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Six Feet Under: “Death Works Overtime”

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“Death Works Overtime” (season three, episode 11; originally aired 5/11/2003)

A convenience store robbery goes awry. An earthquake jolts a power-line technician into the wires. And a fitness buff feels his heart stop as his dumpy, out-of-shape gym brethren look on. Dorothy Su, 1945-2003; Edward Tully, 1955-2003; David Raymond Monroe, 1971-2003.

The trio of deaths that open this episode (with scenes of Nate’s growing distress woven in between) are important in that they heighten the sense of triage that dominates Fisher & Diaz. But another death implicitly looms over this episode—that of William Aaron Jaffe, the young parent who was found dead in his car, 28 years after the fact, in “The Trap.” In that episode, Nate envisioned himself as Jaffe, an aimless husband who was ill-suited for his marriage and who, in Nate’s mind, took his selfishness to its logical conclusion when his car flew off that cliff. Now Nate finds himself in the position of Jaffe’s wife, the woman who was left behind to worry and speculate about her partner’s fate.

Nate has a certain understanding of death. He fears it, and he fights it, but he knows how to deal with it when it arrives. If Lisa were dead, Nate would experience profound sadness, of course. He would, however, at least know how to advance. There would be steps to take in the grieving process. The horror of a missing person is that there are no definite steps. You’re forced into a holding pattern, and nobody is allowed to move on. It’s as if Lisa has simply fallen behind, and all the Fishers are forced to stand still so she can catch up and rejoin the group.

This uncomfortable stasis creates a realm in which the normal rules and the normal flow of life no longer apply. All of the characters have something other than Lisa they’d rather be thinking about—personal problems they need to resolve. But they’re not allowed to talk about those things, because “missing person” is just one of those life crises that trumps all. And yet there’s seemingly nothing to do. In terms of plotting, Lisa’s disappearance is one of the most daunting challenges that Six Feet Under’s creators set for themselves. Aside from the car turning up (another parallel to Will Jaffe), almost no progress is made in her case—a tidy CBS crime procedural this ain’t. And when you have everyone put their lives on hold, how do you make something happen on your television show?

“Death Works Overtime” answers this question by challenging the premise: You can’t actually put your life on hold. Life has too much force to be held back like that. Nate’s rational side recognizes this. He’s so tired of waiting by the phone for answers that may never come that he makes an effort to keep working amid the haze of uncertainty. It doesn’t really work out, and Nate has to be saved by Arthur, of all people, who essentially takes over that meeting with Dorothy Su’s widower.


The crisis is simply coming at Nate from too many angles. Lisa’s sister says to him, “Nate, if you’re wondering whether or not I think she might have left you, I truly, seriously doubt it—not without Maya.” Like the flipping of Nate’s internal script re: Will Jaffe, this is another reversal. Now Nate knows how it feels to be the spouse who’s tolerated for the sake of the baby.

Ruth’s constant reassurances—“I’m sure she’s fine”—only underline the point that Ruth isn’t sure and neither is anybody else. Moreover, they provide echoes of the denial Nate has forced himself into throughout this season, when he’s tried to squint at his marriage just the right way to convince himself it’s all going to work. Nate sees Ruth squinting when the stakes are even higher, and he knows exactly what she’s doing. He’s disgusted by it in part because he’s disgusted with himself—the guy who Lisa would have left a while ago if not for their child. “Nate, dear,” Ruth says in one scene, “everything is going to be fine, you’ll see. I made some apple crumble. Why don’t you have a piece?”


The disappearance is so all-consuming that even when Nate tries to give his mind a break, he finds everything loaded with so much meaning he’s drawn right back in. “I can’t talk about this anymore,” he says to David after an arduous day of empty answers and dashed hope. “What’s going on with you and Keith?” David answers quietly but truthfully. “Maybe we don’t want the same things,” he says. “Maybe we’re just pretending that we do. Maybe we’re just not meant to be together.” Nate sits in silence. Without intending it, David tosses Nate right back into the abyss. Everything David says about David and Keith could also be said about Nate and Lisa. Maybe Nate and Lisa weren’t meant to be together, either. Now that Nate spent a year mostly avoiding the hard work it would take to make that right, he sees that he might never have the chance. The unfinished business tortures him.

And he tortures himself. He fantasizes about Lisa walking through the door with the warmth of the morning sun splashing across her face. In the fantasy, he experiences profound relief. Yes, he’s relieved she’s alive and well, but to the same extent, he’s relieved to let loose with his pain, worry, and sadness. That’s something he doesn’t get to do in the real world, where he’s obligated to hold onto hope. He can’t let loose with those big, heaving sobs because Lisa might still be fine. Yet the pain continues to build up, and the answers continue to elude him. I’d call it emotional purgatory, except it’s closer to straight-up hell.


Meanwhile, everyone else puts their own concerns aside, or tries to. Keith says to David, “We need to talk about us,” and David says, “I know, and we will, but not right now.” It’s a common refrain in this episode. And yet even though it seems like the relationship is being put on hold, it’s not. Lisa’s disappearance allows Keith to experience some semblance of purpose again. While David and Nate are more accustomed to the certainty of death, Keith’s police background makes him familiar with the uncertainty of life gone wrong. At Nate’s apartment, he looks over a map and probes for information with both empathy and calm calculation. In spite of Keith’s ongoing battle with his own anger, he does thrive on helping people.

And this crisis will remind David of that—maybe not immediately, but it will. Because the last time this relationship was at a low ebb, something similar happened: Claire stole a foot, got in trouble with the law, and needed Keith to guide her (and her brothers). In times of peril, Keith knows how to be the rock. He and David both have a preternatural sense for this, and it’s one of the major reasons they understand each other. The other problems—Jeanne Tripplehorn, three-ways, even Keith’s father—pale in comparison to this fundamental bond. So their relationship continues to advance, even as David calls a timeout on worrying about it.


Claire’s relationships are in a shambles. She advances alone, but she does advance. The scene with Russell in the Fisher & Diaz driveway serves mostly to hit home the point—both for Russell and for the viewers—that Claire’s anger was not a momentary thing. Russell views his transgression as an aberration for which he apologized and for which he ought to be forgiven. But for Claire, Russell’s afternoon of debauchery with Olivier was more than one moment, it was a betrayal. Their differences are summed up in Russell’s protest that what he and Olivier “did or didn’t do isn’t important.” Yes, it is important. It’s important to Claire, and she gave him fair warning. She said she wanted permission to feel safe, to not be the caretaker for a wounded, wandering soul. Perhaps Claire’s expectations are a bit unrealistic—on some level, we are all wounded, wandering souls—but she was at least clear about them.

And I have to say, the Claire who doesn’t indulge the insecurities of the men around her is awfully fun to watch. Her throwdown with Olivier is among the highlights of the season. Claire’s attempts to match wits against Olivier have been vexed by his slipperiness—just when she thinks she has him cornered, he pulls another arrow out of his rhetorical quiver and shoots her down. But in this scene, Claire weathers the assault. “God, you’re such a fucking phony,” she says at the climax of their argument. “When are you going to get over the fact that you never became Picasso, and now it’s too fucking late?”


It’s here that Olivier slips. Throughout the season, I’ve marveled at the fact that Olivier can be such a hypocrite and yet generally speak the truth. He has embodied the complexity of an art world that aspires to authentic expression at the same time that it’s pervaded by concerns of status, commerce, and competition for personal glory. He can contradict himself without lying because the truth is complex. But Olivier’s parting shot at Claire misses the mark entirely. “What a baby. You need some real pain is what you need,” he says. Wrong. Claire knows from pain. She has been around it, and she has experienced it herself—more than her share for a 19-year-old woman. Olivier has slipped up. He’s been exposed as “a totally manipulative loser” (to use Claire’s words) who’s more interested in exerting power over the lives of teenagers than in forging meaning from his own life. Claire senses she has won the day, and she uses Olivier’s “grade yourself” rubric to give herself an “A.” “Undeserved,” Olivier says. “Unimportant,” she says. As with Russell, she is the one who decides what’s important. And as with so many other things in this episode, the usual rules don’t apply.

If Keith and David are the reliable steadying hands in a crisis, Ruth is reliable as the mascot for denial. She insists, with rising strenuousness, that everything is going to be all right, a behavior that becomes borderline offensive as hope fades and the need to prepare for the worst becomes more urgent. “I will not be prepared!” she snaps at David when he encourages her to dial back the insipid optimism. “And neither should anyone else. I refuse to believe that anything is wrong. I have to trust my feelings. Right now, they’re all I have.”


Ruth angers her family by expressing a wish for a return to normalcy beyond the point where it’s appropriate—even though everybody else is thinking it. Her optimism is unwelcome because after a while, it hurts more than it helps, just as Nate’s fantasy of Lisa’s triumphant return is a form of torture. And moreover, it’s a lie at a time when Nate and everyone else is desperate for concrete truth.

But Ruth only gives her personal truth to a stranger who happens to leave his reading glasses at Dorothy Su’s funeral. Ruth bursts into tears and holds the man. (I’m just going to call him George even though we don’t learn his name in this episode.) She says, “My daughter-in-law’s missing, and I thought I had a feeling things would turn out all right, but now they found her car, and I still have a feeling, but it’s that something terrible has happened.” She lets all of this pour out of her, and then she catches herself. She apologizes to George: “You’re a complete stranger.” He replies, “Not anymore, I’m not.”


That one line crystallizes so much of what has happened for Ruth this year. Before this outburst, Ruth was still in Arthur mode, where everything is pleasant, and nothing ever goes wrong, because isn’t everything so pleasant? She bonded, in a superficial way, with Arthur over their shared love of the inoffensive things in life. Yet he’s still a stranger to her, and this acquaintance of Dorothy Su—whom she has known for all of 30 seconds—is not. The difference is that Ruth has experienced some pain with George, which she never did with Arthur. He’s too far removed, too naïve, and too wracked with his own denial to empathize with her. Thus Ruth takes a much-needed step beyond her Arthur obsession. Even in the terrible stasis of a missing-person crisis, life refuses to stand still.

Brenda, too, gets caught up briefly in the tension between Nate’s life being in park and her own desire to move forward. She calls Nate to apologize for their encounter at his apartment the other night, and nothing could exacerbate his anguish more—he was betraying his wife the same day that she left, possibly forever! “Look, Brenda, I can’t talk to you right now, okay?” Nate says. “I’ve got a lot more important shit to deal with.” (The relative importance of fairly important things is a big deal in this episode.)


But Brenda’s storyline serves more as a contrast. Unlike Nate, she’s dealing with death, and it’s possible, even admirable, to move on in the face of it. In fact, Brenda’s family makes it seem almost easy. After dithering over where to spread their father’s ashes—“I’m not going all the way out to Malibu—plus, the traffic will kill us on the way home”—Margaret makes an executive decision and dumps the ashes off her balcony. Brenda, ever the pragmatist, does her part by brushing some stray ashes off the ledge. She wants nothing left over, a clean start. Her mother only fitfully indulges in the appearance of affection. (“I’d like to at least pretend that we all love each other and that your father and I created something worthwhile.”) She’s lost one of the men who was in love with her. And the other man who’s in love with her happens to be her bipolar brother. I think if I were Brenda, I’d brush every last speck of dust off that ledge, too.

Rico’s storyline, on the other hand, serves as a sort of minor echo of the Lisa situation. Like Nate, he’s facing an indeterminate family crisis that pushes every other concern to the side. Vanessa’s depression may be less dire than Lisa’s disappearance, but there are many parallels. Most notably, Rico has to swallow his anger and frustration in the interest of being a good husband. Vanessa’s sister, Angelica, exploits this to no end. Much like Nate, Rico struggles not to blame himself for the travails of his wife. Angelica actively slashes at this wound to cast herself as the white knight riding in to save Vanessa. If he were more self-assured, and if the conditions were different, he might throw his sister-in-law out of his house after she used his money to buy a big-screen TV and a refrigerator. But when she casts the purchases as compensation for his own inadequacy as the man of the house, he’s paralyzed by two strong impulses. One is that he wants to tread lightly in the interests of Vanessa’s recovery. The other is that part of him believes Angelica is right—that this is all his fault. It’s a small part, but it’s enough that he walks out the door and swallows his anger rather than continuing to argue.


The Fishers swallow a lot of tough emotions in this episode, to the degree that it’s frustrating to watch. But a 15-second scene near the end reminds us why we do these things, and why certain life events shunt everything else to the side. David and Claire show up at Nate’s door. He pulls them close and bursts into sobs, kissing them. All the talk about some worries being more “important” than others is sort of a misdirection. For instance, Claire’s not there because Lisa’s plight is more important, per se, than her angst over a positive pregnancy test. She’s there because when life diverges so wildly from what we expect, as it is right now for Nate, we instinctively refocus on core truths. We need to do so, because the vicissitudes of fate can be so dazzling in their illogic. When the three Fisher siblings hold each other, they’re wordlessly saying they’re here, they’re together, and they care for each other. On that simple foundation, you can rebuild a life—maybe even move on.

Stray observations:

  • As usual, please make an effort to restrict your conversation of upcoming episodes to the first comment thread. This way, people who haven’t seen all of the show yet can collapse that thread to preserve the surprise if they so desire.
  • Claire’s scenes with Russell and Olivier are very satisfying, which I find interesting, as I don’t particularly hate Russell or Olivier. It’s not like I was sitting here waiting for them to get their comeuppance. Olivier is an egotistical asshole, yes, but he’s also imparted important lessons in his own sidelong way. And while Russell is definitely messed up, I can sympathize with him. Yet I loved watching Claire refuse to give ground. It’s like she was becoming more fully formed before our eyes. It’s almost as if the situation with Lisa has led her to see how small and unimportant (yes, there’s that word again) her insecurities are—and as a result, she’s more defiant and self-assured in the face of the men who would cajole and manipulate her.
  • I also love that Claire tells Russell his sculpture is ugly, because it is.
  • Brenda: “Where did he want his ashes spread?” Margaret: “He told me to surprise him.” I think Margaret lived up to that dying wish.
  • When her new landlord asks a nosy question about her family, Brenda doesn’t just say they’re dead, she gets specific: “They were all killed in a flood.”
  • Nate on Deborah Su: “At least she’s no longer suffering.” Or maybe he’s talking about Lisa.
  • Brenda on her new place: “This is so Day Of The Locust.” Landlord: “Oh, no. No locusts here.”