Michael C. Hall, Lauren Ambrose
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“Terror Starts At Home.” (season four, episode six; originally aired 7/25/2004)

The laptop goes into his bag. Meanwhile, she stuffs her duffel with jewels, and then more jewels. They’ve taken everything they could want from this place—right? The man tied up on the floor hopes so. But as the burglar finally leaves, he decides to take one last thing. Robert Carl Meinhardt, 1962-2004.


The first glimpse of David in this episode appears to show a man who’s mostly healed from his injuries. For a couple seconds, he looks fine. But we’re just seeing David the way he wants everyone else to see him—it’s a taste of the way David shields his loved ones from the full extent of his suffering. After a moment, David turns, revealing still-fresh scars, and we better understand the reality of the situation. Then his finger comes up to dab concealer on his ugliest wound. He’s only been away from work for four days, but he’s tired of sitting around. “If I see another triumph over weight loss, I think I’ll kill myself,” he says. It’s a throwaway line that lands a bit harder than he means it to.

Predictably, David blames himself for the torture he endured at the hands of Jake the carjacker. When he bemoans “the body I lost,” Keith says, “You didn’t lose it.” David willfully misinterprets his partner: “Well, horribly misplaced, then.” Clearly, Keith meant that it wasn’t David’s fault when Jake pulled Anne Marie Thornton’s body from the van and dumped it on the side of the road. But David ignores that—he’s stuck on the notion that this whole affair ultimately comes down to his own bad choices. It’s a parallel to the pathology that has gripped Nate in recent months: The more responsibility you assign to yourself, the more control you can pretend to have. And in the immediate term, that can feel more comforting than the prospect of accepting the world’s inherent randomness.

It’s a false, fragile comfort, though—one that’s destined to wear away as David tries to move on with his life. Indeed, the thinness of David’s veneer is embodied by the concealer he applies to that gash on his forehead, a facade that melts off over the course of the episode. “Look, I just want everything to go on as planned,” David tells Keith as they discuss his birthday party. David doesn’t account for the fact that in his wounded state, even a life that proceeds as planned is filled with untold horrors. He can seek normality, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to find it.


David doesn’t get much help from Ruth in his quest to resume life as usual. She’s troubled by the story that David has apparently told her, a tale that shaves off the rough edges of his experience. He told her and the other Fishers that he was roughed up in the midst of a robbery. Ruth obsesses over the holes in this narrative. Why would someone want to steal an old van? Why would the thief harm David? “Sometimes bad things happen, and it doesn’t make sense,” he explains. This is true, but it’s a truth that obscures the more salient reality of his well-being, which is the only thing that matters to Ruth anyway.

Ruth can tell when someone’s dodging her questions, as it happens to her all the time. George is an increasingly unartful dodger in this episode, brushing off Ruth’s inquiries with ever less grace and patience. He’s even annoyed at the hassle of helping Ruth figure out what to wear for a cocktail party with his colleagues. If even that mild imposition irritates him, it’s no surprise that he grows even more cold when Ruth confronts him with the gossip she overhears about George’s love-’em-and-leave-’em ways. Eavesdropping is “not the best way to get information, is it?” George says in lieu of an answer. And then he resumes his blathering about geology and global warming.

This tension comes to a head over a neti pot, of all things. George gives the sinus-cleaning contraption to David not because it’s a thoughtful gift, but rather because it gives George another opportunity to rattle off facts that he read somewhere. To be the icon of knowledge and truth. He says that he uses the neti pot to drip water through his nose every morning, unbeknown to Ruth. She asks why he would hide the pot from her, and he says it’s just to keep it out of the way. Weary of George’s omissions, she has a different take: “You just want it to be one of your nasty little secrets!”


Maybe he does. He doesn’t view his secrets as nasty; he views them as essential. George told Ruth in “Can I Come Up Now?” that he doesn’t want to “burden you with things that don’t matter.” The trick to that scheme, of course, is that George gets to decide what matters. This is how George approaches the world: He states the way things are, and he bristles at anything that defies his version of reality. This tack was comforting to Ruth when she was in a state of loneliness and confusion. The notion of George as a “calming influence” has come up multiple times this season—including at the cocktail party—and there’s a truth to it. As more disparities crop up, however, between the real world and George’s narrow view of reality, the calmness is shaken, too.

George doesn’t really know how to negotiate the world around him; he simply refuses to negotiate. Instead, he insists, cajoles, commands—and if at long last, these tactics don’t work, he abandons. You can see his insistence on authority in the framing of Ruth and George’s argument in the kitchen: The composition of the wide shot makes him seem to tower over her. As they argue, he bristles at Ruth’s accusation that he’s been brushing her off. “That is completely untrue,” he declares. “I have answered every question you asked me, as I always do.” Here George purposely confuses responses with answers. He tends to offer the former, and Ruth seeks the latter. “Why would you leave so many—?” she starts to ask. “Because they asked too many fucking questions!” George shouts. Now there’s an answer.


And while George’s outburst is a threat, it may also be a rare moment of honesty. We can see the outlines of George’s past relationships in his marriage to Ruth. Everything starts out sweet and tidy, as both George and his companion exist in the pleasant little bubble that he’s constructed. But then reality diverges from the bubble, and George works feverishly to resist it, like ancient astronomers adding eccentricities to the planets’ orbits around Earth as their theory crumbles.

Relationships change people. They change our view of the world; they change the things that matter to us. George can’t tolerate this messy process. He prefers the comfort of his absolute, unchanging truth to the chaos of allowing other human beings’ perspective to invade his own. Heck, he doesn’t even want his own perspective to invade his own. “The past doesn’t matter to me. I just want to be here in the present with you,” he tells Ruth. She rejects this because she knows that human beings are renderings of their own pasts—you can’t “be here in the present” with someone without also confronting what came before.

This is all dour stuff, but it’s leavened by that birthday dinner scene, which helps turn this episode into the funniest Six Feet Under installment of the season so far. Claire shows up high on AMT—a sort of ecstasy-plus—because it’s unstated Fisher family tradition for someone to be drunk, high, or otherwise under the influence at these gatherings. Her ramblings about how “we should all let ourselves have what we want in life” are hilarious, and so is the debate over which oppressed minorities or privilege-holders should clear the table.


The writers maintain this humor while also ratcheting up the pressure on David. The problem with David’s insistence on normality is that his wounds are still pretty raw, and in the normal course of life, people brush against them without knowing the pain they’re inflicting. Sure, George’s statement that new gadgetry is a nice upside to the carjacking is plainly idiotic, and when David growls the response, “I hope it happens again so I can get a new PalmPilot,” both Keith and Ruth detect the anguish roiling under the surface. But not everyone who hurts David is so blatant in their insensitivity. Keith’s observation that Celeste’s audiences leave her shows feeling “high to be alive” takes on a different complexion when it’s reflected on David’s face. The same goes for Nate’s blithe statement that working with dogs makes him feel like “nothing horrible has ever happened to me.”

While everyone else tiptoes around David, honoring his desire for business as usual, Claire is the only one who addresses David’s trauma directly. “You just had this awful thing happen. You so deserve to be happy.” David, like the rest of the family, is bemused by her drugged-up state, but it’s worth noting that of all the reaction shots in this dinner scene, David’s response to Claire is the only one in which he appears to relax a little bit. (Michael C. Hall does an amazing job of portraying David with a subtle but noticeable layer of added tightness throughout this episode.)


Despite his protests, David needs someone else to acknowledge his real pain, because he can’t carry it all himself. He tries, of course, but it’s throwing him off. In an intake meeting, for instance, he loses track of the fact that Robert Meinhardt’s family is atheist. It may be a small detail for us, but the typical David would never miss something like that. David also guesses that Meinhardt died from a self-inflicted wound, which is a telling misinterpretation for someone whose instincts are usually so much more accurate. Thoughts of suicide are dancing at the edges of David’s brain, and he’s projecting himself onto Meinhardt’s dead body. That makes sense, as Meinhardt is a picture of what David could have been if the whims of a crack-smoking maniac had happened to tilt the other way that night.

David finds himself spellbound by the body as he wonders whether it wouldn’t have been better to go that way, to end the pain in one fell swoop. When he learns the truth of Meinhardt’s experience—equivalent to his except for one pull of the trigger—the capricious basis of his continued existence becomes too much for him to bear, and he can’t breathe. But an interesting thing happens when the 911 operator tells him he might be having a panic attack. You can watch David’s inner scold force him back into an outwardly “normal” state. Once he learns that his physical breakdown was caused by emotion, he decides he can rein it in himself. He’s tamped down his emotions before, and he can do it again—at least, this appears to be the logic at work here. Indeed, since David only picked up Jake because he was feeling lonesome, David’s probably even more intent now to suppress his more emotional, less rational impulses. Because look what he got by acting on his human desires. Nothing but hurt.

It’s clearly an untenable state of mind, and Claire provides a semblance of a release valve. Scenes featuring Claire and David alone are rare, but they’re among the most important of the series. While the two siblings lead different lives, they’re united by their compassion for the wounded (and so is Nate, but his compassion tends to be a more complicated beast, tinged with streaks of selfishness). They bond on this shared instinct. “At first, I thought he just wanted money—no, at first, I thought he was this cute boy in distress,” David admits to Claire. She says, “It’s okay, I’ve fallen for like 50 cute boys in distress.” It’s true. They’re both fascinated by broken people, because they both feel they know how to talk to broken people. Maybe even how to make them whole again.


That’s part of what makes this an excruciating tragedy for David: He was prideful enough to think that he knew how to contend with a person in pain. But as David tells Claire, even when he tried to “do everything right” with the utterly broken Jake, “it just made him want to torture me more.” David’s empathy failed him.

And then David descends to an even more existential level of despair as he confesses shame over his utter panic in the face of death. He confronts death every day, or so he thought, but when the moment came for him, he realized, “I don’t even know how to go. I spent the time trying to grab onto something, but nothing was enough—not even Keith, or anyone. Nothing was enough.” He nearly whispers these words, and you can tell how small this experience made him feel. After a life spent in a funeral home, he had to discover that he understood almost nothing about the actual moment of death. One detail vexes him the most: “I forgot to pray. Can you believe that? I totally forgot to pray.” Claire tells him it’s okay. “God saved you anyway, right?” She’s telling David that his expectations for himself are too high—higher even than God’s. For a moment, some measure of relief washes across his face.


Earlier, at the dinner party, Claire took back her gift because it wasn’t “meaningful enough.” (Funnily, she says this after Keith gives David an expensive new watch, a present that doesn’t exactly burst with heartfelt meaning.) Now she presents him with a gift that she thinks has the appropriate amount of heart: A photograph she took at the bonfire. At the bottom of the image, flames lick at David, the ravages of hell attempting to consume him. Yet David appears unaffected, his gaze fixed ahead. It’s not that he’s fiercely resolute in the face of torment—rather, he appears to just be quietly existing. If Robert Meinhardt is an image of what David could have been, this is an image of what he is: a thoughtful, vulnerable man who, quietly and without ostentation, persists.

Still, the flames remain. David may persist, but Claire isn’t content to watch him burn. So she enlists Nate to return to their brother’s side in the family business. He resists it. Like George, Nate seeks to build himself a bubble that exists only in a present divorced from the past, and he thinks that he’s succeeded. Now Claire wants him to give all that up? “I’m not going back,” he insists. He casts blame: “It would have been nice if Mom hadn’t fucked our only intern.” Claire lets him vent. Then she says, “He would do it for you.”

That ends the discussion. Nate knows that she’s right—he knows not only that David would do it for him, but furthermore that David would do it as a matter of course. He’s the unassuming soul in Claire’s photograph, confronting the fiery vicissitudes of life because it’s in the fiber of his being. So when Nate goes down the stairs in his drab suit to be by his brother’s side, he takes a note from David and says nothing. He stands there, gazing ahead, as they face the flames together.


Nate couldn’t live in his bubble anyway. He’s too consumed with the fundamental questions of life to while away his years as a dog wrangler. And in this episode, Brenda also abandons the false life that she started to build for herself. Maybe Joe should have seen this coming. He could have noticed the fact that he was always the one planning for a baby, looking for a house, dreaming about their domestic life. He could have wondered about the way she always deflected his questions about the future. He could have heard the fear in her voice when she asked if they’ll be moving in together “like, now?” or her half-swallowed desperation when they talked about conceiving a baby like, now.

But he didn’t hear those things, or he chose to ignore them, so Brenda did the same. She joined him in choosing to believe that her hesitation stemmed only from her past mistakes—in other words, from trauma that would fade with time. The trouble is, Brenda’s hesitation doesn’t fade. It blossoms into outright panic as she sees herself drowning in the dull, plush, off-the-shelf domestic fantasy embodied by those “BED-IN-A-BAG” monstrosities at the “Bath & Things” chain store. That’s the tipping point. When Brenda emerges from her vision of death-by-pillow, she looks down at the contents of her cart—at the contents of her life—and sees with fresh eyes how much it all bores her.


She finally has to admit that her relationship with Joe hasn’t been about healing and self-betterment; it has been largely about self-delusion. “I just can’t become this totally different person, living this simple, happy little life,” she tells Nate. “Neither can I,” he says. They’re both exasperated by the unresolvable complexities of existence, and since neither of them has been able to find a solution, they decide they might as well confront those complexities together.

Stray observations:

  • As usual, please try to restrain discussion of upcoming episodes to the first comment thread, so those who haven’t seen the whole series can collapse that first comment thread to remain unaware of events to come.
  • The birthday dinner is so full of brilliant writing (and performances) that I could have spent the whole review unpacking just those scenes. I was especially charmed by the exchange over the mulligatawny, which Ruth says she made as a tribute to David’s love of Indian food. Keith is startled by this—David likes Indian food? “He did as a child,” Ruth says, and David immediately echoes, “I did as a child.” When she says it, her voice is full of sweetness tinged by a yearning for the past. When he says it, he’s sardonically commenting on Ruth’s latent wish that her kids had never grown up.
  • Yet in a different exchange, we glimpse another side of Ruth, one that dares to regret some of the sacrifices she made. At the peak of her AMT euphoria, Claire encourages Ruth to get a cat and then asks, point-blank, “Why do you deny yourself so much?” Unaccustomed to her children engaging her so profoundly—remember the “Why can’t any of you have intimacy with me?” outburst—Ruth is surprised but charmed by the question. So she answers earnestly. “I always had children.” Sometimes to get insight into a person’s psyche, all you have to do is ask.
  • As I’ve noted a number of times, the Rico storyline is a low point of this season, but it is fun to watch him pile one lie on top of another in this episode. When Vanessa confronts him about Sophia’s visit to the funeral home, Rico comes up with a bullshit answer so quickly that it seems he already had his story prepared. When he’s forced to improvise, he still manages to throw enough smoke to hide the truth, but there’s a lot of collateral damage, like when he once again tries to use Vanessa’s depression against her. (“The truth is, this is something I started doing when you were not so easy to tell things to.” Christ, what an asshole.) The noose is tightening, but Rico continues to bob and weave. He’s like a less clever, less murderous version of Lester Nygaard form the Fargo TV show.
  • In this episode, George is preoccupied with David Cay Johnston’s Perfectly Legal, which explores the inequities of the American tax system. That’s certainly an important issue, but it’s hard to take George’s sympathy for the middle class too seriously—it often seems that George reads about these things mainly so that he can feel smarter than the rest of the world.
  • The “I need you so much closer” chorus is an appropriate anthem for this episode in which Claire draws closer to Edie, Nate returns to David’s side, and Brenda embraces Nate again. It also applies in a different light to Ruth and George’s troubles: She needs for her husband to be so much closer to her than he apparently intends to be.
  • The gossipers at the cocktail party refer to serial heartbreaker George as a “raccoon.”
  • Jimmy interrupts the dinner to demand “something tart.” Later, we see orange peels all over Claire’s floor. Sure, oranges will serve as “something tart” in a pinch.
  • “Are you available for chopping?”