“Hello? Hello?” It’s no use—the elevator’s emergency phone doesn’t work, and there’s no cellular reception, either. They’re just four people stuck in a box. After they pry the doors open, one guy manages to hoist himself out. He gallantly turns around to help the others who remain trapped, but at that moment, the box turns back into an elevator, closing its doors and gliding upward. Only half of our hero goes along for the ride. Kenneth Macdonald Henderson, 1954-2004.

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In “Bomb Shelter,” many of the characters hunkered down in defensive positions, bracing themselves against the terrible futures they saw for themselves. The opening death of “Untitled” is a gory metaphor for the dread that occupies the minds of George, Nate, and David, among others. Kenneth Henderson exits his literal box, and he’s destroyed. Likewise, the men of the Fisher/Sibley family believe that if they venture beyond the confines of the defense mechanisms they’ve built for themselves, they too will be torn asunder.

Take Nate, who has sketched the blueprint of a new life with Brenda but can’t bring himself to step into it. He’s stuck obsessing over the horrors that he sees on the horizon, foremost among them Barb’s supposedly imminent abduction of his daughter. “It’s an emergency!” he shouts when he calls the lawyer’s office, even though it’s not, because he’s in perpetual crisis mode. “It doesn’t do us any good to live in this constant state of panic,” Brenda says. “That’s easy for you to say,” Nate snipes, “Maya’s not yours.”

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That stupendously unfair remark is revealing, as it shows us the standards by which Nate is judging himself: not panicking means not caring. Since Lisa’s death, his guilt-ridden soul abhors any notion that he doesn’t or didn’t care enough about the family he built with her. He’s dogged by the awful inkling that Lisa’s death might have resulted indirectly from his own lack of engagement, so he’s intent on not making the same mistake with Maya. Sure, the possibility that Nate would fail to care for Maya is delusional—he loves his daughter deeply. And as Brenda notes, there’s no legal basis for Maya being taken away. But these rational observations mean nothing to a man besieged by his inner demons. He didn’t love Lisa the way he should, and now she’s dead. That’s the only narrative that resonates with Nate right now.

Brenda exhibits a saintly patience as she tries to rescue Nate from his maelstrom of self-recrimination, but even she has her limits. When he complains that she doesn’t support him enough, she says with barely restrained astonishment, “All I do is support you! It’s like a full-time job.” Nate only pays half attention to her, though. He’s preoccupied with a photograph of Lisa that he found tucked into the book he got from his niece. Brenda sees the photo and says in defeat, “I can’t compete with a dead woman.” She can’t compete with this dead woman, at least, because Lisa isn’t quite dead. The late mother of Nate’s child is like a fourth resident of the household, occupying an outsize space that threatens to squeeze Brenda out of their home. Nate doesn’t even put enough stock in Brenda to leave Maya alone with her for one night, which leads Brenda to say that if he can’t trust her that much, “there’s not much point in our living together.” After all, from his perspective, she’s barely there.

Brenda is wrong about one thing: She responds to Nate’s predilection with the photo by moaning, “Oh, God, this will never end.” It’s a reasonable conclusion for her to draw, but as it happens, this particular madness does end, violently so. Michaela had the key to Nate’s psychological prison all along, secreted in that copy of Stiff that she brought to Nate’s attention on multiple occasions. (This is as close as Michaela could come to voicing her suspicions amid what must have been tremendous fear.)

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The photograph establishes Hoyt’s presence on the beach where Lisa disappeared, and from there the situation collapses with stunning speed. Hoyt shrewdly tries to keep Nate’s inquiry at bay by stoking the widower’s guilt: “She’d tell me what it was like to be your wife,” Hoyt says of his rendezvous with Lisa. “What the fuck is wrong with you? To put her through all that.” This condescension sets up his suggestion that Lisa killed herself because of Nate.

That’s a scenario that Nate has considered before, countless times. But accusations can sound different when they come from a third party rather than from yourself—fallacies are more evident when someone else is the prosecutor. For a split-second, Nate is mired in guilt (just as Hoyt had hoped), but then something clicks, and he sees the situation with clarity. He retorts that Lisa would never resort to suicide. She might leave Nate behind, he admits, but she wouldn’t leave Maya. At last, Hoyt comes clean about the affair. “I couldn’t let her tell Barb,” he admits, and then he adds, “I did not get angry with her. I played the guitar, I sang her a song.” His calm, insistent words conjure a chilling picture of the derangement that suffused Lisa’s final moments. Then he spots Barb listening in—the manifestation of a fear that he killed Lisa to avoid—and he pulls out a gun to end himself.

Although it’s a disorienting, horrific trauma, Nate also feels a sense of freedom in the wake of this denouement. He comes home to Brenda and declares, “Let’s get married and have a baby.” Obviously, Nate has been released from his idea that he was indirectly responsible for Lisa’s demise, but he’s also learned a more subtle lesson. Nate has spent untold hours agonizing over the fact that he didn’t love Lisa enough. Hoyt, meanwhile, loved Lisa deeply, as he attested to Nate. And look how much good that ended up doing for Lisa. The extent of passion isn’t the end of the story. What you do with that passion matters. Could Nate have been a more caring, affectionate husband? Certainly. But he tried. That counts for something. He wasn’t the monster he made himself out to be, and his confrontation with Hoyt—who, despite his love for Lisa, undertook a course of action far more monstrous than anything Nate ever imagined—provides an illuminating and liberating contrast.

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Like Brenda, Ruth is eager to help her mate escape his psychic straitjacket, especially as the extent of George’s machinations are becoming evident to her. When we first see George in this episode, he’s trapped in a dream of devastation—an apparent nuclear explosion that leaves his home in ruin. A finely dressed, immaculately made up woman appears behind him, and George asks, “What did you do?” We don’t know who this woman is, but he imbues her with near-omnipotence and a taste for chaos. And although she’s never identified in this episode, she has a strong motherly air about her: Note, for instance, than when Ruth wakes George from his dream, she tells him, “You were whimpering and paddling with your feet”—imagery that makes him sound like an infant. In her effort to save George’s mind, Ruth is up against a dead woman, and like Brenda said, you can’t compete with that.

Maybe, though, Ruth can enlist some help from the living, in the form of George’s daughter, Maggie. The promise of a lunch date with Maggie excites Ruth, who is thrilled with any chance to know George’s world a little better. And at first, Maggie offers a glimpse into a happier, more whimsical side of her father. They talk about the campfire songs he used to sing. The scraggly beard he used to wear. Happiness.

But there’s a darker undercurrent to the lunch. Maggie is her father’s daughter: While she presents an outward air of compassion, she remains infuriatingly cryptic. She appears to be well acquainted with her father’s delusions, yet she indulges them by bringing him prescription drugs to ward off the coming super-plague. Maggie also asks Ruth if George is having any “problems,” but when Ruth asks her to be more specific, Maggie just gives Ruth a bunch of phone numbers. “If you need me, call,” Maggie says, but Ruth needs her right now, and Maggie knows it. Why not give Ruth the information she needs?

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The answer might lie in Maggie’s final words of this conversation, when she tells Ruth, “He trusts me.” The implication—not lost on Ruth—is that George doesn’t trust his wife, and Maggie understands him more deeply than Ruth can. Maggie isn’t willing to sacrifice this privileged position, even if she does have sympathy for the latest spouse who has to contend with George’s obsessions.

When George gets the antibiotics from Maggie, Ruth is nonplussed. “Are you sick?” she asks, and George answers, “No, I just want to be prepared. Of course, these things won’t touch anything viral.” In two sentences, there’s the root of George’s trouble: He wants to be prepared, but it’s impossible to be fully prepared. As soon as he might dare to think he’s ready for what life will bring him, his mind just conjures a different disaster that requires further precautions. So he retrenches again and again, until at the end of the episode he has retreated as far as he can go, holed up in the bomb shelter and matter-of-factly asserting, “This is where I live now.” Down in his little box.

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David despairs after identifying Jake the carjacker in a police lineup. “I’m still replaying that fucking look he gave me,” he tells Keith, disgusted with himself but unable to resist. Keith suggests that David stop confronting the specter of Jake and go talk to him face-to-face. “I think it would be extremely self-destructive to put myself in that situation,” David fumes. As if he’s not stuck in a cycle of extreme self-destruction already.

Keith’s idea wins out, though, after David considers it some more, and so it is that in the visiting area of an L.A. county jail, the victim confronts his tormentor—although there is some dispute regarding which is which. In a brilliant, darkly comic dialogue, Jake resists David’s attempts to shower himself with pity. Jake observes that David looks like he’s in pretty good shape “compared to everybody else I see,” and then he asks, like an eager child, if David brought him anything. Annoyed, David shuts him down: “No, I hate you.” Jake’s response is hilarious. “Oh, God. Here we go,” he says with a roll of his eyes, like he and David are two old friends who always end up bickering.

That’s the way that Jake, lonely and abandoned, would like to see their relationship—two friends who had some times together. (Not necessarily good times, mind you, but times.) It’s a surprise for David, since he expected to be the wounded one in this exchange. But the gulf between them makes sense. Since their encounter, David has twisted his image of Jake to the point that Jake acquired a practically demonic quality. He neglected to account for the fact that, naturally, Jake has likewise been hard at work contorting the memory of that day to suit his own feelings.

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This is not to suggest that they’re equals; Jake is imbalanced and delusional in a way that David isn’t. Jake’s twisted perspective, though, does provide its own wisdom. When David accuses Jake of being “sick,” for instance, Jake retorts, “I’m not the one who sits in jail when he doesn’t have to.” It’s a fair point: David’s the one choosing to imprison himself, literally and psychologically.

The scene pivots on one essential exchange. “Now I walk around all the time,” David complains, “feeling like everyone’s going to humiliate and murder me.” Jake: “Well, they are. So I did you a favor.” David bristles at this, saying that Jake is playing “games,” but all Jake did was agree with him. In a similar fashion to the moment when Hoyt tried to echo Nate’s self-persecution, David’s ill portents sound quite different when they emerge from someone else’s mouth. Instead of his friends and family reassuring him that he’ll be okay, here’s a person who will tell him that he won’t. It’s as if David needed that external voice so that he could react against it. He starts to understand how hyperbolic and detached his fears have made him.

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Six Feet Under often uses big events to let the characters reflect and converse about their problems, and Claire’s art show follows that trend—short, poignant dialogues take place all around the gallery. But the main event here is Claire, especially in her own mind. The exhibit is an orgy of artistic validation (or artistic ego inflation, depending on your view), and Claire revels in it. The cocaine helps. “It makes you feel really important for like 20 minutes,” Anita says, perhaps sensing that “important” is exactly how Claire wants to feel.

The artist gets swept up in the sensation of watching people draw meaning from her work. She can’t tear herself away from the spectators. She’s not interested in her friends, who know the process that went into her work and thus are not captivated by the spell Claire desires to cast. They’re disgusted that Claire ignores them after her first taste of fame, so they storm off. Claire also clashes with Olivier, who frames her delight as corruption. “It’s corrupt to feel like I finally did something right?” Claire sneers. “Actually, it is,” Olivier answers. He is, as ever, a devout enemy of complacency.

Only Billy truly understands Claire’s excitement. The two of them are tightly framed with a handheld camera for their scene at the gallery, a directorial choice that conveys the jittery intimacy Claire feels as they discuss the true thinking behind her art. Billy asks why her works are untitled, and Claire says, “I didn’t want to tell anybody what to see.” A few moments later, she reveals a fuller truth by blurting, “I have no fucking idea what these pictures mean.” Billy accepts her revelation with enthusiasm: “I know. Isn’t it great?” He doesn’t see an absence of meaning; he sees an abundance of potential in the untitled, unrestrained quality of Claire’s work.

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That insight—the freedom of not titling things—also informs the last scene of season four, a dialogue between David and his dead father that stands as one of the most poignant moments of the entire series. Seeking sympathy from Nathaniel Sr., David instead receives admonishment. “You hang on to your pain like it means something, like it’s worth something,” Nathaniel says. “Well, lemme tell you. It’s not worth shit. Let it go.” Since the day he was attacked, David has used his pain to imagine one terrible future for himself after another. In essence, he’s placed a title on his existence—Humiliation And Murder, by David Fisher—telling himself what to see.

Nathaniel’s advice for David is to avoid assigning such onerous significance to his hurt. “You can do anything, you lucky bastard,” he cries. “You’re alive! What’s a little pain compared to that?” David hesitates, musing that it can’t be as simple as that. “What if it is?” Nathaniel answers, implying that David can choose to make it so. Like Claire opting not to put a title on her photographs, David can decide not to restrict himself to one idea of how he’ll live or what he’ll become. Instead, he can give himself over to the “infinite possibilities” that Nathaniel—who is dead and whose story is finite—so passionately wishes he could have back. Life is untitled. Let it be.

Stray observations

  • Roger Pasquese (David’s ear-bite victim) demonstrates his law expertise as he tries to entice Keith into a bodyguard job: “I don’t think a blowjob is legally binding.”
  • Brenda tells Nate that he has “big emotions,” which is a wonderful, pithy summation of Nate (and his brother, for that matter).
  • Billy’s AOL Instant Messenger screen name is MrChen1067. Claire’s is CFisher220. I find it hard to believe that they wouldn’t be more creative than that.
  • Here are the lyrics to “Above The Plain,” the camp song that George used to sing with his daughter.
  • Obligatory Rico wrap-up: Rico wants to get back together, and Vanessa wants a divorce. They both should hope for better subplots next season.
  • That concludes the fourth season of TV Club Classic Six Feet Under coverage. Thanks for reading along through all the stops and starts, and thank you as well for the insightful comments from those who contribute in the discussion threads. It’s a little past 8 p.m. on April 30—I barely made my self-imposed deadline for season four, so I won’t have to humiliate myself on Twitter (yet). I plan to tackle season five this summer. Hope to see you then!

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