Defying Convention: “Six Feet Under” and the Unreliable Narrator

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.