The car is old, but it’s in immaculate condition. The same goes for the driver. His hair and mustache are neatly trimmed, his cuffs are crisp, and the knot on his necktie is tight and centered. This is a person who knows how to keep things in their proper place—who knows no other way, in fact. He lays an envelope on the dashboard with care, as if it’s a table setting at a formal dinner for one. Then, after he puts on his hat and closes his eyes, it becomes clear that he’s driven here to die. A funeral home is a sensible place to end your own life—almost ludicrously sensible. In his final moments, the man’s shoulders droop, and he lets out a quiet grunt of exhaustion. His eyes water. All his careful living has brought him to this moment, and you get the sense that the final payoff was exactly what he expected, but less than he had hoped for. James Dubois Marshall, 1923-2004.
James Marshall knew where to settle in for his final slumber, which sets the tone for an episode in which all of the characters have trouble finding the right place to bed down—or at least the right bedtime companion. We’re never more vulnerable than when we’re sleeping, and the Fishers et al. have a heightened awareness of that vulnerability in “Coming And Going.”
After much resistance, Claire has invited Edie to share her bed in the carriage house. As she’s become more eager to discover her own sexuality this season, she’s faced the cumbersome reality that you need a companion to advance on that journey. Until recently, Claire held Edie at a distance—a small but significant remove—in the hope that she could figure out the true nature of her attraction to Edie before acting on it. At the end of “The Dare,” she admitted that her experimental phase would require some actual experimentation. Now she has the awkward results. She likes having Edie in her bed but not in her pants.
That discovery only invites further questions, though. Claire’s desperately seeking an orgasm, that exhilarating—and validating—burst of pleasure that will deliver her to the sexual promised land. (This is one thing Claire has in common with Nate: She’s always drawn to experiences that transcend the earthbound concerns of day-to-day life.) Unable to find that satisfaction, she spends “Coming And Going” trying to identify the source of the block. She wants it to be anything but Edie. She tries to put on the right music, light the right candles, and arrange the flowers just so. It’s the James Marshall approach to planning: meticulous, well-intentioned, and ultimately unexciting. She squirms and grimaces as Edie tries to excite her. You can see Claire trying to address her state of mind, which is flexible, even as she realizes that the real obstacle is her nature, which is not.
“It’d be so much easier to be gay,” Claire tells David later, a rare moment of lapsed self-awareness. He rightly scoffs at this, but you can also tell where Claire is coming from. She explains herself by saying that gay people have their own subculture, an indication that she’s drawn to the more clearly defined bounds of being gay. In her view, homosexuality is a ready-made identity, while heterosexuality isn’t an identity at all—it’s just the default. But those are cultural constructs, and David gently tells Claire what she already knows: It’s more complicated in practice. But “I wouldn’t have to deal with unfamiliar sex organs,” Claire protests. David observes, “They’re all unfamiliar unless they’re yours.” In other words, hopping in the sack with someone will always be a daunting and fraught experience, no matter what equipment the other person brings along.
If anybody would know, it’s David. When he and his erstwhile paintball teammate Sarge hook up, David fucks with a vicious intensity that surprises even Sarge, who’s practically pure testosterone. Pleasure doesn’t really enter into this experience for David. Lonely and haunted by visions of an experience where he was rendered pathetically helpless, David naturally seeks correctives—namely, companionship and a sense of power. The sex with Sarge provides fleeting facsimiles of both, but they can’t last. Sarge would rather rest up for a paintball match than spend the night with David, and when David tries to make him stay, Sarge makes clear that he was the one with the real power all along.
David’s embarrassed by his outburst, and he later laments to Claire, “I have to get control of myself.” She responds, half-astonished, “If you were any more controlled, you’d be a sculpture.” She’s right. David is making a more concerted effort than ever to exert control over himself, which is saying something for a virtuoso of self-repression like David Fisher. It’s evident from his first appearance in the episode, when he walks into the kitchen looking as if he’s ready to burst out of his own skin. He complains of a stomachache—he’s being eaten away from the inside as his pain corrodes him from within. And whenever that pain surfaces, he forces it back down with renewed vigor. Claire’s remark identifies the heart of David’s struggle right now. He’s controlling himself, yes, but without achieving the sensation of control, which is what he really seeks. He wants to escape the dehumanizing terror encapsulated by that terrible moment when Jake’s gun pushed into his mouth.
Having run out of ideas, David finally admits that he can’t return to normalcy by himself. So he calls Keith, and it’s no coincidence that David’s once again in bed when he places the call. David needs to be able to lie down to sleep at night—to be in a state of utter vulnerability—without feeling like he’s descending again into that bottomless abyss of fear.
So he convinces Keith to come home. Keith, meanwhile, has been dealing with his own bedroom issues. By the time Celeste’s tour has wended its way to Tampa, Keith has come to think of himself as more than a member of the pop star’s security detail. He’s settled into a role as Celeste’s caretaker, an emotional rock for an emotional wreck. Keith seems to have a taste for the neurotic ones: He’s unswayed by Javier’s bro-tastic advances but drawn to Celeste’s adolescent insecurity. (It has the appearance of adolescence, at least—she tells him that she’s only “18 years old” for the sake of publicity.)
Celeste’s shaky emotional state, contrasted against Keith’s steady demeanor, may lead him to believe subconsciously that he occupies the position of power in their relationship—this despite clear hints to the contrary. When she mounts him in her hotel room, after all, she whispers, “I don’t get fucked in the ass.” Keith replies, “That makes one of us.” It’s truer than he knows, as he finds out the next morning when his supervisor says that he’s been fired. Celeste later explains that Keith would be too much of a distraction for her now that they’ve slept together, and she can’t afford to be emotionally exposed like that. So he’s discarded. When she walks away, Keith shouts that he was planning to quit anyway—echoing of David, he futilely tries to regain that sense of control.
It’s hard to find a safe, comfortable place to sleep, and Rico now regrets taking his own bed for granted. Vanessa has kicked him out after learning the truth about his “charity work” with Sophia, and now Sophia kicks him to the curb, too. She didn’t want an actual domestic life with Rico; she just liked to pretend. Once there are real, personal stakes involved, she’s not interested.
Luckily, Sophia was involved with Rico long enough to piss off Vanessa, which leads to one of the few delightful scenes from this rather dull storyline. When Vanessa pulls up to the car, she maintains a veneer of calm—she refuses to rub Vaseline on her face to prevent scarring the way her battle-hardened sister, Angelica, does. Vanessa insists that she just wants to talk to Sophia, so they do talk, and Sophia says the word “gordita,” and a slap-down, drag-out fight ensues. There’s an authentic clumsiness to the brawl, and the epic Vanessa-Sophia bout looks like it might have inspired those frequent Michael-GOB donnybrooks on Arrested Development. Vanessa’s half-domestic, half-frenzied state of mind is summed up by the perfect scene-ending beat: After smashing the bejesus out of Sophia’s car, Vanessa takes a breath and declares, “I gotta go pick up the boys from school.”
Meanwhile, Rico ends up bedding down in the embalming room, where he’s discovered by Ruth. She holds him close when he says that he’s been having marriage trouble, and then she gives him a smack when he says that he cheated on Vanessa. Rico, ever a keen observer of other people’s flaws, points out that Ruth has had affairs. So in the space of a minute, Rico goes, in Ruth’s eyes, from a wounded child to a villain to a peer. She gives him a pat on the shoulder and stands by his side, disappointed in his mistakes but sympathetic to his misery.
Ruth’s disappointment may be heightened by her impression that Rico and Vanessa’s marriage has largely been a strong, loving union while her own marriage has recently felt like anything but. Over the course of the episode, we see George decline again and again to spend time with Ruth, with George patiently explaining that he has quite a busy schedule today indeed. (Remarkably, this dense episode covers the events of just one day.) George’s packed itinerary includes a philosophical debate with Claire’s friend Anita—whose nubility Ruth does not fail to notice—a long stretch of rumination at his desk, and the accidental murder of a tree planted by Nathaniel Sr. for Claire’s 10th birthday.
The argument over the tree dramatizes one of Ruth’s fundamental difficulties with George: He hates to acknowledge reality when it conflicts with his imagined version of reality. When Ruth tells him that the tree is not in fact a crepe myrtle as he thought, he hardly blinks before discarding this revelation as irrelevant. “Whatever it is, it looked diseased!” he insists. “You have to trim vegetation in order to stimulate new growth!” Of course George would say that. He’s been divorced seven times. He has a son he would rather ignore. He conceals the details of his past. The man is always looking to cut away the growth that has sprung up around him—in the interest of stimulating new growth.
That’s his explanation, anyway, but you can’t shake the sense that George is more interested in the machete work than the new growth. But as Ruth points out, often cutting is just cutting. “This is a living thing,” she protests. “You chop off the branches and you make wounds.” Just like he scoffed at her when she tried to explain her affection for Arthur, George mocks Ruth here. She’s anthropomorphizing the tree, he says, another instance of her annoying tendency to have feelings about things. But she’s not projecting emotions onto the tree; she’s operating in the realm of fact: “Wounds, George, that’s what they’re called. And these wounds will not heal.” The metaphor isn’t hard to discern. Yet he still insists his work with the hedge clippers will lead to a tree that comes back “bigger and better than ever—and if it doesn’t, we can always get another one.” Another tree, another marriage, another anything. Easy come, easy go.
“All you do is come and go!” Ruth shouts later to kick off one of the episode’s climactic fights. George has spent the past few months dutifully cutting away the parts of their marriage that were inconvenient to him, to the point where the household has become little more than a place where George can go to sleep at the end of the day. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” George snarls as he runs out of things to say. “I’m your seventh spouse, George,” Ruth replies later, “how much warning do you think I need?” She’s posing the rhetorical question both to George and to herself, a cry of anger laced heavily with regret.
Nate and Brenda have spent much of season four worrying over beds. Nate has ensconced himself of the cocoon of a single mother’s white sheets. He tossed his old bedding—the blankets he shared with Lisa—into a bonfire. He’s used a motel bed as a frequent stage for what he imagined as inconsequential fun. Over the same stretch, Brenda has resisted letting Joe into her bed, kept her guard up once he was sleeping alongside her, and had a panic attack at the bedding shop as she envisioned herself drowning in pillows. Their outward restlessness has pointed toward their inner unrest.
With Nate agonizing over the domestic life in his past and Brenda agonizing over the domestic life in her future, it may have been inevitable that they would reconnect. The post-split distance between them has, over time, allowed them to see one another more clearly. On so many occasions this season, Nate and Brenda have correctly identified their unstated impulses and motivations—and have continued to pursue each other nonetheless. “Brenda, we always have ulterior motives,” Nate says when Brenda insists that her self-invitation to Nate and Maya’s day at the park is innocent. But he lets her come along anyway. They both fear that they’re broken people, and what’s more comforting to a broken person than someone else who’s broken like you are?
So it is that despite their stated intention to be cautious, they end up being reckless, making out on Brenda and Joe’s couch. Joe walks in and discovers them, of course, and it’s tough not to imagine that on some level, this is exactly what Brenda wanted to happen. It’s her way of ripping off the band-aid, her way of killing the relationship that Joe refused to kill (even though he had obviously checked out to some degree before this—he’s upset but not quite surprised when he walks in on Brenda and Nate).
Just as in “The Dare,” she lamely tries to subsume her responsibility into endless circles of psychobabble—“I’ve obviously been in complete denial about my recovery,” she mutters, not even managing to convince herself. Joe cuts through all the therapy-speak: “It’s not sex. It’s betrayal. That’s your fucking addition.” That’s not quite right—Brenda’s struggles are, at their heart, the result of an ill-fated effort to build her life as a counterpoint to her fears. So Joe misses the mark, but he’s venting here. It’s not like he can be expected to make a calm assessment of Brenda’s neuroses. It’s both tragic and hilarious, then, when Brenda tries to use Joe’s wrongness against him: “You think you know me, but you don’t!” she shouts at him. Joe chokes in disbelief at this, because she’s quite right, and whose fault is that?
At the end of an hour filled with deteriorating relationships and restless souls, “Coming And Going” counterintuitively but poignantly concludes on a mild note of hope. Yes, Ruth goes “on walkabout,” as George puts it in his infuriatingly cavalier way. But the final shot is semi-sweet, showing the Fisher children lumped together on the couch as a family (with George close by but separate). They watch a Simpsons rerun in which Marge, like Ruth, is momentarily isolated from the rest of her family by her insistent compassion. Before long, though, Marge’s voice is heard and Homer says, “Let’s do something together!” In that moment, the Fisher children, exhausted, wounded, and upset as they might be, are doing something together and drawing strength from their trust in each other. If they need a safe place to sleep, home is always an option. It’s a sentiment Ruth would love, if she were there to witness it.
- 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.
- George’s definition of marriage: “I have always treated you as a partner and a friend, and if that’s not marriage, then I don’t know what is.” You can’t help but fall in love with the guy more and more each week, am I right?
- My favorite moment of the Vanessa-Sophia showdown actually comes after Sophia has fled the scene. Vanessa picks up the baseball bat and heads for Sophia’s car. When Angelica sees this, she says “Oh, shit,” simultaneously surprised and delighted that Vanessa “I Just Want To Talk” Diaz has embraced her inner bruiser. (Then Angelica grabs a brick so she can help out, naturally.)
- “Fuck your car, Infinity. I’m done!” Rico shouts when Sophia phones him for the last time. He uses her performing name—i.e., her stripper name—in a vain effort to diminish her and reintroduce some distance between them.
- The opening death gets an interesting treatment here, as there are a couple scenes with the Fishers before we get to James Marshall’s final moments. It almost feels like there isn’t going to be a death in an episode, which is a graceful misdirection.
- I have to apologize again for the intermittent posting of these reviews. As I mentioned on Twitter last week, the reality is that sometimes there are weeks when I simply don’t have time to do these reviews as other projects take priority. But I love writing them, and I’m passionate about the show, so they’ll continue. I just don’t want to mislead you—the schedule is going to be as choppy as it has been. Still Wednesday afternoons, but not every Wednesday. Don’t worry, we’ll make it to “Everyone’s Waiting” yet! Thanks in advance for your understanding—and for reading these writeups in the first place.