“The Invisible Woman” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 3/31/2002)
A woman arrives home. Looks through her mail. Heats up a microwave dinner. Watches a little tube. Works on a crossword. Chokes to death. Emily Previn, 1954-2001.
In contrast to the rather crudely sketched decedent of the week in “Driving Mr. Mossback,” Emily Previn plays a central role in “The Invisible Woman”: She sets an extreme benchmark against which the other characters are measured. They’re measured in terms of “intimacy,” a theme that Ruth makes explicit after Emily’s funeral.
Nate and Brenda’s intimacy issues could fill a book. Coincidentally, Brenda intends to write one. As she nonchalantly informs Nate of the latest turn of her early mid-life crisis (late quarter-life crisis?), I count three different instances where he swallows his skepticism of “Sure, I’ll just sit down and write a book” and says that it is a super-duper plan! After assuring her one last time that he loves her ambition—her aimless, fickle ambition—he muses that it would be fun to inspire a character in her novel. “You might be in it, if you ever do anything interesting,” she replies. Keep in mind this is the guy to whom she’ll propose marriage at the end of the episode.
Brenda does indeed sit down to write, but she has a very naughty Mac, which says things to her like, “What exactly do you have to say that hasn’t been said before?” and “You are incapable of anything real.” I think Apple fixed the “your computer spontaneously gives voice to your most profound self-doubt” bug in the “Leopard” version of Mac OS X, but apparently Brenda hasn’t upgraded yet. She slams the computer shut.
We’ve seen many of the characters searching for intimacy lately, but Brenda is doing something a little different. It’s more like she’s trying to justify her lack of intimacy. She’s drawn to her client Melissa, the prostitute she met in “Driving Mr. Mossback.” Brenda is giddier at their lunch together than we’ve seen in a while—probably since her trip to Vegas with Nate. She revels in the way that Melissa talks about her line of work. Whereas Brenda is depressed by the feeling that she’s emotionally “separate” from Nate lately, Melissa is emotionally separate from everyone she fucks, and she gets paid for it!
Melissa says that maybe some people, like herself, just aren’t made for relationships. Yes. Brenda likes that theory. And she also enjoys Melissa’s superior outlook on other members of the human race. You can figure out a person just by looking in their eyes, Melissa insists: “You just look at them, and you know… And if they’re wrong, you just get out of there immediately. I think everybody has all the answers in life. You just have to know how to listen!” Brenda’s eyes practically form into heart shapes and pop out of her skull at this point. She absolutely swoons.
Amid her delight, Brenda misses the cautionary side of Melissa’s ultra-realism. When Brenda observes that Melissa’s self-determined way of life is “almost empowering,” Melissa calls that a rationalization and says, “It’s just a way to pay the bills.” This doesn’t really register with Brenda, though. Since Brenda lost the distraction of Billy, she’s been increasingly spooked by her fear that she is “incapable of anything real.” Her selective reading of Melissa offers a fantastic solution: Maybe being incapable of anything real is the realest thing of all! Whoa! Did Brenda just blow her own mind? Yes, she did. And she filters out anything that contradicts this idea (not that Melissa offers much in the way of contradiction).
So it is that Brenda ends up watching Melissa have sex with a client. He likes to be watched, and Melissa’s usual helper bails on her. Melissa warns Brenda that “this isn’t a science project,” to which Brenda predictably replies, “Oh, please, you think I can’t handle it?” I think Brenda has that printed on her business cards. In the midst of the act, Brenda catches the client’s gaze and her eyes narrow, as if she’s enjoying the “empowering” nature of the situation. When she returns to her home afterward, though, her expression is more mixed—her face cycles through exhilaration, bewilderment, disgust, and exhaustion in the space of a few seconds.
The steady undercurrent is fear. Brenda has put her “I don’t feel anything real, and that’s awesome” theory into practice, and in the immediate aftermath, she only becomes more terrified of herself than ever. Is this who she really is—who she really wants to be? A sociopath who watches some random guy screw her friend and gets a thrill out of it? I remember early in the season that when an asshole client told Brenda that he pays her money to do a job and therefore she should shut up and do it, she threw him out of her house, because damn it, she’s not a prostitute. Well, if only that asshole could see her now.
Unsettled by this glimpse into what she thinks might be her true self, Brenda reacts by proposing to Nate. “Will you be my wife?” she asks. She catches him at the right moment. He’s been having some of Brenda’s same fears. In “Driving Mr. Mossback” and before, he frets over his inability to form a deep, lasting bond with another person. Is this an inherent flaw in his makeup?
There’s a little less of Nate than usual in “The Invisible Woman.” When we do see him, he’s mostly contending with Emily Previn. She’s inaccessible to him, a manifestation of his inability to connect. But what’s worse from Nate’s point of view is that his not knowing her doesn’t bother him too much. Whereas Ruth is distraught, he’s matter-of-fact. Nate just can’t find it in himself to be moved.
The one interesting detail that we learn about Emily is so tantalizing: She’s ordered “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” to be played at her funeral. That’s more than a gag. It’s distinctive, and it shows that Emily had a sense of humor—the one clue to her humanity. Emily is an extremely isolated person, but as Father Jack points out in his eulogy, she’s a person nonetheless—not a mere cipher—with something to teach those around her, even in death.
Nate searches for reasons not to care. She must have died for a reason, he says to David. (Really, Nate? You’re still singing that old song?) But nope, she just choked. Nate remarks to Rico that “maybe she was just this vicious asshole.” Again, that would make a comforting sort of sense. It would be a reason for her lonely life and death. In a parallel of Melissa’s “just look into their eyes” mantra, though, Rico says, “Naw. You can tell what kind of life people lived, even when they’re dead.” He looks at the corpse. “Yeah, she was all right.”
Why isn’t Nate closer to the people around him? There’s a big hint after Emily’s funeral, when Ruth pleads with her children, “Why can’t any of you have intimacy with me?” Nate resists her demand. He even seems to find it somewhat uncouth: “I just think intimacy should happen more organically than this.” Ah, yes, Mr. Organic. What Nate’s saying is that he doesn’t understand why he should have to work for intimacy with another person. Shouldn’t it just, y’know, happen? Isn’t that the only authentic way?
Brenda’s “jumpy” before she pops the question. She asks Nate repeatedly if he’s locked the door. Because this proposal, for both of them, is about keeping out a terrible intruder. Brenda’s shutting out the version of herself that she saw out there that day. Nate’s shutting out the version of himself that he’s seen in the mirror and in MRI images. Right before Nate accepts the proposal, his face softens, and it looks like he’s about to confess his fears—his fear of death, his fear of loneliness, all of it.
That isn’t what happens. Instead, he puts on the familiar mask of Go-With-The-Flow Nate: “Of course I’ll marry you! I love you! Absolutely! Yeah, let’s get married, c’mon!” He enters into the marriage with the same forced enthusiasm that he used to cheer Brenda’s book project at the beginning of the episode. So much for organic intimacy. The engagement is born out of blind hope that the union will produce something more palatable than either person finds on their own. It’s like these two people don’t like the taste of the meals they’ve made, but instead of learning how to cook properly, they’re just going to mix it into one big casserole and hope for the best. Yum!
Ruth is far more moved by Emily Previn’s death. She’s downright distraught. She sees herself in the dead woman, and it’s not an unreasonable vision. Emily even dressed the same way Ruth does—in flat, functional frocks that couldn’t possibly offend anyone, or leave any lasting impression whatsoever.
The Plan is still reverberating in Ruth’s vocabulary, as yet more tortured house metaphors spill out of her mouth, masquerading as profundity. “Nothing ever gets built if the materials aren’t labeled properly,” she observes, meaning something. Her dismay over Emily Previn and over the lackluster effectiveness of her Plan crystallize in a dream. Cleaning the kitchen, she finds all the cupboards empty. All of a sudden, the place looks entirely unlived in, except for her. That’s the trouble with building yourself a new house—nobody else lives there, and there’s no guarantee they’ll move in.
Emily had a home all to herself, too. When Ruth sees her two boys treat Emily’s wishes with only superficial respect, it all feels too familiar to her. She lashes out at them and takes charge, visiting Emily’s home and rounding the family up to demonstrate some scintilla of human affection at Emily’s funeral. After Ruth has shown them that it can be done, she pleads that they show more of that same affection—that “intimacy”—toward her.
Although much of this “house” business has been silly, I sympathize with Ruth’s desperate plea to her kids. As spectators to the Fisher family, it’s easy for us to see how their remoteness from their mother came about, but it’s also easy to see how unnecessary it often is. That’s what makes Nate’s “intimacy should happen more organically” remark so infuriating. What’s more natural and “organic” than children working to foster some closeness with their mother?
Ruth’s outreach might be desperate and clumsy, but she at least recognizes that some sort of effort is needed. Her kids refuse to meet her halfway. “Fine, I’ll just keep waiting like I have been,” Ruth says with steely resignation. As she later sobs over old family pictures, though, we see that she’s waiting not for the future but for a past moment that might never return.
David’s pursuit of intimacy turns up a glimmer of success this week in the form of a new acquaintance, Ben. He’s played by Adam Scott—who now plays Ben on Parks And Recreation! Does this mean that the entire Parks And Rec series is retroactively a Six Feet Under spin-off that takes place in the same universe? Is Ben Wyatt the new Tommy Westphall?
Alas, no, this character is named Ben Cooper, but he does have that same fidgety charm as his namesake from a future series. He hits it off with David. Unlike David’s last blind date, there’s a “spark” between these two, and while David lies about his funeral-director background during their first encounter, by the end of the episode he’s opened up enough to retract the lie. After he’s told the truth, they kiss, but not before. David wants this intimacy to be based on honesty, because last season he got deep into the fake stuff, and that was a bad trip.
David enjoys the “spark” with Ben. He even fantasizes about the jaunty sitcom their life will become. He reads pretend promo copy into the mirror: “Fish And Coop! New this fall on ABC.” Just then, Keith drops by, once again seeking David out in a moment of weakness. Overcome with fear and emotion, he kisses David, and they make love.
The thing about a spark is that it’s transient and superficial. Sure, a little flash of fireworks is fun, and it might even lead to something deeper, but at the moment. all that Ben and David have is that spark. With Keith, though, it’s like a steady flow of DC current gets plugged into David’s core. And though Keith comes back to David in a moment of panic, it’s cruel for Keith to remind David of what that energy feels like and then take it away so quickly. David spends the next 24 hours looking like he’s in withdrawal.
When Ben calls, he gets David’s answering machine. The glancing, tantalizing intimacy of Ben’s spark now looks insignificant compared with the deeper closeness of Keith’s energy. Keith makes his own choice, though, retreating to the sputtering electricity in his courtship of Eddie—who does not want to be a father—rather than embrace David, who allows Keith to feel vulnerable. Keith doesn’t want to feel vulnerable right now—he wants to feel strong, confident, cool, and collected. So Keith says, thanks for being there at my lowest point, David, but “I don’t think you and I should see each other anymore.” I think I’d probably feel like shit if I were David, too.
Claire outlines her vision of intimacy—at least among high-school classmates—early in the episode. She says that nobody has friends in high school: “Maybe they have people they talk or do things with, but they’re not really friends. They’re just filler.” She spends the rest of the episode having that view confirmed.
First, there’s Parker, to whom Claire has always been ambivalent. Parker approaches life with a lazy, carefree cynicism that Claire finds bemusing, and sometimes even alluring, but she has never seen fit to adopt it herself. Parker and Claire study for the SAT together, and while Claire finds it a daunting prospect—“I think about the test, I see this nasty fluorescent light, the kind that shows all your pockmarks”—Parker is nonchalant. On test day, an unfamiliar, well-appointed, bookish girl shows up at the registration desk and identifies herself as Parker McKenna. Claire’s pissed. She has to expose herself, but Parker gets to hide behind this rent-a-genius?
While she might have maintained that high-school friendships are characterized by a complete lack of honest intimacy, Claire hates having it confirmed. She’s not as much of a cynic as she lets on—if she were, she might admire Parker’s self-serving ingenuity.
Guidance counselor Gary is exposed as a sort of fraud, too. As Claire vents her anger in his office, throwing his mug against the wall, Gary applauds what he views as catharsis. He’s so encouraged that she’s expressing herself! Moments later, though, when Claire turns her rage toward him and says that he can “fuck Parker McKenna for all I care,” Gary is suddenly “worried” about Claire. Then he takes an even more bizarre turn: “Now is probably as good a time as any to talk about the sexual tension between us. It exists,” he says.
It’s all a “normal part of transference and counter-transference,” he explains, but it’s clear from Claire’s stunned reaction that she’s not holding up the “transference” end of the bargain. Gary picks up his mug. “I could probably glue this back together,” he says. “I could probably fix this.” I’m going to guess probably not. And just like that, Claire is all alone again, her life looking for all the world like the formative years of another Emily Previn.
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- Brenda says to Melissa that it’s crazy to be with someone for so long “without ever really knowing what’s going on inside their head.” How many times has the show used the “inside his head” phrasing this season? I haven’t been keeping track, but I think it’s a lot. It’s starting to feel on-the-nose, especially here, where Brenda’s discussion of Nate is weirdly intercut with brief scenes of him tending business at the funeral home. I don’t understand what the point of those cuts were.
- In the same dialogue, I was struck by Brenda’s admission that when they were first dating, she used to think about Nate all the time and wonder what he was doing throughout the day. I could be wrong, but I don’t recall her ever admitting such an innocent, consuming infatuation before.
- I always love when Ruth suddenly lets out some burst of frustration. She doesn’t disappoint in this episode. When Claire remarks that perhaps Emily Previn “was living the life she wanted—a life without the hassle of other people,” Ruth snaps, “WHAT KIND OF LIFE IS THAT?” It’s the Fisher M.O.: Store up all that nervous energy until you let it out with a sudden, destructive bang.
- Six Feet Under reviews are taking the week off to celebrate Independence Day, but they will return the following Tuesday, July 10.