“Life’s Too Short” (Season 1, episode 9; originally aired 7/29/2001)
Gabe Dimas is playing video games, which is Six Feet Under’s shorthand for a teenager who is disconnecting from reality. The former object of Claire’s toe-sucking affections, Gabe is killing time until his stoner buddy comes over with the latest dimebag. When his courier does arrive, Gabe tells his little brother Anthony to “go play in Mom’s room.” Which doesn’t sound like the most fun place to play, but you know. Not Gabe’s concern.
Gabe and his friend light up and banter about pot and parties. There’s a record release party tonight, with an “after-hours” at Sin-Sin. The place will be filled with “Asian tweakers,” Gabe scoffs. The conversation is intercut with shots of Anthony finding things that he wasn’t meant to find in his mother’s room. Our understanding of what’s about to happen makes Gabe’s idle conversation seem that much more meaningless. Hatefully so. The next baggie of marijuana, record releases, “tweakers shoving glow-sticks in their eyes”—they’re all about to matter so little. Gabe hears a bang from Mom’s room and runs to investigate. “Oh, fuck!” Anthony Christopher Finelli, 1994-2001.
Nate failed his funeral director licensing test, and David is disappointed, if not entirely surprised. “You think this is something people do when they can’t do anything else,” he says to Nate, “and therefore it can’t be that difficult.” There’s some truth to that. Nate had some swagger before he took the test, bragging that “it’s not exactly the California bar” before he blew it. But there’s also part of Nate that doesn’t want to face the implications of passing the test. He doesn’t want to be a guy who’s good at death. That’s the side of the problem that Brenda will poke at in this episode.
In the meantime, Gabe and his mother have arrived to discuss Anthony. Ms. Dimas, inconsolable, doesn’t want to see her child “in a box.” David doesn’t press her to reconsider an open casket, which is unlike him. Later, when Nate asks David about this—“I thought we were supposed to encourage people to have a viewing”—David admits that self-interest did enter into the situation. “When faced with the option of restoring a six-year-old child’s head that’s been blown to bits, yeah, I don’t want to do that. Do you?” David goes on to bluster some more, but the point is made: Sometimes David can’t live up to his own standards, and if that makes Nate or anyone else think that he’s a hypocrite, well, fine. David may still be angry and pent-up, but at least he’s admitting that he’s human.
That’s one step toward David liking himself, but it is only the one step. He’s still drawn to the escapism of nights with Kurt, where he gets to pretend that he’s a crazy kid who just wants to drop some ecstasy and let loose. “I’m not a very good dancer,” he tells Kurt. “You will be,” Kurt says. That statement is fantasy, as demonstrated by the ensuing montage of arhythmic spasms, but fantasy is what David wants right now. The opening scene with Gabe sets up the late-night rave as the counterpoint to the terrifying reality of death—it’s the world that Gabe chooses to concern himself with until Anthony’s accident forces his perspective to shift. By the same coin, it’s where David retreats when death becomes too oppressive for him.
Yet there’s no deeper substance to Kurt, or the nights that David spends with him, dancing and screwing. This pairing is not going to work, because David is a deeply substantial being. When he sees Keith at the dance club, it’s awkward, of course. Everyone makes polite small talk. Then along comes Eddie the EMT, Keith’s new boyfriend. Keith met this new guy when Eddie was called to the scene of two newlyweds in a car crash—Eddie could only save the bride. David: “Wow. So the bride had eternity with the man she loved in front of her, and then you go and save her and she’s left behind, alone! Ha-ha!” Eddie and Kurt are stunned that David would take things to such a heavy place. But Keith just stares at David for a moment with a knowing look and a deep breath. He’s not surprised. This is how David works.
It’s here that the Kurt fantasy starts to break down, as it inevitably would. In an earlier scene, when Claire catches David wearing her T-shirt again, she knows he’s getting ready for another date. She says, “I get it. He’s hot, in a … generic, Banana Republic kind of way.” Pretty observant.
Kurt is generic. He always has a cutesy line at the ready, because it’s easy to speak when you don’t think. So at the club, as he natters on about what it’s like to have sex with an EMT, or a cop, or a fireman, David snaps, “Is dating like an excuse for you to figure out who you wanna be when you grow up?” As usual, Kurt has a comeback: “I don’t know, is dating like an excuse for seeing who you wished you’d been when you were my age?”
It’s the difference between David and Kurt. When David fails to live up to his principles, it causes him no small angst. Kurt only pretends to have principles. He’s got his smooth patter about reverence for elders, the ignorance of youth, and so on. But in truth, he views his youth as equivalent to godliness, and when it comes to older people (and come on, David is not THAT much older), he mistakes pity for respect.
Of course, that’s not to say that Kurt is wrong when he accuses David of living in a world of wishes. When Kurt makes that snappish remark, David grabs Kurt’s face and kisses him. It’s the desperate move of a person who’s waking up but doesn’t want their dream to end yet: Just shut up and let me sleep a little longer.
But no, it’s time to wake up. David sees Kurt making out with a random dude, and he’s outta there. “Why are you taking this so seriously?” Kurt asks. David’s clear-minded response: “Because I’m a serious guy! I bury people for a living.”
Even though it doesn’t pan out to any lasting bond, there’s a sense that David feels liberated by his adventures in Young & Fancy-Free Land. At Anthony Firelli’s funeral, he admits to Nate that he, too, failed the funeral director test the first time he took it. Nate doesn’t believe him, yet David insists. David wants Nate to acknowledge that David’s flawed. “I fuck up a lot more than you might think. I fuck up a lot.”
Ruth goes on a camping with Hiram—in Nikolai’s words, “that man with the funny little car who picks you up.” (In a nice wink from the writers, Hiram shares Ed Begley Jr.’s real-life interest in eco-friendly transportation.) Hiram envisions a rekindling of their original passions, “naked under the stars” like they were two years ago, when Ruth began the affair.
Ruth is not feeling so romantic. She practically treats the trip like it’s a business transaction. She obsesses over duties like checking the packing list and hanging the food from a tree so as not to attract bears. After dinner, Hiram turns the conversation to that first night they had together, when the food tasted wonderful and the skies were clear. Ruth deflects by reciting some macabre trivia: “Did you know you’re not supposed to go camping if you’re menstruating? It’s true.” Like the extra food, menstruation attracts bears, she tells a bewildered and frustrated Hiram.
Hiram wishes that Ruth would loosen up, and he gets his wish something fierce. Ruth takes a couple of aspirin for a headache, except it’s the same bottle in which David had stashed a couple pills of ecstasy. Thanks to the luck of the draw, Ruth falls into a synaesthetic bliss, where she sees new colors and bonds with the life force of the trees.
And what do you know! She attracts a bear. A big fuzzy teddy bear with an oversized pocket watch. He points to the clock. The unspoken message is, “It’s time.” Time for what? Time to face her dead husband. Time to exorcise her crippling guilt. Time to love again.
In her purple-tinted alternate reality, Ruth speaks to her vision of Nathaniel like an old friend. She starts to apologize for betraying Nathaniel, but he cuts her off: “I was gone long before I died.” Interestingly, he thinks that Ruth will end up with fiery Nikolai rather than prim Hiram. “Heavens, no! The man is a complete savage,” she says. She claims to be worried about attracting bears, and the big Russian bear is no exception.
Yet from what we knew of Ruth and Nathaniel’s early romance, there was a certain unrestrained savageness to their love, too. “We were such children when we met,” says Ruth, returning to one of her favorite metaphors. “And we watched those children disappear.”
Nathaniel pops the hood on his hearse, the one in which they made madcap love after breaking down on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway so many years ago. The car “won’t go forward, won’t go back,” he says. Ruth finds Nathaniel’s tombstone in the engine compartment. There’s your problem. Nathaniel’s dead, and their bond is literally engraved in stone—frozen. “I miss what we had,” she says. “So find it again,” Nathaniel says.
In the morning, Hiram reports that the two of them enjoyed a night of passion the likes of which he’d never seen. Ruth laughs like a little girl. She’s finding it again.
After a punishing day at work, Nate heads over to Brenda’s, where he gets to enjoy yet another dinner with Billy. As Nate pours out his anguish, Brenda reaches over to comfort him, which sets off the alarms in Billy’s skull. Like Ruth did with Hiram, he tries to chase the demons of affection away by saturating the air with depressing trivia. Billy’s done his research on multicultural attitudes toward child death, and he’s only so happy to share. And if Nate isn’t interested in dead kids, doesn’t that make him an “amateur” mortician? Scratch that—“I prefer the word ‘dilettante,’” says Billy.
Yet Brenda doesn’t indulge Billy’s behavior like she usually had until now. She’s recommitted herself somewhat to Nate, and she rebukes Billy’s aggressive lack of seriousness with some trivia of her own: “You know what I find interesting? If you lose a spouse, you’re called a widow or a widower. If you’re a child and you lose your parents, then you’re an orphan. But what’s the word to describe a parent who loses a child? I guess that’s just too fucking awful to have a name.”
As a funeral director, Nate’s job is to deal with the things that are too fucking awful. Brenda doesn’t believe he’s ready, so it’s time for another one of her patented adventures. You may remember the time she made David and Nate ride the bus that killed their father. This time, she and Nate will be pretending to need funeral services and trolling local mortuaries for perspective on this strange business.
Nate thinks that the scheme is crazy, on account of it is crazy, but he goes along with it. The ends can justify the means in Brenda’s flights of fancy. At the first funeral home, she pretends that her parents have died and launches into a profane episode of deep, existential despair. The mortician’s reply: “Might I suggest matching caskets?” Nate’s jaw drops. He’s stunned by the insensitivity. It’s all Brenda needs to hear. “That’s it? That’s what you have to offer me in my time of grief? Merchandise? We have nothing to learn here.”
In the second make-believe visit, it’s an aunt who’s “dead.” Nate’s getting into the exercise now, talking back to the funeral director who, in Nate’s view, just wants to “swindle” a grieving couple. “This business is a total racket,” he says after they’ve left. “What business isn’t?” Brenda replies.
The final funeral director is a sweet, understanding woman who appears to be a more palatable role model for Nate, even if her perspective is a little bit too soft-focus. He doesn’t really notice the funeral director, though, because he’s beside himself with Brenda’s latest stunt. See, at this third meeting, she’s decided that the pretend funeral will be for herself, the chemo patient. She hams it up with fake coughing and a strained voice, tossing out lines like, “My husband hates me doing this. He wants me to spend this time doing things I always dreamed of, but…the coughing-blood-and-pissing-needles thing kind of gets in the way.”
Back in the car, Nate is furious. “That was the most fucked-up thing you’ve ever done to me!”—a statement that implicitly puts these shenanigans at the top of a pretty long list. But Brenda always has a lesson. She notes that Nate has to counsel people on death despite the fact that he’s terrified of it himself. “I will die someday,” she says. “We die, Nate. We all die.” It is a simple truth but one that Nate needed to acknowledge head-on. His job is not to shelter people from death; it’s to help them face it.
Nate applies this newfound clarity at Anthony’s funeral, when the child’s delinquent father shows up to kick the tar out of Gabe. After Nate corrals him in a side room, the father fumes with no self-awareness about Gabe’s irresponsibility and how it’s just not right that his kid is dead. Nate responds with a raw truthfulness that we haven’t seen from him before. “Some of us live to be a hundred, some of us don’t make it through our first day. That’s just a fucking fact of nature, pal. … You can punch as many people as you want; it’s not going to change the fact that that boy is dead. And your chance to be in his life is over.” It’s brutal. It’s also what the man needed, and he stands there to contemplate his mistakes.
Claire’s concern in this episode is not so much for Anthony as for the brother who remains, Gabe. She sees him isolated from his supposed friends and seeks him out despite their past rift. Her friend Parker warns her against it—“If you hook up with him now, that would be total emotional rape”—but Claire’s a Fisher. She has a genetic predisposition to heal the grief-stricken.
Gabe doesn’t need Nate’s speech about the ticking clock of life. He’s a better man than Anthony’s father; he recognizes that he has often spent his time poorly and that he has made mistakes. He’s already feeling the need to atone. He says to Claire, “You know when people would call you those things like ‘cemetery girl’ and ‘vampire’? I never thought that was funny.” You can tell that unlike the Gabe we’ve seen in the past, he’s not just saying this to win cheap sympathy from Claire. This, at least, is a wrong he can try to correct.
It’s a small, desperate gesture. Gabe can’t apologize enough to make a dent in his overwhelming guilt. Previously free to check out from the world on a regular basis, Gabe now faces the reality of life—or, more to the point, of death—at every moment. Yes, he had been acting like kind of a fuck-up, but he’s also 16 years old. This was his time to screw up, and in time he would ease into those bigger questions. Events have placed him on an accelerated schedule, and it’s not clear what happens to him, the brother who survives, from here. The whiplash of the tragedy is extraordinarily devastating for such a young soul. “There’s so much you wish you could protect your children from,” Ruth says.
- 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.)
- Customer: “What color would you give a coward?” Ruth: “Um, yellow. Yellow.”
- I wonder, if you happened to spot a film crew getting footage of a guy in a teddy-bear suit running through the woods, would you guess that they were producing one of the most brilliant TV shows of its generation?
- At various times, this was one of the saddest episodes of the season. At other times, it’s one of the funniest. The show’s ability to mix the two is extraordinary.
- “Well, I’m sorry it’s inconvenient, but would you rather we were mauled in our sleep by bears?”
- Brenda’s diabolical lesson-teaching techniques remind me of George Bluth Sr. from Arrested Development. I half-expected J. Walter Weatherman to pop out of the bushes to say, “And THAT’S why you face the inevitability of death!”
- Fisher & Sons is missing Rico already. If he were around, David would certainly have pushed for an open-casket viewing.
- “Is this split-personality thing something that happens when Mom goes away? Because I like you better like this.”