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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Six Feet Under: "An Open Book"

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“An Open Book” (Season 1, episode 5; originally aired 7/1/2001)

The actress who plays this episode’s decedent of the week, an aging porn star, gives an entirely believable performance. It’s not just the crazy fake boobs that make Viveca St. John such a full-bodied image of a San Fernando Valley sexpot. There’s also her diction. Coming from her mouth, sentences like “I am one fuckin’ hot-shit bitch, and he’d be fuckin’ lucky to have me” and “He’s got a big, fat dick, an’ he fucks like a jackhammer” are otherworldly—a series of coos, whispers, and snarls. This woman has a different relationship with those words than most people.

Even before the cat dumps her hair curlers into the bathtub, you can tell that Viveca St. John’s fire is dying down. She’s a hot-shit bitch, she tells herself, but then her swagger falls away with a sigh. And while tonight’s date may fuck like a jackhammer, “those never last.” Jean Louise McArthur A.K.A. “Viveca St. John,” 1957-2001.

David makes good on his pledge and attends church with Ruth. He fixes his gaze on a tall, dirty-blond looker in the choir. He smiles a little at his private fantasy, then catches himself, wondering if it really is so private in the presence of God.

After the service, Father Jack politely offers that he’s glad to see David back at church again. When David says that he has been attending another parish—St. Stephen’s in West Hollywood—there’s a moment of realization on Father Jack’s face, and he embraces David with even more enthusiasm. “I think it would be good for this church to listen to a younger voice,” he says with artful euphemism, so would David consider becoming a deacon?

Indeed he would, and David proves extremely adept at navigating his interview with a man who I assume is the local bishop. (Sorry to be vague, but there aren’t many hints, the character isn’t listed in the credits, and my knowledge of Catholic Episcopalian hierarchy is rusty.) David steers the discussion even more capably than a too-eager Father Jack, smoothly responding to the bishop’s questions with the absolute right answer every time.


David is more comfortable telling half-truths to parish elders than he is discussing the matter with the love of his life. His time with Keith should be when he feels safest, but despite his gradual progress, it’s clear he still views their relationship as his secret shame. As they conclude their synergistically beneficial, ironic enjoyment of the acclaimed HBO series Oz, David assumes a familiar position, as he apologizes for asking Keith to sacrifice yet more of their relationship to outside interests.

“I’m sorry. I know that Sundays have been our day,” David says. But being a deacon would be good for the business, he says, and he views it as a chance to effect change. Neither argument is very convincing. The real reason he’s attracted to the deacon role is that he knows how to answer the questions that come with it. The same does not go for Keith or St. Stephen’s.


As this truth dawns on Keith, he becomes angrier than ever. Yes, David essentially comes out to Nate during a chance encounter at brunch, but David’s only in it for the momentary thrill and shock value. This relationship is an outlet for his repressed desires; it’s still not his main gig, so to speak. He’s delighted by the illicitness of it.

For the second episode in a row, when a person with a dual identity finds their way to Fisher & Sons, David naturally gravitates to the more uninhibited aspects of her spirit. He doesn’t want to talk to Jean Louise McArthur. He wants to talk to Viveca St. John. And so his internal conversation advances a notch. Paco forced David to admit that he was a “fag,” and Viveca wants him to define what that means. Is it equivalent to being a whore? No, he says, but he sure acts like it.


Case in point: Later, when Nate asks David about Keith, the excitement of his surprise revelation is gone—just like Viveca said, those big thrills never last. So David snaps that Keith is “just a friend.” It’s not fun for him anymore, and he doesn’t want to answer the questions. For that reason, of course he doesn’t ask Keith to join him at Father Jack’s service. Keith isn’t wrong when he calls David a “coward” and leaves his equivocating ass stranded in a parking lot yet again.

The Nate-as-blank-character theory gets some fodder in “An Open Book.” Nate does little but react in this episode. Just as he was finding his footing with one Chenowith (although inscrutable Brenda still “scares” him), he’s buffeted by four of them. The Chenowiths don’t so much meet Nate as they happen to him. Nate’s naked when he meets the parents, in an encounter that may or may not have been chance. And then brother Billy Chenowith is practically naked when he meets Nate, which is even more unnerving.


Of course, the encounter with Billy is just one turning point in the psychological maelstrom that hits Nate this week. Margaret bullies him into a dinner with herself and Bernard—but not, as it turns out, Brenda. If Nate was wearied by Brenda’s unrelenting psychoanalysis, he’s consumed by Margaret, who’s a high-test version of her daughter. It takes her three sentences to turn Nate’s choice of wine into a referendum on Brenda’s self-image: “She likes to think of herself as being wildly countercultural, but I think she’s actually just jealous of the fact that Bern and I were hippies—oh, briefly.” Nate wants a beer and ends up settling for bourbon. Therefore: “Manly but not elitist. Just her type!” And this is when the discussion hasn’t even advanced beyond beverage selection.

While Margaret’s go-to tactic is to overwhelm, Bernard deflects. He speaks very little. He rarely makes eye contact. Some of his lines are dry, mild jokes, and others are delivered with a verbal shrug, never fully engaging in a conversation. It’s like all of life is a therapy session, and he’s just there to let the other guy talk.


We learn about a couple of books. First is Nathaniel And Isabel, the story of two orphans who are forever eluding the clutches of a “a malevolent nurse.” It’s “typical infantile wish-fulfillment,” says Margaret. As she fills the frame dressed head-to-toe in sanitarium white, it’s not hard to guess why Brenda and Billy were so attracted to this tale.

Then there’s Charlotte Light And Dark, the detailed psychological study of a young, “scarily brilliant,” rebellious Brenda. She’s understandably tired of hearing about it, saying to Nate, “Now you’re going to read that book and think you know me.” It would be a very Nate move here for him to say that he won’t read the book, because perhaps that would please Brenda. Nate always aims to please.


Except he can’t resist reading the book. He craves that information. He doesn’t know Brenda because, as he points out, she won’t let him. In this episode, we gain a clearer understanding of why. Having spent a childhood being examined and explained, she’s designed her entire personality to prevent anyone from understanding her. Her biggest fear is that her being can indeed be summed up in one of Margaret’s trite psycho-declarations or that her soul can be explicated in the notes of Gareth Feinberg, Ph.D.

If that’s all there is to her, what kind of existence is that? She’s fighting to mean something, and part of her believes that it’s a losing battle. “I think it’s all just totally random,” she tells Nate at the conclusion of the episode. “We live, we die. Ultimately, nothing means anything. … Sometimes I wake up so fuckin’ empty, I wish I’d never been born, but what choice do I have?”


During her confrontation with Nate after his exhausting dinner, Brenda puts every arrow in her emotional quiver to use. As much as she reviles her parents, she borrows tactics from both of them. Sometimes she analyzes Nate, unearthing the emotional truth behind his words and using that to embarrass him. When Nate calls her out for playing that game, though, she switches up her moves and turns into Bernard. “You want to make me feel stupid for being suspicious? Well, give me a reason not to be!” Nate says. Brenda goes quiet, looks away, and deflects. “I just want to know what this is for you. Am I another step along your way?” It seems earnest enough. And somehow the question becomes about whether Brenda should trust Nate and not the other way around. The turnabout is remarkable, made even more so by how naturally Brenda accomplishes it.

Claire’s guidance counselor addresses a problem that the show has hinted at since the pilot: Claire feels that she missed out on some previous era during which the family was happy. For her part, Claire says that actually she thinks the family has never been happy, but that’s her way of saying essentially the same thing.


That’s the starting point for Claire and Ruth’s conversation: going back to earlier, happier times. With a heartbreakingly sweet smile, Ruth fumbles with a couple of videos from Blockbuster and asks Claire, “Remember, when you were in middle school, you and I used to go to the movies every Monday night? Remember how much fun we had?” Yes, Claire remembers, but they can’t go back. Movie night fizzles, and when Claire unloads a frighteningly honest retelling of the stolen-foot saga on Ruth, that’s the end of this fleeting attempt to reconnect.

The second round is a visit to Claire’s cousin Hannah and her daughter, Ginnie, in San Bernardino. It’s a test of Claire’s claim that “those touchy-feely mother-daughter relationships like you see on TV” don’t exist in real life. Well, Claire, here’s one. Ginnie and Hannah giggle at the same TV shows and fawn over the same gym instructors. Claire would like to go to college in New York, while Ginnie is happy going to “Cal State right here in San Berdoo!” She gets to be close to her mom, which is great, because she loves her mom, and she’s “not ashamed of it,” mwah mwah mwah kiss kiss kiss. Ruth is delighted. Can’t Claire see how nice this is?


All we need to know about Hannah and Ginnie is that they’re obsessed with spinning class, a venue in which people expend a great deal of energy to go nowhere. When Hannah waxes rhapsodic on how spinning her wheels helped her recover from divorce and equates this to Ruth’s experience with Nathaniel, Ruth sees the loving mother and daughter for what they are: a couple of girls who have worked hard to preserve their relationship in amber and defend it against the passage of time.

You can try to do that with a divorce, Ruth points out, because Ginnie’s father is still around. But death doesn’t give survivors the option of standing pat. Ginnie doesn’t get it. She wants everyone to come to spinning class. It solves everything! But that isn’t going to work for the Fisher women, and Ruth now realizes this. Having found common cause, the two redheads hightail it out of there.


Since going back to the past won’t work, and neither will standing still, the only option left is to move ahead. Ruth takes the first step, confessing her affair the moment they arrive home from San Bernardino. It’s the starkest example yet of the sadness that Claire has sensed in her mother all along. Claire feels an urge to help. “So help,” says her guidance counselor.

That’s how Claire ends up asking Ruth if she’d like to go see a movie on Monday night. It’s not a reversion to an earlier time; it’s a reversal. Now, Claire is the one taking Ruth out. So Claire matches Ruth’s move, and they take an awkward step forward.


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.)
  • Another reason that the actress who played Viveca St. John was so comfortable in the role is that she is, in fact, a porn star. Her name is Veronica Hart, but according to IMDB, her real name is Jane Esther Hamilton. So Jane Esther Hamilton A.K.A. Veronica Hart played Jean Louise McArthur A.K.A. Viveca St. John. That’s a lotta names.
  • Rico fixes Viveca St. John’s boobs by sticking a can of cat food under each one. A question for the industry experts among the readership: Could this type of thing actually happen?
  • Here is Brenda’s response to Nate’s entirely accurate accusation that she “mind-fucks” him for her personal entertainment: “I’m sorry I’m not some well-behaved little nothing who never challenges you, but if that’s what you’re looking for, you might as well just leave right now.” Man. She’s good.
  • By the same coin, man, is Rachel Griffiths good. Watch the loneliness and envy that wash across her face when Nate says that he believes in something.
  • Does anyone know the name of the character actor who plays the bishop?
  • The applause throughout Viveca St. John’s funeral service is funny, but my favorite part is when the mourners applaud a mention of Dirty Larry 3 and a guy in the third row shrugs like, “Eh, it wasn’t that great.”
  • “This is an entire movie about expelling gas.”
  • “Oh my God, I think David is gay!”
  • Tracy Montrose Blair has a tattoo. It’s a butterfly.
  • No writeup next week, as I’ll be traveling. See you back here July 12 for an episode I remember fondly, “The Room.”