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Six Feet Under: “The Trap”

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“The Trap” (season three, episode five; originally aired 3/30/2003)

A married couple has gone astray in more ways than one. They’ve lost the trail, and the blame for their predicament goes back and forth. Practically every line of dialogue serves as a metaphor for their relationship, such that they’re more of an archetype—the SoCal Bickersons—than actual people. They come across an old Beetle at the bottom of a canyon. Inside is a man who went off the trail himself, a long time ago. William Aaron Jaffe, 1951-1975.

Six Feet Under often takes us inside the perspectives of its characters. It’s one of the series’ signatures. And while “The Trap” features those moments of explicit character perspective, its themes are also implicitly driven by Nate’s perspective—even when the action does not focus on Nate. Right now, Nate is fixated on the idea that a relationship with another person is both a blessing and a prison (as we learn in his rather astonishing conversation with Brenda). Put another way, every meaningful personal connection is also a trap.

This episode revolves around that sentiment, making it the lens through which almost every scene is viewed. It’s as if the show grabs Nate’s pessimistic thesis—“The only way not to be trapped is to not have anything”—and tests it out on all of the characters. Traps abound. Ruth even pulls out a box full of mousetraps in an early scene to set the mood for the metaphorical ensnarement to follow.

Since Nate provides the thematic hub of the episode, let’s start by checking in with him. The smiling, laid-back Nate who passed up a joint in “Perfect Circles” is a mere memory. Now, he takes a furtive cigarette break whenever he can. Mid-season Nate is characterized by a heavy resignation. His conversations with Lisa are abbreviated and testy. When they argue—which happens practically every time we see them together now—he generally goes one round before throwing in the towel and retiring to his corner.

Lisa spends her evening “circling problem purchases on the Visa bill,” which for Nate is right up there with laundry-sniffing in terms of impending doom. Lisa explains that problem purchases are “things we bought that maybe we didn’t need, or could buy less of.” Nate looks at the bill and immediately concludes, “Oh, you mean things I bought.” She doesn’t correct him.


The budget is a concern because they’re a single-earner household, and Nate has learned (from Ruth) that Lisa intends to keep it that way at least until Maya is in kindergarten. Lisa has made Nate the sole provider, which puts added pressure on a man already struggling to maintain the façade of a loving husband and father. “This is not a decision you can make without me!” he says, justifiably. Lisa says “okay” and walks away. Her tone of voice indicates that she has already made the decision without him. Every time Nate wriggles, the bounds of the trap grow tighter.

The banal pleasures of Nate’s life have become so fraught that they cease to be pleasures anymore. Even picking up a few CDs conjures the specter of “problem purchases”—Nate has a vision of Lisa as the record-store manager: “You’re throwing away everything we have together for fucking Beck?” It’s a ludicrous exaggeration, but Nate finds it hard to dismiss because there is a kernel of truth in it. Grabbing that pile of CDs is a bit selfish considering the state of the family finances. Nate has always been somewhat selfish—he is the prodigal son, after all. The difference is that now, Lisa is making him especially aware of every self-centered act.


It’s maddening for Nate because the intense focus on his confuct has thrown off his internal compass. When he does something for himself, he can’t tell if he’s being an asshole or if he’s just being human. And since his self-regard suffers when he thinks he’s an asshole, Nate plays it safe. He cancels the CD purchase and leaves. But he doesn’t feel too good about it.

Just when Nate feels like his relationship with Lisa couldn’t have more of a stranglehold on him, Brenda returns. Nate holds her at a distance, but she wants to apologize to him, and at this moment in his life, Nate wouldn’t mind hearing someone else talk about how she was the selfish one. As they catch up over an afternoon drink, Nate slips into a catharsis that’s remarkable both for how grim it is and how matter-of-fact Nate remains as he delivers it. “If there’s a moment where I feel like I’m in prison,” he says by way of describing married life to Brenda, “I just have to think about all those moments where it feels safe. And remind myself that those moments outweigh the prison moments.” You get the sense that he’s been reminding himself of this a lot lately. It is the blueprint for the trap: A relationship makes you feel safe. Loved. On the other hand, as familiarity breeds contempt, the relationship can squeeze the life out of you.


The “prison” exchange is among the most important dialogues in “The Trap,” but the other big moment in this scene is essentially wordless. When the waiter comes to drop off the check, his gaze lingers on Brenda for a little too long. Nate notices, and his own gaze (more of a glare, really) lingers on the waiter a little too long. That’s worth keeping in mind later in the episode when Lisa becomes furious that Nate met up with Brenda. Yes, Lisa may be overreacting, but then again, she may not.

At the funeral for Will Jaffe—who was in his own shitty, dying marriage when his car flew into that canyon—Nate has a vision of Will. This is an intense exchange, with Nate’s deepest fears laid bare. The nut of it comes when Will tells Nate, “You just want to stay in this so you can prove what a good guy you are. … You’re so fucking trapped.” This is Nate’s eternal inner conflict. He wants to be a good person, and he wants to lead a truthful life. But he’s not exactly sure how to do either of those things, so he keeps finding himself in situations where he only pretends to do things a good person might do—thus betraying both of his fundamental hopes for himself.


Nate gritted his teeth and put up with Billy Chenowith. He endured an often passionless engagement to Brenda. And now he’s fighting his feelings of emasculation to preserve his marriage to Lisa. Nate does all of these things partly because, as Will says, he wants to prove he’s a good guy. The trouble is that Nate knows when he’s going through the motions, so he can’t fool himself. And that’s really the only person he needs to convince.

Later, Nate tears down the street in his car, sucking on a cigarette as Will rocks out in the passenger seat. “Not dead yet!” screams the singer on the radio. Just another idle fantasy, of course. We cut to Nate meekly smoking in his driveway, and “not dead yet” becomes a question. How alive is Nate, really? How much of him is truly living his life right now, and how much of his being is given over to a strained imitation of the person he wishes he were?


Claire and Russell are growing closer—Russell invites Claire on their first date, his brother’s wedding—and this irritates Olivier. “What’s with the chitty chat?” Olivier says after Claire agrees to escort Russell that weekend. “You can focus on your work, or you can gossip like old blind women.” You’ve probably noticed by now that Olivier manipulates his prize students by dangling the ideal of a True Artist in front of them. Every time they displease him (mostly by failing to make him their center of attention), he accuses them of betraying their work, their art, their reason for being on this earth. His oracular mystique is so entrancing that neither Claire nor Russell ever quite notices that the goalposts of True Artistry shift depending on Olivier’s whims.

His whim in this episode is to make Claire his assistant. All the better to keep her closer to him. Her dreams of artistic collaboration are dashed, though, when Olivier simply has her drive him to the mall. “Come on! There’s a sale at Brentano’s,” he says, a line so banal and uninspiring that when Claire hears it, you can see the disappointment wash across her face. It’s hard to imagine a true artist—tormented, idealistic, inspired—getting excited about a sale at Brentano’s.


But Claire and Olivier’s relationship is a symbiotic one. Olivier needs to be seen as the oracle, and Claire, at this nascent stage in her career, is desperate for the all-knowing guidance that Olivier seems to offer. So it’s not long before she’s swept up in his energy again, as he tells her about a love affair he had with a married woman. Claire gets into it. She tries to make him feel better about himself. He pours on more self-pity in response: “I could have been great!” And then he pivots back to her: “So can you.” Olivier knows how to make Claire take notice. He tantalizes her with the promise of greatness. With that setup, she’ll listen to anything he says. He says this: “If you get lonely, have sex. But if you meet somebody who you think means something to you, you’re doomed.”

It’s another formulation of Nate’s trap—a raw, cynical version espoused by somebody who doesn’t share Nate’s need to be seen as a paragon of virtue. Claire listens, and the next day, she calls off her date with Russell. He’s polite about it. He plays it off like it’s nothing. You can tell this is a disappointment he’s experienced before and expected to experience again this time.


Claire stays in the conversation just long enough for Russell to forgive her a few times, so that she doesn’t feel bad about herself for hurting him. And then she walks away, confident she has maintained the personal freedom of the true artist. Except that by rejecting Russell, she’s only become more devoted to Olivier. Claire thinks she slipped the trap? She walked right in!

David and Keith are a point of contrast in this episode. They both endure their own personal traumas, but their separate travails actually lessen—in small but important ways—the sense that their relationship is doomed.


After a rehearsal, David’s chorus director tells him to stop trying to make his solo so “perfect.” (There’s a word that should make your ears perk up this season.) David doesn’t even know how to interpret this advice. Why wouldn’t you want to be perfect? David’s colleague Terry fills him in—perfect isn’t real. You have to “sing from someplace real,” he says.

Terry has another surprise: He and David know each other! “From the bathroom at Sears. Seven or eight years ago? You jerked me off. Security guy almost caught us.” David denies it, unconvincingly. It’s a heavy dose of past reality and imperfection all at once.


David needs time to absorb it all—both the lesson about perfection and the terrifying glimpse of his own imperfection. He’s eager to hide the latter from Keith, so when Keith says that he can’t make the concert because of work, David couldn’t be more “forgiving.” All David hears is that Keith won’t be in the same room with the Sears-bathroom-handjob guy, and that sounds like good news to him.

You can understand why David’s nervous to have Keith anywhere near this part of his life, even beyond the obvious tawdriness that would make anybody nervous. Think back to that episode in Las Vegas when David got caught with a prostitute and Keith had to bail him out of jail. Keith looked at David with such disappointment, and from such a distance. David can’t bear to experience anything like that again.


But then recall the moment in “The Eye Inside” when Keith told David that he likes to hear David sing; he just doesn’t like when David sings at him. Put another way, Keith doesn’t like it when David puts on a perfect little performance. He wants to hear David’s real voice. Learning of David’s restroom tryst with Terry would put a ding in David’s perfect image, which would probably put Keith at ease. He hates being the only one in the relationship whose life is fucked up and aimless, and David’s everything-in-its-place attitude only exacerbates that.

David, to his credit, comes to terms with the revival of that darker Sears-bathroom time in his life. He lets some of that imperfection into his voice, and his solo goes off beautifully.


Keith’s not there to see it, though, because he’s on the job dealing with the aftermath of a robbery. Keith’s security-service colleague, Dion, shares Keith’s frustration with the job. Yet when Dion decides to lay waste to their rich client’s opulent home—they can just blame it on the burglars!—Keith decides that’s too much. In Dion’s anarchy, Keith sees the last shreds of meaning being stripped from his depressing rent-a-cop job.

Dion’s right, after all. They could trash the place and it wouldn’t matter much in the long run. The distinction between security officer and petty criminal is, in that moment, practically nil. But at long last, this is the line below which Keith refuses to sink. While Keith is well-acquainted with the pervasive imperfection of life, he’s not about to succumb to the total bleakness of Dion’s worldview. The man has some honor.


It’s time for Keith to shore up his dignity and find a new job. David feels threatened by Keith’s search for a more fulfilling gig, arguing that he and Keith should give each other meaning. Keith’s reply suggests a way out of the traps that run throughout this episode. Of course David gives his life meaning, Keith says. “But we can’t be everything for each other, David. That’s just not possible.”

Nate and Lisa expect everything from each other (and from Maya), and they’re constantly disappointed. Claire looks to Olivier as an all-knowing oracle; she, too, will inevitably be let down. So Keith is onto something here. Maybe if you don’t weigh your partner down with the burden of providing all meaning in your life—love by obligation—you leave enough space for you to love each other by choice.


Ruth never expected Bettina to provide all the meaning in her life, but she has been leaning pretty hard on her new friend for inspiration, so she’s crestfallen to hear that Bettina is going out of town for a month or so. Luckily, there’s a new member of the household for Ruth to fixate on: Arthur, Fisher & Diaz’s new live-in apprentice.

Arthur provides some of the funniest scenes of season three, but he’s not just here for comic relief. He’s a great foil for Ruth, especially as a follow-up to Bettina. Where Bettina was the opposite of Ruth, Arthur is like a more highly concentrated version of Ruth.


Ruth “welcomes” Arthur to the house by essentially laying him a series of traps. She draws up a two-shift schedule for every meal, “so we never have to suffer the awkwardness of having to eat at the same time.” She instructs him on proper use of water in the shower, among other bathroom directives. (“It’s all in the little booklet that’s hanging by the sink.”) She even writes a note telling him how to open his dresser drawers.

“Mice have germs. They deserve to die,” Ruth says to Nate early in the episode as she fondles a mousetrap. And as she batters Arthur with her endless instructions, she waits to see if he resists. She’s probing for imperfections. For germs. Yet Arthur is clean, hilariously so. He dances through every trap that Ruth sets for him, effortlessly, and with a pleasant smile. When Arthur thanks her for warning him about the drawer that sticks, Ruth shakes her head in frustration. He passed every test, damn him. She has no grounds on which to hate him.


Ruth ends up being the first to tire of all her officious rules. As she spends another afternoon waiting patiently for her turn in the kitchen, she throws caution to the wind and invites herself to dine with Arthur. He welcomes her with grace, of course. Arthur does everything graciously.

“Would you like a little frittata?” he asks. “I would love a little frittata,” she answers. “Like” becomes “love.” Ruth lets a tiny quantum of passion show through. And at that moment: snap. A mousetrap in the corner catches its quarry. “They have germs,” Arthur says. “They really do deserve to die.” Ruth looks at him in recognition of a kindred spirit. She suddenly feels affection for this utterly pleasant young man. In that instant, it feels like they’re the only two clean people in the world. But is it possible for a meaningful relationship to develop between two people without a little bit of mess? Probably not. And so the trap is sprung.


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.
  • Often there are lines on the show that capture some true-to-life sliver of Southern California strangeness. In this episode we get the record store cashier, who observes that a particular album is “so great for, like, taking diet pills and cleaning your bathroom.”
  • There are a number of well-acted quiet moments in this episode. When Brenda takes in Nate’s despair, you can see her listening but also keeping it at arm’s length, because she’s got enough of her own stuff to deal with. It’s nice to have Rachel Griffiths back. Ben Foster also portrays Russell’s heartbreak with a reserved poignance. Russell tries to convince himself that the rejection doesn’t hurt so bad because he told himself to expect it, but that doesn’t work at all.
  • In this week’s edition of Before They Were Stars: Josh Radnor as the late Will Jaffe.
  • Take note for future reference: Arthur steals a glance at an elderly, almost-bald woman while he’s walking to work. He speaks lovingly of his great-aunt Pearl. And he takes an immediate shine to Ruth. Arthur just might have a special appreciation for older women.
  • When Bettina and Ruth are spying on Arthur, he turns his head because he thinks he heard something. At first glance, it might seem like Arthur heard Bettina making fun of him. But watch and listen closely: Arthur actually hears a mouse in the corner of the kitchen. That’s what prompts him to set the mousetrap that goes off in the later scene.
  • The name of the restaurant where Nate and Brenda meet up (and where Nate has a barely contained freakout over his marriage) is The Panic Room. Subtle!
  • Nate Fisher, president, local chapter of Reading Is Fundamental: “Libraries are depressing.”
  • Rico on Arthur: “Yeah, you—you seem a little—home-schooled.”
  • Sorry I wasn’t here last week. My wife and I were stuck in travel hell for a couple of days, and I didn’t have access to my DVDs of the show or to HBO GO. I appreciate your patience.