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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Six Feet Under: “The Secret”

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“The Secret” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired 5/5/2002)

Often the opening scene gives us a number of little details to tease out and mull over. Once in a while, we get a death like this: A retiree pushes his recycling bin halfway to the curb, grabs his heart, and keels over. And so the cycle is broken. Benjamin Srisai, 1935-2002.

Benjamin Srisai’s on-screen life is a microcosm of one way that Six Feet Under treats its characters. The show puts people in a cycle and then whips them around in it until they experience some cataclysmic break—sometimes, death. Of course, you could make this observation about countless dramas, but Six Feet Under is especially ruthless about it. The show’s grimmest quality might not be the constant death but rather its frequent observation that in life, people struggle mightily to effect even the slightest change in themselves. And then they die.

David finds himself caught in a familiar cycle of affection and verbal abuse with Keith, and the wheel is tilting increasingly toward the latter. Keith flies off the handle over a late movie rental, a coffee stain, the choice of dinner. When David protests that Keith is making weekend plans without consulting him first, it’s stunning to see how quickly David has resumed his role as Keith Charles’ whipping boy. He speaks to David with unconcealed condescension and disdain. “Are you available?” Keith huffs. David says that in fact, he is. Keith: “Then pretend I asked you first.”

Here’s the thing about David this season, though: He has his shit together so much more than in the first season. Oh, he’s got his problems—the fact that he places Keith on a pedestal only feeds into the imbalance of power in the relationship—but even if he still feels relatively powerless to change his situation, he at least understands it, and that’s progress. We see it in the remarkable one-sided conversation that he has with Keith as they slip into bed for the night. David says that he’s scared of Keith, that “sometimes I feel like if I don’t do or say exactly what you want, you’ll decide you don’t want to be with me.”

This is potent stuff. Yet Keith apparently means it when he says, “I’m too tired for this conversation.” He doesn’t even intend to engage. This is when it occurs to David that Keith never has engaged. The first time they were together, every problem came down to the fact that David was a coward who refused to come out of the closet. Now that’s no longer the case. “If everything could be blamed on my not coming out, then nothing had to be your fault,” David says.


So why aren’t things different now? The trouble is that Keith has moved on to other catchall excuses. He can’t sleep. His sister is an addict. His job is stressful. Keith’s unspoken argument seems to be that as soon as shit stops happening, he won’t feel the need to be such a domineering asshole anymore—until then, deal. David has a growing urge to know how they’re supposed to survive each other in the meantime. Keith doesn’t have time to figure that out with David, though. because wouldn’t you know it, shit just keeps on happening! That’s a tough nut to crack right there. But if cycles were simple to break, we wouldn’t get stuck in them in the first place. It’s not the easy cycles that end up dominating our lives. It’s the ones that tap perfectly into the flaws of our complex beings.

Brenda is trapped in an eccentric orbit around a fearsome, debilitating pain—the pain of her belief that her life, so full of potential, has been lived to empty ends because of her own pathetic weakness. At one end of her orbit is the prosaic, somewhat comforting long-term partnership with Nate. At the other end is a nihilistic, live-for-today exploration of base human urges. But neither extreme allows her to escape the fact that she’s beholden to the pain at the center, and her desperation is now pulling her apart.


The way Brenda puts it, “It’s like I’m coexisting in these two separate realities.” She says this to a therapist, who then makes the mistake of telling Brenda her honest appraisal—that Brenda’s sexual addiction is rooted in avoiding emotions too painful to confront. The therapist is too right, and Brenda immediately shifts into “I’m smarter than you” mode, blaming the shrink’s apparent narrow-mindedness and jealousy on “Judeo-Christian upbringing,” which just happens to be the elitist slander that pops into Brenda’s head at the moment.

Brenda then continues her definitely not-self-destructive pattern by tagging along with Melissa (or, more accurately, dragging Melissa along) to a skeevy sex party. Just when its characters seem to hit rock bottom, Six Feet Under keeps right on digging. The sleaziness of the affair is depressing enough, but the fact that Brenda rationalizes the excursion by pretending that she’s simply scouting the place for a return trip with Nate is the cherry on top of the pathos sundae.


But wait, there’s whipped cream, too! Ruth sidles up to Brenda at Brenda’s bridal shower to tell her future daughter-in-law, “I love you.” Watching Brenda’s face during this exchange is like seeing the air being slowly let out of a balloon. Often, Brenda manages to prop herself up, shakily, by clinging to the notion that she’s just smarter than everybody else, and that she should actually be hailed for her bracing insight into the human condition. To actually hear it expressed earnestly from somebody else’s lips, though, only hits Brenda’s knowledge home that she’s a fraud. Inside, as she muses in an idle fantasy, she has no idea why she spent last night having sex with a middle-aged couple from Orange County, and she’s been crossing lines, and she thinks there really are no “lines” at all, and this terrifies her.

And here she has Ruth pouring her heart out, telling Brenda, “I love you because you’re so independent and spirited…and you know you can’t smother someone, or you’ll lose them. I don’t know how to do it. Not at all. Maybe that’s why I resented you so much, but now I don’t.” And then the crushing blow: “Now I admire you.” Ruth, this earnest, sheltered, caring person, admires Brenda. It’s just too ludicrous, and it brings Brenda too close to the horrible reckoning she fears. In desperation, Brenda responds by pushing Melissa away. Melissa responds, “You can’t stand to see the truth about yourself, so I’ve got to take the fall.” Correct. Now Brenda has nobody to blame but herself—as if she hasn’t, in actuality, been doing that all along.


Claire and Brenda share something in common: They’re both innately unsatisfied with the notion of settling into a standard, society-approved routine for the rest of their lives. They demand something more interesting—extraordinary lives for extraordinary people. Claire, however, finds a remarkably healthy outlet for her frustration, investing herself in her photography. Look at how she beams when Parker admires her photographic series of the decedents who have made their way through Fisher & Sons lately. If even jaded, cynical Parker can be affected by her work, there must be something to it.

Conversely, watch how deflated she is when she receives an “F” for the project because it doesn’t conform to her teacher’s conception of what a literary analysis should be. “Just so you know,” Claire says, “I put a lot of myself into this. I wasn’t just slacking off.” It’s a recurring frustration for Claire—even when she makes an effort to diverge from the expectation that she’s a disengaged teenager, people seem to react the same way. That’s how deep the expectations run, apparently. Another case in point: Nate. When he discovers the album and says that her stuff is “shit.” She’s willing to cop to the irresponsibility of the photographs—she doesn’t even care about that part, frankly—but can he see her vision? Can he see the parts of herself that she invested in the work? Nope. All he can do is fret about how her actions could open them up to a lawsuit. (He’s one to talk.)


When Nate looks at the album, all he sees is another secret that he has to keep. There are plenty of secrets in this episode—Ruth and Nikolai’s relationship, for instance, is crumbling now that Nikolai’s secrets have been exposed and there’s nowhere left for them to go—but Nate might have the biggest secrets of all. Already exhausted from the ongoing effort of concealing his condition (he still hasn’t told Ruth, remember), now he has to contend with Lisa’s child, too. Forget about sharing this stuff with other people, these are realities he wish he didn’t know himself.

He wishes it were easier. When Lisa comes by with custody papers (and looking even more pregnant) so that Nate can sign away his rights to the kid, he has the temerity to say, “I thought we were gonna be more casual about this”—as if they were deciding how to share time on a dune buggy rather than a human being. Nate wishes everybody could be casual about everything. But as Lisa says, “It’s a baby. It’s hard to be that casual about it.”


She proves to be right, as Nate starts seeing visions of all the children he didn’t have—the abortions, the miscarriages, etc. He’s got a whole big brood of imaginary almost-children, the Antonio Cromartie of funeral directors. One of them says: “I have the secret to everything. But you’ll never know it. Because you killed us.”

As it often does, Six Feet Under presents another side of an episode’s central concept. Most of the secrets in the episode are truths that the characters would like to conceal, like Taylor and Karla’s secret about the hit-and-run victim. But a secret can also be something you’d very much like to know. And Nate would like to know this secret to everything, the secret that would give a richness and deeper purpose to his existence. He’s done the hippie thing. He’s talked to a rabbi. As he tells the Srisais at the intake meeting, he read Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance in high school. And most recently, he’s settled down into a “caring” long-term relationship. None of it gave him the secret. Maybe the kid is the key!


So he tells Lisa, “I want to be a part of our child’s life. I don’t only want to, I need to.” She’s skeptical but pleasantly surprised. He’s not just doing this because Brenda said it was the right thing to do, is he? “No, she doesn’t even know about it!” he says with a smile. A smile! He has no conception of how awful this is. Lisa is mortified: “If you can’t ever put anybody but yourself first, how can you be a father?” She’s got him there.

Of course, the reason Brenda doesn’t matter to Nate at this point is that she doesn’t have the secret to everything after all. He’s been holding out less and less hope that their bond might lead to that big revelation he so desired. But it hasn’t. Life has continued much the same as ever. The child offers fresh hope. So screw Brenda. That bright, shiny kid might give him all the answers yet.


Stray observations:

  • As always, the first comment thread is for discussion of future episodes. If you want to stay unaware of upcoming developments, collapse that thread.
  • When Taylor comes back to the apartment after Karla gets busted, she looks at David with that same resentful look that Keith often shoots at his lover. Aysia Polk, the actor who played Taylor, was about 11 when this episode was filmed. That’s a pretty ferocious look for an 11-year-old.
  • Speaking of the secondary cast, Kellie Waymire—who played Melissa—died in 2003, so this was one of her last major roles. She provided a great foil to Rachel Griffiths throughout the season, with Melissa acting as part therapist, part enabler, and part spectator, and “The Secret” was Waymire’s best episode. Her final “Just can it, sweetheart” speech in the elevator is a killer.
  • My favorite moment of the episode: David stumbling into the intake meeting with the Srisais and instantly switching into Ultra Super Funeral Director mode.
  • And now, it’s time for this week’s Oh, Shut Up, Lisa. This week: “So is the Western medicine controlling the seizures?” This has been Oh, Shut Up, Lisa.