Exploring Queer Relationship Dynamics: Six Feet Under

One of my favourite parts of Six Feet Under is the depiction of David and Keith’s relationship. It’s complicated, there’s a lot going on, and the show pushed it in some very interesting directions. It was clearly informed by Alan Ball’s own experience, but it goes deeper than that. The show really wanted to create a layered, textured relationship that poked at some of the ideas people have about gay relationships and how they work, who is involved in them. David and Keith grew a lot over the course of the series and that really mattered in the context of their relationship because it had to grow with them, and didn’t always grow well.

Of particular interest for me as a viewer was the domestic violence in the relationship. Television depicts very few queer relationships to begin with, and it very rarely depicts domestic violence, especially when it is explicitly coded as such. Ball went out on a limb to include it in Six Feet Under and it worked very well, and forced viewers to confront some things. It was not, inevitably, entirely perfect; the show was not always careful in its depictions of Black masculinity and in the kind of messages it sent through Keith, and this is something that would bear closer inspection and discussion.

The undercurrent of violence in that relationship creates a constant sense of tension for viewers. It’s been a long time since I watched the show for the first time, but I felt like for me as a viewer the violence built and layered on itself. Keith wasn’t introduced from the get go as an aggressive cop who has trouble leaving the job at the front door. He was a multifaceted character and the show started very gradually easing in that storyline. It started with tone of voice, sudden movements. As a viewer, often the warning signs came in the form of how David reacted, cringing and starting when Keith got aggressive, and as the violence escalated and Keith became more physical, sometimes in direct response to David’s nervousness, it became this constant source of dread.

Domestic violence is a known issue for police officers, for a variety of reasons. An estimated 40% of police families experience domestic violence as part of their lives. It can escalate quickly and become very ugly. It is also very difficult to call the police for help when your abusive partner is a police officer. At best, they might actually respond and take the situation seriously. At worst, they might mock you or punish you. Police occupy a position of power even when they are not on duty, and some choose to abuse that power, to commit acts of violence against their families.

Keith struggles with a lot of things. His own family life and history is less than ideal, and he’s a gay Black man in a police department not exactly known for tolerance and respect. Balancing these issues, which clearly tear at his psyche and push him into places he is often uncomfortable, creates stress and unhappiness for him. We see that in the parking lot scene, which I remember vividly, where Keith gets extremely angry at a man who takes a long time to load his groceries, and physically intimidates him in addition to flashing his badge to exert power. Keith, in many ways, is emasculated by the people around him and one of the ways he attempts to reassert control is through physical aggression. David often becomes a target.

The balancing act between Keith being out and David preferring the closet often fed the flames in this case; I often got the sense that Keith, although loving David, was also impatient and angry and frustrated with his partner. As a man taking considerable risks, he wanted his partner to take those risks with him, to signify that he valued the relationship by being open about it, talking to friends and family. Keith’s frustration sometimes boiled over to dangerous effect, but the show was careful to cast neither character in the position of saint or sinner, which can sometimes be difficult to do with domestic violence. Not that Six Feet Under suggested that David deserved the abuse, but that it handled the complex nuances behind that abuse with care, instead of painting Keith as a simplistic angry man.

Violence in queer relationships is an issue that doesn’t get a lot of attention. It’s often hard to seek assistance in such situations, and can in some cases be actively dangerous. Not all communities welcome their queer members, not all responding officers and social workers necessarily see a problem with a relationship dynamic where one partner is abusive to the other, especially when those people are queer. Much of the work on domestic violence in queer relationships has come from our own community, working on our own issues and trying to draw attention to them. Six Feet Under was a particularly prominent example of awareness-raising that wasn’t just about showing straight viewers what queer life was like, but reminding queer viewers that no, domestic violence is not ok, and no, you do not have to tolerate it.

One of the reasons Six Feet Under succeeded so well as a show was because it included numerous coded social and political messages, but didn’t make a big production out of them. It didn’t flaunt them or shove them in the faces of viewers, instead allowing them to unfold naturally and appropriately within the context of the show. Keith and David’s relationship was one such example; a detailed, multifaceted depiction of two gay men navigating complex and hard things, like coming out, dealing with the aftermath of trauma, negotiating how they want to live their lives together.