“Nobody Sleeps” (season three, episode four; originally aired 3/23/2003)
It’s a riff party! Take one copy of the 1956 black-and-white thriller The Bad Seed, add a dozen or so witty gay men, and you’ve got yourself a fun evening. Sitting toward the back of the room, an older man, clearly ill, laughs and holds his partner’s hand as the men toss out zingers. Then his body goes slack. This doesn’t escape the notice of his partner, whose face contorts into a question mark. Can it be over just like that? The rest of the group is still yelling jokes at the screen, and the bereaved lover does nothing to stop them. Amid this raucous celebration, two men share their last quiet moment. Robert Lamar Giffin, 1955-2003.
Structurally, this is one of the simplest episodes of Six Feet Under. “Nobody Sleeps” focuses on three celebrations—and more specifically on the quiet personal moments that take place amid those celebrations. We have Ruth’s birthday party, which gets off to a shaky start but gets better as it goes along (for most of the attendees, at least). There’s Claire and Russell’s booze-soaked night out with two huge egos from the art world. And finally, there’s the opera-themed funeral for Bob Giffin.
David struggles with the preparations for that last one. He’s open to the plan presented by Kevin, Bob’s partner of 22 years, to construct a lavish stage presentation based on Puccini’s Turandot for Bob’s funeral. But he’s not thrilled about it. The flamboyance of the celebration annoys David. He sees it fitting into a stereotype he assiduously avoids, and it makes him even touchier than usual. He hates being perceived as The Gay Fisher—as a character or a curiosity.
The thing is, it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy in this episode. David jumps at any chance to take offense, and Rico gives him plenty of opportunities. In the embalming room, Rico recalls, with growing enthusiasm, the inanity of an opera he once attended: “These lame-ass knights, they were just prancing around and singing at the top of the lungs. It was all so—” David, with indignation meter turned to maximum: “GAY?” Rico claims he wasn’t going to say it was “gay,” and I believe him. On the other hand, that’s clearly what he meant. It was a borderline thing that would have passed by the wayside. David’s fulmination is what pushes the moment into conflict.
The same goes for a later encounter between David and Rico, when Bob Giffin’s Prince Albert piercing leads into a conversation about dicks and balls. Rico says to David, “You know what I’ve been noticing a lot lately? A lot of guys coming in with their balls shaved. What’s that about?” Again, this exchange exists on an edge of interpretation. David could interpret it as a male-bonding moment. Guys talk about dicks, after all. Dicks are one thing they all have in common. Or you could see it as a “Hey, David, you’re gay, so you must know all about this, right?” (It’s a testament to the writing and performance that you could really see it either way.) David chooses the latter interpretation, passive-aggressively subjecting Rico to a snippy monologue about the state of David’s pubic hair. It has the intended effect, but for once, Rico doesn’t seem like the biggest asshole in the room.
David reserves his most sneering indignation for Kevin’s exuberance and libido. He thinks that Kevin’s opera treatment “cheapens” the relationship. He recoils when he learns Bob slept around throughout his relationship with Kevin. And he’s shocked when the grieving Bob leers at a carpenter’s ass. In David’s mind, this behavior only encourages those who might associate homosexuality with tawdry lust.
Yet during the funeral, we see David’s perspective quietly and suddenly shift as he listens to Kevin’s eulogy. “For 22 years, we shared our hearts, our bodies, our souls,” Kevin says. “It wasn’t always easy. It wasn’t always fun. But it was always worth it.” It occurs to David that he is guilty of the very stereotyping he abhorred. He was defining Kevin on the basis of his flamboyance, and he missed the reality that all that flash coexisted with an intimate, profound relationship. (David could have picked up on this earlier, like when Kevin said, “Bob and I were together for 22 years, so I’m his family.” But he wasn’t listening for it.)
The funeral concludes with an aria, “Nessun dorma,” which is sung in Turandot by a suitor, Calaf, who has struck a deal with a princess he intends to marry: If she can guess his name by dawn, she can kill him. If not, she has to marry him as planned. Calaf is confident he’ll win the bet, and he proves an important point. Killing is an act of hatred, and how can the princess hate Calaf if she doesn’t even know him? David reaches a similar conclusion. He thinks he despises Kevin, but all he despises is an idea in his own head. He doesn’t hate Kevin at all. In fact, once he gets to know the man, he discovers—like the princess in Turandot—a warm affection that would have been there all along, if he’d allowed it to happen.
Ruth’s party appears to be doomed from the outset. Lisa insists it has to happen, because Ruth has been kind enough to let her and Nate live on the Fisher homestead. For his part, Nate insists that it’s folly. (So does David, in a separate scene.) “My mother never wants us to do anything for hers. We never do. It’s worked out great so far,” Nate says. The classic Fisher approach to family harmony.
Lisa is stubborn, though. “Just because someone tells you not to do something doesn’t mean they don’t want you to do it,” she says. It’s another one of those lines that cuts two ways. Lisa could genuinely desire to show Ruth a good time. She could also be fighting off guilt—guilt from living under Ruth’s roof after she essentially cast Ruth out of Lisa and Nate’s home.
I’ll place my bets on both, but the guilt is probably a stronger impetus. At the end of the previous episode, “The Eye Inside,” Lisa tells a wary Ruth that it’s okay for Ruth to pick up the baby. But Ruth is still so skittish from being chewed out in the peanut butter incident that she won’t even touch Maya. That quite rightly made Lisa feel like an ass. The birthday dinner is a chance for her to make good. And the fact that the rest of Ruth’s family won’t even bother to celebrate her “special day” only encourages Lisa. It makes her gesture all the more grand by contrast.
But then there’s Bettina. Bettina celebrates Ruth routinely and reflexively, and not just on special occasions. Lisa views herself as a savior for looking past Ruth’s meek, don’t-mind-me attitude, while Bettina views it as a matter of course. And Ruth loves it. Bettina gives Ruth all the bluster Ruth never had, without any of the repercussions. When Bettina throws a fit at the dentist’s office (and how funny is it that Ruth makes a dental appointment on her birthday), Ruth gets to be the giggly, eye-rolling friend who promises to reschedule.
Bettina grants Ruth a reprieve from her own recriminations, too. In a vulnerable moment at the spa, Ruth admits she cheated on Nathaniel Sr. She expresses her enduring guilt. Bettina responds: “Hey. You gotta let go of that. It’s done. Move on.” Here’s an issue so complicated that Ruth spent much of Six Feet Under’s first season contending with it. Bettina waves it away, simple as that. And when Ruth is with Bettina, it really is that simple. If you want to understand why Ruth loves her new friend—although it’s not that hard—this exchange sums it up.
Lisa’s not so fond of Ruth’s new friend, though. Not at first, anyway. She threatens (though not purposely) to upstage Lisa, who has a prim, respectable Ruth Fisher-esque dinner planned. Meanwhile, Bettina wants to move the dinner table out of the way so they can dance a little before they fill themselves full of food and wine. The implication: Everyday Ruth Fisher eats at the dinner table. Birthday party Ruth Fisher cuts a rug.
This episode is one of my favorite mini-arcs for Lisa, because she rolls with it. Yes, she pouts when the Bettina whirlwind swoops into town, and she self-pityingly washes dishes while the rest of the party is giggling over David and Keith’s vacation pictures. But in time, she rolls with it. She gives Ruth a goofy coupon for a foot massage, and she gives the massage right then and there. (Nate: “What happened to the bath salts?” Lisa: “It seemed too impersonal.” Yeah, you think?) She gets swept up in the joy of the evening.
Nate does not. In an episode where, as the title says, nobody sleeps—because they’re too amped up on the energy of the people around them—Nate sleeps. He’s more isolated than ever in this episode. He sees Lisa growing closer to Ruth, in more ways than one, and it troubles him. When the episode opens, he has a dream where he wakes up next to Ruth in bed. Before the party, he walks into the kitchen to be greeted by Lisa and Ruth, practically mirror images of each other in their dowdy aprons. And once the celebration is in full swing, he’s tormented by a vision of his mother and his wife bringing each other to giddy heights of arousal.
As foreshadowed in the closing moments of “The Eye Inside,” Nate’s world is growing smaller, and he feels his freedom being strangled along with it. Inevitably, his late-night nap features an appearance by Nathaniel Sr. You’re becoming me, the patriarch says, although not in so many words: “Want a little time to yourself? I know this great little Indian restaurant in Hollywood. The owner will give you the room upstairs.” Nate’s reply is tellingly feeble: “Yeah, I’m not quite there yet.” Yet.
Later in the scene, Nate protests that he’s not his father because he loves his family. Nathaniel Sr. delivers his most potent blow: “Buddy boy. You think I woulda stuck around if I didn’t love mine?” In this moment, Nate realizes that it’s possible to love your family and still be bored with your life. So no matter how much he seeks refuge in his wife and child, they can’t solve his problems.
After this, Nate needs a cigarette. Once he’s had his smoke, he changes clothes and washes his mouth out with Listerine, because that’s the knot he’s tied himself into: He needs the escape of a cigarette, but he can’t let Lisa know that he needs that escape. Tighter and tighter.
Claire’s sleepless night is spent in the company of artists. For someone who sees so much of the world around her with uncommon clarity, this evening presents a daunting challenge. At practically every turn, multiple interpretations of the truth are presented to Claire, and she finds it impossible to choose. She and Russell attend a talk given by a transgressive artist, Scott Philip Smith, who speaks glowingly of his daring piece, an American flag with shit wiped on it—supposedly the shit of homeless people, but Olivier says that’s a lie. Like everything connected to this gathering, it’s impossible to know.
Immediately after the show, Claire says she loved Smith’s work. Later, when she and Russell are alone with Olivier, they claim to find it trite and “on the nose.” Is that what they believe, or are they just telling Olivier what they think he wants to hear? They don’t even know.
This episode gives us the first full-on glimpse of Olivier’s extraordinary talent for the mindfuck. He tells Claire she’s a brilliant artist. Then he turns to Russell. “But you, Russell. You are going to be successful beyond your wildest dreams.” Russell, overwhelmed, excuses himself. So Olivier turns his attentions back to Claire. Sure, Russell will make a lot of money, Olivier says with a new dismissiveness, “But you. Your talent is epic. It’s like the tail of a comet. … You see the world with your own eyes.” Yet as we look at Claire’s eyes in this scene, they’re glassy and confused. Who won the contest of artist awesomeness, her or Russell? Was there even a contest? Is she less of an artist for believing there’s a contest, or would she be naïve to assume there isn’t a contest?
Dazed by mixed messages and booze, Russell and Claire visit the Watts Towers, one of America’s most astounding examples of outsider art. Russell views the towers as a stabilizing presence. Their artistry is devoid of the status games Olivier and Smith delight in playing. Yet Claire is still troubled: “I can’t imagine being this dedicated or consumed by anything,” she says, so does that make her less of an artist? Olivier has thrown her off her game—she’s more occupied with fulfilling the ideal of an “artist” than in creating art.
Claire is lost in the complexities of art, and she needs a simple truth to ground herself. Back in her room at home, as they flip through an art book, Russell provides her with one: “I’m not gay, you know. … Most people think I am. But I’m not.” Claire replies with her own truth. She thinks Russell is hot. The exchange is both awkward and calm. The sexual tension is thick, but they both seem relieved to put the daunting philosophy of art aside for a moment and savor the simple, budding affection between two people in a similar place. That affection will acquire its own complexity in time—human relationships are their own contorted balls of madness—but right now, they forestall that development. Russell likes women. Claire thinks he’s hot. They just want to savor those straightforward truths.
The episode closes with a series of three short scenes, and each one features two people sorting out the reality of their relationship. First, there’s Nate and Lisa. She’s folding laundry, which means the Nose Of Justice is at its most active. Nate congratulates her on a successful birthday party and then unleashes this weirdness: “And I’m really proud of us. For making this work. For showing up. For being present each day.” Lisa’s face falls. “Is it that hard for you?” she says, wounded. “I thought this was what you wanted.” Nate insists that yeah, it is, I’m so, so sure of it! “Oh god, Nate,” she says, “I love you so much, it terrifies me.” Here we have two people, professing their love, yet separated by a chasm of fear. When Nate leaves to make a Whole Foods run, he checks to make sure his cigarettes are in his jacket. Nathaniel Sr. was a smoker, too.
David returns home from the funeral and breaks down in tears. “I want us to last. I want us to stay together,” he tells Keith. “I just want it to be worth it.” The “worth it” line echoes Kevin’s eulogy. This is the idea that struck David most profoundly. Yes, there will be trials, Kevin said, but the mark of a great relationship is that you still come out on top. That’s all David wants. In response, Keith says “Okay,” but his tone isn’t dismissive, nor is it too eager to reassure, like Nate was with Lisa. Keith seems to understand and, in this moment at least, to want the same thing.
The episode closes on Claire and Ruth, whose relationship has barely been touched on this season. (And because of that, I love that Alan Ball and Rick Cleveland, who co-wrote this episode, choose to end on them.) Claire’s mind is still swimming with the “glimpse of what might be possible” that she enjoyed the night before. And Ruth is awash in much the same euphoria. But Ruth is about to pull out the dining room table, essentially putting Birthday Ruth back into storage indefinitely. When Claire invites her out for a meal and a trip to the museum, Ruth decides she can put the table back later. Birthday Ruth lives for at least one more day.
- 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.
- Fact-checking Six Feet Under: David claims “there are more bones in your feet than in the rest of your entire body.” False.
- Ruth Fisher has “good china” that is rarely used and “good good china” that is never used. Not only is this funny, but the fact that Bettina and Lisa insist on pulling out the good good china is an early sign that Ruth’s timid boundaries are about to be pushed.
- Noted: David Fisher’s balls are naturally more hirsute than those of Keith Charles.
- When Ruth has a birthday party where everybody is enjoying themselves and getting a little silly, Nate and David find it “weird.” (David: “On a scale of one to 10? Ninety.”) Uh, boys? This is how parties are supposed to work.
- I mentioned that David adopts the “worth it” language from Kevin’s eulogy. That eulogy has another echo in this episode: Nathaniel Sr. tells Nate that he “stuck around” because he loved his family. Two scenes later, Kevin says his lover, Bob, also “stuck around.”
- The English translation title of the aria sung at the funeral, “Nessun dorma,” gives this episode its title (although “Nobody Sleeps” has an obvious literal implication as well).
- Keith leans in to kiss David when everyone’s frolicking in the slumber room. David recoils because there are others who might see. When David is in the presence of discomfiting flamboyance, he regresses to a more uptight version of himself. And a more uptight version of David Fisher is quite uptight indeed.
- The look on Nate’s face when Lisa is giving Ruth her foot massage should be the top image on the Wikipedia entry for “sulk.”