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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Six Feet Under: “In The Game”

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“In The Game” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired 3/3/2002)

We live life under the premise that all of our various feelings and dealings are bound together by a greater meaning—that the parts add up to a coherent whole. The young blond C-list actress Rebecca Milford is especially desperate for this to be true, because she has a sense that it’s not. She lives a life of fragments, and we see her scrimping little pieces of promise together in the hope that they’ll add up to something more.


Becky is the most alive when she watches herself on film at the premiere of her new slasher flick. Her eyes widen and scan the screen with delight as the masked “butcher” slices her up and—most importantly—the audience moans. Her co-star, sitting next to her, is a contrast: He couldn’t be more bored. He’s not on screen at the moment, after all.

“Seriously, several people told me that my scene is the only one that’s even remotely scary,” she tells her agent at the afterparty. Because of course Becky’s piece of the film is the important one. The agent isn’t listening, though; she’s too busy assessing the utility of Becky’s corporeal subdivisions. She decides that Becky needs to stop showing her breasts on screen—those two boobs have done their job for now. Becky retreats to the bathroom to snort a little blow. (Well, more than a little.) She overhears two girls carping only semi-coherently about the film. “It’s just so fucking gratuitous!” one of them snipes.

Back at the party, Becky presents her side of the argument by way of an Access Hollywood interview. “I think what makes this movie different is that the violence isn’t so gratuitous. It’s like the whole movie is about the whole psychological nature of fear.” Becky keeps saying that word, “whole,” wishing it to be true. She pitches a movie project to her co-star boyfriend, who is so self-absorbed that his eyes appear to be gazing into themselves. “I’m not showing my ass,” he says, pathetically. “My manager says I need to stop showing my ass.” More fragments. That’s all anyone can think about, it seems. Becky feels the urge for greater meaning in her life, but she has no idea how to find it. Rebecca hits the bathroom one last time and ODs on coke. Her entire body convulses on the floor. At least in death, she can be whole. Rebecca Leah Milford, 1980-2001.

I watch Six Feet Under with my wife, and when I got out the DVDs for season two, she said that she couldn’t remember what had happened at the end of the first season. The show is ready to address that concern; “In The Game” is an episode for recapping and table-setting, designed to make the show accessible to viewers who might have sat out the first season—maybe, like my friend and colleague Steve Heisler, they were wary of a “show about death.”


After the death of the week, we’re taken to Brenda’s house, where she and Nate are engaging in some morning matrimonial. “It’s not working,” Brenda says. If you’re new to the show, that one line pretty much catches you up on Brenda and Nate’s relationship.

In fact, the whole exchange is a remarkable encapsulation of this fraught pairing. Nate asks what’s wrong. “Nothing, don’t take it personally,” Brenda replies with her typical weariness. “Oh, don’t make this about me!” he protests. And so on. Nate tries to understand what’s making Brenda feel bad, and he’s met with Brenda’s bottomless quiver of parries and distancing tactics. She doesn’t want to be understood; she wants to believe she’s too complex and smart to be understood. Brenda: “You think I’m depressed.” Nate: “Are you?” Brenda: “Yeah. It doesn’t mean I want to talk about it.” These two are so much fun. Don’t you just want to invite them over for bridge?


In some ways, they deserve each other. Brenda likes to talk about not talking about her problems. Nate simply doesn’t talk about his problems (albeit mostly because Brenda rarely asks). It’s a more direct execution of a similar philosophy.

After a car accident near the end of the first season, Nate was diagnosed with AVM, a malformation of blood vessels in the brain. Now he talks over the prognosis with a doctor who’s borne from that most classic of Six Feet Under archetypes: the self-involved dick. Nate is exasperated that the tale of his brain is half-finished, and he demands that the hotshot doc tell him how the story ends. But the doctor doesn’t know. “I’d still like to get another MRI in 12 months,” he says. And Nate replies, “Yeah, and I’d like a straight answer, asshole.”


Nate starts popping aspirin every day, supposedly for its blood-thinning effects. The doctor didn’t tell him to do this (and in fact it’s one of the few things that AVM patients are explicitly supposed to avoid), but Nate feels the need to do something about his plight, to have some measure of control. “That doctor wouldn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, so I might as well start doing some random bullshit,” Nate apparently decides. Of course, this is the same aspirin bottle where a panicked David stashed a few tabs of ecstasy last season—the same bottle that gave us Ruth’s bear-in-a-hat trip—and before long, Nate ingests his own special surprise, just in time for a Fisher family dinner. Exactly how much ecstasy did David hide in there, anyway?

Screenwriting teachers advise their students to steer clear of dinner-table scenes and dude-gets-high scenes, as it is very hard to make them work, and screenwriting teachers have to read enough crap without having their students fall into obvious traps. Yet on Six Feet Under these are some of the best moments. It’s hard not to get excited when Ruth tells her kids that she’s inviting everyone over for a special meal. And this scene delivers. Not just because Nate is euphoric and sees “total light” coming out of Ruth’s lover Nikolai, but also because of the usual, sober Fisher discord. “Your mother is a good woman,” Nikolai declares. “Yes, we’re aware of that,” sneers David. And Claire remarks that David’s just cranky because he hasn’t gotten laid in a while. That’s pretty much how things go.


“Well, I think this went pretty good,” says Nikolai after dinner.

As he comes down from his ecstasy high, Nate dreams of his father, Nathaniel Sr., who’s joined by a couple of pals, Death and Life—a tight-assholed white dude and a boisterous, fat black woman, respectively. The three of them are playing a game on a Chinese checkers board, but Nate only wants to watch. “I always hated this game,” he says. Nathaniel Sr. points out that the game gets better once you’ve got a little skin in the outcome, so why doesn’t Nate place a little wager? Suggested bet: everything.


For me, one of the joys of gaming is that you don’t know how a game is going to end. But Nate finds no joy in this uncertainty—that’s why he demands a firm verdict from Dr. Douche, for instance. He’s watched others play the game of life and death for years, and he’s happy to continue standing on the sidelines. But the AVM has forced Nate off the bench. Nathaniel Sr. says that it’s time to play—and by the way, you’re playing for keeps. Nate has to confront his mortality in all its fearsome portent and mystery.

Nate seems to think that engaging with death will darken his life, and squelch his vibrance. But when Death lets out his theatrical growl at the checkers table, Life finds herself all tingly. She gets off on Death. “It’s a whole ying-yang thing,” Life explains. Life is enhanced when contrasted against its opposite. The two of them offer a visual demonstration. As they go at it, Nathaniel Sr. shares some profound wisdom: “All that lives, lives forever. Only the shell, the perishable, passes way. The spirit is without end, eternal, deathless.”


The words feel to Nate like a crystallization of all experience. He scrambles to write down this penetrating truth when he awakes from his dream. Later, at the beach, Brenda says that it’s from the Bhagavad Vita, which he apparently skimmed through one night at her place. “It felt so profound,” he says. “Now you’re just telling me it was recycled crap from my brain?” And so a seemingly coherent whole turns out to be just another fragment, adrift in that malformed head of his.

We see Nate walking out in the surf, but it’s just a vision. He’s not actually throwing himself into the waves, merely imagining it. Still trying to sit to the side and watch. But there’s no easy out for Nate here—not in idleness, and not in some three-sentence message of transcendence that offers the hope of existing above the playing field. As Nathaniel says in a final vision, “You’re in the game now, buddy boy, whether you like it or not.”


David is still living a life of failed connections. Excusing himself from the intake for Becky Milford, he takes a phone call from a guy whose personal ad David answered. The guy sets up a date and tells David he’ll be wearing a red baseball cap. David: “I love red. It’s one of my favorite colors. Of which I have several.” David winces. He’s not alone for lack of trying, but he might be alone on account of trying too hard. That’s the miserable trap he keeps falling into.

David’s blind date blathers on about how he’s a “sexual being”—one of those trite, New Age-y phrases that Six Feet Under loves to skewer—and then brings the date to a rather abrupt close. Red Baseball Cap “didn’t feel much of a spark,” he explains. “Can’t make it happen if it’s not there, right?” David is irritated by yet another failure to find companionship, but he also knows that Red Cap is right. There wasn’t a spark; David was bored throughout the guy’s banal monologue on his philosophy of love. Nothing special was ever going to grow between these two, and frankly David deserves better, but David’s face seems to say, “Couldn’t we pretend for a while?”


That’s how desperate he is right now, in a sort of triage mode as he deals with his shambles of a love life. If he can’t have a real relationship, he’ll accept something that bears a passing resemblance, so that he might get a secondhand buzz off relationship fumes. Hardly a surprise, then, that he starts showing up at ex-boyfriend Keith’s church and having a friendly, not-incredibly-awkward-at-all brunch with Keith and his new beau, Eddie the EMT.

Eddie makes it very hard for David to pretend. Keith and Eddie just got back from a weekend in San Diego. Eddie showed Keith how to parasail, and Eddie says he’s “gonna have him hang-gliding by the end of the year!” Eddie just keeps raising Keith to greater and greater heights. Look at them soar! Meanwhile, David is wallowing in the muck. With no small measure of spite and self-pity, David imagines his skinny naked self, “Mr. White-Ass Cracker” up against Eddie and Keith in a “Mr. Gay Black America” pageant. It’s so unfair that David has to compete with Eddie and all his blackness, David imagines. If only he were gay AND black. Then life would be so easy, obviously.


Ruth is contending with David’s love life, too. She’s reading a book, Now That You Know: A Parents’ Guide To Understanding Their Gay And Lesbian Children. Ruth tries out some of the book’s lessons over a meal with the Fisher kids. She and Nikolai “are having a sexual relationship now,” she says in a measured tone, as if she’s reading the words off the page. When her children fidget and groan, she says, “We’re all adults; we’re all sexual beings”—there’s that empty phrase again. “Sex is a healthy and important part of life. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Saying that something is healthy and good, though, does not make it simple. Sex is not simple, and both the red-capped blind date and redheaded Ruth seem to be engaging in an effort to make it so, by reciting comfortable platitudes with a smile.


There are some insights to be gained from Ruth’s book, but they’re not going to come from recitation. The morning after the big dinner with Nikolai, David tells his mother that it’s her right to have a man stay overnight. She says that she doesn’t need his permission, and David points out that he doesn’t need hers, either. She pauses and nods. “Of course not,” she acknowledges. And that’s what the whole affair—the book, the dinner, the solemnly intoned words of sexual liberalism—really was about. It was a way for Ruth to grant her permission to David for being gay. She proclaimed to treat him like an adult while straining to treat him like a child. In this moment, she realizes that the best way to treat someone like an adult is to shut up about it already.

Claire isn’t quite an adult yet, but she’s closer than Ruth might like. She’s still pursuing a relationship with Gabe Dimas, whose appearance on screen is surely the most disappointing moment of “In The Game.” Go away, Gabe. You are the sad trombone of Six Feet Under characters, and I cast thee out, I wish.


Damn. He’s still here. So I guess we better analyze him. Just like Brenda and Nate, Claire and Gabe’s relationship is summed up in one line, when Claire says, “I’m worried about you, Gabe. In case you don’t remember, I have good reason to be.” She’s angry over Gabe’s decision to skip out of history class, but her real concern is with Gabe’s refusal to deal with his own history. He prefers to obscure memory by goofing off and getting high, leaving her to do the worrying.

Gabe isn’t sure how to deal with Claire. Her deep concern for him makes him feel indebted to her, so he keeps insisting that she stop: “You don’t have to worry about me, I swear.” But he also doesn’t want to lose her support: “I’m okay, and I’m going to stay okay! As long as I have you.” It seems Gabe wants Claire to keep worrying about him so that he doesn’t have to do any of the worrying himself. But the trouble with that setup is that Claire never gets to express her worry, because that brings Gabe back to reality—back to history. So Claire is supposed to worry without ever showing it, and we can see how this wears on her. She doesn’t understand the unspoken, unfair deal that Gabe has made.


Claire and Gabe attend Becky’s funeral on the basis of Gabe’s misguided notion that it will be a “hilarious” lark. Becky’s costars have opted to divvy up her ashes and place them in miniature urns that her friends can wear around their necks—as it turns out, even in death she has to exist as a disparate collection of pieces, used to satisfy the whims of others.

It was a bad idea for Gabe to come to a funeral in the very home where his brother’s embalming and viewing took place, and Gabe realizes this before long, retreating to the basement. Claire follows him down there and can’t contain her concern, which infuriates Gabe: “I’m not a pet! I’m not your pet!” Claire is bewildered. He’s clearly not okay, and he clearly needs her, so why does he act like he hates her so much? She wants the different parts of Gabe to add up to a self-consistent whole. But the pieces rarely come together the way we might like.


Stray Observations:

  • Last year, we designated the first comment thread on each review as the thread where you could discuss details of future episodes. In the pre-Disqus era, I could set that thread up in advance, but now I can’t. So I’ll have to trust you guys to handle this: Please confine discussion of Six Feet Under’s future to replies in the first comment thread. That way, readers who haven’t seen the entire series already can simply collapse that first thread (using the “minus” button in the upper-right corner) and read the comments without fear of discovering something they’d rather not.
  • While he’s high, Nate almost gives away the AVM story: “This thing in my head, it’s all about flow,” he says in his state of bliss. Of course, coming as it does in a torrent of freeform “insights,” neither David nor Brenda picks up on this strange, telling turn of phrase.
  • Rico’s up to his usual tricks, using Vanessa/Julio/Augusto as an excuse to knock off work early. Nobody on this show can go from an ingratiating, give-me-something-I-want grin to a sullen, I-didn’t-get-what-I-want scowl faster than he does. So I sort of enjoyed seeing his manhood threatened when his awful sister-in-law tells him that Vanessa asked for $500 to pay for baby supplies.
  • Does anybody know if that TV show with the guinea pigs is a real thing? I would like to watch that show.

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