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Six Feet Under: “Tears, Bones And Desire”

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“Tears, Bones And Desire” (season three, episode eight; originally aired 4/20/2003)

“The People” are a cult, make no mistake, but as cults go, this one is an interesting mix of the creepy and the benign. We glimpse the creepiness by way of Mary Jane. The wives of the family tell her she can’t go to class anymore because she’s “almost a woman”—that’s ominous. But that now-forbidden class seems benign, if insubstantial. Daddy, the patriarch, gives the kiddies a subtraction lesson that gets mixed in with a little morality play about a scurrilous businessman. “A wise man once said that every day, we must dance,” Daddy preaches. “To say, ‘Thank you, God. Thank you for life.’” As the angle widens to show all Daddy’s children frolicking in their backyard, we get a visual gloss of The People: They’re weird but happy. Daddy smiles, at peace, as he observes what he has built. Daddy, 1940-2003.


Six Feet Under’s attitude toward “alternative” ways of thinking—or any way of thinking, really—could be described as skeptically open-minded. The show’s writers are happy to point out flaws in the worldview of their characters, but neither do they dismiss any perspective out of hand. Overall, the series suggests there is no one Grand Unified Truth, but there are personal truths and situational truths that, despite their limits and inconsistencies, can lend meaning to our lives. So the show has a certain admiration for belief systems that are messy but useful. This episode brings that admiration to the fore.

The spirit of messy-but-useful is encapsulated in Daddy’s definition of the human body: “tears, bones, and desire.” In other words, it’s a body that subjects us to pain and the inadequacy of our mortal lives (as represented by the tears and desire) but that still functions well enough to get us where we need to go (the bones).

The same description applies in a way to The Book Of Daddy, which is idiosyncratic (to say the least) but seems to give The People enough truth to get by. As Daddy’s widows discuss the handling of the corpse with the Fisher brothers, weirdness and contradictions abound. One minute the eldest widow, Eve, says “it’s just an old corpse,” and the next, she’s demanding she and her fellow wives be allowed to stand guard over Daddy’s body because “There are government agents—space forces are always following us.” So wait, is the body important or not? It appears to depend on the context and on the specific reading of Daddy’s book. Note also that when Abigail pleads to have the body embalmed, Eve resists and then graciously gives way. Not all tenets of faith must be dogma.

Many of the characters face a mess of beliefs in “Tears, Bones And Desire,” and not all of those messes need to be resolved. Some of the characters face benign, livable contradictions, and other characters face self-delusions that could come back to hurt them. This episode posits that it’s hard to tell the difference—especially when you’re in the middle of the mess.


Take Keith and David’s paintball fun day. David expects that he and Keith will play on the same team, but when it comes time to choose sides, Keith stands on the other side of the line. Taking Keith aside, David protests that this schism is embarrassing for him. Keith brings up his own “leading ladies” humiliation and says, in so many words, that turnabout is fair play. That leaves David on the red team with his choir buddies, Terry and Patrick, plus a grumbling conscript who was forced to switch over from the blue squadron (filled with Keith’s gay cop buddies).

And then there’s Sarge. Keith is savoring paintball as an opportunity to practice his theory that getting angry at David can actually be an expression of affection. But—speaking of turnabout being fair play—the presence of Sarge, the ringer, means that David gets to vent a little rage, too. Sarge is the catalyst David needs to let out his inner soldier boy.


So both sides get to have some fun. Keith skulks around, muttering, “Come on, you fa-la-la mimosa motherfuckers,” and David volunteers to help Sarge bring down his meatheaded beau in a blaze of glory. The paintball action is hard to follow—cheating is rife, and the logistics of the match are hazy—but it provides catharsis. Keith and David love each other, and they also want to kick the other guy’s ass. A contradiction, perhaps, but a common one, and a livable one.

But then there’s another fit of illogic that will probably require some cleanup. Sarge comes back to Keith and David’s place, and the balance shifts away from the fa-la-la camp. Poor Patrick looks so out of sorts when he asks Keith and Sarge if they’re planning to go out. He’s so eager for the action to shift back to clubs or gay bars or something resembling his own turf. But, tellingly, the choir fellows end up taking a hike while Sarge sticks around. He appears later in the doorway of the bedroom: “It’s cold out there. You have room for me?” As Keith and David’s field of vision is overwhelmed by the boundless vista of taut man meat—you can tell that the actors were required to disrobe when auditioning for this part—they decide that yes, in fact, they do have room for Sarge.


Yet when Sarge joins them for breakfast the next morning, David shoots Keith a “What is he still doing here?” look about seven thousand times, by my count. What gives? David lets Sarge into his bed but not into his kitchen? It’s not logical.

Still, we can empathize with David’s discomfort. Sex is gloriously versatile. Among other things, it can be an expression of tender affection or an expression of aggressive, unbridled lust. But breakfast is not so polyvalent, at least not for David. Breakfast is home. It’s family. When David looks askance at Keith, he’s saying, “I didn’t agree to let this hulking beau into this part of our lives.” This bit of nonsense—unlike the “I’m angry because I love you” bit—will need sorting.


While David accepts (to a degree) an amorphous conception of sex, Claire has trouble with it in this episode. The juxtaposition is important, because it drives home a further nuance of the “messy but useful” dynamic: A messy belief that works for one person can be a nightmare for a different person, in a different context.

When we first see Claire and Russell in this episode, they’ve learned to filter out Olivier’s rants. He’s screaming over the social injustices represented in a teen fashion magazine: “There’s not one person in this country who knows how to fuck,” he raves, “because real fucking would overthrow the government.” The two star students roll their eyes. So Olivier makes it more personal. You’re 18 years old, he tells them. “Your flesh should be on fire all the time.” Claire responds: “It is.” Olivier grunts. He has no good answer for this.


He’ll think of one. Olivier respects Claire and Russell; his admiration for their potential is genuine. It’s that very respect, though, that makes him need their attention even more. What does he care if the laggards in the class tune him out? They’ll never amount to anything. But it’s important to Olivier’s own sense of self-worth that he can captivate Claire and Russell. He has many arrows in his emotional quiver to make that happen. So when his usual ravings fail to do the trick, he moves on to another approach.

Together, they can ignore him, so he endeavors to break up their united front. He makes cracks about Russell being Claire’s “shadow.” She denies it, but the fact that she has to deny it on Russell’s behalf indicates Olivier has touched a nerve. (He’s good at that.) He senses a power imbalance in this relationship, and he intends to heighten it. So Claire has to drive out into the desert to pick up some art while Russell remains and keeps Olivier company.


Carmen, the sculptor out in Azusa, says she used to be Olivier’s assistant, too, which means Claire is getting a glimpse of one possible future for herself. Claire tells Carmen the assistant thing is fine and all, but she wishes she were more involved in Olivier’s work. “Oh, I know,” says Carmen in a moment of recognition. “I was his assistant, too. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! That was a very creative time.” Taken aback, Claire insists it’s not that kind of a relationship. Somehow, this only makes it worse. Carmen asks, “Oh, is he having a ‘boy year’?” Claire wasn’t considering this sort of sexual complexity, so Carmen’s statement is a stunner. Claire’s thoughts turn to the ambiguously straight boyfriend she just left in the company of a mercurial, oversexed egomaniac.

She returns to find Russell looking dazed, as if his world has been thrown off-axis. At best, he’s seen something he didn’t want to see; at worst, he’s done something he didn’t want to do. When Olivier walks back into the scene—from his bedroom, presumably—he’s putting his watch on. Or is he putting his watch back on? Claire can’t tell. Later, Russell insists nothing happened, that he and Olivier simply got high and watched some TV. He’s fidgety and unconvincing. At the beginning of the episode, Claire and Russell were a united front, more so than ever. At the end, there’s an undeniable schism. Olivier knows what he’s doing.


Arthur and Ruth are friends. That much has been established. But from there, they diverge. Ruth sees Arthur as a friend, a child, and a potential lover. Arthur sees Ruth as a friend, a caretaker, and an employer. So far, they have been content to exist in the overlap on their relationship’s Venn diagram. But Ruth can’t contain herself to that mere sliver anymore, and she impulsively kisses Arthur. “Shit, shit!” she fumes as she hurries out of the room. “Language!” Arthur says, out of instinct.

Ruth doesn’t want to talk about the incident—which comes as a great shock to you all, I’m sure—but Arthur says that to say nothing “would be a lie.” He gives a spiel that most of us have heard at one time in our lives after being spurned: “Your friendship has so much value for me,” and so on. “Please don’t kiss me again,” he asks Ruth. “I never will. Never!” she insists. And then she immediately does, which is wonderful.


The second time they attempt to reconcile, it’s Ruth who reaches out to Arthur. She has been affected by the funeral for Daddy, in particular its admonition to rid oneself of bothersome self-consciousness: “When the multitude laughs at you, you are blessed.” She prostrates herself, emotionally, before Arthur. “I care for you, Arthur. I care for your music. I care for your hankies. I won’t pretend that I don’t. That would be a lie,” Ruth says, borrowing Arthur’s own words.

He’s moved. But rather than throwing himself into Ruth’s arms, he endeavors to meet her halfway. He approaches her and nuzzles her with his head. Yes, it’s bizarre, but it makes a certain sense. Rather than resolving the conflicts in the way they perceive each other, Arthur is quite rationally attempting to split the difference. So we’re left with this picture of them nuzzling, halfway between friend and lover. Is this messy solution sustainable? Hard to tell right now.


Ever since Nate brought Maya to Bernard Chenowith’s funeral, Lisa has been preoccupied with thoughts of Brenda. Brenda the encroacher. Brenda the usurper. She asks Nate why he broke up with Brenda, and he knows there is no way that conversation can end well, so he deflects. Lisa’s friend Dana is no more reassuring. When Lisa wonders aloud whether Nate might go back to Brenda, Dana says, “Oh, no. Nate, he adores Maya. He would never.” Brenda’s friends and loved ones never miss an opportunity to unwittingly remind her that Nate loves Maya more than he loves her.

So Lisa decides to play private detective. She calls the spa where Brenda works and makes an appointment for a massage. In person, Brenda is less menacing than the fears that have bedeviled Lisa, which was inevitable. Lisa breaks down in tears of confusion, and Brenda handles it with grace. “I was working on your hara,” she says to Lisa. “That’s the seat of mind/body power, if you believe in that sort of thing.” It figures that Brenda would give voice to the most pragmatic shades of this episode’s exploration of belief. “If you believe in the tenets of shiatsu, that might be helpful to you,” is the essence of Brenda’s statement. And she says it in a way that indicates she herself could take it or leave it as it suits her. For Brenda, belief is a means to an end. That’s not to say she’s cynical or unspiritual. But her realist streak never goes away. (The same cannot be said for Lisa.)


Lisa talks about her life—without naming any names, obviously—and concludes that she’s pretty happy; she just doesn’t know how to handle it. Then she says Brenda looks sad. You can see Brenda trying to figure out how to react. She detects there’s something she’s missing here, for this complete stranger to care about such a thing. But she decides to engage. “I’m not so lucky, but I wouldn’t change anything,” she says, returning to the lessons she pondered in “Timing & Space” last week. “If you change one thing, that changes everything. Some things are the way they should be.”

These words are a salve for Lisa. The next time we see her, she’s radiant. She looks more alive than we’ve ever seen her. (Superb acting, lighting, and makeup combine to create this effect.) Nate is drawn to her in a way he can’t explain.


It makes no sense for Lisa to be this happy. The fundamental problems with her marriage remain. She’s too desperate and afraid to lose Nate. He’s there out of obligation and can’t overcome the boredom and resentment that follow from that. Logically, the fact that Brenda has moved on (as far as Lisa knows) should have no bearing on any of these conflicts. Lisa has simply decided to believe they do. Her thought process is a mess, but right now, it works for her.

The effect is undeniable. It’s a reinvigorated version of the Lisa we know. She’s self-assured. She cultivates an air of mystery. She tells Nate, “You’re lucky I love you.” The irony is that if this Lisa could be present all the time, perhaps she wouldn’t get so lost in her own angst. Then again, if this Lisa were present all the time, she never would have ended up with Nate in the first place. If you change one thing, you change everything.


Stray observations:

  • As usual, please make an effort to restrict your conversation of upcoming episodes to the first comment thread. This way, people who haven’t seen all of the show yet can collapse that thread to preserve the surprise if they so desire.
  • A less ambitious show might have gone ahead and made the cult completely whackadoo (although that wouldn’t have served the thematic needs of this episode at all). But the eulogy for Daddy, while rambling, contains a few stretches of beautiful poetry. The line that struck me the most was this one from the Book Of Daddy: “Missing me one place? Search another. I stop somewhere, waiting for you.” [Commenter Rhuarc fills me in—the reason I find it so poetic is because it's a famous Walt Whitman line from "Song Of Myself. Good looking out, Rhuarc!]
  • When Dana wants Lisa to act like more of an assertive asshole on the phone with the massage parlor, she tells Lisa to “do a Carol.” (Dana’s little pantomime of “doing a Carol” is also great.)
  • It’s nice that Rico gets some comeuppance, even if it’s only in the form of guilt he’ll suffer silently, after he lets loose on Vanessa for the whole lice thing. Come on, kids get lice. It happens. But his “you don’t get to mess with MY children” tirade—the “my children” dig pushes it over the line for me—does succeed in prompting Vanessa to seek help for her depression. Another instance of a screwed-up belief system getting results despite itself.
  • One reason Peter Macdissi is so excellent as Olivier: He can take a line like, “Oh, you brought your shadow,” which is already inherently mean, and deliver it in a way that elevates it to a whole new level of nastiness.
  • Lisa on breakups: “Breakups are gory and humiliating. … You get dumped like you’re nothing, like you’re fucking garbage. Then you crawl around in public with your bloody guts hanging out, crying all over total strangers on the bus.” But oh, no, she’s not talking about herself. Perish the thought! “It was a friend.”
  • “Jeanne.” Splat. “Tripplehorn.” Splat.

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