"The Foot" (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 6/17/2001)
Question: When viewers saw “The Foot” the first time it aired, would it have been obvious to them that the bakery owner was going to die? Before this episode, Six Feet Under had used the “some stranger dies after the opening credits” device just once. (The pilot episode killed Nathaniel, of course, but without the fade to white and the dates.) Still, it didn’t take long for everyone to realize that the fun game of each episode’s opening scene was trying to guess which of the on-screen schmoes would eat it and how.
In any case, for a viewer who knows the gag, the opening sequence is a smart, hilarious feat of telegraphing, and the message being sent is, “Dude’s gonna get sliced up.” Leading into the dough-mixer accident, director John Patterson carves up Thomas Romano with the camera, cutting together tight shots of Romano’s leg, his foot, his head. The composition in the final shot of Romano is such a spot-on piece of visual dark comedy that even though we don’t see the poor man die, we kind of do:
And then Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall. Thomas Alfredo Romano, 1944-2001.
As Brenda and Nate put themselves back together again after what was apparently some noisy lovemaking, Brenda shows a rare flash of vulnerability. It’s just a glimpse, but she’s wounded by Nate’s insistence that he’s headed back to Seattle. Seconds earlier, she was practicing her emotional jiujitsu—stunning Nate with her past heroin use and then cooing, “I love that look”—yet the Seattle thing throws her. Say this for Nate: He’s a quick study, and he’s learning how to parry Brenda’s moves. After knocking her off balance with the Seattle remark, he finishes his counter-attack by bringing up the “Nathaniel” tattoo again. Brenda’s speechless. It is fun to watch these two. He’s not on her level yet—she comes back at him hard later in the abandoned house—but he’s a sparring partner.
Also fun: Getting the four Fishers in a room together. Claire comes down the stairs for breakfast all moony from that one enchanted back-of-the-hearse evening with Gabe. She even has her appetite back. “Are you bulimic?” Ruth says. “Is that what we’re going to have to deal with now?”
Ruth is off the mark, of course. For a teenage girl who has grown up in a funeral home, it’s almost bizarre that Claire is so well-adjusted. Ruth seems to think so, too. Claire’s relative normality among the Fishers bugs the hell out of her. Ruth is full of repressed demons and anxiety. When she looks at the other woman who’s had to live in this home, she expects to see the same internal disarray. Part of her is disappointed when it’s not there. So when Claire says that Ruth “seems to want a child with an eating disorder,” there’s some truth to it. Ruth semi-consciously wants there to be something wrong with Claire, because in Ruth’s mind, if there’s nothing wrong with Claire, there must be something wrong with herself.
Nate wants to sell Fisher & Sons to the Kroehner chain. That’s not to say he’s passionate about it, but in his own “yeah, whatever” way, he wants to sell. David puts up a stink at the breakfast table, but as he browses ceiling fans with Keith, it dawns on him that the decision to get out of the funeral business has provided a great sense of relief. “People start their lives over all the time, right?” he says with a hopeful smile. Keith stammers for a second.
Why the hesitation? Well, as Keith tells Claire later in the episode, he not only loves David, he feels they know each other, which he finds extraordinary. He wants David to pursue happiness, obviously, but when David talks about “starting over,” that’s a bridge too far. Keith likes and knows the David he has. More to the point, maybe a re-started David wouldn’t be satisfied with the Keith he has. To drive the tension home, David is “cruised” right then by a toothsome fellow who is also shopping for fans and/or men. By the way, you would have to possess a reckless disregard for your own well-being to cruise Keith Charles’ boyfriend while he’s standing right there.
Teenagers can be cruel, and teenagers can be creative, but teens on TV always seem to be a bit more cruelly creative than they are in real life. After leaving an awkward voice mail for Gabe, Claire feels humiliated, and then she sees the car. Rather than snickering at her behind her back and/or teasing her in the halls, the students at What A Bunch Of Assholes High gathered up their art supplies and adorned Claire’s hearse with a literally colorful variety of slogans, including “TOE SLUT,” “FOOT SLUT,” and “LITTLE PIGGY LOVER.”
Claire confronts Gabe, who has an infuriating nonchalance about the fact that their experiment with podophilia is now common knowledge. Gabe’s attitude seems to be that since Claire is already the weird funeral chick, what difference does it make if she’s the weird foot-sucking chick as well?
As with David and the decision to sell, Claire first resists Gabe’s line of thinking and then, after a bit of time, finds it liberating. She’s the weird chick, huh? Fine, she’ll show them weird. She’ll steal a goddamn foot.
This is the episode where Claire realizes the advantages in not being “one of them.” She’s not one of the cool kids, which offers her the unfettered privilege of messing with them. And she’s not one of the uptight Fisher boys, so she can help the family in ways they never could, like burning down the competition’s building across the street. “I guess this should solve all your problems, huh?” she says as Nate, David, and Ruth watch the flames. (Only Nate is able to conceive the notion that Claire might have been involved.) She’s granted herself the superpower of iconoclasm.
In last week’s episode, Rico fumed about Nate “renting” a casket because, he said, it was “against my beliefs.” This week, he refuses to pick up a body for David because he has to attend his cousin’s baby’s christening: “I’m the godfather, David.” Turns out that Rico actually had an appointment with Kroehner. Is it within his beliefs to play the Catholicism card whenever it gets him out of an awkward jam? Seems there’s a touch of the cynic in angel-faced Federico.
Ruth’s best friend Amelia comes to Ruth’s house with “another casserole” (or lemon bars, to be accurate), and they go through Nathaniel’s things. As Ruth discards her dead husband’s clothes with military efficiency, Amelia ever so gently gets fed up. She’s there to see Ruth cry, so why won’t Ruth cry for her already, darn it?
Amelia is overbearing and eager, yes. She tries too hard to get those tear ducts flowing: “A bare mattress is so sad!” She seems like a good friend, though. I mean, she’s not a pain viper like Brenda. She just loves being the shoulder to cry on.
Amelia’s not wrong about Ruth, either. Ruth has some shit that she needs to release—more, in fact, than Amelia ever bargained for. Ruth’s safety valve finally pops off at the racetrack, in the direction of a sweet couple being cutesy at the betting windows. And then she and Amelia play the horses. Amelia places the standard $2 bet; Ruth blows $25,000.
Later, Ruth explains to Nate how she lost that much cash in an afternoon. “I was up $9,000! And then I started to lose. And then I started to feel like me again, so I kept betting more and more and losing more and more. … I want to feel alive!” It’s a key insight into Ruth. She pictures herself as zero, break-even. In one brief scene, we see her turn a seat cushion around and around again, but it’s a square cushion; she’s not changing anything. So she puts it on another chair, but that chair looks the same as the other one. She’s a walking flatline. Ruth has always been the most sensible, restrained, boring member of a family that isn’t filled with excitement to begin with. As she comes back from her high-water mark at the track and gets closer to that neutral total, she can’t face that boredom. In a way, it doesn’t matter to Ruth whether she won thousands of dollars or lost them, as long as she was finally living life anywhere but zero.
The most significant character moment for me is Nate’s vision of Nathaniel as he drives home from a meeting with Kroehner. It’s always a pleasure to have Richard Jenkins make an appearance as Nathaniel, and he’s hilarious during Nate’s meeting with slimy, double-speaking Gilardi: “You hear, that buddy-boy? He likes you! Wow, you are so cool.” The vision in the van, though, is different. Nathaniel takes a more earnest tack, saying to Nate, “What are you doing? You have a gift. You can help people.” It’s not clear whether the “gift” that Nathaniel means is the funeral home or something special to Nate that makes him preternaturally talented at relating to people’s grief. I think Nathaniel means both.
In the comments last week, the delightfully named A Blaffair to Rememblack mentioned this theory of Nate as the “blank” character onto whom viewers project their own self-disdain. It’s an interesting perspective that I’m going to be keeping that in mind as I re-watch the show, but I do disagree with it. Nate is certainly impressionable and adaptable. For instance, we see how much more deft he’s become, after just a short time, in his interactions with Brenda. He has this innate ability to tune in to other people’s frequencies. I can see how this could be read as “blank,” given how malleable Nate’s outlook is, yet adaptability is not the same as blank. Nate’s vision of Nathaniel in the car is the moment that he becomes aware of this. His story begins in earnest now.
- Reminder: The “Everyone’s Waiting” thread at the top of the comment section is the thread for people who have watched the series to discuss foreshadowing and future plot developments. Newbies, you can collapse this thread with the “Hide All Replies” button and then peruse the rest of the comments without fear of being spoiled. This seemed to work out quite well last week, so thanks, everybody.
- Speaking of last week’s comments, if you haven’t read the conversation with Headcleaner, who works in the “death-care industry,” I highly recommend you go back and check it out. Thank you for taking the time to chat about your work, Headcleaner. I’m looking forward to hearing more from you as we keep going, if you have the time.
- Ruth: “She stole a foot? From a person?” David: “Yes, would it have been better if it was an animal’s?” Nate: “A little bit.”
- Nate gets the same treatment as Claire when he has the temerity to show up at the breakfast table with a smile on his face. After Nate mentions that he spent the night with Brenda, it’s another weird, great David outburst: “No one cares where you were! Why do you have to tell people every single thing you do all day?”
- The whole interrogation bit with David as Keith’s “crazy-ass motherfucker” partner is gold.
- I misspelled Kroehner as “Kroner” throughout last week’s writeup. My apologies.
- Lauren Ambrose nails the self-consciousness and vulnerability of that faux-casual “Hey, where are you…?” phone message to her new crush.
- Which is creepier: Brenda’s childhood flashback or David’s fantasizing about the fan flying off its mount and chopping him into pieces just like Tommy Romano? Yeah, Brenda still wins.
- It says something about Nate that he’s apparently the only one who suspects Claire of burning down the house. David and Ruth are too timid and constrained to even conceive of such a thing.
- “Yes, I myself have loafers, which are just like walking on air.”
- “I wish that just once, people wouldn’t act like the clichés that they are.”
- “If you need a project, get a dog.”