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Six Feet Under: “Timing & Space”

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“Timing & Space” (season three, episode seven; originally aired 4/13/2003)

The Chenowith family idles in Bernard Chenowith’s hospital room. Brenda peruses a get-well card—anything to pass the time. The moment of death comes so quietly that there’s only an ineffable change in the silence. Billy’s eyes turn to his father. Margaret’s eyes turn to her husband. Brenda looks away. Bernard Asa Chenowith, 1939-2003.


This episode marks a real return for Brenda, not the teasing glimpses we’ve gotten the past few episodes. And she provides the signature line of the episode when, after her father’s funeral, she shares with Nate this observation about life: “Timing is everything.” It applies most immediately to Brenda and Nate. They’ve admitted that they miss each other, and in this solemn moment—far removed from their past battles—they wonder about what might have been.

What if the timing had been different? What if Nate and Brenda knew what they know now, and they met again? They sit there together at the site of Bernard’s funeral, which was supposed to be the place where Brenda and Nate got married—a parting was commemorated here instead of a union—and they wonder if they might have had something if the timing were different.

There’s a paradox here, though, and Nate points it out without meaning to. “It’s not like I don’t know how being with you changed me,” he says. “How much you woke me up as a person. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I’d never met you.” It’s a poignant moment—especially since, in the last episode, Nate ferociously denied that he retained any connection to Brenda—and it lays bare the maddening silliness of these “What if the timing were different?” fantasies. If you change the timing, you change the person.

The Nate of today is more consciously aware of the truthfulness that attracts him to Brenda and the shared desperation for meaning that binds them. He has a renewed appreciation for her. But in order to become the Nate of today, he had to endure the highs and lows of being with Brenda. There aren’t any shortcuts.


Margaret Chenowith gets at this in a roundabout way. She tells Brenda that, when Brenda was a small child, she began every sentence with an “and” or a “but.” Margaret reminisces, “Your father used to say that living with you two was like listening to the longest sentence in the history of the universe.” Imagine trying to edit and rearrange that sentence—you couldn’t do it. Each clause flows from the last and into the next, and so it goes with life.

Timing is a prominent factor in other relationships right now, too. Ruth and Arthur’s sexless dalliance is a friendship between a woman nearing retirement age and a young man who’s excited to begin his new career. It’s not as if Arthur is wise beyond his years, either. While he’s certainly intelligent, he’s also characterized by a persistent naïveté, as we see when he goes for a jog—his first ever—in hiking boots and an old undershirt. (The resulting spectacle is sweaty, phlegmy, and distressingly translucent.)


The guy might as well be a child from Ruth’s point of view, and she responds by treating him like one. Ruth has never sounded so silly as she does with Arthur. “Where’s the button to make it play again? I love that little tune,” she says after she listens to Arthur’s variation on a Debussy theme. You get the feeling that if she had her druthers, Ruth would pat him on the head for good measure. Later, Arthur plays the organ as Ruth dances and sings “My Favorite Things” from The Sound Of Music—a song sung by the caretaker of the Von Trapp children in the film.

Ruth is attracted to Arthur both as a companion and as a child, and the lines are blurry. You can’t tell where one type of attraction ends and the other begins. This is bound to create some discomfort for Ruth, and in this episode we see the first signs of it. She follows Arthur to the park and secretly watches him run. Later that day, when she gets back home and sees Arthur vacuuming, she has a vivid vision of him: “Hi, Ruth, did you have a good time stalking me this morning? … If you like following people so much, why don’t you join the CIA? Or the Moonies? Or why don’t you go to the actual FUCKING moon and mind your own moon business? YOU FREAK!”


It’s hilarious, yet it’s also believable for a moment because Arthur is strange (maybe he’s full of rage under that placid exterior!) and because he’s a grown man. The strangeness is important, because Ruth doesn’t really know Arthur, and that’s one touchstone theme of the season. But the more significant aspect of this vision is that Ruth sees Arthur reacting as an adult, and she’s terrified. It would be pretty understandable for Arthur to push back strongly against Ruth’s intrusion. She could only bring herself to spy on him, just as she was happy to spy on Arthur when Bettina was still around, because she doesn’t view Arthur as an entirely self-sufficient adult. She prefers to see him as a young curiosity. But the seams of this delusion are beginning to show, and Ruth feels some guilt as a result.

Ruth also spies on Arthur because she has nothing better to do, which brings us back to that element of timing. While Ruth can afford to make the run her main event for the day, it’s a squeezed-in off-hours pursuit for Arthur. (And it’s barely even that—both Rico and Nate make a point to half-scold Arthur for running without getting work squared away first.) Ruth is at a point in her life where she’d be perfectly happy for Arthur to fill every moment. Arthur can’t even come close to meeting that standard.


If Ruth is coming into her current relationship too late in life, Claire and Russell are occupied by their unspoken worry that they’ve found each other too early. Their first scene together is at an art store, where Claire finds herself drawn to an expensive tube of cobalt blue, a pigment so beautiful that its power is literally and figuratively elemental. Claire passes on the cobalt, ostensibly because it’s too expensive. But maybe she’s also intimidated by it, too—struck by the thought that her artistry isn’t yet worthy of such an awesome tool.

Russell gets it for her anyway, and presents it to her when they’re hanging out in the back of Claire’s hearse at the beach. It looks to be the same beach where Claire once came with her star-crossed former lover, Gabe Dimas. Claire used to spend a lot of time in that hearse with Gabe, too. That’s one reason that, after Russell gives her that touching gift, she says, “I have to be careful I don’t get too used to this.” The pain of her time with Gabe was instructive.


But Claire is looking forward, too. It’s telling that, after she says that she can’t get used to this harmonious bliss with Russell, she asks him if he ever discusses their relationship with Olivier. The teacher looms large in their coupling, insofar as he represents their ideal of the Artist. The fear that Olivier planted in their minds—this notion that a meaningful relationship will only stunt an artist’s expressive powers—never quite went away. When Claire says that she can’t get used to Russell, it’s not only the product of Gabe-induced scar tissue; she’s also saying that she doesn’t entirely want to get used to Russell. She’s enthralled by the delights of artistic exploration. The whole idea of getting used to something—a routine—is anathema to the most adventurous parts of her psyche right now.

On some level, Russell knows this. His explanation for the cobalt blue gift is: “I have a theory that, every once in a while, a person should get what they want, when they want it.” Note that Russell isn’t talking about the long term here. He’s saying that this is a specific, rare moment, and that there’s no harm in enjoying it while it’s here. He’s aware, perhaps more so than Claire, that their bliss is ephemeral. Russell has had his heart broken before, so he’s not going to miss the fact that when Claire looks into his eyes with adoration, there’s uncertainty mixed in there, too. He accepts it and invites her to accept it, too, for the moment. When she says that she wants their relationship to be “just ours”—free of Olivier—that’s her way of agreeing to relax, for the moment.


The concept of “just ours” also comes up between Nate and Lisa. Early in the episode, Lisa cheerfully grants Nate “permission” to attend Bernard Chenowith’s funeral. “You should be there!” she insists. But at the end of the episode, she’s furious. What changed? She finds out that Nate brought Maya to the service. Lisa interrogates him: Did Brenda hold Maya? Look at her? Touch her? None of those are okay, because to Lisa, her baby with Nate is “just ours.”

Lisa believes that Maya is the only real link that holds her and Nate together, and we’ve seen plenty of evidence to back up this theory. (Indeed, during this argument, she asks Nate, “Do you care about me at all?” and he replies that of course, Lisa and Maya are the two most important things in his life.) You can see why any sort of affectionate touch from Brenda would be anathema to Lisa. If Brenda can care for Maya, then Lisa sees herself becoming a whole lot less essential.


After all, Lisa tells Nate that when he’s just seen Brenda, “you’re more you.” Brenda can speak to Nate in a way that Lisa has never been able to, not for lack of trying. In her mind, the only leverage she has is baby Maya. She sure as hell isn’t going to watch Brenda negate that advantage.

David and Keith get more screen time in this episode than in “Making Love Work” the previous week, but their storyline is still on the back burner, as it’s not the most potent stuff. David drags Keith to a brunch with David’s gay chorus buddies, a community that David’s really settling into. Early in their relationship, Keith couldn’t stand that David refused to embrace his homosexuality. Now, David’s embracing it, and Keith isn’t crazy about the nature of that embrace—at least when he has to participate in it. Keith steps into this brunch, with its party games and mimosas and a jittery dog who shits everywhere, and he sees a chaos where he can’t feel any sense of control.


Meanwhile, David sees a certain order. Multiple party attendees remark that David’s identity in the “leading ladies” game—he’s the Madonna of the L.A. Gay Men’s Chorus—fits him perfectly. Keith, cast as Jeanne Tripplehorn, doesn’t even know who he is. But is there any gay-icon “leading lady” for whom Keith would be a perfect fit? (That’s a rhetorical question, but if you have an answer, I’d love to hear it in the comments.)

The conflict here is occasionally amusing—like when Keith Tripplehorn envisions the brunchers as a pack of catty Catholic schoolgirls—but it’s not high drama. David and Keith aren’t at a high-drama point in their relationship, anyway. They’ve built a new, tentative foundation for themselves, and now they’re carefully feeling out the details.


The episode closes on an ominous note. Nate, lying in bed, has a vision of the late Bernard Chenowith. “You don’t have to worry about Brenda,” Bernard says. He adds, by way of explanation, “You found your happiness, Nate. She’ll find hers.” Nate replies, “What if I haven’t found mine?” And Bernard just smiles. It’s the unstated second half of Bernard’s admonition: You don’t have to worry about Brenda, Nate, because you ought to worry about yourself.

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.
  • It’s hard to ignore the fact that Rico has lacked dramatic pop so far this season. At the end of season two, he was made a partner at the funeral home, and the character lost the main source of tension: his need to be one of the “sons” in Fisher & Sons. The writers have struggled to give Rico something interesting to do since then, and while Justina Machado does some fine work in giving Vanessa a strong “something’s off here” vibe, it doesn’t amount to much in the end. Vanessa is depressed, and Rico’s handling of it is clumsy because Rico’s handling of anything is clumsy. This isn’t the writers’ best Rico subplot. Then again, it’s not their worst, either. That is yet to come.
  • Great Moments In Rainn Wilson: I love the little bite/growl that Arthur offers up for the “When the dog bites” line in “My Favorite Things.” Arthur is OWNING that singalong.
  • Arthur goes for a run because he’s put on a few pounds since arriving at the Fisher household. Ruth tends to show her affection through food. These are not unrelated phenomena.
  • When Nate tells Brenda that he wouldn’t be who he is today without her, he mentions, “I certainly wouldn’t floss every day.” That’s a playful jab: Brenda used to hate it when Nate flossed in front of her.
  • The two luxurious gifts in this episode contrast with each other. Russell gives Claire a tube of cobalt blue paint, a color of elemental simplicity, as he encourages her to savor the simple bliss of their relationship. Later, Lisa angrily gives Nate a truffle—a food of impossibly complex flavor, as she notes—when he fails to acknowledge the emotional complexities of their marriage.
  • There are a number of great Margaret Chenowith moments in this episode. I love that she laughs openly at the self-serving eulogy delivered by Marv, Bern’s brother. Marv’s poem really is insufferable, with its tossed-off reference to the I Ching and inanities like “To carry joy from dark to dark was joy enough for him.” So when a prickly Marv says to Margaret after the service, “I hope that poem was satisfactory…I seem to remember Bern liking it,” it’s so delicious to have the widow reply, “And I seem to recall thinking you were an absolute asshole.” Margaret Chenowith, never change.
  • If I were in Keith’s place, I don’t think I would have guessed Jeanne Tripplehorn either. Would you?

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