I’ve been enjoying a slow, lingering rewatch of Six Feet Under over the last few months. This is a show that I really could watch again and again and get more out of every time. The reason I can get so much out of this show is because it’s subtle. Ball doesn’t feel the need to clonk me over the head constantly. The best moments are unvoiced, unspoken, presented without commentary. Ball’s not flashy. He doesn’t need to ask me if I can see the point he’s making.
There’s a particularly delicious moment in the show at the very end of the season two episode ‘Someone Else’s Eyes.’ The whole episode plays with the theme of seeing people through different eyes and learning more about them and yourself in the process, and of how seeing yourself through another person’s point of view sometimes provides you with insight. In this episode, Billy asks Claire to help him with a photography project; he strips, hands her a camera, and says ‘take pictures.’ The introduction of the camera and the lens adds a whole different layer to the story if you want to talk about the camera as eye, the use of the camera to create distance and isolation, of the way cameras ‘see’ under the control of their users.
There are a lot of ways to read that scene; we could talk about the kind of exploitative relationship of older man and young woman without very much life experience, for example, especially for those of us who have watched the whole series and know how the dynamic between Claire and Billy unfolds. There’s also something to explore there with bodies on display, in a scene where someone with a scarred and injured body showing clear signs of self injury is standing unflinching for examination. People with bodies like Billy’s are usually told to hide them away where no one can see because they are unpleasant to look at and this is an episode where he says ‘look at me.’
Claire is hesitant at first, and then she gets into it. She gets more comfortable being behind the lens and playing with visual imagery. But that moment isn’t the great moment. The great moment is at the very end, after all the tensions of the episode have built to a head, when she receives an email from Billy with proofs of the photographs with a note saying she might be interested in looking at them.
I love how Lauren Ambrose handles this scene. It’s totally silent and the focus is tight on her face glowing in the glare of the screen and she is an acting ace and it is beautiful. First she feels kind of shy and embarrassed. Claire laughs to herself and chews her nail anxiously. Then her eyes start to light up. She leans forward in spite of herself to look more closely. She drops the carefully cultivated facade, opens up, and goes aha.
Claire’s development of an artist really takes off in this season, sparked by her aunt pointing out that yes, she is an artist, and she has work with a lot of potential even if it’s not there yet. This is a key, pivotal moment in her characterisation and I loved that it was played so subtly, so quietly, you might blink and miss if it you aren’t attentive, because this is a show that shows instead of telling. Ball has really perfected the use of television as a medium and he knew that people who have had aha moments would look at that scene and go ‘yup, been there,’ because it’s so crystal clear.
It’s a tiny little moment that sets Claire off on this huge adventure as she realises that she is good at something and that she has found something she loves and can relate to. Photography is one of my favourite art forms and it is a fantastic medium of expression and I like that Ball took us through the entire aha moment, from awkward scene with Billy through to looking at the pictures in private and starting to feel this germ of an idea that, hey, photography is pretty awesome and she’s not half bad at it considering she hasn’t really worked with a camera before.
Scenes like this are what makes me love this show, and Ball as a creator. It, as they say, resonated with me as a viewer because it felt so strong and honest and real and it was the result of really good direction and acting and storytelling, to take us to the point where that moment would be believable and to play it right. Claire finally sees herself through someone else’s eyes and she makes a realisation and it sets her up for the entire rest of the series.