I think it was some pretentious art teacher on Six Feet Under who’d commented on how they judged whether a piece of art was good by how nauseous it made them. What 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 this episode (S4 E5), “That’s My Dog”, actually did make me vomit.
I hated it, was shocked by it, and to my mind, it’s also one of the greatest television episodes I’ve ever seen to this day.
I watched Six Feet Under religiously. It was brilliant, but I can’t say that I liked any of the characters. Let’s face it; everyone was a bit pretentious and annoying. I couldn’t stand Brenda or any of her family. I was, however, dazzled by those brilliant death scenes at the beginning of each episode, but the second that it returned to the dysfunctional Fisher family life, I lost interest. I just did not care about most of them anymore at this point. But I did care about David.
David — played magnificently by Michael C Hall, a.k.a. that TV serial killer/woodsman that we no longer talk about because its finale episode was so bad that all the previous seasons have to be wiped from memory — 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 authentic, and when by Season 4, they start experimenting with an open relationship, the devastation and desperation involved in David’s compliance with this to keep the man that he loves is truly 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 comfortable and safe and I knew the formula. Then out of nowhere, it pulled “That’s My Dog” out of its ass. It did a Keyser Soze. It pretended like it didn’t exist, and then BOOM, David’s being kidnapped.
So 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 as his car is out of gas and David — with a dead body in the back of his van, naturally — decides, why the hell not.
They buddy up. They hang out. This guy Jake seems cute and amiable, a bit like Paul Rudd. I can’t say I wouldn’t pick him up myself if I saw him in need on the street. The episode briefly skips between the narratives of the other characters, lulling us into a false sense of security, before returning to David’s (who is going to get lucky, right?!) car ride with a fit stranger when literally out of nowhere, the stray pulls out a gun and then everything kicks off. Now that’s a curveball.
It is non-stop from this point. It never skips a beat. David is tortured and tormented by Jake. 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 half to death, is forced to smoke crack at gunpoint (before taking a crap in the street), gets gasoline poured over him and has a lighter held in his face. He 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’ are going to do it. They’re going to 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 forced 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.
Jake (Michael Weston) is, for me, one of the most terrifying on-screen villains. He comes across as so sweet one moment, his gorgeous pale green eyes appearing naive and mildly flirtatious, even vulnerable. The next minute he turns into a monster, making David do his bidding while mocking him for being so pathetic and for being gay. Jake’s unpredictability is what made him so scary as you just could not read the real him. Was he a mentally unwell criminal who needs help and is desperate for a friend? Or was he totally clued in to what he’s doing and playing a cruel game, intentionally robbing and torturing someone so generous and empathetic, and for reasons we never get to find out? Would he ever have really killed David? He went very far to that point, so it seems that, yes, he would have. Does that mean he had some empathy in him when he made David get on his knees and pressed the gun to his head but didn’t pull the trigger? Or was David too pathetic even to kill?
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 were 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.
This episode absolutely, irrevocably scared 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 specific tone and a particular outcome at the end of each episode. If you mess with that and you deliberately don’t deliver (you listening Dexter?), then it’s almost like breaking an unspoken agreement between the two parties of the show itself, in its 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. And not only that but right in the middle of a season when big events don’t usually happen. They made us all comfortable in our seats, then pressed the ejector button (that we didn’t know existed) and flung us across the sky.
And yes, it made me throw up. I don’t care how pathetic that makes me sound because it is what it is. Maybe I was more invested in the show than I realised? 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. It probably didn’t help that I was kidnapped myself a few years before this was aired in 2004. My experience was far less traumatic; I foolishly accepted a lift home from a regular punter at the casino where I worked. I wasn’t alone I should mention; I’m not that silly. But once he had dropped the other girls off, I was alone. When we got to my house, he just kept on driving.
So David’s horror and disbelief at what was happening felt very real. I remember at the time people saying that this episode was far fetched. I totally disagree. Until you are in a situation like that, you don’t really know how you’ll behave. You don’t want to inflame the situation for fear of speeding up your fate, whatever that may be. I, like David, did my best to stay calm and talked to my abductor nicely. Slowly trying to find out what his intentions were. I didn’t try to escape or flag anyone down; I knew that was pointless. It was 4 am, pouring with rain, and he had taken me to a beach in the outskirts of the town. No one was around. All I could do was try to convince him that he didn’t want to do this. Unbelievably I succeeded. Reminding him of his children did the trick. He didn’t try anything other than resting his hand on my knee, which paralysed me with fear. He gave me a £50 note and told me he wanted to keep me financially well off in return for my’ company’. I kindly refused, over and over. I was 18. He was a middle-aged and incredibly wealthy and powerful man.
It took about an hour to finally make him agree to take me home unscathed. The sun started rising as he drove and when he dropped me outside my house, I threw up in the street. I never really spoke about what happened. I told my boss at the casino, gave them the £50 note to give back to him so he couldn’t ‘own’ me in any sense. I quit my job and moved out of the country. Literally. Of course, we go on to see how the trauma of this horrific incident goes on to affect David in later episodes. There is nothing more terrifying than knowing your abductor is still out there.
So it’s probably safe to say that “That’s My Dog” had somewhat of a triggering effect on me. I was suffering from PTSD without really being aware of it. Knowing I came that close to probable rape, possible death is what disturbs me the most. But, I do know that many people felt the same way watching this episode. It was so unnerving that many complained about it because it was such a brutal shock. I’m pretty sure all those people hadn’t been kidnapped themselves as well, so you don’t have to have been through it to feel disturbed by it.
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 instil in me the same sort of gut-wrenching projectile theatrics that it did the first time around. TV is generally more shocking these days, we’ve become accustomed to it, and we get to know way in advance via social media if an episode is likely to blow your mind — we’re prepared to be shocked, which takes much of the shock away. The fact that the turn in this episode was so unexpected is what made such an impact, and few shows will be able to keep a cat as big as Jake in the bag again.