In a very womanly episode of ''Six Feet Under,'' Claire learns the horror of the full-time job, while Vanessa and Ruth decide whether they need their husbands
Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under
Credit: Six Feet Under: John P. Johnson
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”Six Feet Under”: Facing life without a man

Watching tonight’s female-focused episode of Six Feet Under gave me the same sort of good vibes I get when I put on my favorite old T-shirt. Sarah and Bettina returned — bringing a jolt of much-needed madcap energy. Claire, Ruth, and Vanessa revealed buried personality traits in surprising, and completely appropriate, ways. And perhaps most important, the show returned to its rightful Sunday time slot. (Let’s pretend that whole awful Monday experiment never happened, shall we?)

Sure, I know deep down that it’s a setup, that the show’s writers are lulling me into a false sense of security so it’ll sting that much worse when the Band-Aid gets ripped off and some heinous fate befalls one (or more) of the main characters in the weeks to come. This is a show about death and dysfunction, after all. But for now, I’m going to give thanks for a week off from the emotionally harrowing Six Feet Under, and revel in the hour of jauntiness that the show’s writers served up instead.

And really, who brings more jauntiness to the show — and to dour Ruth — than Sarah and Bettina? The women’s raucous prefuneral party provided more laughs in three minutes than most network sitcoms manage in an entire episode, particularly Bettina’s feminist fantasy of an all-women commune where men get used only for sex and child care. Come to think of it, given HBO’s struggle to find a replacement for Sex and the City, maybe the network should consider approaching Frances Conroy, Patricia Clarkson, and Kathy Bates (Ruth, Sarah, and Bettina respectively) about a spin-off series. Think Golden Girls with drug use, mild profanity, and the occasional random death. It could work, people!

Ruth’s drunken night also scored from a dramatic standpoint, as it allowed her to reconnect with Claire. Sure, I’ve enjoyed their tense, season-long mother-daughter standoff, but they couldn’t go on like that forever without betraying Ruth’s true nature as a neurotic nurturer, nor Claire’s longstanding need for her mother’s attention and approval. How could you not get choked up when the messed-up Fisher women avoided saying ”I love you” with a painfully tender pair of ”I don’t hate you”s?

While it was Ruth who said the words first, though, I’m glad she waited for Claire to actually make the first move in clearing the toxic air between them. Indeed, by pulling on her uncomfortable pantyhose and wading into the tedium of office temp work, Claire acted like an adult for the first time since Nicole Richie bought a piece of her art. To that, I say, ”Huzzah!” The youngest member of the Fisher clan may be an unrepentant art snob, but witnessing her barely suppressed horror at the dreariness of office life — signified by ”the e-card with the dancing puppies” — was a thing of comic beauty. (Sidebar: Was that actually Lauren Ambrose singing the ”You Light Up My Life” parody? Because she’s actually got some pipes!) I wonder, though, if Claire’s aunt is correct: Will she have the energy, and the inspiration, to create at the end of a 40-hour work week?

In keeping with the ”ladies’ night” theme of the episode, the Diaz household also put its men on the back burner. As much as I love me some Kathy Bates, Justina Machado wins the award for funniest line reading with Vanessa’s verbal assault on the wacky Canadian nanny: ”You’re fired, Donna. I’m calling the agency, and I’m telling them you’re out of your f—ing mind. I needed someone to help me — not shoot videos of themselves dancing and invite the homeless in for pancake breakfasts.”

Still, what to make of Vanessa’s invitation to Rico to move back in? On the one hand, the high-school sweethearts seem so darn good together — well, when Rico’s not canoodling with strippers or trying to manipulate Vanessa with outrageous lies about the death of his girlfriend. But on the other, considering Vanessa’s emotional growth and independence this season (and her rage at Rico’s betrayal of her trust just last episode), is it really believable that she’d welcome her errant husband back just because she can’t lift the watercooler bottle on her own? How about buying a few six-packs of Evian and letting Rico move into that shiny two-bedroom instead?

Now that Vanessa is no longer single, maybe she can pass on her black book to Ruth, who broke George’s heart in the most sweetly passive-aggressive way imaginable. Yes, Ruth scores points for getting George all settled in to his nifty new pad, but wouldn’t an outright rejection have been more dignified than leaving her poor, electroshocked spouse to slowly realize he was unpacking for one? In only a seconds-long scene, James Cromwell captured George’s silent heartbreak, alone on the couch in that wonderful apartment just blocks away from museums and the farmer’s market. If Conroy and Cromwell don’t get Emmy nominations for their work this season, then I might have to boycott watching the awards ceremony altogether.

While I debate whether or not I’d be able to follow through on that threat (probably not), I’ll leave discussion of David and Keith — and their adorably bratty new foster kids — to you, dear readers, since you’ve all been so spot-on in the message boards this season. (Just don’t be so insightful that my editors think about replacing me, okay?)

Do you think David and Keith are headed for heartbreak, or are they just getting a taste of what parenthood is all about? And speaking of parents facing challenges, was Nate looking for trouble by telling Maggie, ”Brenda’s over there — it’s just me and Maya here”? Oh, and what do you make of Brenda and Nate’s new roomie, Billy?

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