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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Six Feet Under: "The Will"

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“The Will” (Season 1, episode 2; originally aired 6/10/2001)

“The bounty of the universe is without limits,” claims Chandler Swanson, and it looks like he really believes it. If you’re running a pyramid scheme, wouldn’t you have to believe it? Your momentum will always carry itself, and the cosmos will keep giving.

As Chandler pitches a batch of cigar-chomping recruits on his special brand of delusion—it’s called BeautyVision, a “personal life-management system” that carries a $45,000 franchise fee—Adele Swanson entertains the wives on the other side of the pool. Adele is Chandler’s number-one acolyte, maybe even more convinced than he is that everything is beautiful, so all you need to do is take. She watches him do a swan dive into the pool. “He spends an hour on the StairMaster every day,” she coos. That’s her vision of the guy: A climber, endlessly ascending.

The reality is that he’s so far underwater, he’s dead. Dean Martin sings, “Ain’t that a kick in the head?” Chandler James Swanson, 1967-2001.

We expect death to be a muted coda to a person’s life—to serve as a fitting culmination to everything we knew of someone while they were alive. But in “The Will,” it’s more like a kick in the head.

David runs his business on the notion of death as a coda. As he makes funeral arrangements with Adele, he asks her what kind of car Chandler drove. David makes it seem like this is the most natural question: Do you know the specific model of your dead husband’s ride, Adele? Chandler drove the biggest, fastest BMW, Adele says. Reacting a little too quickly, David suggests the $9,000 Titan casket. “It’s a tribute,” he explains, selling death as a continuation of life.


Like Chandler, David believes his own pitch. So the discontinuity at the reading of Nathaniel’s will is too much for him. Half of Fisher & Sons goes to David, and the other half to his brother, “the prodigal.” Nate doesn’t want it, and he says so. “Well, excuse me,” David snaps, “while I go contemplate the irony of that.”

David threw his life into the funeral business, and now he gets the same as Nate does just for showing up. By David’s calculation, then, Nathaniel Sr. left him nothing. In fact, it feels like worse than nothing. David paid his dues. He paid the damn franchise fee! And like Chandler Swanson’s investors, he learns painfully late that the game was rigged from the start.


Brenda’s first scene in the episode sees her searching for wounds as she massages Nate. “We’re all wounded,” she explains as she probes Nate’s back for sore spots. “We carry our wounds around throughout life and eventually, they kill us.” She fetishizes wounds, especially the ones hidden underneath; she literally wants to stick her fingers in them. Hence the shiatsu.

Over a lunch date, Brenda tells Nate that he’s attracted to her because she was there for a painful moment. There’s truth to this. It’s tempting to say that Brenda’s distance and coldness are what make her enticing to Nate—the old cliché that he’s attracted by the challenge. But there’s nothing to indicate that Nate is the kind of guy who thrives on “hard to get.” Whenever Brenda pushes away, Nate is more annoyed than intrigued. The more justifiable explanation is that yes, Brenda was there for a moment of emotional rawness, and therefore Nate feels a bond.


So Brenda is probably right that Nate comes back to her because she was there for a moment of deep pain, but what she leaves out is that she’s attracted to Nate for the same reason. She got to see him with this horrible, gaping wound, and she can’t look away. She needs to poke at him and find more.

Note that she doesn’t let Nate to do the same. Late in “The Will,” in a mirror of their first scene, Nate finds himself exploring Brenda’s back. And there’s this tattoo: “Nathaniel.” It’s a wound of Brenda’s, a startling one. There’s no way she’ll allow him the pleasure of exploring it, though. She brushes it off. The tattoo isn’t about Nate. It’s someone else. “Well, you obviously liked some guy enough to have his name burned into your flesh,” Nate says. She replies, “I would have done a lot more than that for him.” It’s one line with two pointed messages. This is a profound injury, she’s saying, and you don’t get to touch it.


Brenda’s different from the Fisher kids. Unlike her, they allow themselves to indulge in the pleasure of being vulnerable with another human being. That pleasure is what draws Nate to Brenda, and it’s what makes a drunken David curl up in a standing fetal position on Keith’s doorstep, casting himself as the put-upon little undertaker with the world on his shoulders. David’s specific tale of woe on this night is a lie—he spent the night rejecting the compassion of his ex-fiancée—but it’s accurate in terms of how he views himself. Keith, quietly pissed at being lied to, decides to spend the night alone. He’s happy and even eager to be David’s shoulder to cry on, but not at the price of his dignity.

Then there’s Gabriel. His dignity goes cheap. He looks into Claire’s eyes in the high-school parking lot and sees that they’re full of hurt. (We can see it, too, thanks to the reliably heartfelt performance of Lauren Ambrose.) Gabe surmises that he might be able to parlay this hurt into a handjob. Claire never seems younger than the moment when she falls for the line, “You know how much guts it takes to be someone like you?” When I say she seems young, though, I don’t exactly mean that she’s dumb. She still knows that Gabriel is full of it when he plays her up as the tragic, misunderstood victim. But she also knows how good that feels. She gets high on the same drug as her brothers.


We meet Ruth’s boyfriend, Hiram the hairdresser, for the first time. He’s played by Ed Begley Jr., in an unexpected casting choice. Hiram had a narrative in mind for Ruth: She was imprisoned by her obligations to her husband and to the Fisher & Sons business, and he provided the first breath of freedom. Now that Nathaniel’s dead, Hiram’s ready for the coda. They’ll run away somewhere, naturally.

At times, Ruth encourages Hiram’s reading of their relationship, telling him how she’s not going to answer late-night phone calls for the business anymore. But most of their scene together consists of Hiram trying to push his vision and Ruth telling him he’s got it all wrong. “They’re adults. They can take care of themselves,” Hiram says of David and Nate. But it’s not the children she’s worried about. “I was 19 when I got married,” Ruth says. “I’ve never been on my own. I wouldn’t even know how.” It’s not that she feels a need to take care of her kids; she wants to let her kids take care of her for a while. Why not let Hiram play the caretaker role? Because he embodies her act of immature rebellion: “When I think of us, I feel like I’m watching some sex channel on cable TV.”


David has an even more disapproving view of Ruth’s affair—his “I don’t like you sleeping with hairdressers” remark earns him a hard slap across the face from his mother—but Nate thinks it’s A-OK. That is Nate’s default mode. He loves to run around granting people freedoms, whether it’s his place to do so or not (usually not). Mom can go on a hike with whoever she wants—“you should” have a private life, he offers with magnanimity. And Rico should be allowed to take the rest of the day off. Hilariously, Nate even allows Adele Swanson to “rent” the Titan casket so that she can have any funeral she pleases. He’s the great liberator!

I like Nate a lot. I don’t admire him the way I did the first time I watched the show, when I was in college and the convenience of Nate’s idealism was less obvious to me. I still like him, though. Nate wants to do the right thing; he just thinks doing the right thing is easier than it is. And while I want to avoid the habit of looking for easy binaries between the two brothers, I think you can make the argument that David wants to do the right thing and thinks it’s harder than it is.


Chandler Swanson’s wake is another kick in the head for Adele. David helped her plan a two-day viewing and a burial service for 200. Yet she’s the only one who showed up, at least until one of Swanson’s victims bursts through the Fisher & Sons front door and starts raving at her.

Amid it all, Chandler lies there, peaceful in his Titan casket. That’s the fakery. “The Will” suggests that the more genuine image is Mr. Suarez, the corpse who Nate picks up from the nursing home. Even Nate, son of a funeral director, is surprised to learn what death actually looks like. You can’t hide your boner, you shit yourself, and gases gurgle out of your mouth. All that energy, which was so tidily contained while the flesh was willing, escapes now that it’s weak. Chandler Swanson was a master of containment. Man, what a mess he creates when he lets go.


The episode concludes with a tale of two vehicles. Nate and David have to retrieve paperwork from the hearse in which Nathaniel was killed. The sight of the car affects Nate, but David doesn’t register much of a reaction. He’s still preoccupied with his sense of betrayal. Plus, this vision of death is routine for David. In his life, death is something that happens to people. The car was totaled. Passive voice.

Brenda changes the perspective: This bus killed your father. Active voice. David can’t rationalize this quite so readily, and he breaks down as Brenda removes her sunglasses to get a better look at his sorrow. He has a vision of being held by his father. The boy in the vision is David, but it could just as easily have been Nate. They were both held in those arms. They join hands and silently begin to build on their common ground.


Stray Observations:

  • There were a ton of discussion about later episodes of Six Feet Under in the comments last week, and while almost all of them were dutifully marked as such, it’s still tough for newbies to read through a comments section while having to constantly avert their eyes. So I’m going to make the first comment thread the “Everyone’s Waiting” thread—post your insights about upcoming episodes and seasons in there. This way, people who are new to the show can simply collapse the thread (by clicking the “Hide All Replies” button) and read on. As an added benefit, those who want to talk about foreshadowing can do so without having to type “SPOILER!” all the time.
  • Some great music in this episode. The song when Claire and Gabriel are talking in the front of the hearse is “The Girl Who Fell To Earth” by the British trio Submarine, who only produced one album, SkinDiving. I know that Six Feet Under turned me on to that album, but I don’t know how. I always thought that the song was on the first Six Feet Under soundtrack CD, but apparently it’s not.
  • I don’t think that Brenda is evil, per se, but she sure does come off as diabolical in this episode, even when the results of her scheming have a generally positive effect (i.e., the final scene).
  • Afrosponge88 had some good observations last week about the advertisements and road signs that appeared during Nate’s vision of Nathaniel in the closing scenes of the pilot. Continuing that thread, this week David’s vision of Nathaniel includes a park bench that reads (in part), “Respect the Earth, Protect our Future.”
  • One of the great things about Six Feet Under is that way that the characters’ underlying dissatisfaction can explode at the most unexpected moments. What a shocking exchange between Ruth and David mid-episode. Ruth: “Boys, I don’t like this bickering.” David: “Yeah, well, I don’t like you sleeping with hairdressers.” Jesus! The energy of the room changes immediately, but it’s not cheap. It feels justified.
  • I didn’t talk about Matthew Gilardi and the Kroner “family of quality death-care facilities” in the recap, not because it isn’t interesting, but rather because I don’t have a lot to say. This bit is still at a low simmer in the first couple of episodes. But Christian Williams, credited as the writer of “The Will,” packs an incredible density of corporate B.S. into Gilardi’s dialogue. I love the way that Gilardi thinks “We have 157 units in Southern California, and we’re inviting you to be Number 158” is an appealing invitation.
  • Brilliant Michael C. Hall moment of the week: David’s drunken, I-hate-the-world waddle down the hallway after Keith tells him to piss off.
  • Ruth continues to try relating to Claire the only way she knows how, by asking Claire if there is some huge problem in her life. This week, it’s “Claire, do you have an eating disorder?”
  • Nathaniel: “Is that the best anyone could come up with? ‘Father, husband, caregiver’?” Nate: “What would you prefer? ‘Introvert, sadist, mindfucker’?”
  • “May I make a suggestion? You’ve closed, OK? Don’t over-close. It kills the word of mouth.”