“It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” (season 2, episode 8; originally aired 4/21/2002)
The opening-scene-death tradition of Six Feet Under is remarkable for its shock value and for the variety of its dark comic twists. Perhaps the most consistently impressive aspect of these vignettes, though, is the characterization. The show challenges itself to an extreme test every week: introduce a character, give that character some rounding, and kill that character off within the space of a minute.
To make it happen, Six Feet Under has to discover economies of language and performance that are distinctive enough to give us the broad strokes of the week’s decedent before his or her mourners fill in the gaps. In the story of Jesse Ray Johnson, one of those economical bursts of meaning comes when his wife, Marilyn, sends her bearded biker husband off to his seasonal Santa job with this: “No flirting with the faggoty elves.” There’s a coalescence of writing, direction, and acting in those words. At any point in the creative process, the line could have taken a more sour turn than it did. Instead, it comes off as a sweet, vivid picture of this marriage and this man. Like Jesse, it seems harsh at first blush, but let it sink in, and you find that it contains deep, time-tested heart. In other words, Santa on a motorcycle. Loud? Ugly? Sure. And also the kind of guy who takes his eyes off the road to give some kids a little wave and a “Ho ho ho” from St. Nick. Jesse Ray Johnson, 1944-2001.
It’s the most wonderful episode of the season, and I don’t say that to cast aspersions on the other hours of Six Feet Under before and after this one. Not every episode can be like this—an hour in which so many threads, both in the episode and in the broader series, come together with consistent grace. Not every passage in a symphony can be the triumphant reprise. “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” is a reprise—explicitly so—and it’s an artful one.
Some of the masterstrokes come as the show brings together two seemingly dissonant elements. Brenda and Ruth begin the episode in very different places. Ruth is in the kitchen, preparing for Christmas dinner, asking Nate how his and Brenda’s children will be raised. She lashes out at David when he rejects her invitation to bring Keith and Taylor—how can she be “accepting,” she protests, if David rejects every advance she makes? It’s an echo of her clumsy but heartfelt plea for “intimacy” earlier in the season. She’s still looking for reciprocation of her motherly love, pouting: “I wish I knew what I did to deserve such morose, surly children.”
Elsewhere, Brenda is looking for something other than motherly love, to say the least. It’s more like she’s searching for prey. She finds it at a fashion boutique, where she catches the eye of a strapping fellow and proceeds to rub her body against him and slide his hand up (way up) her inner thigh.
Contrast this with Ruth, who in the next scene fends off a dirty-talking Nikolai at the flower shop: “I most certainly did not not wear panties today. … It’s unhygienic!” She’s wearing “Fruit Of The Loom control-top briefs,” in fact—three to a pack for $15 at Target.
Ruth wears clothing that controls herself. Brenda revels in her control over others. As she shares her latest exploits with her friend Melissa, Brenda is sure to note with glee that the man in the boutique grabbed her butt “tentatively”—she was the one driving this encounter, and she was the one who raised the stakes even higher by putting the guy’s hand “inside me.” Melissa—who seems less enchanted by Brenda’s tales of sexual misadventure all the time—asks quite reasonably, “So, does this mean you have mixed feelings about getting married to Nate?” Brenda says no, not at all, she’s just pursuing natural biological impulses, seeking diversity of mates and all that. She’s almost disappointed in her friend for asking the question. You can see Brenda, steeped in denial, wondering if the student has become the master. Perhaps prostitute Melissa is too fuddy-duddy to understand Brenda’s liberated sexual amorality.
By the end of the episode, Brenda and Ruth are in a similar place. Brenda’s transformation begins when she sees Billy at her mother’s apartment for Christmas Eve. Brenda reacts by telling Nate that Billy’s “not ready” to be out of the hospital. This comes after an earlier scene in which Keith says that Taylor is “not ready” to have Christmas dinner at the Fishers’ house (one of many resonances in the dialogue of this episode). David replies, “You sure Taylor’s the one who’s not ready?” Nate could ask Brenda a similar question here. Billy appears to be on an even, highly medicated keel. It seems that Brenda is the one who’s not ready (by little fault of her own, because her mother cruelly didn’t tell Brenda that Billy was coming “home”).
Trying to take it all in after her impromptu reunion with Billy, Brenda screams: “I’ve had more than enough. I’ve been a fucking nursemaid for the last time!” Cut to the following scene: Ruth plays nursemaid to Nikolai, who has two broken legs as the result of a shady encounter with some toughs. Ruth is paying Nikolai’s medical bills; it’s a small price to pay for the delight of nursing him back to health for eight weeks and setting a bedpan by his side each night. If Ruth got flustered by dirty-talk Nikolai, she adores this Nikolai, with his moon face, cooing voice, and utter helplessness. As she pushes his bedpan to a place where he can reach it, he’s acting as a stand-in child, except this one reciprocates her adulation. Ruth has tried building a new house; she’s decided she wants to live in the old one a little longer.
When Nate has a seizure during sex—the conclusion of Brenda and Nate’s usual anger-despair-fucking pas de deux—Brenda ends up playing nursemaid, too, almost literally. The final scene sees her cradling Nate and asking him about his drug regimen. She says she’ll consult with the doctor about getting him something stronger. She asks why he didn’t tell her sooner. “I didn’t want to be a burden,” Nate answers, which is close enough to the truth. “You’ll never be a burden,” Brenda says, which is already a lie.
As you could probably gather from the title, “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” confronts the traditional American Christmas myth, and it does so with intelligent complexity, the kind that Six Feet Under achieves at its best. The two most extreme attitudes toward the Most Wonderful version of Christmas are seen in Claire and Keith, who deplore and rather desperately embrace the Christmas myth, respectively.
Claire views the popular conception of Christmas mostly as an idea against which she can rebel indiscriminately. Her companion throughout the episode is Toby, the son of two solstice-celebrating Pagans, who suggests that perhaps her family’s holiday traditions are not the relentless torture chamber that Claire makes them out to be. In “A Place Of Anger,” Claire’s aunt Sarah dismissed Claire’s cynicism as lazy and beneath her. Toby expands on that implicit plea for Claire to grow up. His growing annoyance comes to a head when he asks if she’d like to drive around the park and look at Christmas lights—who could possibly have a problem with looking at colored lights?—and Claire answers, “Not without eggs!” And with that, Toby has had enough.
The nice thing about Toby as a foil here is that, as we saw in “Back To The Garden,” he’s not infinitely wise himself. He’s just a little bit more sage than Claire is. He certainly has his moments of dickishness—such as his suggestion that a good gift for David the gay mortician would be “a new life”—and Claire isn’t completely wrong when she says that Toby’s evaluation of her life is pat and judgmental. Yet Toby does have that extra ounce of experience, and he’s not wrong when he says to Claire, “You act like you’re incredibly put out by being alive.” Nor when he says, “If you just take a look at your life, you don’t have that much to be angry about.” Claire’s not ready for that. She takes comfort in the anger. She feels she needs it because if it were gone, she’s uncertain what would fill the vacuum.
Meanwhile, the gay policeman who’s acting as caretaker for his estranged sister’s niece is understandably trying to instill some sense of normalcy in his home life. Unlike Claire, he wholeheartedly embraces a classic vision of Christmas. His Christmas Eve feast seems like it was modeled on a Norman Rockwell painting, right down to the figgy pudding. But Keith’s sudden attachment to the Christmas myth is just as fearful and defensive as Claire’s rejection of it. David sees this (of course). “You can afford to cut yourself some slack. Doesn’t mean you’re a doormat,” David says, pointedly revisiting Keith’s “doormat” language from “Back To The Garden.”
Keith snaps at David, because when he’s pressed at all, he lashes out (a defensiveness that’s only compounded by his continuing stress over killing a man on duty). Keith can’t show any sign of weakness, even to his lover—heck, even to himself—in a moment where he feels he’s being challenged. But when the moment has passed, he seems to accept David’s wisdom, and he brings Taylor to a rather non-traditional Christmas dinner at the Fishers. There’s a biker funeral downstairs and a sobbing, drugged-up Russian at the dinner table. Taylor’s happy, though, and Keith seems at ease, too—much more so than he was with the figgy pudding.
Norman Rockwell’s holiday archetype comes back to bite Keith in the end, though. One component of that traditional Christmas is the nuclear family. So when Taylor’s mother strolls in bearing presents and tales of her saintly motherhood—“I drove all day just so I could be here. That’s how much your mama loves you!”—Keith is gutted. Taylor’s delighted, though—this is how Christmas is supposed to be, after all! Which is exactly the idea that her mother was counting on. The Most Wonderful Christmas is a two-edged sword, and after seeing Keith’s experience, Claire’s cynicism doesn’t seem so naïve after all.
The most prominent thread running through the episode, of course, is the reprise of the series’ first moment: the death of Nathaniel Sr. One year later, each of the Fishers remember their last moments with Nathaniel. The theme is a failure to connect. Each of the flashbacks features some outreach from Nathaniel that’s rejected by his loved ones. Even before he’s dead, the Fisher patriarch seems to be living an existence that’s detached from the rest of his family. The flashbacks crystallize a notion that has cropped up since that first scene: Nathaniel’s death didn’t so much cause a cataclysmic separation as it had finalized and made permanent a distance that had grown for some time.
In Nate’s flashback, he makes idle chit-chat with his dad after Thanksgiving dinner. “We’ve got a lot to be thankful for,” Nate says. His father replies, “Either that, or we’ve lowered our expectations so much, we’ve given up on anything better than this!” It’s a moment of bracing authenticity, and Nate replies with aimless stammering. He doesn’t know how to respond—he’s uncomfortable engaging with this deeper side of Nathaniel that’s good-humored in its darkness.
David remembers declining to pal around with Nathaniel because there was a body downstairs that needed his attention—or at least whose company David preferred over his father’s. Claire’s flashback shows her annoyed with Nathaniel for interrupting her phone call, and then rolling her eyes at his request that she be home for dinner “because we hardly ever have the whole family together.”
Ruth’s is the most poignant. Nathaniel pulls his face close for a kiss—a last kiss, as it would turn out—and Ruth responds by putting a celery stalk in his mouth. As she recalls this, standing in that same spot in the kitchen, she breaks down sobbing. What she wouldn’t give to have another chance at that connection—which seemed so quotidian and disposable at the time and now seems so profound.
Rico’s flashback is different. All of the Fishers’ final moments were pictures of detachment, but Rico’s unknowing goodbye to Nathaniel shows a young man yearning to connect with a father figure. Rico wants to work, but Nathaniel cheerfully tells Rico to go home and be with his own family. The “kiddo” grudgingly agrees, but as he leaves, he exchanges a special handshake with Nathaniel. They have a handshake! It’s a bond that belongs just to them, and Rico savored it.
In this light, Rico’s often standoffish relationship with Nate and David makes more sense, as does his resentment at not being a partner. The place is “Fisher & Sons,” and he feels as much a son to Nathaniel Sr. as the biological children. Moreover, by the end of Nathaniel’s life, Rico was the only one making an effort to engage with the soul of the man. In Rico’s position, I might feel that I was owed something more than employee-of-the-month honors from the Fisher Bros., too.
“The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” suggests that the distance between Nathaniel Sr. and his family probably wouldn’t have been healed if he had lived. In a way, he was already gone—the crosstown bus simply made it official. That’s a bleak message, and indeed, deep down, this is one of the gloomiest episodes of the season. It’s also one of the funniest and most enjoyable, which isn’t a contradiction for Six Feet Under—Nathaniel Sr. embodies this duality.
This is a show that sees a great deal of character growth but also isn’t afraid to have its characters revert to form. The vision of Christmas presented here suggests that its a time when people cling to familiar comforts, temporarily abandoning whatever painful growth they might have seen over the past year. Ruth finds a new child to take care of. Claire chats online with Billy, who never fails to delight her by confirming her simple notion that everybody is broken and corrupted by self-interest. Despite having found some semblance of equal footing with Keith, David happily returns to worshiping his lover and placing him on a higher plane—he sees Keith as a literal angel, for Pete’s sake.
And Nate receives a lavish gift from Marilyn—Jesse Ray Johnson’s motorcycle—that puts him back out on the road. If the first episode of the series was “the prodigal son returns,” the end of this episode is “the prodigal son departs again,” even if just for a moment. Cruising along the highway in his bike, Nate recaptures his youthful bliss of distance from the Fisher family and their stifling stench of mortality. “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” goes the Blue Öyster Cult song. Perhaps Nate is facing his own potential for death—living like he might die tomorrow—or perhaps he’s fleeing death. I think it’s a little of both. What’s certain is that Nate’s purest peace and happiness come when he perceives himself on a separate, ungrounded plane. When he exists anywhere but here. On his midnight-purple motorcycle, for a little while at least, Nate gets his Christmas wish.
- As always, the first comment thread is for discussion of future episodes. If you want to stay unaware of upcoming developments, collapse that thread.
- Nate’s reaction when he realizes that the AVM jig is up with Brenda: “Aw, fuck.” Real healthy relationship you got goin’ there, Nate. Just a whole bunch o’ swell honesty and open communication, yessiree.
- Another character seeking familiar comforts at Christmastime: Margaret Chenowith. Her creepy insistence on displaying Billy’s disturbing self-portrait suggests that on some level, she finds solace in having a son who’s disturbed and warrants special attention. So there’s some truth to Brenda’s private accusation that Margaret just brought Billy home so she wouldn’t be alone at Christmas. But Brenda’s also jealous, despite herself, that someone else is playing nursemaid for her brother.
- Billy’s AOL screen name is “BillyBatty.” Claire’s: “ICDeadPeople.”
- How great are those bikers? So many hilarious lines. One of my favorites: “I was Hustler’s Beaver Hunt, April of ’86.”