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Classic Television Rundown: Six Feet Under, Season One, Episode Five: "An Open Book"

Six Feet Under

Season One, Episode Five: "An Open Book"
Written by Alan Ball
Directed by Kathy Bates
Brenda: Sometimes I wake up so fucking empty, I wish I'd never been born, but what choice do I have?
When I started going through this exercise of re-watching the series of Six Feet Under from the perspective of a television recap specialist, I began to dread re-watching this episode a little bit. Granted, the two things I remembered from this episode are memories of the actual episode and memories of how I originally watched the episode: the death-of-the-week is a slightly hammy over-the-hill former porn star named Viveca St. John, who most definitely fits the slightly hammy over-the-top character description that fits pretty much every character on his current series True Blood. And, personally, the porny opening scene was one I was watching on my computer in my sophomore year of college when my roommate Paal walked into the room. I'm not entirely sure he knew that it wasn't real porn I was watching; not that it really matters. Humiliation central.

So, I'm happy to report that this particular episode is much less hammy than I remembered it and was packed full of good scenes that I didn't originally remember in their context. What a relief.

The title of the episode most directly relates to the revelation of Brenda's mysterious tattoos. Long story short, her Nathaniel tattoo matches her brother Billy's (played by the uber-handsome Jeremy Sisto) Isabel tattoo. After meeting strange with Billy (he came out of her shower in a towel and said weird stuff to Nate), we learned that the brother-sister duo of Brenda and Billy was developed to be weird because of their ultra-intellectual psychologist parents, Bernard and Margaret(*), who invited Nate to their house for dinner under the pretense of a family get-together, which ended up only being the parents and Nate. Awkwardness and psychoanalysis ensues, and immediately we start to understand why Brenda is so messed up.

(*)Portrayed by Robert Foxworth and Joanna Cassidy, who expertly portray extreme snobbery. Joanna Cassidy also appeared in Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead, which is, as the tagline goes, "Home Alone Times Five."

Meanwhile, David begins to explore the idea of becoming a Deacon at St. Bartholomew, the Fisher family church. Led by Father Bob, the now-named priest who officiated Nathaniel's funeral, David's candidacy and subsequent entry into the Deacon profession drives a wedge between Keith and him. Keith is at first supportive of his candidacy, but as it becomes more clear to him that it means David will be hiding his homosexuality more and spending less time with him, he eventually is unhappy about it.

Ruth and Claire begin seeing the school psychologist, and while Ruth initially goes on the defensive with her admitting having had sex with Gabe, the two of them find they have more in common when they visit her ultra-chipper cousin and her ultra-chipper daughter, who do things like play Scrabble, take spin class at 5:30 and have crushes on the same men ("Mom and I have the hugest crush on the spinning instructor at the Y. He is hot hot hot!"), and try to compare divorce to the death of Nathaniel. The scenes featuring this group had more in common with Alan Ball's typical sitcomesque writing early in the series, but with the knowledge of the characters we had at this point, came off as fun and touching.

Meanwhile, the funeral of Viveca St. John came off as a lot less wacky and a lot more subtle than I remembered it. Okay, the scenes featuring crying porn stars (including a cameo by Sandra Oh) are wacky. But it all pays off when David envisions the church pews full of gay men and a Marilyn Monroe-like version of Ms. St. John blowing him a kiss. The result, as it frequently is early in the first season of Six Feet Under, is a beautiful image that speaks more words than most scenes on television. Unfortunately, David, who earlier in the episode came as close to coming out of the closet as he ever had, gets back into the closet when Nate, after church, asks where Keith is, in which David shoots back, "He's just a friend!"

Eventually, the "open book" we really learn about, aside from the Nathaniel & Isabel books that Brenda and Billy worshipped, is the "Charlotte: Light and Dark" book about Brenda's childhood. Suddenly, a character who appeared to be one thing is something completely different: brilliant, confused, funny, depressed, in need of love. Nate's steadfast stubbornness(**) (or, some might say, arrogance) in his assumptions of her life start to create the friction that begins to move the plot forward even more. Brenda's words that close the episode (that are quoted above) leave us with a very unsteady feeling at the end. It's that feeling, about having an archetype in mind and then very quickly dashing that archetype, that makes the first season of Six Feet Under so effective.

(**)Some might call this the Brandon Walsh syndrome. A male character, who truly thinks he is doing the right thing by trying to control a situation, is affected by this disease. Other characters on TV that have the Brandon Walsh syndrome: Dan Humphrey from Gossip Girl. Any others who you can think of?

Grade: A-

Memorable quotes:
  • "I prefer the term 'fuck puppet.'" -Brenda, while being introduced as Nate's girlfriend to David and Keith.
  • "Oh boo hoo! I grew up in a 2 room apartment over a barber shop and I spent teenage years taking care of my grandmother after one one or both of her legs were amputated. Life's hard!" -Ruth, in the student counselor's office to Claire.
  • "She was a star, you know?" "And I can assure you, we will give her a funeral that befits the star that she was and always will be. "You know who she was?" "Absolutely, and I am a big fan of hers." -Back and forth between David and the porn producer. David's naivete and proper manners are quite hilarious.
  • "It's an entire movie about expelling gas." -Ruth, on The Nutty Professor.
  • Nice cross-promotional opportunity by HBO having David and Keith watch an episode of Oz while watching television.
  • "Manly but not elitist. Just her type." -Margaret, on Nate's choice of bourbon with regard to how attractive Brenda would find it.
  • "H-E-L-L." "H-E-L-L-O! Hello!" -Claire and her blond counterpart in Scrabble.
  • Directed by Kathy Bates (yes, that Kathy Bates), who also directed a few other episodes and eventually starts to guest star in later episodes.
  • Yes, that's a box of Living Splendor that Nate is holding, the same product that is advertised in the pilot's absolutely terrible mock commercials for death industry products. I can only assume Alan Ball responsible for this, as he wrote both episodes. When something like this happens on Six Feet Under, or a vampire talks about how there should be equal rights for vampires on True Blood, I shake my fist and yell, "You just can't help yourself, Alan!"
Finally, here are the links to the episode itself:
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

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