A comic book collector has to pay the rent, and he resents it. He spends his time exploring worlds populated by superhumans, where the rules of day-to-day life don’t apply. How bothersome it is, then, to face a dull challenge like making rent for the month—and worse yet, to be thwarted by it. On the other end of the line, the collector’s friend Norbert suggests grabbing a few hours working down at “the store.” Our intrepid hero rejects this all-too-human use of his time, and the conversation turns to deal-making. Norbert would be willing to part with a few thousand bucks for a copy of Blue Twister #1. Yet the collector rejects this, too, and as he reaches for his precious, mint-condition Twister, the bookcase creaks and falls. Buried by his own fantasies. Lawrence Tuttle, 1969-2004.

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“Everything organic is grown in dung,” George says in one scene. In another, Bettina remarks, “‘Horrible’ and ‘terrible’ are two of the most underrated qualities in a foreign country. ‘Horrible’ and ‘terrible’ can lead to adventure.” This episode is partly about accepting the shit that life gives you to allow something new to grow out of it. That’s a theme that runs throughout Six Feet Under, but in “Grinding The Corn,” we have a heightened focus on the characters’ need to just get over it already—whatever that “it” may be.

In Nate’s case, we all know what the “it” is: his dead wife, Lisa. Perhaps under more typical circumstances, Nate would have progressed neatly through all the so-called stages of grief by now. But Nate’s mourning has been complicated by guilt over the intermittent passion he brought to his marriage. That guilt has been like a bungee cord strapped to his ankle: Every time Nate is about to climb out of his hole, the cord tightens and snaps him back into the bleakness. (Indeed, during Nate’s dream sequence, every time he tries to escape his nightmare he climbs the stairs, only to find himself back in the basement again.)

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Brenda has tired of watching him oscillate like this. When she tells Nate, “God, I love you,” and he recoils, Brenda is disheartened: “What, you can’t handle that?” Nate concedes that he can’t. “I just spent the past year dealing with losing somebody,” he tells her, notably going on to admit that his relationship with Lisa “wasn’t even that good, when I’m perfectly honest with myself.” After rejecting Brenda’s repeated pleas for a little more closeness, Nate leaves, retreating to his self-made abyss.

Nate is bemused by the nerdiness of the comic book fans when they first arrive at Fisher & Diaz, but he has more in common with them than he initially realizes—especially with Lawrence Tuttle, the decedent of the week. Tuttle dies when he refuses to part with a fantasy about a superman, even though he needs to let go of that fantasy to make rent and continue living his life. Nate has a fantasy, too, about the superhuman husband he might have been, the unassailable uber-spouse who would have given Lisa the rich, unflagging devotion that she wanted. And like Tuttle, Nate’s obsession with an imaginary man gives him a narrow view of his life’s potential, to the point that the fictional character threatens to crush the real person.

This Gordian knot of self-inflicted misery lies at the heart of Nate’s extended dream sequence. In his first vision, Nate’s a child again, bringing his dead dog, Yippie, down to Nathaniel Sr. in the embalming room. Nate’s dad puts the dog in a coffin and then says, “Why don’t you climb in with him? That way, he’ll never be lonely.” After all, this is what Nate has been doing with Lisa, fixating on her to the extent that he might as well be lying alongside her in her all-natural grave.

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The dog has been a versatile image this season, but here it’s clearly evoking Lisa, and not just because the dog is the one in the casket. One subtle undercurrent of Nate’s guilt is that it cats Lisa as a helpless soul who needs Nate to take care of her, like a pet. Nate almost never acknowledges the reality that Lisa was her own person, an independent adult who could make her own decisions. She chose to have a child with Nate; she chose to marry him; she chose to stay with him. Facing this truth wouldn’t eliminate Nate’s guilt, but it would diminish its tenacity by creating a context that he needs.

Then Nate sees Lisa tell him that she’s decided to bring Maya along with her to the afterlife. It’s another of Nate’s neuroses made manifest. Earlier, when Brenda said that she could be a part of Maya’s life, Nate cut her off: “No, you couldn’t.” This vision takes Nate’s sequestration of Maya to a logical extreme. He has been insulating Maya from the world, going as far as possible to preserve her life the way it was before Lisa died. By holding her in this stasis—not allowing her to grow—he’s imposes a sort of artificial death on her. People change and transform; that’s not just a part of human existence, it is human existence. So when he places Maya in a bubble, Nate acts like she had to die with Lisa. No wonder Lisa is so matter-of-fact about claiming Maya in this vision; she’s only acting on what appears to be Nate’s latent wish.

After an encounter with Nathaniel Sr. as Death-Man (“I wanted to be the Grim Reaper, but the folks at Marvel already had a copyright on it”), Nate sits down with his dad, Lisa, and Yippie for a nice dinner—and Nate’s the main course. Nate doesn’t flee the horror as he did during earlier chapters of this dream. Instead, in the strangest and most important moment of this sequence, he smiles and grabs a napkin. Ever since Lisa died, Nate has only been comfortable when he’s eating himself—when he’s letting the dead people in his head consume him. As Nathaniel Sr. cuts into his son’s leg, the scene cuts to a shot of Nate sleeping, and you might expect him to startle awake at such gore. No, self-consumption is Nate’s normal state now. He sleeps soundly.

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The dream affects him, though. At Lawrence Tuttle’s funeral, David says of the assembled nerds, “It’s just depressing how alienated they all look.” Nate replies, “From us, maybe,” but he sees something different. “Look at them. They’re a community. This is who they are.” Nate has rediscovered the fundamental human need to belong. Sure, the comic book guys are nerds, but at least they have a society where they’re implicitly safe and accepted. Nate needs that kind of bond, too. He needs to belong to someone who’s not dead, because right now the dead people are digesting him, morsel by morsel. After realizing this, he shows up at Brenda’s door, appearing to be at peace.

Brenda welcomes him, having spent “Grinding The Corn” on her own quest for a sense of belonging. Nate’s rejection hits her hard; she couldn’t form an honest bond with Joe, a guy who adored her, and now she’s pushed away by Nate, a guy who could (and probably does) love her but refuses to pursue it. In past stretches of loneliness, Brenda has tried to convince herself that she’s a functional society of one—that she has no fear of being alone. But her isolation grows so dire in this episode that she’s soon seeking out anyone who will have her.

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First, though, she has a therapy training session in which she counsels a patient named Byron who’s afraid of crossing bridges (among other things). Brenda has Byron follow her on a thought exercise in which he envisions himself crossing a bridge. “Just imagine you’re walking across it,” she says, “and it doesn’t collapse. Now you’re on the other side, safe and sound.” Except he’s not: “Halfway across, I jumped off,” Byron informs her. Brenda’s professional about it, but you can tell she’s irritated that he wouldn’t play along. “You can’t just force someone who’s phobic to face his fears,” Brenda’s supervisor says later.

In fact, Brenda believes you can do just that—remember that she made Nate and David ride on the bus that supposedly killed their father in season one’s “The Will.” Now that we know Brenda better, the title of that early installment has an added resonance, as Brenda thinks that she can will herself past any psychological weakness she discovers in herself. You can see why she’d think so, as she is an extraordinarily willful person, but you can’t just bully yourself into happiness. Perhaps Byron’s phobia, says the supervisor, is “the one thing that keeps him from jumping off a bridge.” Brenda scoffs, “I think we can do better than that.” She fails to recognize that not jumping off a bridge is a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

Later, Brenda daydreams about Nate coming to her house and pouring his heart out to her, with her acting as the healer. But her own fantasy turns against her. “Nate” rebukes her for wanting him so badly, calling her a “bottomless pit of need.” This is Brenda’s psyche addressing herself, of course, and it gives us a striking picture of the impossible standards she sets for herself. Okay, Brenda, you need companionship. So does practically every other person on earth. To Brenda, though—intelligent, intuitive, independent Brenda—this impulse is an unwelcome weakness.

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Yet she feels it just the same, so she seeks out a place where she can belong. She visits her weed dealer for the first time in a while. They end up kissing, and the dealer’s buddy looks on with THC-infused notions about the polyamorous direction this encounter could take. The two men size up Brenda the same way that a hungry Nathaniel Sr. and Lisa eyed Nate’s corpse in his nightmare. Brenda isn’t belonging; she’s being consumed. She flees.

Next, she ends up at group therapy, where a fellow member complains about the marijuana stench issuing from her person. They can literally smell the failure and loneliness on her, so they move to cast her out—to deny her the belonging she seeks. “I need to be here,” she pleads. “I’m really scared about what will happen to me if I leave, so please don’t make me leave.” The group is the one thing keeping her from jumping off a bridge.

In Nate’s dream, he asks Nathaniel Sr. to “fix” Yippie. Nate and Brenda share this tendency, this desire to fix the unfixable. They view pain as a failing to be worked on and resolved. Often, the better instinct would be for them to accept the dung that life threw at them and invite growth from it.

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They take a first uncertain step toward that end when Brenda and Nate (and Maya) unite in the episode’s penultimate scene. Brenda hears Nate arrive, and she goes to the door, where the camera frames her in a small window, constricting her in a tight box.

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The shot reverses, and we see Nate and Maya framed the same way. Everyone in their own bubble. Then the door opens, and they immediately become something greater—a collective where they all belong.

George and Rico have formed their own little club at the Fisher household, as both men have been abandoned by their rightly furious wives. They compete with each other to see who can be more stubborn. “I miss sleeping in my own bed. I miss the boys. I miss Vanessa,” Rico says. George sniffs, “Not me. I slept like a baby.” Nate asks George why he doesn’t just go over to Bettina’s place—where Ruth is currently holed up—and “eat as much crow as you have to, and bring her back home?” George says that he’s not playing that game. Rico: “Yeah, that’s the way I’d play it.” Indeed it is, and that’s why Rico is eating cold cereal across the table from a geology professor instead of enjoying breakfast with his wife.

While he’s babysitting Maya, George watches a TV show about turning waste into fuel—another variation on the theme of using the offal of existence to propel yourself forward. He looks at Maya, a living example of the beautiful growth that can emerge from shitty origins, and he tears up. He catches himself when Maya spills her cup, and she bursts into tears herself. “Life is a series of accidents,” he says in consolation, “one after another.”

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That line hints that George is ready to move on from his present mess, but there’s a foreboding aspect to his choice of words. By casting life’s happenings as “accidents,” he implies that he doesn’t understand how he arrived at this point of chilly distance from Ruth (a point that, we can imagine, he’s reached before with his other wives). George likes to present himself as an authority on all of existence, the arbiter of true fact. In this moment of vulnerability, we see how much of a front that is. Although he may understand the machinations of plate tectonics, George has trouble with finer-grained friction. He doesn’t entirely grasp why people get angry at him, or why his relationships always deteriorate beyond repair. His endless series of arguments and estrangements are incalculable “accidents.” For a rationalist like George, accidents are terrifying.

Meanwhile, Bettina urges Ruth, in so many words, to stop wallowing in the dung of her shaky marriage and let something new sprout from it. Ruth takes this to heart, and the women decide to go on a road trip to, in Ruth’s words, “someplace exotic.” Mexico’s Rosarita Beach is apparently the most fantastical place within driving distance, and that’s where they end up. South of the border, Ruth practices the art of finding adventure in the horrible and terrible. Their room is a filthy hole in the wall, but it has a view of the ocean. The hotel hot tub is frigid, but once Ruth shows a little fight, it warms up. She learns to push past unhappy accidents and face the reality that emerges on the other side. So, when her horse drops dead during a ride on the beach, bringing a rather graphic end to their adventure, Ruth declares, “I think I’d like to go home now.” She’s shaken but resolute as she says it, ready to leave the playground of Rosarita Beach behind and get her hands dirty in the dung of the homestead.

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One lesson of Ruth’s trip is that sometimes a setback is nothing more or less than you make of it, and that takeaway applies to David and Keith’s fight in “Grinding The Corn,” too. After Keith confesses that he had sex with Celeste while on tour, David spends the majority of the episode pouting and fuming. He’s not irritated so much by the infidelity itself—they’ve had an on-again, off-again “open relationship” that was bound to get a little messy—but he is upset that Keith chose to break ranks of the gay brotherhood by sleeping with a woman. To David, it suggests that he doesn’t know Keith as well as he thought he did. Nothing could be more distressing, given that David is still recovering from a trauma—the carjacking—in which he badly misjudged the intentions of someone he thought to be safe.

On top of that, this surprise suggests that Keith might desire something that David can never give him. The idea haunts David. He has a dream in which Keith fondles David’s supple, womanly breasts. Flipping through Tuttle’s beloved copy of Blue Twister, he encounters an ad for X-ray vision goggles that features a horny kid ogling a busty woman—David slaps the comic shut. Finally, he comes home to find Keith watching babes frolic on TV. That’s the last straw. “I fucked Sarge,” David confesses with an air of triumph. “He didn’t secretly want me to have woman’s breasts,” he adds, and as soon as he says that out loud, they both can hear how ridiculous it sounds. A minute later, they’ve reconciled, with Keith declaring, “We’re even.” Some conflicts are as real as they seem, and some are irrationally amplified by an overactive imagination. If you’re going to have a functional relationship, you have to be able to figure out the difference together.

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Claire faces the fallout from her heady, abbreviated fling with Edie, whose stage show now incorporates lines like, “A straight girl wanted to eat my pussy, but then she changed her mind.” Edie also told her audience that Claire still hasn’t had her first orgasm. Claire’s classmate Jimmy picks up on this detail and offers to help: “I heard about this new technique, and I’ve been looking forward to trying it out. Would you like me to try it out with you?” Claire: “Okay.”

To be sure, Claire made a mess of things with Edie, but here we have another mess that ultimately proves productive. The fundamental problem with the Edie relationship wasn’t Claire’s sexual preference, exactly. Instead, the real rub was that Claire acted like (and believed) she was seeking a companion when in fact, she was merely seeking an experience. Claire rather reasonably surmised that the extraordinary experience of an orgasm required the extraordinary measure of “switching teams.” Thanks to Edie’s bitter tirade, though, Claire discovered a friend in Jimmy who’s eager to show her that it’s simpler than all that. Claire’s awestruck post-coital expression suggests that the strife was worth it. Jimmy’s special technique is called “grinding the corn.” It’s a perfect image for this episode, which reminds us that you often have to grind through life to reach the marvelous surprises it has in store. To paraphrase George Sibley, everything orgasmic is grown in dung.

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Stray observations:

  • When Claire shows Nate her dollhouse version of the Fisher home, Nate asks, “Where’s Dad?” Claire answers, “He’s not here.” It’s a poignant reminder that, thanks to their ages, Nathaniel Sr. will always be more of a presence in the lives of Nate and David than in Claire’s.
  • The “look at these stupid nerds!” dynamic gets a bit out of hand at times in “Grinding The Corn,” with mockery less subtle than we’ve come to expect from Six Feet Under. It’s not offensive or anything like that, just annoying.
  • Hey, Billy’s back! He advises Claire to stop seeking a “normal, healthy relationship” and instead just pick someone “slightly less crazy than you are.” No wonder he’s always had the hots for Brenda.
  • In that early bedroom scene, after Nate tells Brenda that he can’t handle her expression of love, there’s a long beat of silence. It’s a smart directorial choice that not only heightens the suspense of the argument but also shows us that the two lovers are frantically assessing themselves—trying to figure out what, if anything, they need from each other.

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