, but I have sex with men.”
  • I was talking to a friend recently about Six Feet Under and he mentioned that he attended a wedding a couple years back where he was seated at the same table as Jeremy Sisto (who plays Billy). I asked him if he was terrified. He said yes. He added, “The voice is for real, man.”

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