Defying Convention: "Six Feet Under" and the Unreliable Narrator

Sarah Terez Rosenblum

A pivotal, emotionally raw argument late in the second season of Six Feet Under completely undermines our perceptions of Nate and Brenda's primal and toxic relationship, illuminating the way the show plays havoc with our sympathies and televisual convention.

Brenda: What? Nate, what?

Nate: Turn it on.

Brenda: Nate, please.

Nate: Turn it on. Fiction my ass, is everything you’ve written here something you’ve actually done?

Brenda: No.

Nate: All right then. I want you to read this shit aloud; I want you to tell me what’s true.

Brenda: It’s my writing. It’s private. You can’t-

Nate: I don’t care. You don’t get to be private anymore. Now tell me the truth.

Brenda: Give it back to me. Who the fuck do you think you are?

Nate: Who the fuck am I? Who the fuck are you?

Thank God for conventions. Those dictated by society as a whole and by television as a subset are crucial to Six Feet Under’s transformative power. Without expectations, the show could not defy them.

In literature, we’ve all encountered an unreliable narrator, the guy with whom we initially feel right at home. “C’mon in,” he says, “have a beer. Here’s what happened, let me lay it out for you.” But seven or seventy pages later we notice the chair he offered isn’t all that comfortable, his claims don’t quite add up and he hasn’t touched his own drink. As readers, we instinctively trust our narrator; we believe what we’re told. This is why books like Lolita, Iodine and Don Quixote prove so hauntingly effective; they screw with a basic convention, they undermine our expectations.

Maybe Six Feet Under isn’t the first series to unfurl like a novel, painstakingly, artfully destabilizing our understanding of the point-of-view character, but if another one as successful exists, I can’t think of it. Through camera angles, credit order and writing slight of hand, a show’s pilot provides the viewer with a set of beliefs. Watching the premiere episode, the viewer knows Nate, the fair-haired prodigal son with the hip haircut, is situated to guide us through the show’s five seasons. We know this because we’re watching television, and on television, convention is king. And Nate’s a pretty conventional guy, a free spirit but keen to man up and rescue those in need. When his family members prove too rebellious (Claire), neurotic (David) or hysterical (Ruth); Nate’s the one to swoop in and set things right. Or so Nate believes.

Enter Brenda, the truth-teller.

Brenda: You know who I am, Nate. I’m the woman who fucked you in the closet of an airport a couple of hours after I met you. That’s who I was the day we met.

Nate: You really fucked two guys?

Brenda: You had sex with two women once.

Nate: Not when I was engaged to you.

Brenda: Oh no, you only had sex with one woman when you were engaged to me. Without a condom I might add.

Nate: Where’d you fuck them? Did you fuck them here? Did you fuck them in our bed? Why didn’t you just break up with me? Jesus Christ!

Brenda: I don’t know! I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know. I fucking wish to God I did.

Nate: Did you fuck your brother?

Brenda: Oh, right, go there.

Nate: Well, why not go there, did you?

A brooding, defiantly sexual love-interest with an off-the-chart IQ, Brenda appears to define instability. As her relationship with Nate self-destructs, she acts out in ways Nate lacks the imagination to replicate. Nate’s own misbehavior is, if not societally sanctioned, at least comprehensible within the context of male misconduct. While he merely impregnates Lisa, his unbalanced ex, Brenda finds herself giving a massage therapy client a hand job, screwing a writer in bookstore bathroom and letting two neighborhood surfers nail her on the bed she shares with Nate. More unnerving, she documents her dalliances. Undeniably guilty about lying to Nate, Brenda, however, does not pass judgment on the sort of unconventional sex in which she dabbles. At times she even experiences it as liberating.

In “I’ll Take You” (S2:12), when Nate discovers Brenda’s transgressions, her infidelity provides the perfect wedge to divide them. Rather than examine his own role in their mutual distancing, Nate leaps at the opportunity to walk away a victim. Nate may have cheated too, but, remote to the range of behavior expected of a coupled woman, Brenda’s unfaithfulness is flashier, easier to pinpoint. Fallen women lack credibility, just look at Anna Karenina, Hester Prynne, that adulteress Jesus stepped in to save. This tacit, historically substantiated notion quietly underlies both Nate’s and the viewer’s impression of events. Six Feet Under’s writers know this -- in fact, they count on it to support Nate’s self-perception, which at this point most viewers still uncritically accept. In truth, Brenda’s bold sexuality, though circumstantially destructive, is no more of a betrayal than Nate’s tedious brand of disloyalty, nor his slow-creeping withdrawal.

Of course, Nate disagrees.

Brenda: Did you fuck the Rabbi? I know you wanted to.

Nate: No.

Brenda: I bet it was because she wouldn’t. And just for the record you did it in Seattle before I ever-

Nate: I was scared to death. I just had a fucking seizure!

Brenda: Another thing you wouldn’t have told me about if you hadn’t been forced to.

Nate: You know what, maybe I felt safe with her, which frankly is something I have never felt with you.

Brenda: Oh, you felt safe with her.

Nate: Yeah.

Brenda: Yeah, because you were leaving the next day.

Nate: Oh, God.

Brenda: Nate you created a human being. There’s gonna be another person on this planet because of you. A person who might have a totally miserable fucking life and curse the fucking day she was born because you are walking out on her the same way you’re going to walk out on me.

At this point in the series, though Brenda and Nate seem fantastically ill-matched, their mutual attraction is still attributable to a combustible sexual pull. Over the show’s course, however, it becomes intriguingly apparent that underlying their attraction is an Indian burial ground’s worth of issues they’ve joined forces to unearth. Nothing to do with chemistry as your average TV executive understands it, everything to do with the real life reasons couples are reciprocally drawn before explosively parting. For her piece, Brenda battles trust issues as well as addictive tendencies, which, to her credit, she acknowledges. Because Nate lacks the aptitude to examine his skewed belief system, the baggage he drags into the relationship proves more insidiously damaging.

To Nate, women represent possible realities, treasure chests to rifle, searching for his perfect self. More complex than the ragged Virgin/Whore dichotomy, Nate’s unconscious model allows women the freedom to contain everything right then suddenly wrong with his life, but never the power to exist as a person apart. Later in Six Feet Under’s run, Nate will tell Lisa “None of this turned out the way I wanted it to. I feel like I had this once-in-a-lifetime chance and I fucked it up,” to which Lisa will respond, “Nate, I'm not a chance. I'm a person.” (“Twilight.” S3:12) Still later, Brenda, ever the truth-teller, verbalizes Nate’s tragic flaw: “All he ever wanted was someone to make him feel like he was a better man than he actually was. Could have been anyone. (“All Alone.” S5:10) But at present neither she nor the audience has made this leap of insight.

To recap, Six Feet Under’s writers have set the stage with basic personality differences, psychological glitches and a whole passel of unresolved conflicts. Obviously, when one of Brenda’s surfer sex partners shows up and Nate puts two and two together, the situation is primed for every slow boiling emotion to overflow the pot. The verbal clash punctuating the episode then both showcases and advances the writer’s carefully laid plans. Viscerally affecting, the argument works on the level of pure entertainment, but also provides a game-changing step in Nate’s journey from trustworthy to suspect.

Nate: Oh, fuck you. Life doesn’t have to be miserable just because you are. Oh, I know, weird shit happened to you. But you know what? It happened to all of us. And I am sick to death of you using it as an excuse to act like some fucking cunt from hell.

Brenda: Wow.

Nate: What?

Brenda: How long have you hated me like this, Nate?

Nate: Oh, I don’t need to hate you. You do a pretty damn good job of hating yourself.

Brenda: You picked me, you know.

Nate: Yeah, well only because I had no idea how fucked up you really are.

Brenda: That’s bullshit. You knew and you loved it because it made you feel good about yourself.

Nate: Oh God, you are so full of shit.

When a couple argues, rarely does each fully comprehend the fight’s true content. Instead like an industrial strength vacuum cleaner, an argument sucks up every available source of tension, whether acknowledged or unspoken. In this way, when Nate unleashes accusation after accusation, he involuntarily reveals his unwillingness to clearly examine himself. This is not to label Nate’s reaction to Brenda’s transgressions irrational. However, the use he makes of her infidelity both manipulates the situation and eventually exposes his own lack of credibility. Brenda, coming into her role as the purveyor of truth, remains relatively forthright, accepting responsibility for her mistakes and identifying Nate’s.

Yet, each time Brenda reacts to Nate’s vitriol with a truthful response, Nate dismisses her. For example, when Brenda points out that Nate felt safe with Lisa because he was “leaving the next day,” Nate’s response is a dismissive, “Oh, God.” When Brenda says (albeit self-pityingly) that rather than tolerate their discord, Nate will choose to walk out on her, he calls her a “cunt from hell.” Then, instead of admitting he’s begun to see in Brenda all of his own failings, that he does in fact hate her, he says, “Oh, I don’t need to hate you. You do a pretty damn good job of hating yourself.” When Brenda asserts that Nate picked her, he claims to have had “no idea” of the extent of her hang-ups.

“Bullshit,” says Brenda, “you knew and you loved it because it made you feel good about yourself.”

Bull’s-eye, but Nate pooh-poohs her statement: “Oh God,” he says, “you are so full of shit.” Brenda goes on to deliver a spot-on character analysis: “You just can’t see it because you’re so in love with the idea of Nate the good guy, Nate the hero, Nate the fucking saint with the fucking great haircut. The truth is you would run from real love if it ever came at you.”

Nate: Real love what the fuck do you know about real love?

Brenda: Yeah, real love with the shit and and and the neediness and the ugliness and the responsibility. You would fucking run and you know it. The only reason you stayed with me is because I was never really here.

Literature’s most effective fights veer from the banal to the vital to the absurd. Just ask Albee’s infamous George and Martha. Sometimes humor, powerful in its knack for catching the viewer off guard, is the precise weapon required. After Brenda’s self-revelatory pronouncement canon-balls the scene into its final moments, Six Feet Under draws again from convention’s deep well. Like any number of betrayed damsels before him, Nate moves to return an engagement ring. “You know what,” he says, “take your ugly, fucking ring.” Here Brenda reveals her ability to step outside of the situation and provide commentary, solidifying her truth-telling role. Anticipating Nate’s actions she says, “don’t you throw that ring at me. That is such a fucking cliché.” Distracted and perhaps disarmed by Brenda’s next line: “I will fucking barf,” and Nate’s final contribution, “There, barf,” the viewer may not consciously realize a delicate adjustment in his allegiance has taken place.

When Nate lets the ring fly, the choice indicates his inability to function outside of convention, the ring’s circumscribed arc signifying Nate’s lack of credibility as a witness to his own life. In that moment, an audience member is offered the chance to examine his instinctive identification with Nate. Maybe the viewer will stick tight, let Nate crack open another beer. But maybe, like Brenda, the viewer will begin to question the snug reality Nate inhabits. Maybe by the time Nate dies, at least the viewer will have learned from his mistakes.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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