Six Feet Under: "The New Person"
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Six Feet Under: "The New Person"

“The New Person” (Season 1, episode 10; originally aired 8/5/2001)

Jon Hanley has had countless victims. He punches his time card in the customer-service phone banks of what sounds like a shoddy retailer of home furnishings. The inane bureaucracy of the place has long since stultified his mind, so he handles his customers’ problems with a mix of bemusement and condescension. How many people have slammed the phone down in frustration with this man?

But what’s worse is that when he’s home from work, he tells his wife all about it. As he prattles on at the breakfast table, she suffers more than any of the hapless callers who get her husband on the other end of the line. At least they can hang up.

In the past, he was probably an interesting man. Although his words are dull—“I can’t do anything unless you give me an order number!”—his voice lilts with the rhythms of a guy who once knew how to tell an amusing anecdote. But now it’s just an endless spew of noise. His wife calmly flips over his scrambled eggs in a cast-iron frying pan. He gets the pan. She eats the eggs. Jonathan Arthur Hanley, 1946-2001.

“All she told the police was that he was boring,” says David as he and Nate look over Hanley’s corpse. “The sick part is, I understand it,” Nate says.

Angela isn’t boring. She’s the top candidate to replace Rico, beating out one guy who’s criminally incompetent and another who wakes up in the middle of the night with crippling panic attacks (which he refers to as “the dark time”). Still, it’s not just the lackluster competitors that get her the gig. She’s passionate about the work, saying that “the first time I embalmed someone, it felt like I was coming home.” And she’s good at her job. “You could eat off this skin,” David remarks as he inspects the complexion of Angela’s latest restoration job.

Yet Angela is a terrible fit for Fisher & Sons. It’s not that she’s disrespectful, exactly, but her attitude is liberated, especially when it comes to bodily functions, and especially when that bodily function is sex. While she’s an over-the-top sort, her attitude isn’t that weird, considering that she deals with bodies laid bare all day. She witnesses firsthand that the body is just the meat part, not the person. So, she concludes, why be uptight about your meat? Thus she lets it hang loose.

This free-spirited outlook leads Angela to speak frankly about base urges, both her own and those she perceives around her. Oh, she’s awfully perceptive. She spends the entire episode spouting uncomfortable truths—although in the case of the Fishers, “uncomfortable truths” might be redundant. This family is interested in truth, but they have a method for getting to it. First, they lie to themselves for a while, then they reach a crisis point, and then comes a bit of introspection. After all that, at last, a little baby truth is born. Angela doesn’t do any of that gestation—she skips straight to the end! And the Fishers can’t stand it. They don’t know what to do with themselves around her.

With apologies to Judge Judy, Angela is a truth machine, and Nate’s the first one to be processed. It starts off with mere awkwardness—Angela tosses out some playful banter about her imminent calamari-induced flatulence. Later, she goes deeper. In response to Angela’s prying questions, Nate admits that Brenda often pulls away from their relationship. Angela has a theory! “Maybe she senses that you’re pulling away, so she just does it first.” Nate counters that maybe Angela should mind her own business. So she changes the subject to an old boyfriend who wanted to piss on her, but she wasn’t grossed out—she “just thought it was silly.” Nate backs out of the basement like there’s an angry jaguar standing there.

David is even more stricken by the new hire. When she offers to set him up with a nice guy, he says, trembling, “What makes you think I’m gay?” Angela replies, “Oh, please. Let’s not play that game.” Damn straight David will play that game. It’s his favorite. But Angela doesn’t want to play; she doesn’t even know how. So, the next morning, she greets David with a chipper “Rough night, stud?” David: “You’re fired.” Then he, too, retreats upstairs to cower.

What gets lost amid Angela’s bubbly chatter is the fact that she was excited to have found a new home. She brought all of herself to Fisher & Sons—her photographs, jewelry, scented candles—such that she’s stumbling over it all as Ruth helps her get out the door. (Having had her own 10 minutes with Angela, Ruth is perfectly happy to hasten Angela’s exit.) Angela apologizes for breaking a crystal goblet. She doesn’t know why she didn’t say anything at the time—it’s not like her. “I usually just say whatever I’m thinking. … When I saw that broken glass, I just was overcome with this feeling that it was better to just ignore it, to just pretend it didn’t happen. I get that feeling from all of you here! All of you are so fragile and can’t bear to hear anything.”

“Is that everything?” Ruth says, as she can’t bear to hear any of this. Well, not quite everything. Angela also mentions, “All I did was try to fix David up with this guy … I never met anyone who was so uptight about being gay.” There you go, Ruth, one last bit of truth—on the house!—before Angela says goodbye.

After broadening her horizons with MDMA in the last episode, Ruth is ready to continue experimenting, but this time on purpose. She brings Nikolai on a trial date to the opening of Billy’s photography exhibit, and that’s fun, so she’s encouraged. Even a little giddy. At dinner, her boys complain that Angela is “hard to take,” and Ruth shuts them down. “Sometimes people are hard to take,” she says. “But only because the first side they present to you is annoying or aggressive. … It’s only after you spend some time with them that you realize there’s another side to them that’s worth knowing.” It’s pretty obvious that she’s not talking about Angela.

Ruth puts on a different face for her nights out with Nikolai. She wears more makeup and lets her hair down, looking quite a bit less dowdy than she does when she’s with Hiram. There’s just more romance to a night with her hulking Russian baritone. He takes her to his favorite hangout. “Is best restaurant in all of Los Angeles! And not outrageous prices, too.” She lets that second bit pass, so as not to tarnish the fantasy just yet.

They’re joined by two women—one in red, one in hot pants—who seem to have a history with Nikolai. He’d rather not dine with them this evening, but Ruth says, sure, why not? She wants to experience every crazy bit of energy in this exotic realm. The ladies let slip that Nikolai has been talking about Ruth for a while. She’s his “special friend.” Then the two flirts share a traditional Russian dance, and Ruth’s head is swimming.

It’s not all fun and games to the lady in red, though. She corners Ruth in the restroom and demands to know Ruth’s intentions with Nikolai—the man who, it turns out, she has been courting for more than half a decade. “Do you want to marry Niki, or not?” demands the Russian woman. She’s expecting a fight, but all she gets is catharsis. Ruth: “Maybe I have an amusing flirtation with Nikolai, but he scares me! Best of all, I have this job … and I love it because it’s mine. And I would never do anything to jeopardize that!”

Ruth doesn’t seem perturbed at all by this confrontation, and it figures. She got to put on her makeup and her pearls and pretend to be a Russian princess for a night. She’s a little girl on an adventure, so any strange twists that the evening might take are simply part of the fun. Now that her thirst for excitement has been slaked, she’s content to ease back into reality. “Thank you,” she tells the lady in red after they hug and make up. “I’ve had the best time coming to this funny restaurant and having you yell at me in the bathroom!”

Unlike his mother, Nate’s not out for adventure, but he gets more of it than he can handle. The opening of Billy’s “Private/Public” show is a conflagration of Chenowith chaos. This scene just keeps one-upping itself. There’s a bit of incest-tinged “how’s my breath?” near-kissing between Billy and Brenda, but that’s old hat. Even Nate can shrug that off by now. Then comes a boozed-up Margaret Chenowith nuzzling Billy’s ear, with an aside to her daughter: “You can’t keep him to yourself all the time.”

That’s pretty weird, right? But wait, look who’s here! Gareth Feinberg, renowned author of Charlotte Light And Dark. Brenda turns pouty and profane, perhaps inevitably reverting to adolescence in the company of her childhood analyst (cum tormentor). Feinberg praises Billy’s work as “potent” and then kisses/caresses Margaret’s extended hand. That’s weird, too!

Yet it’s all topped the final insult of the night: Billy’s portrait of Nate pissing up a wall. There he is, dick in his hands, having a pee—an image of prepubescent potency, captured in the telephoto lens of Billy’s camera. You can imagine how Nate feels.

Billy shows up to defend it and belittle his subject further. He says, “Bren, would you tell him, please, this isn’t about him?” This is the moment Billy wanted. He’s made himself the artist and Nate merely the subject. Of course Brenda, the genius, will side with an artist. And she does, grudgingly: “It’s what Billy does. … He’s got a talent. It’s art.” Billy smiles and rubs his hand along Brenda’s back as Nate storms off. His victory is short-lived, though. Brenda tells Billy, “Thanks a lot,” and leaves to calm her lover down.

Back at Brenda’s place, she and Nate have the same old argument. Nate expresses his frustration with Billy’s creepy aggression, and Brenda pities herself until Nate’s eager-to-please instincts get the best of him. This time, Brenda gets Nate to calm down by revealing that Billy tried to kill himself when she was 18, while she was traveling in Europe. She was getting ready to head off to Yale, but instead she stuck around for Billy’s sake. “I can’t believe they pressured you into giving up your life for your brother,” Nate says. She corrects him: “Nobody pressured me. I wanted to stay.”

For the first time, we see scenes of Brenda and Billy without any Fishers on the premises. It’s a marked shift not only in the storytelling approach, but also in the dynamic we get to see between the two Chenowith kids. When she doesn’t have to present an “us against the world” united front with Billy, she becomes more honest with him and assumes a big-sister role (which we saw flashes of in “The Room” when Brenda comforted Claire). Alone with her brother, Brenda lets her frustration show. “Bren, I am not threatened by your boyfriend,” Billy says with a scoff. She doesn’t hold back: “Oh yeah? Your behavior consistently communicates otherwise.”

This is a serious fight for Billy, and he brings out his deadliest counterstrike, accusing Brenda of acting like their parents. That ought to throw her off, he surmises. And while she’s vulnerable, he demands to know why she’s taking this Nate deal so seriously. “Because I love him!” she cries. She doesn’t mean to wound him, but she does—it’s a dagger. His body sags, and his voice shrinks into a croak. You can almost hear the “snap” in Billy’s head.

So Billy loots Feinberg’s office, grabbing the files that the good doctor kept on Brenda from the Charlotte Light And Dark sessions. He then heads to his parent’s house to toss them into the pool. It’s Feinberg’s fault, and Margaret’s fault, and Bernard Chenowith’s fault, that Brenda was turned into “shit and garbage”—which she obviously must be, now that she’s fallen in love with someone other than him. It’s everybody’s fault but Brenda’s. He can’t bring himself to blame her (let alone himself).

Stabbing a finger at his mother, who’s dressed in white, he screams, “You’re the fucking nurse!” He means the villainous nurse from the Nathaniel And Isabel storybooks of their youth—that insatiable antagonist who’s always after those two innocent children, even though they simply want to be free. And together. “I refuse to be an audience for this,” Bernard mutters, and he walks off.

However shall Billy explain this one away? “I don’t know what happened that day,” he tells Brenda. “I was on new meds. They weren’t working. It wasn’t my fault.” Billy knows just the right words to absolve himself of responsibility. Brenda doesn’t immediately swallow his usual patter, though. She was summoned by their parents earlier that day. They told her that Billy needs to be committed, and wondered if she might speak to him on their behalf. Brenda refused—she’s not about to give that evil nurse any satisfaction, either—but she is shaken. She asks Billy to assure her that she doesn’t need to worry about him. It’s a farce. Brenda’s pretending that he’s not just going to tell her what she wants to hear. Which of course he does.

Brenda can’t resist these boys that are so desperate to please her. Nate comes over, checks his self-respect at the door, and invites Brenda to “pour her guts out.” “I promise not to make it about me,” he coos. Right, because it was so selfish of him to make that Billy-stalking-Nate incident about himself. She demurs, so Nate pushes back hard with a full-blown outreach operation. “I love you, and I need you, and it’s OK for you to need me, too. I want you to need me.” She smiles. “I’m doing the best I can.”

The next morning, though, she pulls away from Nate again. Margaret comes over and unravels a huge swath of Brenda’s history, telling Brenda that Billy didn’t actually try to kill himself that one summer before she was going to Yale. In fact, he had set fire to the house while trying to make a bomb. He had written deranged screeds about Margaret, Bernard, and even Brenda. Margaret and Bernard had sent him to an institution not because Billy had tried to off himself, but because they “had no choice.” And so Brenda’s gone, and Nate’s powerless to help.

At least there’s the family business to make Nate feel useful. Informed of Angela’s firing, Nate decides enough is enough and seeks out Rico at Kroehner. Rico’s not terribly happy there, so he agrees to come home. But “it’s not for good,” he warns.

David is spending a lot of time in his fantasy world, and the more reality fails to measure up, the more he retreats. His evening vacuuming the slumber room gives way to an ebullient musical fantasy. “You’re alive, so come on and show it!” cries Broadway David. It’s some part of himself reminding David, hey, you are alive…right?

Technically. But he feels more dead. And frankly, Broadway David is part of the problem. David is tired of his own company. Square-dancin’ Kurt provided a momentary diversion, but with Kurt out of the picture, David’s increasingly desperate for a human connection. More specifically a raw connection—one in which he can lose himself, because good lord, he is sick of himself.

His unstable state leads him to fantasize that a homeless man in the food line might ask for a side of blowjob with his mashed potatoes. And after hearing that Keith is going to be volunteering to serve dinners on a different night, David even makes nice to squeaky little Tracy Montrose Blair—who’s bewildered by David’s sudden attentions—in order to reunite with his ex.

Seeing Keith again sends David into his most operatic fantasy yet. The blowjob-requesting fellow from the other day returns to betray David and stab him from behind. So heartless! So cruel! But Keith, suddenly decked out in his tight-fitting LAPD duds, avenges David with a blast from his manly, potent revolver. David ends up in Keith’s arms. David can’t die, Keith implores. “Not before we make love one last time.” David thinks about it: “OK!”

Back to reality, a little less romantic. Although David and Keith spend a nice night together, laughing at Nate’s piss picture and eating bad tacos, there’s a certain hunger in David’s eyes that never leaves. David brings Keith back to his place, as Keith wants to talk some more. He’s been worried about David since seeing him experimenting with drugs at the club—he watched his sister ruin herself with the same stuff, apparently.

But David doesn’t want to talk. The hunger is raging now. He claws at Keith’s clothing and belt buckle with a ferocity that scares even Keith. This is a guy who has a solid 80 pounds on David, and he’s got fear in his eyes. David pleads, “Can’t we just have sex? It doesn’t have to mean anything.” It’s David’s most pathetic moment yet. Keith’s fear turns to disgust. That’s about how David feels, too.

Claire sticks by Gabe Dimas’ side, searching for a way to heal him. At Gabe’s place, she picks up an electronic game that belonged to his little brother. “That football game used to make this really obnoxious noise when he scored a touchdown,” Gabe says. Claire asks, “You wanna show me how to play it?” She’ll be his little brother if that’s what he needs to fill that void. He declines, but it does inspire him to gather up his little brother’s toys, because the kid next door could use them. Gabe could at least provide that much happiness. Yet Gabe’s mother is enraged that the son who survived would touch these precious artifacts of the son who was lost. Gabe: “She doesn’t even look me in the eye anymore.”

Claire and Gabe spend more of their days together. They stop by the gallery to see that picture of Nate. After a laugh, Gabe apologizes for what he did to Claire months ago—indirectly turning her into the school’s “toe slut” with his indiscretion and insensitivity. It’s a continuation of his apology from the last episode. “That was just me being stupid. I was being really, really, really stupid. I’m sorry.” Having fucked everything else up, he hopes that he can at least right this wrong.

He succeeds, and he knows it, and he wants to preserve it. At school, Claire scares off Gabe’s dickish friend, and Gabe can’t help but smile. She’s the only one who actually gives a crap about him. He tells her that he has to go see his dad in Barstow the next night, so they won’t be able to hang out. “Look, Claire, you don’t have to keep taking care of me,” he says. “I’m not,” she replies. It’s a lie of substance—she is taking care of him—but not a lie of spirit. She doesn’t feel it’s a burden. She loves being needed, and she loves this connection.

Gabe sees it. As she invents a convoluted scheme in which she can tag along for Gabe’s visit, he simply stands there and watches her. He takes her in with true affection. He wouldn’t have looked at her this way before his brother died. The tragedy has left him with the ability to see people as fragile human beings like him. Gabe doesn’t want to let her down. She’s cared for him, and so for the first time in his life, he decides to take care of someone else, even if just for a moment. “OK, meet me after fifth period tomorrow, by the gym,” he says. It has the intended effect: She smiles and feels needed. Then he’s gone.

Outside the gym the next day, Claire makes another one of those lonely phone calls, as she’s done a few times this season. Once again, there’s nobody on the other line. There’s just a stammering voicemail from Gabe that says, in essence, “Thank you” and “Goodbye.”

Claire has had it with these dropped calls. That night, she asks her brother, “Is there something wrong with me? Is there something about me that makes me deserve something like this? … Feeling really close to someone and just having them disappear, like I mean nothing!” Nate suspects that Claire is really upset over the death of their father—after all, Gabe just went to see his father for a day.

Except not. When Claire drops by the Dimas household to get a contact number where she can reach Gabe, Mrs. Dimas tells Claire that Gabe’s father died when Gabe was four years old. As she turns to leave, Claire thinks back to Gabe’s last phone message: “So I guess that’s it. Goodbye, Claire.” She pounds on the front door. “Mrs. Dimas? Mrs. Dimas!” There’s no answer.

Stray Observations:

  • The “Everyone’s Waiting” thread is the special comment thread where you can talk freely about future episodes, foreshadowing, series-long character arcs, and so on. (In other threads, try to keep the all-knowing crystal-ball-gazing to a considerate minimum for the benefit of those who haven’t watched ahead.)
  • So, the question is whether Gabe killed himself or ran away. The fact that Gabe said he was going to see his (dead) father suggests the former. But there’s evidence in the other direction, too. Why would he clear out his locker unless he were packing up to go somewhere? And the episode already featured one story of suicide that turns out to be a misdirection, so it figures that there might be another. I mean, we’ll find out the answer to this question later, but in terms of this episode, the writers go out of their way to make it ambiguous. I don’t remember what I thought the first time I saw this episode.
  • “Look! That’s your son, pissing against the wall.”
  • Ruth: “I thought you hated those pictures.” Nikolai: “No, no! I just didn’t like them, that’s all.”
  • “Does this have a theme, darling? I know you like your things to have a theme, don’t you?”
  • “You know something? I never worked in a funeral home that was this depressing.”

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