Six Feet Under: “A Coat Of White Primer”

The final season of Six Feet Under opens with this line: “Have you ever told her how you really feel?” Posed by a psychoanalyst to her patient, Andrea, we know that the answer is “no” by virtue of the question being asked. And Andrea confirms as much. Airing your inner thoughts can lead to screaming or crying, she protests, which is why she holds her tongue around her friend—and her father, and her sister. “Oh, and Leonard,” she adds, with a heightened note of rue. The therapist poses the natural follow-up: “Would it be so bad if someone screamed or cried?”

Andrea doesn’t know, but, weary of feeling alienated all the time, she’s ready to find out. And so we kick off the Andrea Catharsis Tour. As she confronts her loved ones, her words vary, but the message is consistent: It’s time for you to consider my feelings. An overbearing friend responds to this plea not with a tantrum but with an apology. The aforementioned sister takes a calm moment of introspection. In the most intimate exchange, Andrea’s distant father breaks down in tears. And is it so bad that he cries? It is not. This is going so well!

leonard and andrea

Oh, but Leonard. When Andrea tells him that he needs to consider her needs and desires, he shows less grace than the others. “I shower you with gifts!” he protests, and to drive the point home, he catalogs the items of his largesse: the antique mirror, the Italian ashtrays, the brass andirons. This peculiar sequence of objects illustrates the arc of Leonard’s anger. Andrea forced Leonard to look at himself, and the smoldering ash of his resentment kindles into a full-blown fire.

While Leonard and Andrea argue, the camera lingers on the sharp spires of that Queen Anne fireplace set, just long enough to lend the object a foreboding significance—Chekhov would approve. Moments later, Andrea is impaled on the elegant brass metalwork. “Don’t do this to me!” Leonard cries, because not even the fresh corpse of his lover can shake his narcissism. Andrea Kuhn, 1963-2004.

nate and brenda

Superficially, Andrea’s story is a cautionary tale about the danger of expressing your inner feelings. (It’s safe to say that’s how Andrea would have interpreted it as her eye socket hurtled toward that fatal finial.) But in truth, it’s a caution against the hidden emotional debt that builds up when you suppress yourself to maintain the peace in a relationship. In other words, “That’s what happens to couples who never learn to fight,” as David puts it when Andrea’s cyclopean visage shows up on his embalming table.

So the therapist’s question that opened the episode might be expressed another way: What do you lose when you don’t tell someone how you really feel? In “A Coat Of White Primer,” the answer for Nate is that he loses hope. At the end of season four, it appeared that some semblance of optimism had crept back into Nate’s worldview. The strange and harrowing saga of Lisa’s death had finally come to a close (albeit in traumatic fashion), and Nate was engaged to Brenda, again. Nate’s bond with his two-time fiancée is rooted in an organic attraction and understanding, rather than the obligation and self-denial that suffused his interactions with Lisa. So the reunion of the original Six Feet Under couple felt right. Complicated, sure, but right.

Yet we’ve hardly broken the seal on season five before the happily-ever-after illusion falls away, and we see Nate regressing into the same overwrought sense of responsibility, the same self-imposed martyrdom, that made the Nate-Lisa union such a gloomy affair. On his wedding day, after he tells David that Brenda’s pregnancy ended in miscarriage, Nate presents himself as one big emotional callous. “Bad shit happens every day!” he rants. “Move fuckin’ on, you know?” He explains that he’ll start trying for another child as soon as possible, but just for Brenda’s sake, because “I’ve already got Maya, so it’s not for me, you know?” He’s only doing it because “it’s what Brenda wants, more than anything in the world, and I can make that happen for her.”

These are awful things to say, but David can see past Nate’s words to his underlying pain. (And perhaps on some level, Nate is aware of this, which is why he vents to David in the first place.) “I don’t want to grieve anymore,” Nate says, “I can’t. Can’t! Don’t have it in me.” Of course, he’s grieving before our very eyes. You don’t choose grief—if only! Instead, grief comes at you, with force and in a confounding multitude of guises. The best you can do is contend with it.

David knows from experience that Nate—a deeply feeling soul, the opposite of the stony monster he pretends to be in this scene—often attempts to avoid his profound pain by smothering it in a sense of purpose. When Nathaniel Sr. dies, Nate grudgingly returns to the family business because it’s what the Fisher clan needs from him. When an old flame upends his life with a surprise pregnancy, he marries her because that’s what she needs from him. And when the miscarriage imperils his and Brenda’s picture of their new life together, Nate again frames his abnegation in terms of someone else’s needs.

The subconscious logic goes like this: Nate wants to create distance from his inner self because the self is where the pain lies. Deny the self, deny the pain. So he runs and runs—sometimes literally. But as Six Feet Under has shown us so many times, the self always catches up.

lisa in wedding video

It’s disheartening to watch Nate succumb to familiar patterns because this time around, with Brenda, was supposed to be different. In the first scene after the decedent-of-the-week cold open, we see Brenda watching Nate and Lisa’s wedding video, “so I didn’t do the same thing, in some weird way.” She explains that she simply wants to avoid making others uncomfortable, but her anguished, intense study of the video makes clear that Brenda is addressing her own discomfort. She’s wary of Nate’s old self-destructive habits (and her own), so she hopes to steer clear of whatever traps he and Lisa fell into.

The video presents Brenda with radically different interpretations of the same event. When Claire, behind the camera, asks Nate how he feels on his wedding day, he says, “Uh, alive? So, glad about that.” In that answer you can detect the lingering shock of the brain hemorrhage that nearly took Nate’s life, along with an echo of Nathaniel Sr.’s poignant words to David at the end of season four: “You’re alive! What’s a little pain compared to that?” But mostly, Nate’s response is a snapshot of his detachment. “Alive” and “glad” are barely feelings, at least as Nate expresses them here. He’s distant, restricting himself to an ascetic focus on the present moment.

Lisa, meanwhile, puts her feelings in terms of the past. Claire asks her the same question—“How do you feel?”—and she bubbles over: “Like every moment of my life has led up to this one. Like all of it makes sense. Like this is the destiny that’s waiting for me.” Careful viewers will discern that Lisa is in a better mood than her groom. (It’s subtle, I know.)

But while her earth-mother glow contrasts with Nate’s empty gaze, Lisa’s answer has its own portent. “It’s stupid to think in terms of happily ever after, but that’s what it feels like right now,” she says. “Happily ever after” is what you say at the end of a story. Lisa relishes the wedding as a conclusion to her difficult past, and she’s so focused on that relief that she doesn’t consider the future. Which could be trouble! Okay, we already know that it was trouble—more trouble than either Nate or Lisa could have imagined. Still, it’s enlightening to see the seeds of that strife on tape.

With Nate confined to a narrow present and Lisa oriented toward the past, the wedding video’s look toward the future is provided by Lisa’s then-boss, Carol, the hilariously caustic Hollywood power player. “I love how weddings just erase the past, like a coat of white primer,” Carol tells the camera as guests stream in. “Slap a veil on her, and the biggest slut-bag on the planet becomes a fresh-faced ingenue.”

It’s significant that Carol refers to a coat of white primer (especially since this phrase provides the episode’s title) rather than a coat of paint. A coat of paint would be a finished product. Primer, though, is a layer on which you create something new. Carol’s remark evokes the familiar human impulse to reset your life as a blank canvas, an impulse that Nate and Lisa share. Her biting sarcasm reflects the wisdom that you can’t actually turn your life blank again. (Carol has never been as wise as she is in this cameo!) Sure, the past can be ignored, for a time. It can’t be erased.

nate and brenda at doctor's office

For that matter, it’s tough to paint your own future, too. Brenda and Nate don’t need to be reminded of this, but they’re reminded nonetheless when she wakes up to the bloody revelation that her pregnancy is over. Still in shock as she recuperates at home, Brenda half-watches a history documentary: “The splendid young man who came to the throne in 1509, by 1547, had become a revolting, swollen mass of putrefying flesh.” The decomposition of Henry VIII captures the Brenda’s sense of organic decay with, as she puts it, “my dead baby leaking out of me all day.”

They debate whether to postpone the wedding, and there’s no good answer. “Fuck it! Let’s get married, okay?” Nate concludes. Brenda offers him some Vicodin—“Just make sure you leave enough for tomorrow.” Numbing yourself for your wedding day must be among the least auspicious ways to begin a marriage.

lisa confronting brenda at the wedding

Brenda can’t get numb enough. Her mother has an unusually calming effect—reassuring Brenda that “more women have miscarried than masturbated with a dildo,” as only Margaret Chenowith could put it. But that pep talk doesn’t stave off Brenda’s demons, who appear in the form of the “naturally maternal” Lisa. Nate’s second wife pictures the depths of her self-hatred spilling from the mouth of Nate’s first wife. Brenda is “being punished”; her insides are “damaged from all that anonymous cock”; she’s a “slutbag.” Lisa’s most vicious strike repurposes her key line from the wedding video: “You’re never going to have your little ‘happily ever after moment,” she tells a defeated Brenda, “You’re just too fucked up for all that.” Brenda said she watched the video so she wouldn’t repeat history, which is true as far as it goes. This scene makes clear that jealousy—the hurt of being Nate’s second choice—drives her fascination with Lisa, too.

Nate catches Brenda in the midst of this self-torture and absorbs the full brunt of her misery: “The only way that I get married in a long white gown is to have my dead baby leaking out of me all day. … You don’t really fucking want me. Not that I blame you. Who would?” she snarls. “I do,” he answers. And he proceeds to connect with her, talk to her, make her feel better. It’s what he does best. Nate can be such a jerk at times that it’s easy to forget he is a gifted healer.

Healer of others, that is. Because while Brenda shares her deepest vulnerabilities in that scene overlooking the ocean, Nate doesn’t do anything of the sort. “Have you told her how you really feel,” Nate? Not today. That’s the double edge of his therapeutic gifts: He can focus on helping others as a way to avoid exposing himself.

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