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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Six Feet Under: “The Trip”

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“The Trip” (Season 1, episode 11; originally aired 8/12/2001)

A pair of young parents look in on their baby, Dillon, as he falls asleep in his crib. “He look OK to you?” the father asks. The mother brushes away his concern, but with a warm smile. She probably can’t count the number of times he’s been worried that the baby doesn’t look quite right. It’s what first-time parents do. They fret.

There is reason for worry, of course. This is Six Feet Under. We know that the father’s instincts happen to be right this time. But what can they do? Unknowingly, Dillon’s mother does the only thing she can do; let the child know that he’s loved. The last image Dillon sees is a smiling face on his crib mobile as his mom sings, “The bear went over the mountain…,” and he goes to the other side. Dillon Michael Cooper, 2001-2001.

David’s using chat rooms to set up his one-night stands now. Much more efficient than the tedious face-to-face method. As he shoos his latest paramour out the door, the poor guy remarks that David (or, as the casual-gay-sex world knows him, “Jim”) was a lot nicer online. David’s not about to apologize: “Yeah, well, people aren’t always what they seem to be.”

On the other side of town, Brenda curses Billy’s name as he leaves a part-desperate, part-nagging message on her answering machine. “You’re going to have to face him sometime,” Nate says. That line could be the title of this episode. David has to face himself sometime. Nate and Brenda have to face Billy. Ruth has her gay son, Claire has her suicidal quasi-boyfriend, and Rico has a three-week-old child whose death makes no sense. Everyone has a reality they’re trying not to face, and in “The Trip,” the characters are defined by how they dance that dance.

David’s relationship with reality is like an unsure rider on a wild stallion. He feels that if he loosens his grip on the reins just a bit, he’ll be taken on a terrifying, out-of-control ride. So he holds on real tight. When Ruth says that she wants to ask David something—“I just wanted to know, are you…”—he implores her not to finish that sentence. He also doesn’t approve of Nate’s desire to taunt Matthew Gilardi, that blond, smirking icon of mega-corporate misery. “I don’t want you picking a fight with Gilardi,” David says. Nate says, “Why not? You basically threatened to kill him that one time.” That’s just it. Nate views that pivotal greasy-spoon showdown as a moment of triumph. David considers it a foolish indiscretion.


Then again, sometimes it’s nice to let up on the reins. Sometimes it feels good to go fast. At a funeral directors’ convention in Las Vegas, David is scheduled to give a speech entitled, “The Future Of Independent Funeral Homes: A Cautious Overview.” It sounds like a very David Fisher speech.

And it’s the speech he starts to give, to an indifferent audience of funeral-biz indies and a front row of grinning Kroehner honchos. Then he throws his index cards away. “Oh, what the hell,” he says. And he lights into Kroehner—without actually saying the word “Kroehner,” mind you—and lets loose with an impromptu tribute to his father, Nathaniel. “Don’t get me wrong, my father worried about the bottom line, too, but he worried more about other things. Like comforting people and helping them face profound loss. … We should all try to be a little more like him.”


Suddenly, David’s the golden boy of the Western States Funeral Directors Association. His newfound admirers take him out to the local strip joint to celebrate and treat him to the most boner-inducing lap dance that $20 can buy. Yet Amber is troubled when she fails to induce much of anything in David. “Look, I’m gay,” he tells her, “It’s not you.” She chuckles: “It never is me.” As she walks away, the other western-state funeral directors protest. “He’s gay, you idiots,” Amber says. Aaaaand the fun’s over. Man, if you can’t trust a cut-rate Las Vegas stripper, who can you trust?

David learns his lesson: When you stop hating yourself, for even a moment, bad things happen. (Never mind that his buddies don’t seem that bothered by David’s sexuality. In fact, they mostly wish he’d just mentioned it sooner.) Newly desperate to escape from himself, David calls up a local escort service and asks for “Brad.” When Brad shows up, he’s a bit skeevier than his picture in the ad might lead one to believe—“That’s from ’91. Been meaning to update that.” No matter. David (that is, “Jim”) drags Brad to the nearest parking garage, bends the “faggot” over a ’78 Buick, and, for lack of a better term, hits rock bottom.


After David spends the night in prison, Keith shows up to get him off the hook. “David, I did this because I love you,” Keith says. David’s face brightens for a moment—a sliver of companionship. It doesn’t last. Keith tells David to get some help and says goodbye for the third time in as many months. It feels more final this time.

Like David, Brenda pretends to be someone else in Vegas, too, but it’s not so miserable for her. She savors the artifice. “I love Las Vegas. It has to be the most artificial place on earth.” Nate: “Really? More than Disneyland?” Brenda: “Oh, yeah! More than Japan.” She and Nate revel in the silliness. The hooker ads! The $4.99 prime rib! Tee-hee. And then, just out of view, there’s Billy. Disheveled, unbalanced, dead-eyed Billy. You get the impression he isn’t feeling so happy-go-lucky.


After stalking those two crazy lovebirds for a while, Billy plunks himself down at Brenda’s blackjack table. Until now, she’d been playing the role of Jasmine Brecker, who’s “either a federal judge or a sex surrogate,” but in an instant, she has to be Brenda again. Brenda with the unstable brother. Brenda, who had her own difficult childhood but always has to be the grown-up, because it seems that everyone in her family is more messed up than she is. It’s fun to see her giggle and play in Vegas, to watch her flirt with the guy in the cowboy hat. The instant she sees Billy, her face goes slack. Playtime’s over.

Brenda is furious with Billy. He let her spend her entire adult life thinking that he had tried to commit suicide, when the truth is that he was, in his own mocking words, “Billy McVeigh.” He trots out his old excuses for her: “I was so fucking drugged up, I don’t even really remember what happened.” But it’s hard to explain away two decades of deception with a bottle of lithium. He’s willing to try anything, though. He may be a “selfish, manipulative, narcissistic liar” as Brenda says, but when Billy claims that he needs her, it’s not really a lie. That’s his state of mind. Walking in on the argument, Nate pulls an unhinged Billy off of Brenda, tossing him down an aisle of slot machines and telling him to “fuck off.” He might as well have cut off Billy’s oxygen.


It’s a knight-in-shining-armor moment to Brenda. “You were really great today, Nate, standing up to Billy. I felt like some white-trash girl whose boyfriend was the biggest badass in town!” Nate reminds her that her brother is seriously ill, and she says, “Yeah, whatever. But we’re in faux Paris, so let’s party!” So they do, indulging in all of Las Vegas’ fakery. On this night, she’s just a girl playing grab-ass with her big strong man, and for once life is uncomplicated.

They get home and look at the photos. The fun fades too fast. Amid the prints are two photos of Nate and Brenda sleeping in their hotel room. “Oh, fuck, Billy!” Brenda cries. She has to face him sometime, and he’s willing to force the issue.


Claire is a better caretaker than Gabe Dimas might deserve, given the way he treated her in the past, so it’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking to watch her doggedly try to heal her wounded friend. He’s intent on destroying himself, which draws her even closer to him, as she can see how much he needs…something. Whatever it is, she just wants to provide it.

After he overdoses on a cocktail of speed and heroin, Claire visits Gabe in the hospital. She stays overnight despite him telling her, “I wish you would just fucking leave already.” He’s a bit calmer the morning after this outburst, as he munches on an Egg McMuffin that she brought him “because I know it’s your favorite.” He pronounces it “cold…but good,” and asks if Claire mentioned anything to his mom about his suicidal thought. She says she hasn’t, yet. He probably doesn’t need to worry about that. Claire can barely admit it to herself, let alone anyone else.


She certainly isn’t about to talk about it with her own mother. Ruth intuits that Gabe’s overdose wasn’t an accident, and she launches into statistics—“there’s an 80 percent chance” that it could happen again, she says. Ruth might be right, but it should be obvious that this approach isn’t going to appeal to Claire. The only time that Claire connects with Ruth—the only time she connects with anyone—is when she perceives a humane honesty behind their words. Citing cold numbers will not meet that standard.

Claire returns to Gabe’s hospital room. Gabe’s mother has left. And as Claire explained to Ruth, everyone else in Gabe’s life has left, too. Claire climbs into bed with him. They declare their love to each other. Sure, it’s a star-crossed romance, based partly on Claire’s desire to be needed, tainted by self-deception, and heightened by the overwhelming emotions of an unfathomable loss. It’s messy. But that doesn’t mean that their love is artificial. This isn’t Vegas. They’ve allowed themselves to be vulnerable with each other, and that vulnerability is real.


Would that Ruth could be so open. She’s not even daring enough to invest a little emotion in her flower arrangements, to the point that her boss Nikolai at the flower shop has been getting complaints. The problem? As co-worker Robby puts it, “Not all arrangements are for funerals, cupcake.” She’s reassigned to register duty.

Nothing in life is more precious to Ruth right now than her job, so she enrolls in a flower-arranging class to remedy this humiliating demotion. The class is run by a New Age-y instructor who engages the students in breathing exercises and starts the day off with the catharsis of smashing stems. Ruth is proud of herself at first for knowing that the stems must be prepared so they will draw more water, but just like with Claire, being able to recite facts is beside the point. Ruth has to invest something more than superficial expertise in her work.


Her first session at the Learning Annex sees her creating a tight, funereal arrangement. You can see why people might complain. The instructor observes this compressed knot of color and says to Ruth, “You’re a bit of a control freak, aren’t you?” Ruth is mortified. “No, I’m not! … Am I?”

At home, Claire confirms without hesitation that yes, she is, to Ruth’s chagrin. “Where do you think David gets it?” Claire says. Sometimes Claire’s age gap from the rest of the Fishers gives her a certain clarity of perspective. Defensive, Ruth argues that Nathaniel Sr. was controlling, too. “Not like you,” says Claire.


Faced with this irritating truth, Ruth decides that she might as well let go a little and try this “breathing” thing, at least for the purposes of arranging flowers. Working her lungs like a bellows, she assembles a botanical magnum opus that stuns the rest of the class. Later, a delighted Nikolai puts her back on arrangement duty. It’s kind of a trite lesson—the flowers smell sweeter if you deign to breathe them in—but it’s one that Ruth needed.

After David and Nate handle the intake meeting with baby Dillon’s parents—Nate tells them that “some babies are just too good for this world”—Rico is left to handle Dillon’s funeral. He’s haunted by the sight of the tiny body, stopped by Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Could there be a more awful-sounding disease? Rico can’t confront the idea that the world works this way. Or, more specifically, that it might work this way for his soon-to-be-born child.


After Vanessa’s obstetrician remarks that she has elevated blood pressure, Rico’s worst fears are aroused. The next day, he scolds his wife for leaving home to pick up groceries instead of staying in bed as per doctor’s orders. “This is about the baby at work,” Vanessa says. He admits that he hasn’t been able to finish working on the child. “I can’t do it,” he says. “He looks like he’s sleeping. … How can the beginning and end be so close together?”

“Some babies just aren’t meant for this world,” Vanessa tells him, echoing Nate. She rubs her belly. “But this one is.” Her calm confidence at least gives him the strength to return to the embalming table. At the funeral, Dillon’s parents thank him. He’s done a good thing. Dillon’s grandparents were able to meet the baby. And, as Nate had promised them, the parents get to spend as much time with their son as they need.


David remarked earlier in the episode that Dillon’s parents are so young that they look like kids themselves. In the funeral scene, terrified Rico looks even younger than them. “Do you have children?” Dillon’s mother asks him. “Yes, yes I do,” he says. “I have a four-year-old boy and—yes.” He doesn’t mention the second child, to protect their feelings and his own.

This is Rico’s second child, so why are these fears only striking him now? Because, like Dillon’s parents, before this tragedy he didn’t even account for the possibility of loss—it never occurred to him that the beginning and end could be so close together. In the operating room, after Vanessa undergoes an emergency C-section, Rico’s face contorts with joy and relief. This one is meant for this world after all, and Augusto Diaz gets his beginning.


Stray observations:

  • The “Everyone’s Waiting” thread is the special comment thread where you can talk freely about future episodes, foreshadowing, series-long character arcs, and so on. (In other threads, try to keep the all-knowing crystal-ball-gazing to a considerate minimum for the benefit of those who haven’t watched ahead.)
  • I like how David pretends that he’s “into” the strip joint by wearing a big dumb grin and drumming on the railing.
  • Kudos to the prop masters for inventing the dullest possible flower arrangement to stand as Ruth’s first creation in class. I never would have thought so much color could produce so much boredom.
  • This might be the saddest opening-scene death of the season. When the mother starts singing, jeez. It’s rough.
  • David: “How’d I do?” Nate: “Are you kidding? You kicked some serious ass, you big freak!”
  • “Have YOU got diploma from flower class?”