Six Feet Under – Fourth Season

They’re ba-a-a-ack! The ensemble cast of the Fisher family and clan, and now the family business of Fisher & Diaz, are back for a fourth season of sterling performances, spellbinding storytelling, and another precedent-breaking event in HBO television history. While the New York Times reviewer called Six Feet Under’s third season “required viewing in the canon of pop culture,” keep in mind that Shakespeare, Italian opera, and Charles Dickens also started out as the pop cultures of their day, before being elevated by subsequent generations to canonical status. Season Four forges on, sure-footedly, in the virtuoso standard the series set way back in season one.

In writing the fourth season premier episode, “Falling into Place,” Craig Wright is up against a formidable challenge – to refresh the viewer’s memory of all the characters and latest plot developments and to weave it all together into one coherent, dominant theme or story. After a very long caesura in Six Feet Under programming, this episode reacquaints the viewer through bittersweet, comic, melodramatic, gut-wrenching, even appalling reprises, each character dealing with the proverbial other shoe dropping. In the jumble of what might feel like a visit to Upstairs, Downstairs, Wright layers over the typical with the stereotypical, and over that with the archetypal. Nate has just come home after a long night of drinking, bar-room brawling and seeking comfort in the bed of his long-ago jilted lover Brenda. He tells the family that his wife Lisa’s body has been found washed ashore. The unexpected news (or confirmation) of Lisa’s death has a direct and powerful impact on each character’s life. And each character’s life situation becomes a snapshot to compare with Lisa’s death and its impact on Nate.

Nate, who desperately wanted resolution in his marriage with Lisa, now has it. And seeking solace in Brenda’s arms only creates new (or revisits old) unresolved dynamics. Brother David, who also cannot make up his mind to be in or out of a relationship with his estranged partner Keith, finds Keith unexpectedly staying overnight, for the first time under the Fisher family roof. Meanwhile, mother Ruth is completing the nuptial union with George, the man with whom she has rushed into marriage, a man her family tries to keep a total stranger. George’s family has been even more hostile, through passive-aggressive avoidance of the wedding ceremony. Only the nerdy, live-in trainee Arthur seems to be on a compatible wavelength. Business partner Rico is struggling with his sister-in-law Angelica living with his small family and, feeling guilty about the escapist pleasure he had taken in a prostitute, goes to confession for the first time in many years. Sister Claire is dealing with her own pain and loss following a rushed decision to have an abortion. She contacts fellow art student Russell for comfort, only to spring on him the distressing news that he had been the father.

Claire grapples with the concept of learning how to “break open her eyes,” to see in genuinely new ways for her art, while Nate is dealing with seeing his wife’s body bloated and liquefying. A character drops a comment to Nate, which prompts comparing Lisa’s cadaver to a dead whale that washes ashore. Just as the idea of everyone being planted in the belly of Jonah’s whale is sinking in, along comes Lisa’s family of origin: pill-popping, control-freak mom, with her sycophantic husband, and bright, harmonizing other daughter in tow, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho – a stereotypically neurotic, “nice” Jewish family from the stereotypical white supremacist heartland. Lisa’s flaky, Seattle-inflected New Age personality makes immediate sense. Meanwhile, Nate is locked in mortal combat for Lisa’s moldering flesh, in a classic spouse-versus-parent battle for control of final internment plans. Will anyone learn to see in a truly new way? Wright weaves life and art together so seamlessly, and plays so intricately with the viewer’s heart strings, that it may be wise to have a box of Kleenex close at hand from the opening credits onward.

The season’s second episode, ”In Case of Rapture,” shifts gears dramatically. The opening death vignette, an extended joke, turns on the notion that happenstance may really be fate and mistaken identity can be lethally funny. In mistaking inflated sex dolls floating up into the air (the scene plausibly set by a back story), a fundamentalist housewife believes she is witnessing the actual end-of-times Rapture, gets out of her car in amazement and faith and tries to approach the upward-swirling vortex. In a macabre and funny manner reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut, it turns out she just happens to have walked into the middle of a multi-lane freeway, and is struck and instantly killed.

Nate turns on the woman’s fundamentalist family, screaming at them, like a Kuebler-Ross fanatic, for not going through the Kuebler-Ross “necessary stages of grieving.” He fails to realize they may have something more powerful to sustain them—unshakable faith in their God. Nate, meanwhile, is himself clearly “backsliding” to some of those stages of grieving he failed to work through “in proper order” following the death of his wife Lisa. The plotting of this episode is uneven, and story lines for George, Rico, and Brenda seem unconnected. Some characters move forward, others seem to backslide. But the segment ends with the mysterious arrival of a parcel delivered to George, a pile of dog poop from an anonymous sender. George has revealed nothing of his past, except to express harsh feelings for his previous family. The Fisher children also have no faith in him. Why, then, does Ruth have such unshakable faith in her new husband? Stay tuned.

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