On ''Six Feet Under,'' Ruth overreacts to Claire's slacking, David and Keith have surrogate problems, and Brenda insists that Maya learn about Lisa
Frances Conroy, James Cromwell, ...
Credit: Six Feet Under: John P. Johnson

”Six Feet Under”: Ruth reaches her limit

Whether you’re loving, hating, or experiencing decidedly mixed feelings about the fifth and final season of Six Feet Under, there’s no denying it’s been a dark and trying time to be a member of the Fisher clan — not to mention a member of the show’s loyal audience. Last week’s bleak episode, featuring a not-quite-believable Brenda-Nate marital meltdown, left me clenching my teeth and wondering if anyone on this show (Keith and David excluded) was ever going to exhibit some emotional growth or if, instead, the characters were doomed to repeat their well-worn messed-up behaviors right down to the series finale.

Not that there’s anything wrong with seeing a character in a rut, mind you. Think about your own circle of family and friends: Surely, there are folks who pretty much stay the same, for better or for worse, no matter what goes on around them. That’s why as much as I find it frustrating to see the once-charming Claire slip down a pot-induced spiral of self-involvement, I also accept it as realistic. Her pre-noon conversation with Nate — watching The People’s Court, smoking a joint, and expressing outrage that she’s expected to get a job — was as classic as it was depressing. It seems to me that Claire’s aimlessness is more a cry for help than anything else; having Nate tell her that he could see her plight as heartbreaking only if he envisioned it happening to little Maya probably wasn’t the pep talk she needed.

Ruth’s increasingly escalating rage toward Claire isn’t likely to help the situation, either. Certainly, it must be maddening to see Claire flushing away her future, but I think Ruth is more bothered by the fact that she sees her own selfishness reflected in her daughter. Back in the series’ first episode, we learned that Ruth had been unfaithful to Nathaniel, and since then she’s flitted from Hiram to Nikolai to Arthur to George with a carelessness that rarely takes into account anyone’s needs but her own. Her woe-is-me rants to her knitting circle make no mention of George’s valiant struggle to get well, nor of the way her icy behavior has spurred his desperation. Watching Ruth go apartment hunting with George, I couldn’t shake the feeling that only one half of the couple will have his bags packed come moving day. Sure, it would be a healthy move for the Fisher matriarch to break free of the funeral home, from memories of her late husband, from daily contact with her selfish kids (except David, who never seems to be at work anymore), but radical change has never been Ruth’s forte.

Mercifully, though, while Ruth and Claire are floundering, the show’s writers are allowing the Fisher men (and their partners) a little happiness. All season long, I’ve been ambivalent about Brenda and Nate’s story arc: These two aren’t destined for happiness in the traditional TV drama sense — they’re both way too messed up for a pat conclusion — but surely, after all they’ve been through together, you’d think they’d at least behave with some kind of baseline sensitivity to each other’s insecurities and troubled histories. That’s why in last week’s episode, seeing Nate clobber a bird to death in front of Brenda only weeks after she’d suffered a miscarriage, as well as seeing Brenda practically threaten divorce after finally achieving a degree of stability, seemed so bizarrely out of character.

This week, finally, the Six Feet writing staff finally struck a balance that respected Nate and Brenda’s love and their individual lunacy. Brenda started the episode in a stunning display of passive aggression, setting down her copy of The Coherent Parent to casually ask Maya over breakfast if she remembered her deceased mother, without involving Nate in the decision to enter such sensitive territory. The weirdness continued with her greeting their dinner guests, George and Maggie, by saying that if they felt any weird energy in the air, it was because she and Nate were mid-fight. What a hostess! Seriously, though, these Brenda moments capture the beauty of Six Feet‘s most polarizing character: She wants desperately to make her marriage work, but that doesn’t mean her heaping pile of baggage doesn’t drag her down at every turn.

One plot line I hope the writers stop exploring is the creepy attraction between Nate and Maggie. First of all, we already have Claire dating her brother’s brother-in-law. Do we really need Nate making a play for his mother’s stepdaughter? Last time I checked, this wasn’t The Young and the Restless. Second, last week’s suggestion by Nathaniel Sr. that his son doesn’t really love Brenda seemed to fly in the face of Nate’s emotional rebirth since Lisa’s death. He’s a man who has repeatedly acknowledged his appreciation for simply being alive; why in the world would he betray that feeling by marrying and having a child with Brenda if he doesn’t truly love her? Watching this week’s episode end with stormy couple showing Maya a scrapbook of her late mother was a touching way to right the ship after last week’s dramatic misstep.

And speaking of touching, how adorable is little Anthony? ”That’s why I hate sandboxes so much — there’s always sand in them,” Anthony told David, and you knew the world’s most neurotic prospective dad was hooked. By the time Keith admitted that Anthony ”was kind of cute…in a f—ed-up, serious-problems kind of way,” you knew the couple’s loopy surrogate mother would fall through. I just wonder what Anthony’s 11-year-old brother is going to be like. Anyone with a sneaking suspicion he’s going to be somewhat less heartwarming than Anthony — and present David and Keith with another obstacle on the road to nuclear-family happiness — raise your hand.

The runner-up for touching parent-child moment had to be Margaret’s misguided appeal to Claire to reunite with her seemingly doomed son, Billy. I’m actually glad Claire decided to err on the side of self-preservation and flee the scene when faced by the deranged mother-son tag team — it’s not her job, after all, to stay in a twisted relationship just to keep Billy stable — but how could you not feel for sad, boundary-free Margaret as she grasped wildly to try to prevent another suicide attempt from her son? Since she’s supposedly a renowned therapist, Margaret’s terminal inability to sustain normal interpersonal relationships never ceases to amaze me, but even more surprising is the fact that her once-cartoonish character has morphed into an occasionally touching presence.

What did you think of this action-packed episode? Did Claire do the right thing when she sneaked out of the restaurant? Were you as amused as me seeing Claire and George watching TV in her room? And did you buy Rico’s completely clueless betrayal of Vanessa with his loose-lipped performance at school?

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