Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Six Feet Under: “The Opening”

Illustration for article titled Six Feet Under: “The Opening”

“The Opening” (season three, episode nine; originally aired 4/27/2003)

Melinda Bloch’s suicide is notable less for the moment of death than for all the implied moments of planning before it. Melinda sets clothes aside for friends and family. She collects her cat’s vet records in one place. There’s a box of CDs for John. Melinda arranges all of this with a set jaw and a sense of purpose. You can tell she’s been thinking about this for a long time. She knew exactly how she’d do it. Only when she glimpses the label on her mix tape—“FOR MELINDA”—does she allow herself a bit of emotion. Otherwise, she exhibits grim pride in a long-held plan, executed perfectly. Melinda Mary Bloch, 1965-2003.

Roughly speaking, this episode kicks off the final act of Six Feet Under’s third season. This is the point at which so many fundamental tensions between characters, which have been allowed to exist in the realm of the implicit, begin to creep into the spotlight of the explicit. Six Feet Under believes in putting emotional pressure on its characters, swaddling them in self-repression, and watching how that pressure squirts out. (It’s a lot like Mad Men in that respect.) Yes, the conflicts eventually come to a head. But it takes a long time to get there. That’s because the show insists that all those inadequate release valves we create for ourselves—like David hiring a hooker in Las Vegas; Nate stopping by the side of the road to masturbate; Ruth building her “blueprint”—are more telling and fascinating than the final, climactic release (if that ever comes).

Most great dramas work this way. It’s just that Six Feet Under places special emphasis on repression. That makes it momentous when the characters, having explored themselves for a long while, open up and attempt to let some light into their psyches. Hence “The Opening.” Near the beginning of this episode, Lisa confronts Nate with a truth she’s never expressed so directly before: He’s more interested in being a father than in being a husband. This is not only obvious but often humiliating for Lisa, as she points out. Nate’s responses do nothing to reassure her. “Oh, God. I give you love, Lisa. I fuckin’ give you love every day,” he says, in his version of a Hallmark greeting. “I just don’t have anything else for you. I just don’t.” Perhaps, he suggests, they should just split up.

This is the collapse that Lisa has been dreading, and in one brief scene, we see her face wracked with fear and bewilderment as she clutches Maya and considers what will come next. The love of her life—the man she’s practically idolized—cares for their child much more than he cares for her. In Lisa’s situation, how do you keep yourself from questioning everything? From mentally lashing yourself over your terrible choices? It would be impossible, yet Lisa has to tamp down her inner turmoil at least for one night, for the sake of Claire’s art opening.

It seems that she can handle it. Then Brenda shows up, making Lisa’s plight so much worse. After being made to “introduce” herself at the hors d’oeuvres table, Brenda confronts Lisa in the ladies’ room to ask, in essence, what the hell? Lisa, looking small and frightened, finally loses it. Her snooping excursion to Brenda’s spa, which seemed so mischievous yet justified to Lisa at the time, now seems as “weird and dishonest and kind of stalker-ish” as Brenda says it is. Lisa is newly unnerved by Nate’s ability to make her act strangely—like someone other than herself. Release valves often feel foreign in retrospect. Who was that person doing those things?


Inside the beautiful plastic pyramid that serves as the centerpiece of the art opening, Nate and Lisa reach a new understanding—a new start, as Nate puts it. “Maybe it’s enough to just stop pretending,” Nate offers, and Lisa is thrown at first, but she knows what he means. We’ll still be friends, and we’ll still be lovers, he explains, “without all the pressure to be something we’re not.” She doesn’t have to pretend he’s going to be her one true love, and he doesn’t have to pretend that his “devoted father and husband” shtick is anything more than half-true. There’s a functional appeal to their agreement, but it does rather glaringly sidestep the whole notion that human beings desire companionship. That’s what they’re proposing, after all: a marriage with everything but companionship.

As they come to a peace with their new reality, the door to the pyramid opens, loudly, and Brenda pokes her head in. It’s an “I’m still here!” moment, even if Brenda doesn’t intend it to be. Arranged in a triangle with Brenda at a distant vertex, they talk about the pyramid and about themselves at the same time. Brenda remarks that while she expected the sculpture to act as a purposefully tacky commentary on a sacred object, she finds herself moved by it. So, too, did she struggle to reconcile her intellectual distaste for the tame domesticity of life with Nate with the fact that his presence, when they were together, could make her feel less awful about herself.


Lisa says the message of the pyramid is that “modern life isn’t so bad”—like, maybe the shrink-wrapped, passionless nuclear-family thing could work! Nate offers a different slant. He invokes the millennium-spanning form of the pyramid when he suggests, “Even though we feel like we’ve lost touch with this authentic history, there’s a continuity we don’t even realize.” Nate says this to Brenda, which is fitting, as he’s talking about her. He was always attracted to her “authenticity,” and he still carries her with him.

Brenda finds Nate’s reading “really comforting.” But watch Lisa’s face in this same stretch. Her expression is pained; she desperately wants Nate to concur with her interpretation and move on with their new, non-pretending life together. The thing is, even as they’ve opened up to each other, they’ve still just found a new way to pretend. He knows it, and she knows it, and Lisa immediately feels the pressure of sustaining this fresh myth.


That’s not to say that the myths we create around ourselves are unimportant. Claire learns this lesson in an embarrassing way. She’s put a price of $75 on her gallery debut, a backlit photograph of two “mourners” chilling in lawn chairs at a cemetery. It’s low, but Claire reasons that she’s young and unproven, so how could she feel justified in asking for more?

Russell has less compunction; his copper-plated helix sculpture is priced at $500. He recognizes that the price is a statement, both for the artist and for the buyer. From the artist’s end, it’s a bald declaration of self-worth. For the buyer, it’s an expression of status. Why does nobody buy Claire’s photograph? Because no social climber wants to be seen with a $75 work hanging on their wall, or shelling out a measly $75 at a charity event, for that matter. This is quite stupid, but the art market—the messy collision of authentic expression, capitalistic calculation, and social status—is madness. That’s why, when Olivier scolds his students for obsessing over pricing, even as he puts his work up for sale at a whopping $20,000, he’s both hypocritical and correct, which goes for so much of what Olivier says.


There’s a level of funny meta-commentary going on with the reactions to Claire’s piece. Given its subject matter, the photograph acts as a stand-in for Six Feet Under itself, so we get to hear how the characters might react to the show they inhabit. This dynamic is most vivid when David and Keith appraise the piece. “It’s dark,” David says with a frown, but Keith disagrees: “I think it’s kind of funny.” They go another round, with David arguing the message is “What’s the point?” while Keith’s takeaway is “Life goes on.” It’s all true of Six Feet Under at different times, and in different eyes, which is why the show is such a fascinating pleasure. (As Arthur observes in a later scene, “Great art often provokes controversy.”)

The art opening is also fun because so many characters are gathered in one place. It provides a chance for Claire and Billy to enjoy a little reunion. Claire learns that in Billy’s art-student days, he served as yet another notch on Olivier’s belt. Claire, who is clearly tired of hearing these stories, asks, “Wasn’t that sort of a fucked-up power dynamic?” Billy says, “It’s always a fucked-up power dynamic in sex, isn’t it?” Later, when Russell tells Claire that Olivier bought his helix sculpture, he chalks it up to Olivier’s “whole power thing.” You can be sure that Claire hears the echo. She chooses to ignore it for now, but this relationship’s time for openness is nearing.


While Claire and Russell have some issues of trust they need to air out, they are paragons of open expression in comparison to Ruth and Arthur. Like Lisa and Nate (and yet also quite unlike them), Ruth and Arthur have come to an agreement in which they exist somewhere on the continuum between friendship and lovers. Note the name of Arthur’s composition that Ruth adores so much: He calls it “Semi-Precious.” Arthur prefers stones to gems, like to love, and company to sex.

Ruth wants to be precious to Arthur, but she’s doomed to only get halfway. When they’re horsing around on the bed, and when Arthur asks, “Might I remove my glasses?” Ruth chooses to perceive it as a prelude to something more intimate. But for Arthur, this is the main event. Her ruby-studded dreams are dashed by his garnet-studded contentment. She wants this dalliance to advance. What is she going to say at this point, though, that hasn’t already been said? And given that his innocence is such a large part of his appeal to her, how loudly can she really protest?


Meanwhile, David is coping with a certain loss of innocence, as he finds himself a bit confused after the three-way with Sarge. It’s not that David didn’t enjoy the adventure, but he’s unsure where the boundaries are now. As I wrote last week, David only became truly uncomfortable with Sarge when he felt that Sarge was intruding in their home rather than just their bed. It’s an important distinction for David, and we see it again this week when their latest plaything loudly stumbles around before he leaves in the morning. David is in agony, and it’s all over his face: He just wants this person out of his home.

Because the problem is unclear boundaries, David and Keith’s therapist quite reasonably suggests they set some ground rules. The trouble with that approach, though, emerges when Keith’s eye drifts at a bar later that night. Keith invites David to join him in finding someone to fuck, and David reminds him about the rules—“I thought we were supposed to be negotiating that.” Keith makes the least possible effort to engage, essentially saying, yeah yeah yeah, no kissing, fine great super, let’s get on with it. (When David suggests they invite his choir buddy Patrick, Keith makes one rule of his own—“nobody we know”—but what Keith really means is “no Patricks allowed.”) The whole excitement of the orgy thing for Keith is that it takes place outside the rules—ditto on the furtive pot smoking. The more David manages and litigates that energy, the less appealing it becomes to Keith.


It’s important to note that the one rule David does get to make is a rule that preserves certain acts of intimacy exclusively for himself and Keith. That’s what David is fighting to maintain here: the sense that he and Keith have something special. More specifically, he wants the sense that he means something special to Keith, and that he is not just a source of excitement that will inevitably run out at some point. The logical extension of David’s doubts is wonderment around the question of why he and Keith are together at all. It’s a question he put aside for much of the season, having concluded (not unreasonably) that it was solved, or at least settled. But he may need to raise it again.

The decedent of the week frightens both Rico and Nate in different ways. Nate is spooked because he sees himself in the boyfriend who left Melinda despite her insistence that she’d kill herself without him. It’s not hard for Nate to put himself in the role of the guy who ought to care more but just does not. Rico, however, is more focused on the parallel between Melinda and Vanessa, who remains in a haze of depression months after her mother died—and weeks after starting on psych medication.


It’s a given by now that Rico’s attempts to “heal” Vanessa have been self-serving and clumsy. But this episode portrays the void between Rico and Vanessa with more poignancy than in the past. Vanessa’s expression shows a spark of life when she walks into her living room and finds Rico has dressed it up with candlelight and soft music. She doesn’t see it as romantic, which is Rico’s aim, but she does see it as “nice,” which he ought to recognize as fragile progress. He does not. Instead, he reminds her, twice, that she can try different psych medication if her current pills aren’t working, and then he gives her a rather overeager backrub. Vanessa’s smile fades, and the blankness returns.

What if this evening had gone a different way? What if, instead of condescending to Vanessa and making obvious attempts to arouse her libido, Rico had nurtured that initial glimmer of delight by sitting down with Vanessa to have a quiet, authentic conversation with her? That would have had an impact, as Rico never actually speaks to his wife anymore. He nags her; he scolds her; he cajoles her; he coos at her in a transparent, sickly sweet attempt to comfort her.


Compare this to Rico’s conversations at the funeral home, where he speaks from the heart with the Fisher brothers about matters of life and love. Those earnest talks provide the kind of introspection and deep human contact that could help Vanessa, but it’s not a quick solution, so it doesn’t even occur to Rico. Instead of connecting with her, he seeks to give her a pill or say just the right thing to make her sadness go away. Every interaction Rico has with Vanessa is calculated to fix her up, but all that does is reinforce Vanessa’s feeling that she is broken. Far from ameliorating her depression, he’s made her so desperate that now she, too, is looking for the quick fix, so she accepts an unprescribed cocktail of psych drugs from a fellow nurse at work. It would be such a boon to Vanessa if Rico would open himself up to her. Maybe he doesn’t do so because he’s afraid of what they both would find.

Stray observations:

  • As usual, please make an effort to restrict your conversation of upcoming episodes to the first comment thread. This way, people who haven’t seen all of the show yet can collapse that thread to preserve the surprise if they so desire.
  • I didn’t have a good spot in the main review to get into it, but it’s nice to see a new aspect of Brenda’s character explored as she reverts to some childhood sibling bonding with Billy (even to the extent of griping about Billy’s friend who farted on her pillow when they were in grade school).
  • Before the opening, Billy tells Brenda he has a new work on exhibit, but “it might suck.” Margaret says, “That’s okay. It’s for charity.” Brenda says, “I’m sure it doesn’t suck.” It’s a snapshot, for those tuning in late, of how Billy’s mother and sister relate to him.
  • When your daughter has just walked in on you being ravaged from behind by your brother’s former art school teacher, there may be no perfect words to mark the occasion. But even if there were, I’m pretty sure that “Brenda, I bought a painting!” are not them.
  • I would like to sit in that pyramid.