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Six Feet Under: "Familia"

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“Familia” (Season 1, episode 4; originally aired 6/24/2001)

A young couple is stranded in their car, in a bad neighborhood. Her cell phone’s dead; he can’t get the car to start. Him: “Hey, it’s like one of them Scream movies, huh?” Her: “More like Boyz N The Hood.” Which is it? The writers are teasing us. Four episodes in, Six Feet Under is already playing with the expectations on those opening scenes.

The action unfolds not so much like Scream or Boyz N The Hood, but more like the cold open of a generic police procedural. Paco can’t get through to his buddy on the phone. Ominous music. A bunch of thugs emerge from the shadows. The girl can’t do anything but look on as they pop him. His last words: “Your momma’s pussy, bitch.” Manuel Pedro Antonio Bolin, 1980-2001.

The Law & Order vibe carries over to an dual interrogation as Nate and Brenda are questioned (separately) by police detectives regarding their whereabouts on the night of the house fire. There’s not a lot of verve here; some vague horniness from the male detective goes nowhere. It’s mostly as an excuse to recap the end of “The Foot.”

Nate does have a great reaction when he’s informed that Brenda characterized him as “aggressive” while they were snooping around the old house. “She said I was aggressive? Oh, man, she should talk,” he says. There’s something about Nate’s reaction to Brenda’s emotional warfare that humanizes her. A little. Nate can merely roll his eyes and scoff at Brenda, whereas I think the natural reaction to her passive-aggressive bullshit would be to tear off one’s clothes and toss oneself through the nearest plate-glass window. So either Nate is a masochist (and there’s merit to that theory), or he can see something in Brenda that we haven’t really seen yet. In other words, there must be some reason Nate thinks that she isn’t a bitch.

Sorry to be crass, but “bitch” is the idea of the episode, and the writers explore every facet of the word’s surprising polysemy. David’s experience with “bitch” is the most bitchin’. At the beginning of the episode, he’s such a huge bitch that he doesn’t even realize he’s a bitch. By the end, he’s shaking off the shackles of bitch-ness. It’s beautiful.


Good lord, David is such a goddamn bitch David in those first few scenes. He’s all woe-is-me, the-sky-is-falling, hanging his head because the air conditioning is broken. Some stringy, greasy repairman climbs down the ladder to inform the Fishers that their busted widget is going to take a lot of money and a long time to fix. Wilting-flower David can’t even speak to this guy—who resembles a poor man’s Matthew McConaughey—so he leaves Ruth to lay down the law. And she does, even though she’s hot and bothered. Bothered by the heat, and hot for Captain Compressor.

Then David has to meet with Manny’s parents, who are joined by Paco’s gang kingpin. Manny and Paco are one and the same—Paco is Manny’s “gang name”—but they present different challenges. David can handle the arrangements for Manny. It’s standard stuff. Preparing a funeral for Paco, though, is scary. Paco’s friend is named Powerful! That is not a normal name for a nice human being. So once again David scurries off and leaves someone else holding the bag. Specifically, he leaves his brother, Nate “Um, lilies are always nice…” Fisher.


David is concerned that he won’t be able to close the deal on this “traditional Mexican funeral,” which in his mind seems to imply guns, big hats, bathtub tequila, and probably a mariachi band. But wait, he gets an idea! David knows a Mexican! He has one in the basement. He rushes down to ask for the help of his little brown Thug Whisperer.

Shockingly, there are problems with David’s plan, the foremost being that Rico doesn’t cotton much to David’s casual, clueless bigotry. “What, because I’m Latino, I know more about gangs?” asks Rico. David demurely gestures toward his porcelain complexion, like a Southern belle fanning herself on the veranda, and he does declare, “You probably know more than I do.”


David then gets a crash course in astonishing facts about the man who has worked beside him for years: Rico is Puerto Rican, Puerto Rico is far from Mexico, and nope, nobody in Rico’s family is mixed up in gangs. “I just assumed…,” David stammers, which of course is the problem. Still, Rico heads upstairs, and he’s able to bring Powerful into line, not because he knows any particular gang code, but because he refuses to be Powerful’s bitch.

Keith Charles doesn’t feel like being a bitch, either. In fact, he seems to be inviting a confrontation in the supermarket parking lot when some jerk in a pickup truck wants his spot. Keith takes some extra time placing his groceries just … so … in the back of his SUV, and then it happens. “Fucking fags.” It’s the first pivot point in the scene. The next is when Keith elbows David away in the midst of his confrontation with Truck Boy. That’s when we know that Keith’s anger is bigger than either he or David was aware. And then David’s pathetic surrender: “I don’t think he meant anything by it.” Seriously, David? Keith is stunned and alone. “You hate yourself that much?” he says. Do you think Keith gave David a ride back from that grocery store? I don’t.


Brenda shows up an hour early for her first dinner with the Fishers, because Brenda never wants anybody to be prepared for Brenda. She meets Ruth again. They exchange pleasantries, and after Ruth returns to the kitchen, Brenda steers the conversation to mommy issues. “Can we not turn tonight into Psych 101?” Nate pleads. “Somebody’s defensive,” says Brenda by way of an answer. Tense! Of course, nothing relieves tension like a little slumber-room cunnilingus. And nothing ratchets it back up again like your mother catching you in flagrante delicto.

Screenwriting teachers will tell you to avoid writing dinner-table scenes. They’re hard to shoot. They’re static. It’s tough to keep all the characters involved. I’m glad that the writers of Six Feet Under did not take this advice. This dinner scene is incredible. There are the obvious beats of hilarious awkwardness, like Claire asking if Brenda “flashed her crotch” during the police interrogation, or Brenda telling Ruth that she doesn’t stick her thumbs in people—“at least, not as part of my job.” Those are clear laugh lines, but this conversation is written, performed, and directed so well that even when the characters are saying the names of food, it’s somehow very funny. I crack up when Ruth says “Squash?” and when an oblivious David avers, “It’s peach cobbler.” And this was only the SECOND-best scene in “Familia.”


In the previous episode, we saw Claire embrace her outsider-ness. Now that she’s further down this arc, she’s downright giddy about her badass self, to the point of stupidity. She fancies herself a rebel now. She fancied herself a rebel in “The Foot,” too, but at least she had a cause. Now she’s just fantasizing about how interrogation is cool and making eyes at gang members during their friend’s wake.

Luis, who failed to pick up the phone on the night Paco was killed, is having none of Claire’s fantasies. “You’re some kind of tough little biiiitch, huh?” he says, and Claire’s veneer falls away. She’s a “bitch” in the sense that she acts angry but has nothing to be angry about. Luis’ friend just died, and he blames himself. He gets to be mad. She doesn’t.


Later, Claire sits on the porch watching the Partridge Family muse about going on the road together, which “would be a cool new way to find out what’s wrong with this country!” (See, Claire, you’re not the only one who tries to squeeze meaning out of vague, aimless dissatisfaction; TV writers have done that for decades.) Nate joins her and asks, for maybe the third or fourth time now, if Claire is OK. He figures maybe if he asks it solemnly enough, he’ll get a straight answer.

No dice: She puts together a quick improv routine about her pimp and her crushing addiction to “smack.” Nate asks her, of course, “Why do you always have to be such a bitch?” She walks away wondering aloud why Nate, et al., always think that she’s a troubled kid. It’s the classic, unanswerable adolescent move. How dare you slander me with the image I’ve worked so hard to cultivate?


Bitchy Claire is on the wane, though. In the episode’s concluding scene, Ruth asks Claire if she set the fire. Claire’s shoulders slump as her badass front falls away (for now) and she assures her mother, “No. No, I would never do anything like that.” We believe her. She’s too earnest. Plus, Nate’s epiphany has now led us to suspect that Brenda harbors her own “burning” passions. Claire admits that she “may have swiped that foot, though.” Ruth smiles. You can tell she’s full of pride, which might seem like an unusual reaction to your child’s admission that she’s a casual corpse thief. But this is just the right amount of delinquency to Ruth: A little messed up, sure, but at least Claire’s finally being honest about it. It’s that last part that gets her. She loves her daughter so much here.

The boys need $93,000 to modernize Fisher & Sons and execute their vision of a high-end, service-oriented funeral home that can compete against the Kroehner monolith. Ruth agrees to float them the cash, but hold on, it’s not a loan—that would be the sucker move.


No, she wants equity in the company, and she lays out the deal with a cold acumen: “I can either invest in my boys, or tech stocks. Anything’s better than the track.” And by the way, David, you’ll go to church with your mother every once in a while if you know what’s good for you.

Let’s get back to David, as he undergoes the biggest transformation in “La Familia.” I think it surprises even him that he’s drawn more toward the Paco end of the Paco/Manny duality—a dichotomy that is partly resolved by the end of the episode with a moving, spare prayer circle at the boy’s funeral.


It takes a couple of conversations with Paco before David starts to see himself in the kid. After Paco points out, hey, that guy in the pickup truck called YOU a fag, too, there’s a shift. Now David’s vision of Paco is wearing a suit that looks just like his own. Paco is no longer a foreign sounding board; he’s more explicitly part of David. Paco offers a path out of David’s self-made hell of bitch-dom. Maybe he’ll be a man if he’s half-honest with his mother about Keith. Or maybe by apologizing to Keith at church. Yet it’s not enough. “I know where you are,” Keith says. “I was there, and I’ll wait for you because I love you.”

David is afraid of stepping up—after all, look where it got Paco. Paco’s rejoinder: “For 20 years, I lived my life like a man. When are you going to start?” So at long last, David decides to start with Matthew Gilardi.


This is an amazing scene. Michael C. Hall sets the tone from the first shot. His glare possesses a roiling mix of anger and fear, but most of all a determination not to let the latter overcome the former. The drama is amplified by Gilardi’s response. David comes at him once, and Gilardi reverts to his store-bought corporate swagger. David comes at him again, and Gilardi laughs in his face. That hurts. David has every opportunity to tuck his tail between his legs, and we can feel how ready he is to do just that. We expect it.

But then he comes at Gilardi once more, and the shot reverses, and Gilardi’s face is tight. He’s like a skeleton once he’s stripped of that shit-eating grin. It’s the calm rationality of David’s tirade that gets Gilardi. David’s not throwing things. He’s not screaming. He’s conducting business. “I’m not saying anyone’s going to die. There are tragedies far worse than death. … Are we really worth the trouble, Mr. Gilardi?” Problem solved? Not quite. This isn’t a fairy tale. But David Fisher is nobody’s bitch.


Stray Observations:

  • The “Everyone’s Waiting” thread remains the extra-special comment thread where you can put all talk of future episodes, foreshadowing, series-long character arcs, and so on. (Try to keep the rest of the threads free of all-knowing crystal-ball-gazing if you can.) And look, I managed to actually put the thread in there this week, I think! Hooray for not screwing this up.
  • Brenda’s brief one-on-one conversation with Ruth gives Brenda more humanity than we’ve seen so far. I was glad to see it. She has a sweet openness to her when she says, “I don’t really know what’s happening between me and Nate, but every once in a while, I get a glimpse of things maybe working out for us.” And I think that despite her flip response, Brenda takes the advice to heart when Ruth says: “Be careful with him. He’s a lot more fragile than you’d like to think.”
  • “David and I used to play ‘Addams Family’ when we were kids. I was usually Gomez. He was always Lurch.”
  • “I was all-state champion in the Youth For Christ bowling league when I was 17.”
  • Brenda: “It’s no accident you guys are undertakers. You take every fucking feeling you have, put it in a box, and bury it.” Nate: “Better that than examine every fucking moment until the joy is drained out of it.”
  • “Lunch is over.”