There’s this episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under where David’s kidnapped by a crackhead. I don’t know what season it’s in or what it’s called (I’m waiting until I finish writing this before finding out). I’ve only seen a handful of episodes top to bottom and watched a few in passing; my girlfriend’s really into the show. It’s an excellent show, much better than Alan Ball’s other show (True Blood), but I haven’t sat down with it. Personally I find it a bit morbid. Every episode begins with death and ends with uncertainty, leaving the path open to life’s endless possibilities. Like the tree in the opening credits, everything on the show springs from death – both literally and figuratively.
This particular episode is devastating. A young man, out of gas and money, catches a ride with David (Michael C. Hall) up to a gas station. After a few dubious statements about his ATM card not working and so forth, David drives him to a convenience store with an ATM machine. The man promptly pulls a gun on David, forcing him inside to withdraw all his money. The sense of anxiety the show creates is infectious; I just wanted David to escape, for him to leave David alone or for a forceful retaliation, leading to emancipation. It doesn’t end here.
The man then makes David drive him on a drug run, about an hour away. He promises he’ll release David. During the drive the man notices a rotten stench and finds a corpse in the back of David’s van. The show’s about a family operated funeral home, so a dead body in the back seat isn’t a surprise to us; it is to David’s passenger. After throwing the cadaver out – much to David’s chagrin – the man stops at a liquor store and ties David up. While inside David escapes, knocks the man in the face with the van’s back door, runs away, hides, and is captured again. After a minor roughing up the two embark to a seedy park where they score crack.
David’s unfamiliarity with drug culture is evident. He’s a straight laced person, meticulous, and reserved. He wears his disgust when a crack dealer spits a rock out of his mouth, exhibits fear when forced to smoke it, and his face displays repulsion at the makeshift crack smoking apparatus when offered. His reaction to smoking crack is much different. David exclaims, “I never knew I could feel like this,” exhibiting a different side to this character. He’s open, uninhibited, and happy. His kidnapper blows him and we’re given David’s perspective – blurry, long lights resulting from a crack induced high. This portion of their adventure ends in an alleyway with David defecating behind a dumpster, releasing all the new toxins he just ingested. The man promises he’ll release David if he takes him to score more drugs. David reluctantly agrees.
David’s acceptance of events, especially when on crack, isn’t surprising but odd from an outside perspective. I’m familiar with Stockholm syndrome and I’m sure the writers considered this. However, the portrayal of David’s reaction to this scene is particularly intense, coming across as highly believable. David’s assorted emotions are readable and even when he looks happy; his disdain for the situation comes across. When he’s trying to reason with this man he exudes pity, cognizant of how disturbed his kidnapper is. Usually one doesn’t pick crime, especially such a sadistic version, as a hobby; the man’s obviously either the product of severe trauma or crazy. The next leg of their adventure exhibits this clearly.
Searching for a “red house,” in a suburban landscape, the scene’s never ending. It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack and the only reason it continues is the gun – a constant reminder of the situation David, and the viewer, is stuck in. A dog runs in front of the van and the felon claims it’s his childhood pet, prompting them to chase it down. After cornering it in an alley the man reveals it isn’t his dog and beats David some more. With his victim on the ground the man goes into the van, grabs a gasoline container and begins pouring it on David. He then makes David place the gun into his mouth, asking him whether he’d like to get shot or burn to death. Any pleas are met with indifference and the man tells David to close his eyes. The music builds to an intense hum – anxious yet serene – and David’s life flashes before his eyes: childhood, family, relationships, good and bad times. The sound of the van backing up quickly accompanies David slowly opening his tear soaked eyes; David’s free.
Eventually, after walking down the street like a zombie, a police officer pulls him over. David’s in shock and any recognition of his savior is drowned out by his near-death experience and captivity. The episode pretty much ends here, with David’s ordeal rounding out one of the most intense episodes of a television show I’ve ever seen.
The scene probably 30 minutes long and it seems like it’s never going to end. Constructing a scene like this – where the sense of anxiety and fear one would feel under such circumstances – seems difficult, yet the flawless execution of this storyline solidifies Six Feet Under’s reputation as one of the best shows ever made. I wanted to kill David’s kidnapper; I mean, really kill him. David’s reaction to the man was genuine and his fright transcends the story, imparting his feelings directly onto the viewer. I was terrified, wondering if David would die (even though I know he wouldn’t since he’s one of the main characters) and hoping he wouldn’t. David’s one chance to escape, knocking the man with the van door, had me cheering. I wanted him to run until his lungs exploded; to continue running and running and running, moving as far away from danger as possible. When he hid underneath a trailer and watched for his attacker I kept yelling at the screen, “run you idiot…run!” When the man recaptures David I felt terrible, feeling all chances of salvation crumbling instantaneously. That’s the power of this show.
The episode’s called That’s My Dog and it’s from the fourth season. Michael Weston plays Jake, the man who kidnaps David. Yesterday I saw the episode where David confronts him in prison, realizing his attacker is insane; an apology or any remorse isn’t forthcoming. Apparently the police found his fingerprints in the van and he’s in jail for a long time. Even though it’s been about a week since I saw That’s My Dog I still feel anger towards Jake. I wanted David to chew him out, grab him by the collar and shake him furiously, scream at the top of his lungs how this man ruined his sense of security. I just wanted five minutes alone with him in a room – just me, him, and an arsenal of blunt objects. My primal side came out and only brute force could satisfy my sense of justice.
Wait…it’s just a television show. How is it that I’m so moved by a goddamn television show? Is it possible the show is that powerful? I remember reading books and feeling this way but never a television show? Could Six Feet Under really be that good? I think it is.
I regret not watching the entire series from top to bottom with my girlfriend but I’ve been busy elsewhere. Luckily the show’s over and I can watch it at my leisure, spending an afternoon with a stack of DVD’s or watching them slowly and savoring it. It’s a shame Michael C. Hall went from Six Feet Under to Dexter, which has taken a drastic turn south over the last two years. I always felt Dexter is a bit corny, but the last two years are even worse. Where the show was childishly humorous and clever before, now the jokes are stupid and the metaphors are embarrassing – reminiscent of 8th grade creative writing. The only reason I still watch it is out of habit. I’ve spent this much time with the show; I might as well see it through. To quote Larry David, “I go down with the ship!”
Back to Six Feet Under, I feel this episode is probably one of the best pieces of television I’ve ever seen. Aside from The Sopranos final episode, Made in America, I think this is the best hour of television ever produced. I’ve never been so moved by a fictitious event on television before. The way it made me question my weaknesses is powerful. I’ve never been in a situation like this before and I’m uncertain how I’d react. I’d like to think I’d act heroically, watching for an opportunity to escape and seriously hurt my assailant or how I’d get a signal to another person and be saved by the police. In reality, I’d probably just cower, cry, and get shot in the head.
So many of us in America are insulated from brute force, living inside a tiny bubble. We don’t have any concept of what it’s like to suffer, to starve, to fight for our lives. I’ve heard of our civilization being dubbed a “second womb” before and maybe that assessment is correct. Without the amenities of modern life we’re all shipwrecked. I think we all know this even if we constantly deny it, which is why a fictional piece like this resonates; it presents a piece of ourselves, postulating a worst-case scenario that isn’t farfetched. Unfortunately I can see David’s situation as possible – all it takes is the proper circumstances. Because this plotline isn’t too unbelievable and seems ripped from the newspaper, it resonates with honesty.