I think it was some pretentious art teacher on Six Feet Under who’d made a comment about how they judged whether a piece of art was good by how nauseous it made them. That a powerful and truthful piece would affect the body and make them want to puke their very guts up. For some reason that’s one of the exchanges from Six Feet Under that’s stayed with me – probably because I was a 19 year old writing student at the time, binge viewing the show in bed with an everlasting hangover whilst a Betty Blue film poster eyeballed me from across the room. But, more than likely, it was because of the episode of Six Feet Under that actually did make me puke.
In fact, it was the episode that ruined the show for me. I couldn’t hack it. I ended my love affair with Six Feet Under at Season 4 Episode 5, at an episode titled That’s My Dog. It was the last episode of the show that I’d ever watch, and to my mind it’s also one of the greatest television episodes I’ve ever seen to this day. It was so good it made me vomit.
Confession: I was never super jazzed about Six Feet Under. It was a show that my housemate was collecting the DVD box sets of and, since I was a 19 year old borderline alcoholic who was spending a lot of time in bed hating herself, I would binge watch Six Feet Under and I would feel marginally better about the fact that I wasn’t dead.
I was, however, constantly dazzled by those brilliant death scenes at the beginning of each episode, but the second that it returned to the mundanities and dysfunctions of family life, I lost interest. I just did not give two fucks for that family. But I did care about David.
David – played magnificently by Michael C Hall aka. that TV serial killer / woodsman that we no longer talk about because FUCK OFF DEXTER – was probably one of the more interesting characters on the show. His relationship with boyfriend Keith never felt forced or contrived the way other relationships on the show did. It felt very real and when by season 4 they start experimenting with an open relationship, the devastation and desperation involved in David’s compliance with this in order to keep the man that he loves is truthfully heartbreaking.
But Six Feet Under was never a triumph to me, and in many ways I’m thankful that it wasn’t. Because for four and a quarter seasons it led me into a false sense of security; it felt easy and safe and I knew the formula, and then out of nowhere it pulled That’s My Dog out of it’s ass. It did a Keyser Soze. It pretended like it didn’t exist and then BOOM David’s being kidnapped.
So yeah, to recap: David, in his vulnerable, horny and pissed-off-at-his-boyfriend state picks up a bit of rough trade from the side of the road. The guy needs a ride and David – with a dead body in the back, naturally – decides, Why the fuck not.
They buddy up. They hang out. The guy seems cute and amiable. The episode briefly skips between the narratives of the other characters before returning to David’s *hopefully lucky, right?!* car ride with a fit stranger when literally out of nowhere the stray pulls out a gun and shit gets real.
It’s non-stop from this point. It never ends or skips a beat. David is tortured and tormented. You repeatedly think that he’s going to escape at any moment, and he almost does, but he gets dragged back to the nightmare every time. He gets beaten the shit out of, is forced to smoke crack at gunpoint (before taking a shit in the street), he gets gasoline poured over him and has a lighter held in his face, is tied up and left in the back of his own van and as every second of the episode ticks further and further on you become more convinced that They’re gonna do it. They’re gonna kill off one of their main characters completely out of the blue and in the most ghoulish and traumatic way possible.
This is the genius of the episode, you see. Just as David’s hijacker and tormenter holds him hostage for that night, the episode in turn gets hijacked too. As an audience we encounter David’s experience the same way as he does: with no clue as to how it’s all going to end or what horror he’s about to encounter next. For much of this episode I felt as though Alan Ball himself had a gun to my head and was forcing me to watch the entire encounter without breathing or blinking. There’s nothing else to the episode past this point. It is David being held against his will. There’s no returning to the episodic dramas, none of it. There is just this.
In any other TV show there would have been blatant, lazy precursors laid into the show as clues to ease the audience into the idea that David’s hitchhiker is a bad man about to do awful things to him. They would have somebody reading a paper at the breakfast table in which the front page reads something trite like ‘Two more found dead. Killer still at large’ with a bad drawing of the guy currently sat in David’s car. Or, for example if this was Mad Men, the whole event would have been foreshadowed by a long conversation about stockholm syndrome and the role of the hostage. You know, just so that the audience knows without really knowing.
In fact, the closest thing that we get to any kind of a hint is just that Claire’s teacher is played by an actress called Brooke Smith who incidentally also played a character called Catherine Martin in Silence Of The Lambs – the woman who Buffalo Bill kidnaps and torments. But who the fuck made that connection first time?
This episode absolutely, irrevocably scared the shit out of me. I’d never known a TV show to break so much out of formula and so violently and that in itself made me feel uneasy. It messed with the concept of what a TV show should be doing: that people watch particular shows because they expect a certain tone and a particular outcome at the end of each episode. If you mess with that and you deliberately don’t deliver (ARE YOU LISTENING, DEXTER?) then it’s almost like breaking an unspoken agreement between the two parties of the show itself, in it’s entirety, and the audience.
In many ways I felt as though Six Feet Under had been deliberate with its pacing and structure since day one, and all for this singular and seemingly – from the outside, at least – nothing episode. In the middle of a season when big events, as per the norm, aren’t supposed to happen. They wanted everybody to get comfortable because they were going to fuck with your seat, essentially.
And yes, it made me throw up. I don’t care how lame that makes me sound, because it is what it is. Maybe it was part of the hangover, maybe I was more invested in the show than I realise, but fuck it. I couldn’t sleep after That’s My Dog. It got into my head and I thought about every aspect of it for weeks upon weeks. I dissected it over and over and every time I did I felt that same nausea creeping back into me.
I rewatched the episode recently and it’s still an outstanding piece of work and still chills me to the bone, but (thankfully) it doesn’t instill in me the same sort of gut wrenching projectile theatrics that it did the first time round.
I still haven’t watched a single episode past Season 4 Episode 5, and in all likelihood, I never will.