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Six Feet Under: "Brotherhood"

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“Brotherhood” (Season 1, episode 7; originally aired 6/24/2001)

A soldier tapes a message home from his base during Operation Desert Storm. He’s clean-cut, a little scrawny, and proud of the fact that he’s a model recruit. He tells his folks about life in the U.S. Army as if he’s auditioning for a “Be All You Can Be” commercial. He notes that sand “can be as much of a threat as any missile Saddam can send—Captain Summers says!” This kid didn’t just sign up for the newsletter; he got the commemorative pins and the totebag, too.


The other members of the soldier’s unit pile into the tent and disrupt the shoot with yelling, burping, mooning, and so on. The private is annoyed, but he can’t hide his smile, either. Likewise, the kid may be a dweeb compared to his brothers in arms, but he’s their dweeb. There’s affection here.

Seven years later, the soldier’s watching the tape in his hospital bed. His face is puffy and pitted; his jaw is slack. It’s almost a different person. He casts a glassy gaze toward the TV, like the image is impossibly far away. Where is that hope, that camaraderie, that purpose? It seems like a fantasy now, and the distance is too much to bear. As his brother arrives for some quality time, we hear the soldier on the tape: “This is Private First Class Victor Kovitch, signing off.” Victor Wayne Kovitch, PFC; 1971-2001.

Being the official Fisher & Sons gofer is wearing Nate down. He gets only four hours of sleep after flopping down on Brenda’s bed in a catatonic state—there was even teeth grinding! So “that explains the headaches,” he says. Right.

He keeps worrying that he’s got the smell of death on him. Brenda says, “No, you smell fine. Your life stinks. You complain all the time. That’s really dull.” She wants him to find a stress release other than her, which is probably the best advice she’s offered him yet, given the way the episode plays out.


Nate blurts out, “God, I love you,” and Brenda doesn’t respond, although you can tell that she’s taking it in. Nate is the kind of guy who will blurt, but Brenda needs to calculate, and there are a lot of numbers to run on this new development. So she stands there agape, and Nate overcompensates by being so goddamn cool. He is so totally fine with this awkward moment, he can hardly believe it! So chill is Nate that he immediately, frantically invites Brenda to spend the weekend with him at a spa resort. Smooth.

Nate believes that every problem can be solved simply by being cool about it. His relationship with Brenda tests the limits of that approach. Or, more to the point, Brenda’s relationship with Billy tests the limits of that approach. When Billy walks in on Nate and Brenda enjoying an especially acrobatic afternoon delight, Brenda says, “The rule is, you call before coming over!” Billy just laughs and dips into his copy of 101 Lame Excuses For Being A Dickhead by Billy Chenowith: He didn’t have his cell phone or something, whatever. A couple minutes later, Brenda’s complimenting him on his latest photographs and ruffling his hair like, oh, Billy, you crazy scamp! What will we do with you! I know: Let’s indulge your every petulant whim.


The real “rule” is that the rules don’t apply to Billy. Brenda says as much as she and Nate sort through Billy’s champagne/edible-underwear/dildo gift basket. Nate points out that the bizarre gesture is clearly hostile, and Brenda’s response is, “Billy’s bipolar. He’s medicated. His sense of what’s appropriate can be a little off at times. … Don’t judge him, please.” Nate decides to be cool with this, of course. He agrees to let Billy exist in a netherworld where no standards of behavior can be applied.

Later, Nate shows up at Brenda’s house to begin their weekend getaway. Hey, look, Billy’s there! What is this lovable brother-sister team up to now? Oh, right, madness. Nate allows himself to be pissed for a moment but then, you guessed it, he’s cool: “Is there anything I can do to help?” he says. Brenda advises him to get his ass as far away as possible, which, again, is awfully good advice. I can’t feel sorry for Nate here, because it’s tough to pity a patsy. And that’s what he is. His “go with the flow” bullshit is in fact just a way to avoid dealing with, well, anything.


The strange thing is that Brenda hates being manipulated, yet here’s Billy, who’s not being remotely subtle about his manipulation, and she’s allowing herself to get suckered. “Sometimes, she gives me her eyes, OK?” says Billy. And if Billy has her eyes, that means that Brenda can’t see, which seems about right. She has an all-consuming blind spot with Billy. (He says that he’s “blind,” as well, but it seems like he can see what’s going on just fine.)

It’s possible to get so close to our brothers that we can’t see them clearly anymore. Case in point: Paul Kovitch. He has been fighting to make the Army recognize Victor’s Gulf War Syndrome for the past seven years. Hard evidence of the disease is notoriously hard to pin down, so Paul, the high school wrestling champ, just kept grappling. His focus on the enemy was so intense, he never noticed that Victor still had pride in his Army service, and more to the point, he needed that pride. “Victor wanted to believe that what he did in the Gulf meant something. That his life was not a waste,” says the counselor at the VA hospital.


One question that runs throughout the episode is whether Paul really is oblivious to Victor’s wishes or if he is simply choosing not to acknowledge them out of spite for the institution that, to his eyes, destroyed his brother’s life. Paul’s stubbornness leads us to believe the latter. It turns out, though, that Paul really was unaware, and he’s heartbroken by the realization: “He’s the only family I had left, and he can’t even tell me what he wants when he’s dead?” Paul was blind, too.

We don’t see too much of Claire in this episode, aside from math class, where she treats the world’s most vigorous algebra teacher to an extremely teenager-y rant about the pointlessness of the whole algebra thing. But Claire is around long enough to crystallize a major theme of the episode in a few words: “I just want something to matter.”


That’s what Paul wanted, and that’s what Nate wants, too, which is why he pursues Victor Kovitch’s case with such determination. David is only interested in the cash—in fact, he makes a concerted effort to be a cynical prick about the Kovitches’ plight—and Rico is mainly upset that he won’t get to make Victor look young again, on account of the cremation plans. “What is that? Shouldn’t just burn people like they’re garbage.”

Nate’s motivations are purer, although he’s willing to manipulate both David and Rico to accomplish his aims. Carting bodies around isn’t going to cut it for Nate. He uprooted his life to become an undertaker, and he needs that to have meaning now. Victor Kovitch presents the perfect opportunity. And Nate really does achieve a breakthrough. David is so moved by Nate’s success (and his subsequent declaration of love for David) that he reaches out and leaves himself vulnerable for the first time in a while, telling Nate, “You did the right thing today.” Nate, usually so attuned to the feelings of others, decides to be a smug jerk about it: “I know. Feels kinda good, doesn’t it?” It was the worst possible response, another brotherly blind spot, serving as a swift kick that knocks David back into a pit of self-loathing just when he was peeking his head above ground.


Father Clark’s interview with David, who is the swing vote in the deacon board’s search for a new associate priest, seems to go well. Clark gasses on about challenging the parishioners, his time in the Peace Corps, how he’s been too hot for his past congregations to handle. “The last thing that God wants from us is complacency,” he says. David senses that Clark is giving him a different speech than the other deacons got—a more open and honest exploration of Clark’s beliefs—and he asks why. Clark answers, “Because I can tell that right and wrong actually matter to you.” At this, David physically swells up with pride and flattery.

Great work, Clark! So he’s in for sure, right? Well, no. In fact, both Father Jack and Father Clark misread David badly. David doesn’t give a shit about right or wrong right now. He may be delighted that somebody else sees him as a paragon of virtue, but that’s not him. At the moment, his life is about hiding, about maintaining the status quo with gritted teeth until all of his problems don’t hurt anymore or everybody dies, whichever comes first.


So Clark is the last person that David wants around. When David breaks the news to Jack, he lamely offers that the deacons didn’t think Clark would be “happy” at St. Bart’s. As Jack pours himself a couple fingers of scotch, the dejected priest snarls, “Why should he be happy? How happy are YOU?” Stunned and angry—Jack has cut too close to the quick—David says that yes, his life is complicated, “and the one thing that helps me to deal with it is having one place that hasn’t changed like everything else in my life. There’s a reason they call it a sanctuary.”

Jack’s office is a mess. Many of the bookshelves are empty, because the books are all piled on his desk, opened up and falling onto each other. Father Jack would rather live the ideas of the church—let them splash around and make a mess, even when that’s a little painful—than leave the books on the shelf to sit still and be admired. In other words, he needs the church to mean something tangible, to be relevant. Yet David only wants the institution, and he wants it to be inert, not alive. He’s the only character in the episode who is actively fleeing from meaning, and he is running fast.


David doesn’t particularly want to be happy or fulfilled, either. Clark fills David with hope and happiness. We see it spread across David’s face. Trouble is, David doesn’t think he deserves that gratification, so it just makes him more miserable. He’s not looking to be uplifted. He wants to go to his room above the garage with his folded towel and his sad little glass of milk to watch a video where angry men menace small orifices with large objects.

Ruth invites hairdresser Hiram to have dinner with the family, a plotline that serves mostly as comic relief. It’s fun to see how Ruth deals with her nervousness, like when she recites the arc of Hiram’s entire adult life, unprompted, for her two sons. Claire and David have a few visions of the man who’s plowing their mom, and these are used to great effect, too. My favorite is Ruth marveling, “I can’t get enough of his cock!”


There is one charged moment during the dinner, when Ruth tells everyone she’s gotten a job. Nate’s reaction is first to take in everyone else’s surprise and then proclaim “Cool!” Because he’s Nate, and he’s gotta let everyone know he’s still Nate-ing it up down at the Nate end of the table! Hiram, though, is startled. “You didn’t tell me about that,” he says. He’s not quite upset, and definitely not malicious, but he does like being Ruth’s supportive shoulder to cry on right now. She’s finding her own feet sooner than he expected, and his gut instinct is that this is a threat to him.

Ruth is pretty good at her flower-shop job, by the way. She’s spent decades making people feel better in the saddest moments of their lives. So it figures she would be overqualified for the job of making people feel better when they’re happiest. All the smiles and kind wishes provide such a contrast to the funeral home that she finds the joy overwhelming, and she has to retreat to the back room to have a good cry. Nikolai’s bewildered response: “Do not worry! We get funerals, too.”


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.)
  • When I saw Claire blowing off her test by making a doodle with the answer-sheet bubbles, I was sure I remembered Kirk Cameron doing something similar on Growing Pains. So I looked it up and found that I remembered correctly. It happened on an episode called, get this, “Standardized Test”! Those Growing Pains guys were so clever.
  • Judging by the boring conversations I have overheard at my in-laws’ place, the deacon board’s catty politics provide a pretty accurate picture of local church governance in American suburbia.
  • Walter Kriegenthaler appears to be calling from the WASPiest living room in the greater Los Angeles area.
  • Speaking of superlatives, surely this is the most honest eulogy ever: “I wish he didn’t die. It sucks.”
  • I wonder if Nate really is late for dinner because of traffic—David is suspicious of this excuse—or if he wants Brenda to stew in his family’s awkwardness a bit, as a sort of revenge for her duping him into a lonely dinner with her folks.
  • The school guidance counselor is well written, and I can’t stand him. I hate his pat, familiar teen-psych catchphrases, like “it’ll give you the challenge you’re looking for” and “it would get you out of yourself.” Those things may be true, and they may even be insightful, but I remember hearing garbage like that when I was Claire’s age and bristling at how generic and artificial the language was.
  • Here is how Nikolai pours honey in Ruth’s ear: “So. Who’s dead now, and what do you need?”
  • David on the news that Hiram coming to dinner: “Wouldn’t a restaurant be better? This is our home.” Ruth: “This is MY home.”
  • “What’s that, like, bungee-jumping for Jesus?”

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