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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Six Feet Under: “Everyone Leaves”

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“Everyone Leaves” (season three, episode 10; originally aired 5/4/2003)

Aunt Jeanie’s only sin was that she wanted a little bit more. At a barbecue in the park, she hovers over her own buttermilk pie, inviting others to take a taste as she shoos away a bee that’s hovering nearby. (Jeanie is allergic.) Keith’s father, Roderick, turns her down, muttering under his breath that he’s not going to eat “her sour pie.” Jeanie doesn’t care, though. She’s only being polite. She decides—as if the decision weren’t already made—to have “one more small slice.” It’s when you take that extra slice that you get stung. Jeanette Louise Bradford, 1928-2003.

This episode is a study of distance. Practically all of the couples we’ve been following throughout the season develop a new distance (figurative and sometimes literal) as the forces that repel them win out over the forces that keep them together. There’s a secondary motif at work, too: In almost all cases, the distance opens up when one person in the relationship seeks to give themselves a little something extra.

Take Ruth and Arthur. For months, this relationship has simmered with the tension between Ruth’s sexual desires and Arthur’s boundless reserve of semi-creepy naïveté. Ruth pushed for a closer physical relationship in “Tears, Bones And Desire”—at least, she thought she did—but all she got out of it was friendly nuzzling. Here, she finally says the word “sex” to Arthur, and he immediately suffers a system error. “I believe that sex can be—when two become one—it needn’t always be painful, but it is indeed a very slippery slope.” His utterances seem to be fragments of things he’s heard about sex, here or there, along the way. Ruth realizes he’s a virgin. “Have you ever had sex?” she asks. The answer: “I think I have, in a sense.” In the sense of not having had sex, that is.

So much of a relationship in its early stages—and this one is forever mired in the early stages—is about potential. Each member of a couple extrapolates their bond into the future, projecting what might come. Arthur is the rare bird who doesn’t do that, though. He is content with what he has, reveling in the present and only the present. When Ruth asks him to describe where they’re headed together—their relationship’s destination, in a sense—Arthur can only muster vague platitudes (although he musters them with a smile). “We’ve been on such a serendipitous journey,” he exults. A journey to where? “Surely someplace divine!”

And even though Ruth’s frustration is entirely understandable, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Arthur when he innocently brings his laundry down and finds that Ruth isn’t up for the usual nuzzles or playful chats about hankies. Arthur’s befuddled—nothing in their relationship has changed, so he can’t see why it’s gone sour. He thinks that a couple can remain static, and he likes a known quantity. Ruth, on the other hand, prefers to project forward. She wanted to advance their friendship to something bigger, and the way people do that is to ask for more, a little bit at a time, and wait for the other person to say “yes.” It’s how the life of a relationship is sustained. Arthur thinks that by saying “no,” he has locked in a pleasant stasis. But for Ruth, he’s killed what they had.


Ruth’s desire for one more small slice in her relationship results almost immediately in a new distance, but in Russell’s case, the effect was delayed. His extra slice came off-screen in “Tears, Bones And Desire,” but until now, Claire has had nothing but vague suspicions of what took place while she ran that errand in Azusa—suspicions that she had since dispensed with, for the most part.

Yet that moment of transgression has continued to eat at Russell, because he has more than suspicions. He was there. His self-retribution and confusion have worn him down, just like the razor blade that refuses to cut through his mat board in class. Claire asks why he doesn’t just grab another blade. What she can’t see is that Russell sees himself in the dulled blade. He’d love to cast himself aside and try on a fresh, bright, keened version of Russell, but he’s stuck with what he has.


So he throws a tantrum. “You hate your work because you secretly hate yourself,” Olivier says in response, cutting to the quick. Russell calls Olivier a “pathetic poseur who needs people half his age to prop him up” and storms out. Olivier sneers that Russell didn’t commit to the tantrum with a satisfying door slam. “Young people have absolutely no commitment today,” he says. This is one of Olivier’s go-to responses when he’s at a loss—condemn the whole generation as a lost cause—and it’s one of the few Olivier flourishes that isn’t as effective as he thinks it is. The whole “these kids today!” angle makes Olivier sound like the same past-his-prime fuddy-duddy Russell accuses him of being. Indeed, Olivier just hits home Russell’s point.

Especially when we later learn what really happened between Russell and Olivier: They “fooled around,” in Russell’s words. He adds, repeatedly, that he’s “fucking confused,” which is true in more ways than one. Claire’s reaction is instant and ferocious, as her face flushes with rage. She says, in essence, that Russell broke the cardinal rule of their relationship: “You said I didn’t have to be careful. That I could feel safe with you.” That’s the big tell here. Yes, Claire is angry at Russell for what his actions say about who he is (“an asshole”). She’s even more angered, though, by what his actions say about her—about the person who found herself attracted to broken men like Gabe Dimas, Billy Chenowith, and now Russell Corwin.


Claire’s passion is to see the world clearly, and she has a talent for it. So you can see how she’s exasperated by the men she dates. They have a tendency to defy the things she sees in them. And yes, all of these men have disappointed Claire. But she also ends up in these situations because she falls in love with the notion of being able to see something in a lover that other people can’t see. All the signs were there that Russell had some sexual exploration to do, that he had an unstable image of himself, and that he had a self-defeating streak. Claire liked that she could see beyond that. So when Russell lives up the superficial impression he gives off, it’s almost like he’s insulting Claire’s own talent for insight. That wound cuts her deeply.

When Russell comes to the Fisher household to proclaim his devotion, he takes the wrong tack altogether (although there’s probably nothing he could do to win back Claire’s affection in that moment). He expresses his need for her, his love for her. “I have been through this before,” she says. “I am not some nurse who’s here to take care of the misfits.” (Again, another sign she’s as angry at herself as at him.) Russell’s last plea, that he would cut out his heart for her if it would make a difference, is hilariously misguided. Yes, that would change things, she says, “because you’d be dead.” Russell is attempting to make a bid in the context of romance, but Claire’s hurt—and thus her response—operates in the context of truth. They’re not even speaking the same language.


Ruth and Claire come together in their pain, as they often do at their lowest, most reflective moments. They admit to each other what they’d never admit to Arthur or Russell—they feel sorry for these men they’ve left behind. Still, Claire says, “Why is it I attract every screwed-up guy in the state?” Ruth turns it around and asks why Claire is attracted to them. Ruth’s answer is one of those moments where Six Feet Under decides there’s no need for a complicated answer when a simple one will suffice: “I guess we all want to be loved. It’s hard to say no to that, no matter where it’s coming from.”

Then again, Brenda provides a counterpoint to that sentiment. She’s been hanging out at Billy’s place lately, and it has been fine because Creepy Billy hasn’t shown up lately. In this episode, Creepy Billy makes his return, and you can feel it from the outset. We haven’t seen him in earnest since the first season, but you never forget the signs of Creepy Billy. (And Jeremy Sisto never forgets how to play Billy just a little bit “off” to get us on edge.)


It starts when Brenda is perusing one of the old Nathaniel & Isabel books she and her brother used to read as a child. We saw in the last episode that Brenda and Billy were reverting to their childhood alliance, and at first, this scene seems to be an extension of that innocent playfulness. Except the two of them aren’t in sync. Brenda finds herself put off by the ugliness of Nathaniel & Isabel, with its scenes of borderline torture. Billy says that even kids have a craving for dark fantasy. Brenda says, “I have enough dark reality.”

Billy can’t let the Nathaniel & Isabel thing drop—he picks up a video version of the books, and he’s exasperated when all the darkness has been excised for the sake of family-friendly mass-market tastes. He becomes especially incensed when Nathaniel heals Isabel (whose resemblance to Brenda is hard to miss) with the magic of a single tear. In the book, it was mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and that’s what Billy wants to see. He wants to see them kiss. Brenda agrees the video is kind of lousy, but she doesn’t especially mind. And thus Billy is worked into even more of a froth, as the distance between them widens.


The nature of the distance here is that Brenda sees her renewed friendship with Billy as a relationship between two mature siblings who have been through some shit and can now share that common experience as adults. But Billy is eager to turn the clock back and return to their fraught childhood, perhaps even with a heightened intensity. He’s moving backward while she’s moving forward. When, after Billy’s meltdown, they hold each other on the couch, in reality they couldn’t be further apart. Billy can’t see that. He kisses his sister on the lips. She’s repulsed, and he protests it was just an affectionate kiss between two siblings. “No, no it wasn’t,” she says, and we all know she’s right. It was Billy stepping up to the edge of a respectful boundary and then helping himself to just another small slice.

The distance between Nate and Lisa has been profound all season; in “Everybody Leaves,” it becomes literal. But first, they share a moment of closeness, albeit not a sort of closeness Nate especially welcomes. Nate is upset after a conversation with a widower who’s trying to buy a more lavish casket for his wife. “Don’t you understand?” the man pleads. “This is the last thing I’ll ever be able to do for my wife. I was a bad husband. … I just want to love her some more. I owe her.”


Nate is barely able to hold it together long enough to retreat to the kitchen and break down. The man’s too-little-too-late pleas of affection move Nate because he, too, sees himself as a lousy husband. The difference is that he isn’t moved by an overwhelming love for his partner, and this truth makes him feel even worse (and makes the loveless “we’ll be friends and lovers” understanding of the previous episode seem like the sham that it is). Ruth comes over to Nate for a backrub and remarks that she used to do the same thing for Nathaniel Sr. when the job got to him. Casting Nate as his father—Nate’s exemplar of a distant spouse—doesn’t help matters. And then Lisa completes the image by walking in and seamlessly taking over from Ruth. They’re the same people, one generation removed, and Nate despairs at the twisted destiny of it all.

Then Lisa leaves. Lisa is headed up the coast to see her sister, and she leaves nothing of herself behind. Nate observes that usually she would leave lists and prescribe schedules—in essence, she would leave without really leaving. But this time she is really taking off. No nagging, no reminders. Even Lisa senses her departure is more real than usual: She declines Nate’s offer to walk her to the car, saying, “I don’t want Maya to see me go.”


Nate walks through the park with his true love, Maya, in the stroller. He gets a call from Lisa, who is nowhere in particular. For the sake of the image, what’s important is that she’s far away and at the end of the earth—she’s looking at the ocean. She’s pulling away, and her connection to Nate frays. The cell phone signal becomes intolerably patchy. “I miss you,” Nate says. She doesn’t hear him. “I’m losing you,” he says. She doesn’t hear him. The call ends. Lisa gazes out at the ocean. Back at the park, Nate looks at Maya. “You know what’s more beautiful than the ocean? You.” Maya hears him.

Just as Claire and Ruth tend to find each other in moments of crisis, so do Nate and Brenda. Unsettled by Billy’s behavior, she shows up at Nate’s door because she doesn’t know where else to go. Brenda feels foolish for believing she and Billy could develop something healthy, and Nate offers her advice that could apply just as well to Claire (indeed, this scene comes right after the scene with Claire and Ruth): “It’s scary to believe that things are going to turn out good because then you’re taking a risk of being disappointed if they don’t.”


Each of them reaffirms that the other is a good person. And then, because both of them needed that affirmation so much, they drift into a kiss—that extra slice that immediately controverts the theory that they’re good people. Brenda blames herself. Nate: “No, no. I was right there, too.” After Brenda flees, Nate slides the bars of the infant gate back across the entranceway. He feels he deserves his prison. His voice shaky, he places a call to Lisa’s sister—she’s not there yet. And she doesn’t pick up when he calls her cell, either. The last thing he said to her when they had any kind of connection was, “I’m losing you.” Now he faces the possibility that it’s true, and it terrifies him—not losing her so much as the notion that it’s entirely his fault.

The distance between Keith and David has been ameliorated this season by the fact that they don’t spend a lot of time talking about the things that separate them. You could see that as self-deception, but that’s not it, exactly. It has been helpful for them to stop obsessing over their every rift, big and small, and instead relax and focus on synchronizing their rhythms. Still, gaps tend to show through after a while, and nothing exposes the gaps between these two men like a visit to Keith’s family.


In the car, David raises his discomfort with the recent spate of threesomes: It’s not that they aren’t fun, but “I’m starting to feel weird about it,” he says. As we’ve seen over the past couple weeks, it’s not the sex that bothers David but rather the notion that Keith freely invites strangers into their home. You can see David wondering if Keith even thinks of it as a home—where a family lives—or if he simply sees their apartment as a place they happen to cohabit.

It follows, then, that as they attend a family funeral, David’s looking for signs that Keith considers him part of the family. He comes up short. Keith doesn’t go out of his way to walk with David to the service. He ignores David when he goes to sit with his parents and niece. Any one of these by themselves could be benign, but it’s definitely a pattern with Keith, and David takes all of it to heart.


When David intercedes in the argument between Keith and his father, he sees it as an opportunity to act as an equal partner in this larger family. This is his extra slice. Keith draws a line: “This is my family—stay the fuck out it.” It’s a heartbreaking moment because we know how rejected and alone David feels here. He storms out, so he doesn’t get to hear what comes next. Keith’s father snarls that he should have knocked David’s teeth out, and Keith responds, “You’re pathetic.”

As the final line of the scene, this puts a bit of a different tinge on the proceedings. Keith treats David poorly, to be sure. But the root of the problem here is that Keith and David perceive family so differently. The Fishers may not be the model of emotional health, but they do love each other, and as such David is loyal to Fisher & Sons and everything that represents. For David, family is a source of stability. For Keith, family has been a source of pain. His instinct to keep David out of the fray doesn’t necessarily mean he views David as something less than family—he may just want to insulate the one good, lasting relationship he’s had from the mess of the Charles clan. This doesn’t forgive Keith’s insensitivity, but it does begin to explain how Keith could say “This is my family—stay the fuck out of it” to somebody he loves. It’s a protective instinct at least as much as it is a selfish one.


David doesn’t see it that way, though, so once again a conceptual distance becomes a real one, as David hops a bus home. At the depot back in L.A., he finds Patrick waiting for him. Just like Claire, Ruth, Brenda, and Nate, David finds comfort in the company of someone who can simply tell him he’s a good person. We all want to be loved, no matter where it’s coming from.

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.
  • I love David critiquing the funeral for Aunt Jeanie and slipping right into funeral director mode. The moment when he gives direction to the organist is great.
  • Vanessa and Rico provide an interesting twist on the theme of increasing distance. In this episode, we see them come together more closely than they have in a long while, with some intense sex that leaves Rico grinning. But, riding the rush of her psych-med cocktail, Vanessa blows right past Rico. She goes from being too low to too high, as her pharmaceutical enthusiasm outpaces him. Note that her favorite move in dance class is the twirl, which causes her to spiral away while he stays still.
  • I realize that it only exists in snippets to serve the story of Billy and Brenda, but man, Nathaniel & Isabel always sounds so gloomy and dull despite its supposedly exciting sadism.
  • Although I do feel sorry for Russell, it’s satisfying to watch Claire hold her own in their two big fights in this episode. We’ve seen her let loose plenty of times in a petulant-teenager way, and we’ve seen her melt down when a romance collapses, but we rarely see her in the throes of all-out rage. It’s badass. I would not want to be on the receiving end.
  • Keith’s conversation with Taylor gives him some optimism that he can have an honest conversation with his father, which leads to crushing disappointment. This almost gets lost in the shuffle of David’s own disappointment, but it’s an important and moving mini-arc.
  • I almost forgot how much Creepy Billy gives me the willies. Which means Creepy Billy has me right where he wants me.