Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Six Feet Under: “Bomb Shelter”

Frances Conroy
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

A nuclear family rides to a party in a minivan, and while they’re physically together, their minds are somewhere else. Mother, father, son, and daughter are each retreating to a different realm. Dad’s in technology land, eager to use his GPS rather than listening to his wife’s directions. And you can’t entirely blame him, because Mom’s not the most attentive navigator: She splits her time between talking on the phone and asking her son in the backseat if his video game is violent. He mutters that it’s not, even though it is, because he doesn’t want to be pulled out of his bubble. And the daughter is focused on the closing shots of a Powerpuff Girls DVD. “THE END,” it says. As the minivan makes a left turn, a truck comes speeding in from the opposite lane. The end, it says. Edward Gordon Gorodetsky, 1956-2004; Coco Grimes Gorodetsky, 1962-2004; Michael Timothy Gorodetsky, 1992-2004; Amanda Lynn Gorodetsky, 1995-2004.


As the setup implies, “Bomb Shelter” is an episode about people who are ostensibly in the same place but, in practice, occupy different worlds. And many of the characters are stuck in worlds of their own construction—visions of their potential future that they grasp so doggedly that the projections threaten to become self-fulfilling.


Take George, whose subterranean playhouse of doom provides the title for the episode. He agrees to attend a tantric sex workshop with Ruth, but in the same conversation, he asks her about having extra water on hand for the coming earthquake. He’s not saying that an earthquake is happening tomorrow, but it could. Or the day, week, month after that. Or maybe a terrorist attack instead. “Lately it seems like if it’s not one thing with you, it’s another,” Ruth says with a mix of exasperation and concern. George answers, “Well, exactly!” He collects apocalypse scenarios like baseball cards. (He’s the same way with huge jugs of water.)

Although Ruth and George have regained a measure of superficial marital harmony, the discovery of the shelter illustrates (and aggravates) the persistent rift between them. When Ruth goes down there, she remembers it as David’s “little hideaway place to sit and pout.” But to George, the dank, gray concrete box “smells like life!” And it is becoming his life, to the extent that it’s encroaching on the lives around him. His impulse purchase of an emergency water supply crowds David and Rico out of limited working space in the basement. His predilection with the bomb shelter air filtration system pushes the tantric workshop aside. The needs of the almost-dead people in George’s imagination supersede the needs of the living.


The line between imagined reality and actual reality is blurrier than George might admit. There hasn’t been an earthquake or a terrorist attack or a nuclear war, yet here he is, spending his days underground, running his hands along the bare walls for fearsome cracks, worrying over how many water jugs he has left. In practical terms, the catastrophe might as well have already happened. That’s a key theme of this episode: By obsessing over the possibility of disaster, you end up living as if the disaster already happened. Potential death consumes actual life.

Nate, too, is hunkered in a psychological bunker as he steels himself against his dead wife’s sister, Barb. She’s at first suspicious and then enraged when Nate reveals that he buried Lisa’s body in the desert instead of having her cremated in accordance with the Kimmel family’s wishes. “Okay, look, I have to tell you guys something,” Nate says to Barb and her husband as he makes the admission, “I gave Lisa what she wanted.” He makes a point of framing the burial this way because it makes it seem like his actions were Lisa’s choice, not his. It would be a fuller truth for Nate to add that he gave Lisa what he wanted—what he needed at the time—but that would be imprudent.


Better to soften the blow by making it about Lisa’s desires because, Nate argues, wouldn’t Barb prefer to honor what Lisa wanted? Not quite. “No, what I want is for Lisa to still be alive and not have her daughter raised by someone she hated,” Barb says (and Brenda is just delighted to be brought back into the conversation this way). As she gets up to leave, Barb adds ominously, “This raises a lot of questions.” Nate demands to know which questions, specifically, but he doesn’t get an answer, so he’s left to speculate.

That speculation proves debilitating to Nate. As he sinks deeper into his visions of future horrors, he first shuts out Brenda—“I’m not your fucking patient,” he says when she tries to discuss the matter, adding, “What I did was between Lisa and me.” He saw the way Barb talked about Brenda at the dinner table, and although he may resent Barb’s attack, he also recognizes that Brenda’s presence is only complicating this conflict (emotionally, at least). Brenda wants to be on Nate’s side, and Nate wants to set Brenda aside, for now.


Barb’s return exacerbates Nate’s despair, as she insists, on the verge of coming unhinged, that Maya come live with her family. “Like not enough bad shit has happened to me already,” he moans to Brenda after Barb leaves. “I mean, who the hell am I, Job?” It’s not the most apt comparison—Job didn’t cause his own problems—but the line gives us a glimpse of Nate’s torment. So, too, does the eulogy at the Gorodetsky funeral, which plays out in Nate’s mind as a promise of inexorable loss. “This is what life is, right?” the Gorodetsky orphan says in Nate’s vision. “Pain. Pain followed by more pain. Everything you have can be taken away, and it will be.”

Nate’s fears have intensified to a near-pathological level, but Brenda has fears, too. Her mother, Margaret, bleeds excessively at lunch and ends up in the hospital for an emergency hysterectomy. Afterward, Margaret complains that she’s “no longer a woman.” Brenda tries and fails to reassure Margaret, but Olivier has more success: “I selfishly wonder, how long must I wait before I can fuck you?” he asks. Margaret smiles: “Someone finally said something right.” Margaret wasn’t about to have more children anyway, so when Olivier treats her as a sexual being, she already feels her full womanhood being restored. Brenda does want a child, though, and she’s just gotten a reminder of how easy it is for that chance to slip away.


That’s the setup for the penultimate scene of the episode, in which Nate declares, “I’m sorry, but this is definitely not a good time for us to have a baby.” Brenda understands that her partner is consumed by an imagination that can forecast nothing but heartache. Margaret’s emergency has given Brenda her own vision of loss, however, and as she turns away from Nate in bed, her thoughts are surely occupied with the precarious, time-limited state of her childbearing anatomy. It’s a picture of two people who are both quite understandably occupied with images of a gloomy future, and because they’re each trapped in their own possible futures, they can’t engage with each other in the present. Hence their affective stalemate.


After biting film producer Roger Pasquese’s earring in a sushi bar at the end of “The Black Forest,” David again finds himself sharing a table with Pasquese, and this time there are lawyers present. Pasquese’s attorney demands restitution of half a million dollars for David’s auricular snack. In keeping with the episode’s theme, this news sends David into a frenzy of portentous forecasting. “We’re going to lose everything! This lawsuit is going to bankrupt us! … He’s gonna sue us and take everything we have, that stupid motherfucker!”

Luckily, Keith is there to quell David’s rants, and he’s not caught up in projections of an awful future. He’s remaining attentive in the moment. Because of this, he notices that Pasquese doesn’t say anything at the meeting; the legal counsel did all the talking. (In fact, if you watch that scene carefully, you can catch Pasquese and Keith sharing a meaningful glance in which Pasquese wordlessly indicates that this lawsuit business is all a bit much.) “Instead of focusing on the negative, think positive thoughts,” Keith advises, and he suggests that Pasquese is a “reasonable guy” rather than the unstoppable force of evil and destruction that David is making him out to be. David doesn’t entirely buy it, but he goes along with it.


Keith ultimately bargains Pasquese down from $500,000 to a blowjob. (Pasquese says that Keith should be an actor, but at that rate, maybe he should consider life as a sex worker.) After consummating the deal, Keith lingers for a moment in the bedroom to talk about what a drag it is to live with post-carjacking David. It’s odd that Keith chooses to share these woes with Pasquese, but that’s just it. The strangeness of the moment raises a telling question: Who else is Keith going to talk to? “I wish he’d find a way to deal with it instead of having these episodes,” Keith says.

Later, Keith comes home from work to find David struggling to deal with it. The police called to say that they picked up someone who matched the fingerprints of David’s carjacker, Jake. “I have to go in and identify him,” David says. His shoulders droop as he considers the possibility. Inevitably, Jake has acquired a larger-than-life profile in David’s psyche, a presence that has surely been inflated throughout all of the “episodes” that Keith mentioned. What does David think is going to happen when he confronts this person face to face? He can’t even imagine, and that’s why he’s so scared. When you foresee a terrible future, your mind doesn’t need to have all the details straight. Fear fills in the blanks.


As is often the case, Claire provides a different twist on the show’s main theme: The future she envisions is a thrilling one. Her new photo series, which features her subjects wearing torn-up papier-mache masks of their own faces, has her classmates swooning. David Hockney and Jean Baudrillard are invoked, to Claire’s delight, when her peers discuss her genius in a crit session. Russell’s name does not come up alongside these geniuses of postmodernism, and he thinks it should. So he inserts himself into the conversation: “I feel like it was my background in sculpture that helped us” to make the aesthetic leap underpinning Claire’s photos, he offers. Claire frowns. She did not invite him to this party.

Six Feet Under does a nice job of structuring the argument between Claire and Russell such that it’s hard to say who’s right. Ideation is a messy process, and it’s hard to reconstruct it after the fact. In her defense, Claire has evolved her concept beyond the initial epiphany she had with Russell on her bedroom floor, but it’s hard to dispute Russell’s point when he reminds her, “I tore that photograph and put the pieces on your face—that was the idea.” He gets at the real problem when he proceeds to tell Claire, “One of the coolest things about this was that we did it together.” That’s not how Claire sees this playing out. She’s not looking to take on the burden of Russell, the perpetually sad puppy—among other things, this success offers a break from her recent past of caring for one wounded boy after another. She has been seeking the inspiration that would allow her to make that break, to give her a sense of artistic purpose contained wholly within herself, and now she has it.


So Claire’s interest is piqued when Ruth mentions that Claire used to tear up magazines as a child. Typically, Claire would ignore Ruth’s motherly reminiscences when it came to her art, but in this case, Claire detects a new narrative she can construct for her work, one that doesn’t include Russell. So she parrots the story when an enthusiastic gallery manager asks her how she came up with the concept: “It’s something I’ve done ever since I was a kid. Tearing things up.” The gallerist is convinced by the work, and he plans to put it all into an upcoming show. There will be one name on the photos: Claire Fisher. Russell isn’t part of the future Claire envisions, so she ensures that he’s not part of her present, either.

Stray observations

  • David makes a fashion-based argument in his defense: “Who wears earrings now, anyway?”
  • The Christian pamphleteer doesn’t know what he’s getting into when he knocks on George Sibley’s front door. It takes about 30 seconds before George is proselytizing the proselytizer. The poor guy looks so miserable and confused as George makes him lean over so he can use the missionary’s back to write down some website addresses. (And you know the drip-drip-drip water supply website is going to be on that list.)
  • Ruth used to smell marijuana on Nathaniel Sr., but she always assumed it was the aroma of some embalming product. Only when she sees the herb in Claire’s ashtray does she make the connection. “How funny that Nathaniel would keep it a secret,” she says, an unknowing reference to Nathaniel’s room above the Indian restaurant.
  • Brenda’s no-win situation is summed up as Barb concludes her talk about the joys of raising chickens. Brenda: “Well, we don’t have room for chickens.” Barb: “Lisa loved animals.”
  • Oh, hey, some Rico and Vanessa stuff happened, too—pretty much the same Rico and Vanessa stuff that happened in the last episode.
  • When Brenda tells Nate, “It really sucks that you keep things from me,” Nate shrugs her off with, “Uh-huh. Okay.” This is one of the things that Six Feet Under gets right about marital/couple fights: They don’t necessarily build to a shouting, throwing-things climax. Disengagement can be just as toxic, if not more so.
  • If given a choice between nuclear fallout and life in a bomb shelter with George, I might take my chances with the radiation.
  • Stay tuned for a review of the fourth season finale tomorrow (Thursday) afternoon.

Share This Story