On ''Six Feet Under,'' Ruth, George, Billy, Claire, and Brenda all seem about ready to lose control; meanwhile, Rico has a brief encounter with a former Fisher and Sons employee
Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under
Credit: Six Feet Under: John P. Johnson

”Six Feet Under”: Living on the edge

You know that old saying about the calm before the storm? Well, based on tonight’s episode, it looks like there’s a category 5 hurricane brewing in the Los Angeles area and heading straight for the Fisher and Diaz Funeral Home. Unfortunately, not all of my favorite characters look to be boarding up their windows and protecting themselves from the impending danger.

Claire, for one, ought to be ducking for cover, but she’s so busy sucking down wine, gazing at her navel, and indulging herself in an all-play, no-work fantasy that she’s failed to notice that her live-in boyfriend is off his meds. Big time. Quick, somebody smack some sense into the art-school dropout — anybody but her mother, that is.

Indeed, tonight’s Claire-Ruth confrontation has to rank as the season’s most riveting moment to date. While Claire’s self-involvement is certainly reaching infuriating levels — ”How am I supposed to move to Europe and f—ing ripen?” she whines after finding out her trust fund will only cover her expenses if she’s attending college — I was still stunned when Ruth, for the second time in a matter of weeks, raised her hand to slap her daughter’s face. Claire’s screamed response to the threat of violence — ”I will hit you back this time!” — not only stopped Ruth midswing but left me gasping on my couch.

With both Ruth and Claire internalizing their feelings for most of the season’s first three episodes, it was a real treat to see Frances Conroy and Lauren Ambrose (the actresses who play them), unleash their extreme emotions in such a quickly escalating scene — Ruth frantically scrubbing the kitchen table, Claire’s eyes burning with fury at the lack of full attention. Sure, Claire has become something of a monster over the past year, but she also had a point when she complained to Billy that her family largely ignores her. Lest we forget, she’s the messed-up youngest kid in a family of neurotics; perhaps a trip abroad, and out of their morose grip, is just what Claire needs to grow.

If only she’d leave Billy at home! His character drains the drama from every scene, mostly because everyone else’s reactions to him are so phenomenally unbelievable. Since Claire knows that Billy’s past includes a psychotic break (complete with terrifying knife play), you’d think she’d show at least the slightest hint of alarm that he’s suddenly dancing around their apartment in leather pants, making manic late-night phone calls to Europe, and shopping like Jessica Simpson on a college professor’s salary. Having the Six Feet Under writers telegraph his breakdown with such relentless obviousness is an insult to all loyal fans who’ve cherished the show’s subtle and surprising approach to TV drama.

On a parallel track, Billy’s sister, Brenda, is battling her own issues, and it’s Claire’s brother Nate who’s oblivious to it all. Let’s review Brenda’s case file: has history of mental instability, often brought on by relationship happiness; married Nate one day after miscarriage; just began stressful new job; hampered by complete lack of familial support; not flummoxed by consuming graying lettuce. So how come Nate couldn’t take the not-so-subtle hint when his wife practically begged him to get home in time for a weeknight dinner with her and his toddler daughter (a nearly mute child whose mother was murdered in the not-so-distant past)? Note to writing staff: Having a protagonist with serious character flaws is one thing; letting him cross the line to insensitive dolt is a different story. Learn the difference.

That said, I’m enjoying Brenda’s battle against her relentless insecurities. The standard Hollywood script would have us believe that finding a man is the answer to any woman’s problems; the fact that Brenda has secured a lifetime commitment from Nate, yet can still be thrown off by a strangely unsettling dinner at her boss’ house or the violent reaction of one of her patients, makes her a character who’s all too human, and all the more worth rooting for. Even if the writers give her a happy ending by the end of the series, you know it won’t be Sex and the City-style, throwing out the window everything her character and her struggles have stood for throughout five seasons.

While David and Keith provided their usual comedic respite from all the episode’s woes, Rico’s story line had me laughing loudest. Letting Illeana Douglas’ sexy-weird returning character, Angela, spar with any member of the cast would’ve put a smile on my face, but hearing her shout a long, obscene term of endearment at Rico during their sex scene was an out-of-left-field howler. Will we be lucky enough to get another dose of Angela before the season ends? Let’s hope.

One thing I’d hoped we were finished with was George’s electroshock treatments, so I’m not entirely sure how to feel about his asking his daughter Maggie to help him get one last jolt — and keep it a secret from Ruth. But since EW.com readers did such a first-rate job filling in the blanks on David’s Claire-puppet dream last week, I’ll leave it to you folks to tackle George’s subplot.

What do you think? Will Maggie will honor George’s request and not tell Ruth? Will one more treatment return George’s mental faculties? And what will it take to bring back Ruth’s easy laughter?

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