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Six Feet Under: “Knock, Knock”

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“Knock, Knock” (season 1, episode 13; originally aired Aug. 19, 2001)

Matthew Gilardi stands by on the first tee as he’s sized up by Mrs. Huntley, the woman who apparently pulls the strings at the Kroehner death-services corporation. Hovering over her ball with a driver, she says to him, “You’re ambitious. You’re also shallow and amoral.” She likes that in a man, she says. Of course she does—the “Brassy Lady!” template from central casting is obligated to “like that in a man.” She also must make insane demands of her young male charge and let out a manly belch or two. She does those things and more in this intentionally irritating, unintentionally tedious opening scene. Then she hits a bad slice that lands on the noggin of some nice lady who was reading in her backyard with her dogs. Lilian Grace Montrose, 1939-2001.


While retaking the funeral director licensing test, Nate receives a message on his pager: “I NEED YOU—B.” It sums up how far Nate and Brenda’s relationship has come in the past half-year, against all odds. They began with the most disposable and superfluous of affairs, an airport-closet hookup. And now Brenda, loath to ever admit an attachment to anyone but her brother, puts it in writing that she needs Nate.

When the test is over, he goes to her. She has to go visit Billy at his mental facility, the one to which she had him committed. She tells Nate that she’s “so afraid of what he’s going to say” to her. Nate offers some token reassurance and encouragement, but he sounds detached, because he’s bracing himself, too. He’s less than thrilled to have Brenda and Billy in the same room again. Who knows what sort of machinations he’ll put her through this time.

Diabolical Billy is dead, though. The tortured self is still there, it’s just been placed in a padded, isolated cell of heavy medication. “Whatever I was feeling before, I’m not feeling now,” he says to Brenda. Within the first few seconds, she apologizes to him, as she expected to be the one saying “sorry” in this meeting. But Billy says he’s that one that should be sorry, given that he was about to seriously hurt the person he loves most. During their exchange, he repeatedly separates himself from Brenda. They’re not Nathaniel & Isabel anymore. He’s a distinct person, not part of their brother-sister unit. “You deserve to be happy,” he says to Brenda. “I don’t.”  Seconds later, when he remarks that he has “weird-ass karma,” Brenda says that they both do. Billy: “No, it’s just me.”

If the previous episode’s “give me your key” confrontation was Brenda breaking up with Billy, this exchange is Billy accepting the breakup. She’s devastated by this. Billy says, “I’m so lost inside. I just want to get out. I don’t think I ever will.” He’s in an abyss. Yet he’s the one who ends up consoling Brenda, because he has chosen to face that emptiness on his own.


She leaves the facility confused and angry. The most meaningful personal relationship of her life has been taken away from her, and she reacts in a familiar manner—by shoving Nate away. Suddenly, she’s asking Nate whether he’s thought about marriage. “I need to know where this is going. I need to know if I’m wasting my time!” What if she wants to have children, even though she doesn’t, but what if she did? Compared to Billy, Nate is now a charlatan who has been ticking off the days of their relationship “like the Count of Monte Cristo.” She says, “You want to bail.” He screams, “No, you want me to bail!” He’s right—at this moment, she does want him to leave, because she would rather have him abandon her now instead of leaving open the possibility that he could leave her later, when it would hurt even more.

Brenda’s volatility has them both headed into oncoming traffic, literally. Realizing that Brenda has lost track of her vehicle, Nate grabs the wheel to swerve away from the 18-wheeler staring them down, slamming their truck into a parked car. When he wakes up in the ambulance and sees Brenda on a stretcher, his first question is, “Why aren’t you talking to me?” It’s the question he’s most accustomed to asking of her.


At the hospital, they’re calmer but still affected by the ordeal. Nate tells Brenda that he prayed for her while she was unconscious, something that he hasn’t done in years. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you. So if you want to get married, I’m all for it,” he says. Brenda smiles, and says, “Okay, maybe I was overreacting. Let’s just take it one step at a time.”

Brenda gets banged up worse than Nate, but they’re both expected to make a full recovery, at least from their accident-related injuries. The doctor spots something unusual on Nate’s brain scan, though, and asks to take a closer look. It turns out that Nate has an AVM in his brain, a deformation in which arteries connect to veins where they shouldn’t.


Medically, it’s too early to draw any meaningful conclusions, but Nate doesn’t want to hear that. “Could I die from this?” he asks. The doctor says, “It’s possible, yes.” And while Nate has dealt with death all his life, he’s never had such a tangible expression of his own mortality. As Nathaniel Sr. puts it to Nate in a vision, “Whoa, boy. This time, it’s personal.”

We’ve seen a lot of Tracy Montrose Blair this season. In this episode, we learn that the chirpy little gadfly is a high-powered party planner. In the wake of her Aunt Lilian’s death, she starts organizing. And when there’s nothing left to organize, she throws everything away and organizes it all again. As long as she’s making calls, telling people where to put the flowers, or burning a CD of music for the viewing, everything feels like it’s going to make sense. When you’re planning, it’s only natural that everything seems to go according to a plan.


Once the viewing happens, though, and there’s nothing more to arrange, all that remains for Tracy is the agonizing randomness. Her aunt, the only person who ever really loved her, was struck dead by a stray golf ball, a one-in-a-million shot. No amount of planning will make that cruel twist of fate go away. So on the day of the viewing, she won’t even look at the event she put together. At the end of all that fevered planning, life still doesn’t make sense, and Tracy can’t stand it. “Why do people have to die?” she asks Nate. He thinks for a few moments. “To make life important,” he says.

It’s a simple answer, sure, but no less profound for its simplicity. It’s a proclamation of Six Feet Under’s main thesis: Death is the phenomenon that throws life into relief. Without a definite end, we wouldn’t even recognize life as a distinct concept—it would simply be. Nate has realized that he has an end, but at the same time he has necessarily recognized that the end isn’t here yet. It gives him a newfound appreciation for a life in progress.


David has a revelation of his own in this season finale. He’s still haunted by visions of Marc Foster, the young gay man who was beaten to death in the previous episode and serves as the avatar of David’s self-revulsion. And Marc’s ghost is still the mangled, hideous visage that his attackers turned him into, rather than the sweet-faced kid that he was before he was reshaped by hate.

Rico and David bond in the basement, chatting over the proper approach to Lilian’s reconstruction. They seem like two old buddies, until a fax comes in and Rico goes quiet. “FATHER JACK IS GAY,” the fax reads. Rico says that maybe David should handle it—it’s David’s church and David’s sexuality, after all.


It’s time for a return to the deacons’ council, that assemblage of old busybodies who shape parish policy. David listens as hard-liner Walter Kriegenthaler rails against Father Jack, whose transgression was to perform a quasi-marriage ceremony, outside the auspices of the church, for two lesbians. It’s against Episcopalian doctrine, so obviously Jack has got to go, Walter says. He assumes David will agree. But no, David declares his homosexuality to the group. He looks up, and there’s Marc, still covered in bruises, and still laughing at David.

David’s full of the fighting spirit as he drinks Scotch with Father Jack. He and Jack will fight back against those backward know-nothings on the deacons’ council, won’t they! No, they won’t. Jack says that he’s agreed not to officiate any more gay weddings, and that he wants David to resign his deaconship to prevent further conflict over the matter. “I know which battles can be won,” Jack explains. “This is not one of them.” David is crestfallen and a little disgusted. David says, “But how can you—? You’re gay!” With a tight smile, Jack replies, “People have always assumed that, but I’m not. Sorry! More Scotch?” And again David sees Marc, inviting David to drink up.


David has a rant session about church politics with Keith at a coffee shop. “They’re not going to intimidate me into disappearing!” David declares. Keith is encouraging of, if a little bemused by, David’s newfound gay-pride fire. His admiration remains platonic, though: “I’m glad we’ve been able to remain friends,” he tells David, with an accidental edge. Despite his best efforts to hide it, David’s face sags under the weight of disappointment. Keith leaves—he has to get together with his current boyfriend, Eddie. As Keith walks away, the bloody apparition of Marc returns.

That will be the last time. At Sunday services, David takes the pulpit to give a devotional reading. He recites from Psalm 31:1, “In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed: Deliver me in thy righteousness.” He stops and repeats, “Let me never be ashamed.” It dawns on David, and he tells the congregation, that he has been ashamed his entire life. That it has led him to make tragic mistakes. What if instead, he had faith that “maybe God really is love, like we say?” He smiles and says, “How am I supposed to spread God’s love throughout the world when I deny it to myself?” He imagines an outbreak of applause for this line. The parishioners are in fact respectfully quiet, but the imagined cheers speak to David’s swell of pride.


David doesn’t mention homosexuality at all in his impromptu speech, because it wasn’t about him being gay. That’s the nut of David’s breakthrough. When he exits the church, he sees Marc, this time a fully formed human being. Marc says, “Thank you.” This is what it took to heal this part of David’s self. He tried anger, defiance, honesty, and courage. But what it took was an acceptance of love. This is the change that causes Keith to view David with a newfound affection in his eyes. He had a gentle, patronizing admiration for defiant David; he wants to be with loving David.

Claire’s friend Parker wonders if Claire’s OD-ing buddy Gabe is “over it,” whatever that means. Claire defends him. “Yeah, he is. He’s incredibly strong. Stronger than he thinks.” And while her faith in Gabe may not be entirely misplaced, she also errs in this episode by testing Gabe’s strength sooner than she ought to.


Parker is throwing a huge party while her parents are away for the weekend. Claire says she’ll attend and bring Gabe, too. Before she leaves, she has a dream in which she sits with Nathaniel Sr., watching home movies of her two older brothers. She wonders why there aren’t any movies of her childhood. Nathaniel: “After you came along, I guess we sort of felt like, y’know, ‘Been there, done that.’” It’s that type of attitude—whether real or just perceived by Claire—that has always made her feel like an afterthought. Nathaniel tells her to look on the bright side. “Maybe some of that attention you never got will motivate you to get off your lazy ass and do something interesting with your life!”

It’s been clear throughout this first season of the show that Claire is sort of an adjunct member of the Fisher clan. That’s an exaggerated way to put it, of course, but she does have a family experience that’s distinct from that of her brothers. Nathaniel’s pointing out one upshot of this: She may not have gotten the same attention, but as a result, neither does she feel the same obligation as Nate and David. After all, she didn’t get any of the family business in her will. Her path is not so predetermined, which could be an exciting thing, if she chooses to treat it that way.


Claire arrives at the party with Gabe. Before they even enter, he says, “I really don’t want to be here.” She drags him in anyway, and they walk into a disjointed tableau of dissonant music and weird, detached personalities. Claire can already sense the evening slipping away from her, and she offers to leave. Yet Gabe has decided that it’s going to be “kind of fun.”

Two of Gabe’s stoner friends show up. They’re passing around a joint, which he declines. Then they tell the story of the “beer cow,” and his mood shifts. He has spent the past few weeks grappling with a new world of unmitigated seriousness and portent. As he listens to his buddies tell their insipid tale of a free six-pack earned by mooing—as he hears the idiotic phrase “beer cow” over and over again—you can see how enticed he is by their mindset. He remembers what it was like when moronic bullshit along the lines of “beer cow” actually mattered to him. That used to be his whole life! It seems like such a far-removed bliss. Gabe wants to go back to that place. He grabs the joint, inhales, and heads out to play “beer cow” with the two dorks.


The thing is, Gabe can’t go back. After letting his little brother die and nearly killing himself, Gabe can’t make “beer cow” seem like anything but a stupid trifle. So at the convenience store, he finds that he needs to raise the stakes. He pulls out a pistol and tells the clerk to clean out the cash register. At this point, that’s the level of twistedness that he needs to make light of his dark world. Mooing with a six-pack is dumb, but mooing with a gun in someone’s face? That’s comedy.

Claire dreams about Nathaniel again. He’s filming her, making her a Fisher child through and through—isn’t that what she wanted? No, it’s too late now, Claire says. She’ll have to face the frightening potential of her freedom whether she likes it or not. Nathaniel changes the subject back to that boyfriend of hers. “I do like him,” Nathaniel says. “He’ll be headed over to my neck of the woods pretty soon!”


When Ruth makes a date with Hiram, a jealous Nikolai first tries to make her work late and then fires her. Ruth comes home in a huff, and she vents to Claire, who responds with plenty of genuine “Right on!” and “Who needs him anyway?” sentiment. It’s a brief scene, but it provides a nice coda to the slow, first-season growth of Ruth and Claire’s relationship. They can have this type of spontaneous chat now, not as mother and daughter, but just as two frustrated women (even if Claire does look a little stunned afterward).

At dinner, Hiram has a bombshell. “I met someone,” he says. “Things between you and I have felt, well, not exactly—I feel a bond with this person… the beginnings of a bond that could be something profound.” He’s prepared to ramble on further, but Ruth cuts him off, telling him that it’s fine! Go and explore! Just like with Billy and Brenda, the person who initiates the breakup ends up getting upset when the other party accepts the split. Ruth says that she, too, is surprised by how easy it is for her to part ways with Hiram, but it is.


The reason is that Hiram was the lover she had, not the lover she needed. The next morning, she drops by the flower shop. Nikolai, tired and raw after a night of brooding, tells Ruth what sort of companion she needs. He says, “You are the kind of woman who needs a good lover. Because you’re so scared of feeling. You are scared of your own heart. You should have a man who can touch you there, who sees your beauty.” Ruth is moved. Nikolai no longer seems like a “silly flirtation.” She embraces him and they make love.

“I will be your friend and your lover, but I will never be your wife,” Ruth tells Nikolai afterward. “I spent the first half of my life doing that. I’m not doing again.” That’s her plan, anyway.


The episode concludes with Augusto’s christening party, which sweeps into Fisher & Sons minutes after Lilian Montrose’s wake concludes. Just as life needs an ending to define itself, it also needs a beginning, and everyone here is gathered to celebrate a beginning. Nate surveys the room, thinking about how lucky he is.

Behind it all, on the staircase, Nathaniel Sr. takes in the festivities as well. It’s a unique moment in the history of the series, as Nathaniel doesn’t appear as part of anyone’s vision. This is simply the lingering spirit of the man, looking over his brood. His presence delivers a poignant message. Nate may know he’s lucky; Nathaniel knows it even better. In death, he has a better perspective on life than anyone who’s still on the inside. The inescapable irony, of course, is that his superior viewpoint goes hand-in-hand with an impossible distance. He doesn’t get to be part of the joy that he now can understand so well. As he must, Nathaniel walks up the stairs and out of our view.


Stray Observations:

  • The “Everyone’s Waiting” thread is the special comment thread where you can talk freely about future episodes, foreshadowing, series-long character arcs, and so on. (In other threads, try to keep the all-knowing crystal-ball-gazing to a considerate minimum for the benefit of those who haven’t watched ahead.)
  • There was a lot of dated tech in this episode: Nate carries a pager, David’s fax machine is humming with activity, and Tracy burns a CD of songs for the funeral.
  • I love the moment after David gives his speech when he sees the suggestive stained-glass image of a priest holding a young altar boy’s head at crotch level. The fact that David is able to laugh at this image now is a significant change, too. Earlier in the season, he was all about the institution of the church. Now, he chuckles at the institution, because he’s more concerned with the meaning of faith.
  • I’m surprised the second time around by how much less I like Rico. He’s snippy about money and proclaims no sense of loyalty for most of this season. Yet when he needs something, like use of the slumber room for Augusto’s christening party, suddenly it’s all, “I still think of your family as my family.” I’m not saying his sentiment is false, but it is also convenient.
  • That wraps it up for the first season of Six Feet Under. I’ll be back next summer to start in on season two. Some of you have expressed a desire for a less, shall we say, “leisurely” schedule. I can give you two optimistic but equally unsatisfying answers: I hear you, and we’ll see.
  • Thank you for reading over these the past few months. It’s a privilege to write about this show, for this site. The remarkable thing about Six Feet Under is how your perspective on it can change depending on where you are in life. That’s true of all art, but especially true of this show. So it’s great to read the comments each week and find out how some of you folks see it. You frequently illuminate the show in ways I hadn’t considered. But whether you comment or not, thanks for reading.

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