Ah vacation. I returned from a week on beautiful Lake Michigan and settled onto my couch to watch this week’s episode of my favorite TV show, Six Feet Under, only to be utterly traumatized by one of the most riveting hours of television I have ever watched. This week’s episode was extremely controversial, and if you haven’t seen it, read no further, because theories and spoliers abound, but I have to discuss it, because I believe this episode was one of the most cinematic pieces of TV I have ever seen.
The epsiode centered on David’s decision to pick up a hitchhiker and his victimization at the hands of the violent passenger. There were several things that I found incredibly disturbing about the events on the show, but primarily, I believe that the writer of the show, Scott Buck, used the brutalization of David to punish this passive character into becoming more active and honest in his own life. But did it have to be done this way?
It was certainly punishment for David’s desire to trangress his relationship with Keith. David picks up the attractive hitcher and immediately fantasizes about having a sexual relationship with him ‘on the side’– in direct violation of his own supressed desire to have security in his relationship with Keith. Of course, the episode ends with the hitcher putting his phallic gun in David’s mouth after beating him silly and dousing him with gasoline. David is completely passive and powerless in this moment, and the gloss on his sexual identity was clear as well– his mouth wrapped around the gun barrell, and all I could do was yell “Come on, David, do something– stand up for yourself!”– but like most victims of violent crime, he was truly helpless. The metaphor, however, resonated loud and clear.
And that is when I relaized how deeply I felt for this character, how ashamed and angry I felt that he was being treated this way. I do believe Scott Buck took out his own personal frustrations on David, running him through every implausible plot device on this joy ride from hell– David smoking crack and fantasizing about getting head from his abductor? David allowing him to throw the corpse in the van onto the street? These are clear violations of David’s character meant only to show the depth of his demoralization. Buck was as bored with David’s sactimonious, control freak personality as many fans of the show were. In order to bring him back to the audience, he had to strip him of all control and show him powerless, confronting his sexual desires, his dedication to the morality of his profession, and his fantasy life. David was in a life and death moment, and his true character shone through.
I have never written about TV before, but this was one hour of television that deserved a conversation. The episode, titled ‘That’s My Dog’ (a pun on David’s situation as victim and the ultimate plot moment,) was a masterful manipulation of character and audience expectation, and the effect on me was like watching a film. I was rivetted, caring deeply about what would happen next, trying to figure out how David would end this nightmare. A quick glance at the show’s message board has the audience divided between disgust (some claiming the show has jumped the shark!) and support/excitement. Already 50 pages of comments have been logged about the episode. Deep down, I think the show played closely to everyone’s personal fears of powerlessness, and the strong reactions for and against the episode represent the level of comfort people have with their own identification with David’s character. This show was intense because we felt so deeply, were so worried, and felt the humiliation. It is fine line between punishing a character and punishing an audience, and the intensity of the show may have crossed that line for some. Not me. For one atypical night, Six Feet Under strattled the line with the incredible cinematic skill. A great TV show became transcendent.