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“That’s My Dog” (season four, episode five; originally aired 7/18/2004)

Grunting, moaning sex in his fabulous hot tub next to his sparkling pool with his gorgeous wife: Lou Thornton is having a pretty good birthday. His wife heads off to take a shower as they shepherd their energy for a second round. “Just don’t cook yourself!” she says. Then a crash and a scream, and she’s gone. Anne Marie Thornton, 1966-2004.


The fire alarm that interrupts Nate’s bereavement group also sounds an alarm for the episode as a whole. It’s a sudden, harsh intrusion that signals an imminent break from normal procedure. After that alarm sounds, aside from a brief scene in which Nate walks away from the group, we’re stuck watching David and his increasingly unhinged tormentor, Jake. This is the only episode in the series that breaks so boldly from the usual structure of interwoven plotlines, and “That’s My Dog” does it to give us the feeling that we, too, have been taken hostage—by the show itself. This story could not be told as effectively otherwise. A cutaway to another member of the Fisher clan would be too much of a relief. The editing suffocates us with Jake—with his illogic and his frantic indirection—until the final seconds, when we’re allowed to take a few shaky breaths of relief and wonder, like David, what normal will look like now.

Up to this point in the season, David’s storyline has been mostly placid, probably not at the forefront of any viewer’s mind. He and Keith are happy, and while his work often frustrates him, David’s life finally appears to be falling into place. But take another look with the benefit of retrospect, and you can see that Six Feet Under had David on a trajectory to this moment all along. How many times has David been left alone in season four? His brother quits on him. Arthur—on the verge of becoming a sort of family member—leaves amid Ruth’s misguided accusations. Rico ducks out whenever Sophia calls. And now Keith takes off for a three-month work trip in a hurry, attempting to quiet David’s insecurities with clumsy remarks like, “David we were split up for, what, eight months? We weathered that.” (So this trip is equivalent to a breakup? Way to put your man at ease, Keith.)

The startling frequency with which David’s loved ones abandon him is matched by the lack of concern they exhibit on their way out. None of them—not Nate, Rico, Arthur, or Keith—demonstrate any significant worries about David when they leave him behind (although it’s safe to assume Arthur is saddened to part ways with his ersatz sibling). David’s just expected to soldier on. He’s the dutiful son whose reliability allows everyone else to flit off where their own whims take them. They know David will always be there.


And look, David likes being the responsible one. He takes a quiet pride in being the one who, despite his own insecurities and pain, can come through where others falter and offer comfort to the people around him. He’d just like some company while he does so. It makes sense, then, that the increasingly lonesome David would pluck Jake from the side of the road. Here’s someone in need, who David can care for—and, at the same time, someone who can provide David companionship. A lot of people, if they sought a new companion to care for, would get a dog. David, though, sees Jake stranded under the overpass and decides, in an instant of caprice, that’s my dog.

The other storylines in the episode might seem disposable given that so much of the hour fixates on David, but much of the supposed side action resonates with the main plot line in illuminating ways. George and Ruth’s argument over what to do with Kyle, for instance, acts as a sort of proxy argument over what David ought to have done with Jake. (Kyle and Jake have some parallels, after all—they both contend with apparent daddy issues, and they both lash out in unpredictable ways.) George sees no obligation to have any further contact with Kyle, as George has already done the minimum of what society expects of him. Don’t entangle yourself any more than you need to, he argues. For Ruth, though, it’s not about obligation; it’s about nurturing. Her romantic notion that she could create a perfect match for Kyle on the basis that Becky, too, likes to leave shit outside people’s front doors, is misguided. Equally misguided is David’s fantasy that he can be the knight in shining white armor (or shining white van, at least), riding to Jake’s rescue and maybe getting a blowjob out of the deal if he’s lucky.

Brenda’s lunch with her mother, Margaret, offers echoes relevant to David’s plight, too. The two woman bicker over the proper approach to therapy, with Margaret sneering, “You don’t believe in that cognitive crap, do you? You have to dig through the past.” Brenda replies, “Just knowing where behavior comes from doesn’t change the behavior.” They’re talking about two different (but, in practice, complementary) ways to heal a psyche: You can evaluate someone’s thought processes in the present, and you can seek to clarify the roots of their disturbance in the past.


David tries both of the Chenowith women’s tactics as he desperately tries to understand and pacify Jake. First, there’s the Margaret Chenowith approach. Shortly after their encounter has turned sour, Jake tells David that his father was killed in a car accident, and David sees an opportunity to find common ground. They’ll relate to each other, David imagines. Talk out their issues. Maybe even hug! Jake is momentarily startled by David’s outreach (similar to the way that Kyle is thrown by Ruth’s compassion in the previous episode) and Jake wants no part of it. He didn’t tell the story about his dead dad to connect with David; he told it to manipulate David, and when the manipulation doesn’t work, Jake only grows angrier.

Later, David asks Jake, “Why are you doing this to me? Because your father died?” Jake tells David that he made up the whole car-accident story, and the revelation is notable mostly for how little difference it makes. Like Brenda said, just knowing where behavior comes from doesn’t change the behavior.

So David shifts his focus from the past to the present. Throughout the carjacking, David pleads with Jake to tell David what he wants. Just tell me what you’re thinking, David demands, and I’ll identify where your thinking is flawed, so we can find a better solution. It’s a seat-of-his-pants cognitive approach like the one Brenda’s studying in her training program. And this fails, too.


It fails because there is no thought process for David to adjust. No matter how frantically he searches for the root of Jake’s desire, he’s not going to find anything, because Jake isn’t fueled by desire here—he’s fueled by impulse. Desire has a trajectory and an endpoint. It’s comforting that way. Impulse is momentary and distressingly random, even to the person experiencing the impulse, as we see when David and Jake are leaving the convenience store. Jake marvels that he’s not sure why he punched David: “It just—it felt so fucking good! God, I didn’t even know I was gonna do that. I just did it!” Here, Jake reveals himself as the anti-David. While David constantly weighs the causes, meaning, and consequence of his actions, Jake pays no mind to any of those things. He simply acts.

There’s a haunting resonance here with Claire’s crit session in her photography class. As her classmates examines Claire’s self-portraits, they come around to the conclusion that the person in the photos appears “empty.” The professor asks Claire what she’s looking at in one of the pictures, and Claire says, “Nothing.” Russell replies, “Okay, I thought you were actually thinking something deep.” David makes the same mistake with Jake: He naturally grasps at the hope that there is some deeper motivation to Jake’s actions, but when he asks to see it, Jake just gives him more of nothing.

The parallel only goes so far, though. The self-photographed Claire is nothingness at rest—“stillness” is the way Claire puts it—while Jake is nothingness in motion, an aimless kineticism. This makes him more terrifying, not to mention exhausting. As their insane journey stretches deep into the night, David says, “Do you even know where we are? … Am I going in the right direction?” Jake’s answers are non-committal. “Not exactly.” “I guess.”


Then comes a glimmer of detail. Jake says they’re looking for a red house, specifically a “barn red.” There’s an extraordinary economy of language here. In just two words, “barn red,” Six Feet Under conjures a pastoral scene—the farmhouse on the hill, with its quaint red barn, surrounded by grass, sunshine, and happiness. It could not be a more dramatic contrast with the dark, industrial urban hellhole where David and Jake find themselves.

Yet Jake continues to pursue the fantasy, and when a stray pooch wanders into the headlights’ beam, Jake cries, “Hey, that’s my dog!” So David catches the animal, at which point Jake says, “That’s not my dog.” Which is what happens when you get a close look at a mirage.

Did Jake ever actually have a dog? He claims that he did—albeit decades ago—but he’s so unreliable that it’s impossible to know. It doesn’t matter in any case. Jake’s only chasing the ideal of the dog, an embodiment of the “best friends forever” mantra that Jake repeats throughout the episode. Nobody—not this wandering hound, and not David—can live up to that ideal.


And so in these closing moments, we get the only glimpse of true desire lingering underneath the noise of Jake’s impulses. The red barn and the eternally loyal dog are fragments from a larger fantasy of the idyllic homestead, an impossible dream that Jake has clearly chased for a long time, maybe all his life. The harder he chases it, the further away it becomes—again, look where he and David end up by following Jake’s directions. He has no idea how to get where he wants to go, or even where it is.

If a dog can’t be loyal, it can at least be made to obey. This is the one perverted fragment of the fantasy that Jake can bring into actuality. So as his final act, he makes David sit before him, on the ground like a dog, and sticks his gun into David’s mouth. Then he tells David to close his eyes, implicitly instructing his hostage to contemplate death. (Instead, David instinctively contemplates his life.) Perhaps Jake himself is an avatar of death—maybe the student in Claire’s class who glimpses death in the emptiness of her photographs was onto something. Death and emptiness might be two ways to express the same thing.

Indeed, Jake is mostly dead. He has almost no reason to live. But he still has the faintest vision of what life could be like. It’s a vision he can’t entirely grasp, and certainly one he can never realize. Yet it remains, and that infinitesimal shred of hope is what keeps Jake barely alive—and it’s the thing that saves David. If Jake kills David, he ends the fantasy once and for all, essentially killing himself, too. So no, Jake never pulls the trigger. How could he? That’s his dog.


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.
  • Only Ruth Fisher would hear “I left dog shit on my ex-husband’s front porch” and think “I know just the man for you!”
  • Brenda says that her sex with Joe is “creative” and “interesting,” and Margaret immediately replies, “You have to dump him.” She may, by her own admission, be a train wreck herself, but I bet Margaret Chenowith is a pretty good therapist. She has a knack for hearing all the hidden layers of meaning and intention in a person’s words. (Granted, this is her daughter, someone you’d expect her to know pretty well, but this is hardly the first time she’s called someone out on the things they left unsaid.)
  • And now for this week’s Obligatory Mention Of The Rico Storyline. In this episode, Sophia shows up at Fisher & Diaz uninvited, and Rico is troubled by such. That concludes this week’s Obligatory Mention Of The Rico Storyline.