Six Feet Under: “In Case Of Rapture”
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Six Feet Under: “In Case Of Rapture”

Don’t mind the mess downstairs—it’s just an ocean of blood

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Six Feet Under

"In Case Of Rapture"

Season 4, Episode 2

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“In Case Of Rapture” (season four, episode two; originally aired 6/20/2004)

We all have urges, and most of share largely the same ones—we tend to distinguish ourselves less by the nature of our base impulses and more by how we deal with them. “In Case Of Rapture” opens with elaborate preparations for an adult-film award show, as garish sex dolls are filled with helium. They’re going to be displayed in the rafters for all the award nominees to enjoy. That’s one way to handle sexual desire: Let it live in the open, flaunt it, own it.

Dorothy Sheedy hews to a different approach. “It’s not just the wives who need to give themselves freely to their husbands within the blessed confines of the marriage bed,” says the Christian talk jock on her car radio. The idea here isn’t to repress desire altogether but rather to manage it within a safe framework—within the “confines” blessed by Christ. Dorothy nods and offers up a “praise the Lord” when the radio host says that husbands need to bring a giving spirit to the bedroom, too. She has urges like anyone else—she doesn’t hide that—but she’s diligent about coloring her life within the lines.

Because Dorothy’s playing a longer game. And when she sees a few loose sex dolls drifting into the sky, she thinks that all her careful piety has paid off the way it was supposed to. Her bumper sticker reads “I BRAKE FOR THE RAPTURE,” so she does. Suddenly, it was all worth it. After all the careful observation of God’s will, she experiences the spiritual release she sought—a rapture more profound than any sexual experience she might have. She screams “Oh, sweet Jesus!” as she runs out into traffic and prepares for her deliverance. She’s delivered onto the hood of a passing car. Dorothy Sheedy, 1954-2003.

The shot of the sex dolls drifting to heaven is one of the most striking images of this episode; it’s complemented by the blood that belches forth from the Fisher’s plumbing. As the chosen ones ascend, hell spills onto earth. One of Six Feet Under’s recurring messages is the notion that our visceral impulses (physical and psychological) can’t be contained forever, and here it’s embodied by actual viscera. The central storylines of this episode ask whether, if our urges can’t be contained, they can at least be managed.

Dorothy Sheedy’s widower, Thomas, believes the answer is yes, you can manage your urges, with the guidance of God. Thomas is a picture of placidity as he makes arrangements for his dead wife’s funeral, and his calm upsets Nate. “It’s horrible not knowing exactly what happened to someone you love,” Nate says, trying to find common cause with his client. But Thomas doesn’t take the bait: “It was just her time,” he says. 

It figures that Nate, stuck in a mire of uncertainty, would be infuriated by the pleasant certainty of Thomas Sheedy. Nate takes it personally because in his eyes, Thomas’ self-assuredness diminishes Nate’s own suffering. Until now, he’s viewed his mourning as part of a necessary process. Maybe that offered him some consolation—the thought that this hurt was necessary. Yet Thomas recasts mourning as a choice, one that he has the strength and vision to decline.

When the plumber comes to fix the Fishers’ gushing-blood problem, he remarks that the previous contractor “cut corners” by using the wrong kind of pipe. Along the same lines, Nate insists that Thomas is cutting corners of his own—that the newly minted widower will have his internal storm burst forth someday if he doesn’t do the hard work of being angry and hurt now. Nate hangs onto this view because if the mourning process works the way he says it does, then at least all his pain will have been productive, a healthy release that allows him to move on.

Thomas’ challenge to Nate’s fragile state of mind is rooted in the way they perceive Dorothy. The widower sees her as a spirit who has risen to a higher plane. Nate sees her as a person, mere flesh and blood, who now no longer exists. In his despair, Nate takes his view to a logical extreme, leading him to see Dorothy as nothing but a bundle of desire. “Guess what: There is no heaven except right here with you,” she says when he sees her in his bedroom one night. She mounts him and cries, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” In Nate’s vision, Dorothy represents the idea that the only pleasures are base earthly ones. Her rapture is right here, riding his rod. But even as he embraces this notion, he’s also repelled by it—as we see when Dorothy flaps her tongue at him from the comfort of her casket. It’s not that Nate loves his worldview; it’s just what he believes to be the truth.

Driven to despair by his inability to goad Thomas into anger—although he does try mightily—Nate quits his job. “I don’t think I believe in any of this anymore,” he says. He’s lost faith “that anything we say or do actually helps anybody.” Really, he’s concerned with helping himself. After all, Dorothy Sheedy’s son, unlike his father, does appear to be experiencing no small measures of anger, doubt, and sadness. Given that his father is operating as some sort of detached Christ zombie at the moment, the kid could really use the empathetic outreach for which Nate, despite his narcissism, does have a talent. But when Nate finds the boy sobbing under the tree in the Fishers’ yard, he keeps on walking. He has the instinct to help but the will to ignore it.

During his outing to the park with Maya, Nate talks with Nathaniel Sr. The elder Fisher says that he was often just going through the motions when he’d comfort people. But “sometimes,” he says, “I’d surprise myself with how heartfelt I’d get in a certain situation.” In his gentle, semi-cynical way, Nathaniel encourages Nate not to be such an absolutist. Sure, there are some people who Nate won’t affect one way or the other. In other cases, though, he could make a difference. Why not look for those?

This conversation isn’t about the emotional ups and down of the funeral trade, though. It is, as ever, about Nate’s guilt. “I’d give anything if Lisa hadn’t died,” he tells his father, “but then again, when she was here, I just wanted to be free.” We’ve been able to see this is true for a while, yet it’s the first time Nate has stated this reality so clearly: He’s upset because he got what he had wished for (albeit in the worst way possible). It’s a step forward for him to say it out loud. Perhaps Nate feels like he can’t help heal others because he’s still not done healing himself.

Like Nate, Brenda also fixates on a refusal to cut corners. Except where Nate is advocating for self-expression, the recovering sex addict Brenda advocates for restraint: She told her neighbor Joe that they’re not going to have sex until they’ve been together for 90 days. This is a woman far removed from the Brenda of two years ago, who told Nate that there was no greater meaning to life and tended toward the belief that we are all a product of our basic impulses. After having lived that philosophy to its full extent in season two, season-four Brenda wants to explore the potential of discipline. She has constructed her own “blessed confines,” which mandate that sex only happens after three months of good behavior.

There’s a nobility and wisdom to Brenda’s “no sex until day 91” rule, but there’s a more selfish edge to it, as well. Her strictures have the side effect of giving her control over the relationship, a power that she enjoys a bit too much. Over the course of the episode, as the self-discipline slips away and the 90-day rule falls by the wayside, the control remains. Brenda tells Joe when to leave, and she tells him when to come back. She also tells him how to come back—walking across the courtyard in the nude, a picture of vulnerable desire. “The ball’s in your court,” Joe says when he arrives at her apartment, as if this needed to be said.

It’s not that Brenda is being malicious. She’s not, really. She watched herself spiral into depravity and misery a couple years ago, and she’s determined now to keep a tighter hold on the reins of her life. Joe, with his assiduous respect for Brenda’s boundaries, has allowed himself to be harnessed by those reins to the point of submission. Walk over here in the nude, she commands Joe. “Come now before I change my mind.” So he does.

On a certain level, this is all playful fun. But there’s also the sense that Joe views this long-withheld sex as something more portentous. Brenda’s 90-day rule has the side effect of making intercourse a sort of tipping point for their relationship, even more than it would normally be. In Joe’s mind, sex will mean the end of this strange probationary period, providing a moment after which he and Brenda will relate to each other on equal footing.

When they do finally jump into bed, however, it’s just sex. It’s good, it’s fine, it’s good, they note in an awkward mid-coital conference. The subtle difference in their reactions says a lot. Brenda’s content. Sex had become her obsession in the past. In that context, plain-vanilla intercourse is a relief. The physical act didn’t change her. She’s not heading down that all-consuming road of addiction again.

But Joe is unsatisfied and vaguely frustrated. Consciously or not, he had hoped that this moment would change things. Yet he can sense that, after all the buildup, sex isn’t the paradigm-shifting pivot he had imagined it to be. Yes, that’s a success for Brenda. For Joe, however, it threatens to turn the frustrating probation period into a status quo. At least while the 90-day rule was in effect, he could look forward to something. Now he finds himself anticipating a breakthrough that might never come.

David’s function in this episode is mostly to be the voice of reason encouraging Nate to stop hectoring Dorothy Sheedy’s husband so much. Once again, he has to be the responsible one as his brother flies the coop. And on top of that, Rico pulls out the “my kid’s sick!” excuse for the umpteenth time so that he can go eat dinner with his stripper buddy, leaving David the only one at the helm of Fisher & Diaz. (David has heard this cover story so often before—Augusto seems to exist primarily as a way to get Rico out of work—that you have to wonder whether David knows Rico is lying. I think he has some inkling but doesn’t have the energy or desire to pursue it.)

In the midst of all this, David encounters the world’s most attractive gay plumber, who talks at length about the art of keeping your pipes healthy and clear. Before long, the guy is applying his craftsmanship to David’s own pipe. David apparently decides there’s merit to Nate’s theory that everyone needs to release their anxieties in one way or another.

Here’s another instance where a sexual act could mean a big change: What does this mean for David and Keith? It doesn’t take long to find out, as David gives Keith the news as they wolf down Chinese takeout. There’s a well-wrought rhythm to this conversation. David broaches the news so casually and suddenly that Keith’s first reaction is a bemused disbelief. A few moments later, David makes a plumbing joke, but Keith isn’t having it. To borrow Joe’s phrase, the ball is in Keith’s court here, and he’s not about to let David, the transgressor, set the agenda.

Yet Keith decides in the end that the blowjob isn’t a big deal. He seems to understand the pressures David is under, and they know each other intimately enough to tell a true violation from an indiscretion. So at last, Keith says, “You better not think you’re getting out of having sex with me tonight.” And David makes another plumbing joke: “Okay, but I might need you to talk about water rams and hand snakes.” This time, Keith laughs, and the negotiation is complete. Somehow, the relationship between these two men has rarely looked so harmonious as it does when they’re talking about a blowjob David got from a stranger. In terms of managing their impulses, David and Keith provide an alternative to the Sheedys’ holy self-discipline and Nate’s emotional bloodletting: simply acknowledge that we fall prey to our urges occasionally and move forward.

Nobody is more excited about the burst pipe of blood and guts than Claire. She has been stalled, pent-up, still enamored with the idea of expressing herself but unsure how to do it. The pipe’s dramatic self-unclogging prompts something similar in Claire.

Disillusioned by her mentor, she’s coasting through art school with no sense of purpose. After Ruth encourages her to make some art with George’s boring rocks—maybe she’ll be inspired!—Claire grumbles, “Do I look like someone who needs to be inspired?” Nate replies, “Actually, you do.”

She finds her muse in Edie, a fellow art-school student who puts on a freeform prose poetry performance at a local coffee place. Disillusioned by a mentor, Olivier, who had always pushed her to seek deeper authenticity and meaning in her life—to pursue some idealized version of The Artist—Claire is invigorated by a fellow creator who doesn’t have it all figured out but keeps making art anyway. After her open-mic performance, Edie shrugs and says that she’s not even sure what her piece means yet. She also notes that she hasn’t been keeping track of her school credits, and hey, she could die tomorrow, so she might as well express herself today. “I mean, you of all people should know that, right?” Edie says to the daughter of a funeral director.

Liberated from the burden of idealistic perfection, Claire gets out her camera again. Her lens is drawn to the blood that gurgles into the basement and the pile of crap that George gets in the mail. It runs in the Fisher family: They deal with what’s inside people, literally and figuratively.

That’s one reason that George finds it so hard to gain a toehold with Ruth’s family. He complains to Ruth about his inability to connect with the Fisher kids, but his engagement with them rarely extends beyond the bounds of half-relevant factoids. The Fishers respond to viscera, and George comes off as bloodless. “Did you know that the average American changes careers seven times in his lifetime?” he says to David after learning that Nate has quit. David asks whether “that information is supposed to be useful in some way,” and George replies, “It’s just a fact.” Which is exactly the problem. It’s just a fact.

David and his siblings find George’s little facts off-putting because they know there’s a human being under there, and they don’t like that he hides it from them. George’s humanity does poke out in this episode, though, in the context of another “fact.” It happens at the Persian table that George has inserted in the Fishers’ kitchen. (“I’m not sure if it works in this kitchen, but it’s very beautiful,” Arthur opines, a thinly veiled assessment of George that the Fisher kids appear to share. Heck, even Ruth seems to be sympathetic to Arthur’s sentiment—in regard to the table itself and, more subtly, in regard to George.) With tensions running high between Ruth’s one-time almost-paramour and her new husband, Arthur gets wistful for the old Formica table. He waxes didactic, explaining the origin of the word “Formica.” Then George pompously dismisses Arthur’s factoid as a mere wive’s tale. “They’re both such interesting explanations, though, aren’t they?” She’s trying to declare it a tie, but George has clearly won this exchange.

Later, Arthur looks up Formica and finds that George was wrong, and Arthur was right. This tells us a little about Arthur’s bitterness and a lot about George’s insecurity. Here’s a guy who likes to present himself as an arbiter of grounded, factual truth. Yet when he’s confronted by a pretender to that throne, George stops caring about the facts and acts on emtion. At best, George is expressing too much confidence in a topic he doesn’t know about. At worst, he’s knowingly lying. Either way, it may be the most human thing we’ve seen George do yet. We’ve caught him trying to conceal jealously and weakness. So it turns out there are roiling tides of flawed humanity under that reserved exterior. Will George be able to brake himself like the Sheedys, carefully managing his urges until he takes his last breath, or will he break, with his viscera inevitably spilling forth? It’s the question that’s liable to define this new marriage in the episodes to come.

Stray observations:

  • As usual, please try to restrain discussion of upcoming episodes to the first comment thread, so those who haven’t seen the whole series can collapse that first comment thread to remain unaware of events to come.
  • We quickly have become far removed from Rico’s “just one quick confession and everything will be fine” approach to the Sophia situation. One parking-lot blowjob has turned into a whole other quasi-family life as Rico’s efforts to wash away his guilt with charity have only drawn him deeper into Sophia/Infinity’s orbit. The ease with which David and Keith move past a similar indiscretion is an almost cruel counterpoint to Rico’s all-consuming self-flagellation.
  • Speaking of Rico, he really pulls out the knives when a calm, unsuspecting Vanessa tries to pull him out of his shell on Shakey’s Pizza night. “Hey, you didn’t have much to talk to me about for six fucking months. Can I be distracted for one fucking night?” It’s always a smooth move to use your spouse’s depression against her.
  • Dorothy’s death is one of the more elaborate and amusing openers of the series. The writers almost make the notion of helium-filled sex dolls seem plausible.
  • Speaking of comic relief, Keith’s awkwardness with his hetero bro-dude compatriots in the celebrity protection business is fun. “I’d definitely tap that. Ass.”
  • “Mick Jagger’s an M.J.” “We’ve handled all three M.J.s, then.” The perils of using initials to refer to your A-list clients.
  • It’s awfully satisfying for Arthur to find that George was wrong about Formica. I guess my sympathies still lie with him. Rainn Wilson’s performance in the role is so funny and enjoyable. It’s a shame that George’s arrival sidelined the character, but Arthur’s arc had run its course.
  • Ruth uses the word “interesting” to describe George’s perspective. She uses it the same way you might employ the word to describe a newspaper article or an art exhibit that you probably won’t go to see.
  • “What if there is no God? No heaven? What if she’s just gone forever, like she didn’t even exist? And now you have a child who will never know his mother. That doesn’t make you angry?” That’s some bang-up comforting, Nate. Real top-notch assuaging of the old grief there. (Also, the “child” in question looks to be around 12 years old, so he had a chance to know his mother—another indication that Nate’s just talking about himself, if that weren’t already obvious.)
Filed Under: TV, Six Feet Under

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