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“The Dare” (season four, episode seven; originally aired 8/10/04)

The context tells us we’re in a hospital; the expressions on the faces of the married couple tell us that we’re here for a reckoning. The woman tells her doctor that they kept putting off a doctor visit despite the large and growing lumps in her abdomen. After prodding those masses for a while, the doctor says, “I wish you’d called me as soon as you—” and he catches himself. He doesn’t have a cure for lost time, so why dwell on it? And he probably doesn’t have a cure for the lumps, so he chooses not to dwell on them, either. “Let’s just do the tests and hope for the best,” he says. Joan Morrison, 1939-2004.


As he and his widowed father debate which casket Mom would have wanted—Mr. Morrison never discussed arrangements with her because it “never seemed like a good time”—the Morrisons’ son sums up the awful bargain that his parents made with fate: “If you guys hadn’t been so scared about facing the truth, maybe Mom would still be alive.” Our society exalts the power of hope, the supposedly magical quality of optimism in the face of a grave threat. Even the doctor, all but certain that his patient was doomed, encouraged the Morrisons to “hope for the best”—to continue what they’d already been doing, in essence.

There’s nothing wrong with hope on its own; the trouble is that hope and self-delusion make convenient bedfellows. And when you put them together, you can convince yourself of illogical notions, like the idea that if you refuse to change your ways, the rest of the world will follow suit, and your little problems will never develop into big ones. It’s a tough habit to break. Even as he makes arrangements for the funeral, Mr. Morrison heartbreakingly pleads to have “things back the way they used to be.”


Nate, too, has spent a lot of time pining to put things back the way they were, feeding the fantasy that he could get the “good husband” role right this time around (i.e., free himself from his burdensome guilt). Now, though, his stated objective is pleasure—he intends to spend his free time doing exactly what he wants, and what he wants is apparently to have frequent motel sex. This is a rejuvenated, carefree Nate who’s finally moving on, right? Brenda is dubious. When he shares his new “widowed funeral directors just wanna have fun” outlook, she says, “Of course. This couldn’t be just another way for you to avoid a real, permanent relationship.”

She has him pegged, but that goes both ways—Nate also mocks Brenda’s attempts to blame her failing relationship on Joe’s sexual tastes. (It’s telling that she casts aspersions on Joe’s abnormality when her real fears are rooted in the dull, eternal normality of the life they’re building together.) “This isn’t about Joe,” Nate says with a snort, “It’s about you. I of all people should know.” Brenda is practicing avoidance tactics that strongly resemble Nate’s. They know each other’s playbooks so well because they run so many of the same plays.

Yet while they have penetrating insight into each other, they don’t quite cut to the core of their fears. Nate and Brenda aren’t exactly afraid of permanent, intimate relationships. Rather, they’re afraid that they aren’t capable of making the kind of connection that sustains that sort of relationship. In other words, they’re both afraid that they’re broken. They acknowledge the symptoms of their shared neuroses, but they hesitate to delve into the cause. Like Joan Morrison, they’re daunted by the prospect of discovering a malady that can’t be healed.


Nate has two contradictory visions of Lisa in this episode. The first time, she appears in the wake of Nate’s motel rendezvous with Maile from the doggie daycare. She’s decked out in full-body costume as an anthropomorphized petunia in an onion patch—a misfit, a lonely being of unappreciated beauty surrounded by stinking vegetables. She encourages Nate to settle down with Maile. “You can have the life with her you didn’t give me,” she says. Here’s a second chance, in other words, to make things right (because a relationship founded on lingering guilt from Nate’s first marriage is definitely a union built to last). Lisa flings onions at Nate—a petunia himself, like all the Fisher siblings—to drive her point home. Nate’s surrounded by onions, Lisa’s actions imply, so he might as well just pick one and make a life with her. Lisa is the voice of Nate’s inner demons, as she has been so often since she died.

But when she reappears later, she’s a projection of a more honest internal conversation that Nate’s having with himself. “I’m so fucking scared that you’re going to go back with Brenda,” she says, because she’d “really be dead” then. While she was alive, Lisa was indeed threatened by Brenda—by the spiritual bond Brenda and Nate had formed—but in this scene, she’s verbalizing Nate’s fears. In his self-punishing view, if he returns to Brenda, it will be as if Lisa never happened. She’ll be a forgotten aberration, the unloved petunia whom Nate stepped on and snuffed out as he found his way to true love. He faces an impossible choice between being true to himself and being true to his dead wife. “This is giving me a really bad feeling,” he says. Lisa: “Uh-oh. If I were you, I’d get that checked out. It could be a tumor.”


Brenda, meanwhile, decides to excise her own tumor by telling Joe that she’s been cheating on him. She tries to couch it in therapy-speak: “I’ve been really, really scared about my feelings for you, and it’s caused me to act out in old and familiar patterns,” she says, analyzing herself with the aim of achieving some clinical distance from her sins. But Joe’s not interested in the psychobabble, and he demands to know what’s going on. “I slept with someone at a motel,” she says, and the psych talk immediately starts up again to mask her shame and pain: “This is my problem that I’m obviously continuing to struggle with. It’s not you.”

Joe’s upset isn’t assuaged by her grand psychoanalytical journey. “That’s it. It’s over, and it sucks,” he says. And while Joe may seem like the victim of a selfish person still struggling to know herself, let’s not put all the burden of this breakup on Brenda. How many scenes have we watched in which Brenda maintains a cold distance from Joe, or deflects his honest questions about their future, or practically turns green when he brings up a baby? Yet every time, Joe would meet Brenda’s chill with a calm, insipid optimism. Either Joe is a pitifully unobservant person, or he, too, was suppressing his own doubts in the blithe hope that they would never metastasize into something worse. Yes, his heart was in this relationship when Brenda’s wasn’t. But that earnest investment may have only added fuel to Joe’s self-delusion, which distracted him from the disconnect between them. Brenda lied to Joe; they both lied to themselves.


Ruth, however, has long since tired of lying to herself. She doesn’t just have one metaphorical tumor eating away at her. She has six, in the form of George Sibley’s past wives. She envisions them on the credenza where George collects his rocks, as if they’re living fossils that can unlock a long-lost past. But they won’t. Instead, they all laugh at her, mocking her for falling into the same trap that they did.

It’s a terrible fix: Ruth believes that George is the only one who can illuminate her plight, and he intends to keep her in the dark. He only tells her what he believes she needs to know, infantilizing her, which makes her furious, which makes her throw a tantrum, which affirms his impulse to infantilize her, and so the cycle continues. The hike is a metaphor for Ruth’s worst suspicions. George doesn’t tell Ruth that he has extra water because, he says, “I thought if you knew, you wouldn’t make your water last as long!” This confounds Ruth. When she’s thirsty, she’s thirsty—it’s not like she’s going to get less thirsty. Her thirst for answers about George’s past runs parallel to this argument, and so does his insistence on keeping those answers from her, ostensibly for her own good, but really for his.

Although Ruth projects her despair onto the decapitated heads of George’s matrimonial past, her sister Sarah offers an intriguing new point of view during an impromptu visit to Sarah’s place in Topanga Canyon: What if Ruth stopped searching George’s past and instead looked to her own? Sarah points out the similarities between the late Nathaniel Fisher Sr. and George Sibley. They both use a jovial exterior to conceal something darker within them. They both feel an urge to withdraw.


Ruth claims never to have noticed those parallels, but perhaps she did on an unconscious level. She is, above all, a caretaker—having grown up with a sick mother, she’s been caring for people all her life. Maybe Ruth detects the subliminal darkness in the men that she ends up marrying, and it activates a deep-set instinct to heal them. But like the Morrison’s doctor, she can’t address the tumor within her husband if he won’t tell her where it is. And as she feels herself aging, she’s not content to sit back and hope for the best. Sarah’s kind but pointed observation about Nathaniel Sr. is a gentle nudge from one sister to another, encouraging Ruth to accept that some patients are terminal cases no matter what Ruth does.

David would prefer to hide his pain as George does, but David’s pain is fresher and more vivid, and he’s not as practiced a concealer as George is, either. David encourages Claire to stop staying over at his place because he hasn’t had a panic attack in two days—not an exceptionally long time to go without a panic attack—and his hand trembles as he assures her that he’s fine. David instinctively takes care of other people in much the same way that Ruth does, and he hates being on the other end of the transaction. Alas, he’s not nearly ready to care for someone else right now, so all he achieves by pushing Claire away is to end up alone again.


David appears to realize as much halfway through the episode, as he agrees to go to the movies with Claire and Edie. But a trailer for The Clearing, in which Willem Dafoe holds Robert Redford hostage with a gun, triggers his post-traumatic stress, and he has to leave. He can’t even apply his usual home remedy for loneliness, a piping-hot bowl of casual sex—it only prompts more flashbacks.

At least there’s Keith. But Keith is out on tour, caught up in the high-school antics of Celeste’s security detail/clique. As David struggles to fight his debilitating isolation, Keith mulls the Freudian implications of a phone message from “Heywood Jablome.” David then breaks down in tears, and Keith says, “Let it out. I’m here. You’re gonna be okay. I’m here.” From David’s point of view, that’s the problem: He’s there.


Claire’s infatuation with Edie reaches the point where it’s bleeding into her work, with results that earn praise from Claire’s photography professor. “She’s teasing us, almost as if she’s daring us,” the instructor says of the Edie who appears in Claire’s photo. “What is the dare? Is it to touch her?” Claire says that the image is “about being half-hidden,” and she’s referencing the shadows that fall across Edie, but she’s also subconsciously talking about herself. She’s consumed by wondering whether she’s half-hidden herself; if she ought to come out of the shadows and explore her feelings for Edie more deeply.

After a couple of abortive kisses in Edie’s car, Claire flees, but the next morning, we see her looking for something. Lo and behold, Edie has that something—or, perhaps, is that something. Claire finally gives in and says that they should just sleep together. “Part of me thinks this is what I want, and part of me thinks it isn’t,” she tells a quizzical (but aroused) Edie. “But what if the part of me that thinks it isn’t feels that way because I’m scared?”

Our inner demons are mockingbirds: They sing in the voice of our soul, making it hard to distinguish which is which. To sort our true feelings from empty fear requires us to listen more closely to ourselves than we can typically manage in day-to-day life. The glory of experiment is that it cuts through the noise. Claire could dither and meditate and ponder for as long as she wants, but this morning, she realizes that such rumination has already brought her as far as it can. Now, by taking action, she can experience something real, rather than theoretical, and learn from how she reacts.


That’s the true “dare” that gives such energy to Claire’s photo. It’s not merely a come-on from Edie, an invitation to “touch her.” It’s a dare that comes from within, a challenge to pit your feelings against your fears and see who wins. That’s not an easy leap to make, but that’s what makes it a dare, after all. The Morrisons resisted the dare. So, too, have all of the Fishers on numerous occasions, locking themselves into various cycles of static frustration. Here, though, Claire accepts the dare, as she makes the liberating realization that it’s the only way to move forward.

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.
  • Rico’s semi-affair with Sophia blows up in his face. It was already hard to have much sympathy for Rico, but it becomes even harder after he spends an inordinate amount of time in this episode callously bitching about David. And on the one hand, his decision to have sex with Sophia after Vanessa throws him out is understandable: After all his efforts to keep his post-blowjob relations with Sophia wholesome and platonic, he feels misunderstood and retreats to the one place where he can feel true affection. On the other hand, it’s also a cynical choice, with Rico figuring that if he’s going to be punished for sleeping with Sophia anyway, he might as well go through with it.
  • A subtle illustration of the distance between David and Keith: The bartender gives David a bowl of onion rings, and as he bites into one, the action cuts to Keith in the car with Celeste saying to him, “I see you don’t eat many fried foods.”
  • There’s also a subtle parallel between David and Claire. In the movie theater, Claire and Edie’s hands gently touch on the armrest. They later have a sexual encounter that falters before it can get going. At the bar, David’s hands brush agains the bartender’s as they’re picking up change, and they, too, have a tryst that’s cut short.
  • It’s nice to have Kathy Bates back as Bettina. “George just told me the entire history of papier-mache. It was fascinating.”
  • David says that they agreed to stop sleeping around if either partner ever became uncomfortable with it. Keith, lamely: “I don’t remember that rule.”
  • If you like the official song of the Fisher family, “I’m A Lonely Little Petunia,” here’s a vintage recording by Arthur Godfrey—heard when Lisa first appears to Nate in this episode—and a modern rendition by Imogen Heap, which was used for this episode’s credit sequence.