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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Six Feet Under: "The Room"

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The first sign of trouble for the decedent of the week is that the window is still open. We can assume that in the middle of the night, every night, for God-only-knows-how-many years, Hattie Jones has slipped out of bed half-awake and shut the window. Then she’d climb back into bed next to her snoring husband. This morning, the window’s open. Mr. Jones is more bemused than anything: “We live in the desert, and it’s cold at night!”

Hattie doesn’t respond, but that’s part of their give and take. He grumbles, and she ignores him, so he comes back with something stronger. He thinks they’re still sparring. This morning, though, he’s just shadow-boxing. “C’mon bitch, get your lazy ass up.” Mildred “Hattie” Effinger Jones, 1922-2001.

Mr. Jones’ meeting with David seems contentious, and David interprets it as such, but it isn’t really. This is how Mr. Jones communicates: He’s belligerent. He’s relying on a counterweight that isn’t there. When Mr. Jones—and no, we never get his first name, as he’s just Hattie Jones’ husband—raises his profane, blustering protests about the husband-and-wife burial plot, David isn’t supposed to just give in. If Hattie were there, she’d tell her husband to shut his mouth and listen for a minute.

That’s what Mr. Jones instinctively expects. He throws the punch to receive the counterpunch. David’s not even in the ring, though. Sure, he pushes back, but he doesn’t really argue, and that upsets Mr. Jones more than ever. So Mr. Jones keeps plugging away, arguing for the sake of arguing. By the end of the discussion about embalming, though, he’s quiet and pensive. “I ain’t payin’ for that,” he says, almost at a whisper. His heart isn’t in the fight. Why would it be? There’s no fight. David Fisher doesn’t know how to dance with Mr. Jones, and the widower is realizing that nobody ever will again. That makes him tired.

Failing to connect with David hardly makes Mr. Jones a unique figure in this episode. Isolated from Keith, David decides to turn his little island of self-pity into a marvel of defensive fortification. Whenever a hand reaches out in his direction, he slaps it right back.

Ruth’s paramour, Hiram the hairdresser, is one of the early victims. After an awkward meeting at church, David and Hiram encounter each other again while volunteering for a charity event. Hiram takes David aside and explains that he’s worried about Ruth—she seems withdrawn. “Whatever you had with my mother is between you and her,” David snaps. “But I have no interest in helping you.” Hiram wasn’t really asking David to help him. He was asking David to help Ruth. David didn’t hear that, though, because he doesn’t give a shit about either of them right now.


One trick that Six Feet Under pulls off well is to instantly transform a caricature into a character. It didn’t seem that Tracy Montrose Blair could become any more direct in her efforts to bed David, but suddenly she does, in an achingly down-to-earth way. She drops the chirpy exterior and gazes into David’s empty visage, looking for “a little human contact” in the worst possible place at the worst possible moment. “You’re lonely too. I can tell,” she says. As David shoots her down with prejudice—literally shooting her would have been only a bit more cruel—we feel some sympathy for this person who until now has been little more than a squeaky, annoying paper doll. She becomes more than a gag machine, and it’s telling that when Tracy finally bares her humanity, David finds her more repulsive than ever.

Rico gets off relatively easy. When he offers to give David some help, he merely gets a clipped “No, Federico, go home to your family” in return. David says it as if he doesn’t have any family himself. Then he heads to RAMROD, an establishment that seems to have been named after GAY PENIS SEX BAR FOR GAY MEN was deemed “too ambiguous” by the proprietors. This leads to the only marginal human contact of the episode for David, as he unconvincingly pretends to give a crap about some guy’s life before the dude personally attends to David’s ramrod—or, rather, to the ramrod of David’s alter ego, Boston Lawyer Jim. Seasoned by his years in front of the jury box, Jim manages to force a smile during the one-night stand, but David doesn’t seem to enjoy himself very much at all.


Nate is mystified by the free oil change he receives from the local mechanic, and it leads him to track down a series of transactions in his father’s ledger that appear to have been paid for with something other than cash. The mechanic was one barter deal. Jessica Wilcox from the garden center is another. She used to provide Nathaniel with his monthly supply of weed, and she also thought that Nathaniel was a witty, delightful “kook.” Both of these revelations are a surprise to Nate, as is the notion that Nathaniel was in fact proud of his son for leaving the family business behind. When Nate hears Jessica talking about his father’s pride for his son, he thinks she must be talking about David. Nope.

Yet all these discoveries don’t prepare Nate for the room that not only serves as the title of this episode but also makes it one of the memorable touchpoints of the show’s first season. It’s a dingy, yellow box above an Indian restaurant. There’s a record player, old newspapers, a crappy TV. The whole thing is innocuous, and that’s what Nate finds so exasperating about it. He combs the room for signs of scandal. He picks up a drinking glass and there’s a lip print on it. His father’s, or someone else’s?


He’s never going to know, but his speculation is pretty amusing. He pictures his dad sitting by himself at the card table. Then there’s a biker gang carousing and trading bong hits with the old man. Before long, Nathaniel Fisher has turned into Lee Harvey freaking Oswald, picking off bystanders from the curry house-cum-book depository.

When Nate brings Brenda to the “sad, little room,” she agrees that it’s a mystery, but she doesn’t think that’s a problem. “So what if you did know?” she says. “I bet it wouldn’t be as interesting or fun. … I think your father wanted some place that was just his, and nobody else’s.”


She’s right. The cards on the table aren’t the remnants of a poker game. The man was playing solitaire, and that says it all. Nate’s problem isn’t that Nathaniel might have been doing something illicit or extraordinary in this place. It’s the fact that this compartment exists at all, a part of Nathaniel that nobody ever did or ever can fully understand (by his own design).

Nate gives the beginnings of a speech to Mr. Jones later in the episode, some familiar patter about how someone isn’t truly dead as long as you remember them. Even if that’s true, there are parts of Nathaniel that are entirely dead to his son, because Nate never got a chance to know them. That unknowability is a vague, abstract notion to Nate until the room makes it unavoidably concrete.


With this, death feels more final to him—the “as long as you’re remembered” escape clause is no sure thing, because what if no one does remember? “I don’t want to be somebody who, when I die, nobody knows who I was,” he tells Brenda. She replies, “So don’t be,” which is fair enough.

And besides, there are indications that Nathaniel wasn’t such a cipher, anyway. Nate finds a family photo album, which hints that Nathaniel wasn’t leading a separate life, although he might have been wistful for an earlier one (just as Ruth is in this episode). So maybe, like his father says, Nate should stop freaking out about the whole thing and live his life.


David’s visit to the room with Nate marks a peak in his buildup of self-hatred. With his hands in his pockets and his body stuck in the pissiest little slouch he can muster, David swats away Nate’s concerns with some ferocious passive aggression. “I don’t care if he brought women back here to fuck. I don’t care if he brought men back here to fuck!” says the man who almost had a stroke when he found out that his mother was having an affair. As Mr. Jones says to Claire in another scene, “Hey, little girl, you ain’t foolin’ nobody.”

Claire does come off as a little girl in this episode, so it’s natural that she gravitates toward the Chenowith kids. One irony of Billy and Brenda is that they like to belittle the people around them by proclaiming them to be children—they do this a number of times in “The Room”—despite the fact they’re awfully childish themselves. Now add Claire to that mix. When these three people end up in a room together, someone has to act like the grownup, and that turns out to be Brenda.


“I’m just not into babysitting high-school girls,” Brenda says to Claire. This is true; she’s more accustomed to babysitting her brother on their eternal playdate with life. Looking after Claire is a new experience, one that leads Brenda to mature a bit.

It starts when Claire talks about Charlotte Light & Dark. Claire absolutely loves the part where “Charlotte” spends a month barking at her interlocutors. There’s a flashback to this madness, and then the shot comes back to Brenda. She’s crestfallen. Her act of rebellion sounds so stupid—so childish—when spoken out loud by a 16-year-old girl. Brenda thought she was so clever then. Is she maybe not as clever as she thinks now, either?


And then, “Hi, I’m Billy.” Jeremy Sisto makes those three words sound remarkably dangerous. Claire is attracted to danger—not actual danger, but her clichéd imagination of it—so of course she’s enamored right away with Billy. She’s too young to notice the smoldering fuse of madness that she ignites when she tells him she’s the sister of the guy who’s “dating” Brenda. Billy’s face twitches. “Oh yeah, dating? Like what, going steady?” Smile. “He give her his ID bracelet?” Smile. “She carve his initials in her arm so they’d be there forever?” Not smiling anymore. Did she burn his name into her body? Because she did that for me. And nobody else.

Channeling his jealousy with fearsome efficiency, Billy makes Claire his new plaything. It happens fast. Brenda leaves the room for only a moment, but in that time, Billy draws Claire in with a bit of casual bravado and a caress. Brenda’s instinct is to get Claire out of there. She has seen Billy play this game before, and she cares for Claire despite herself. Brenda’s too late. Billy isn’t letting Claire off the string now. As Claire dumbly sips Billy’s beer, there’s a look of genuine concern on Brenda’s face. Babysitting is tough.


Billy and Claire make out. He marvels at her beauty and flatters her with his lens. It’s all a dream. Claire’s rosy outlook isn’t clouded until Billy cops a feel for his camera and then pulls away as soon as the shutter snaps. She gets a vague notion that he’s doing all this for an audience, and that audience is not her. When she calls him the next day from school—and man, she has exceptionally bad luck with these “just checking in, boyfriend!” phone calls—Billy lets her down as hard as he possibly can. And he does so in the presence of Brenda, the intended audience all along.

At least now, Claire is in the sorority of women whom Billy Chenowith has mind-fucked, and as a result, she and Brenda draw closer. In a sweet scene, Brenda dispenses some mature, big-sisterly advice to a still-naïve Claire, and then the two of them get high together.


Ruth’s story centers on three relics. The first two of these relics, a saucepan and an old jar of baby food, are similar. As she tells her Russian florist suitor, Nikolai, the objects remind her of a time when her children were young. We can tell she perceives a sense of purpose in that past. “I’m surrounded by these relics of a life that no longer exists”—her life as a dutiful mother and wife.

The third relic is different, an envelope that contains nude photos of Ruth. They were taken by Nathaniel shortly after Nate was born, and now Nate has retrieved them from the room. When Ruth sees the pictures, her voice goes up an octave, like a schoolgirl. “Look at what a child I was,” she says, echoing a theme of the episode.


Retelling the story of that night in the seedy motel, Ruth recalls another life, not so much as a mother or wife but as a lover, indulging in carnal desire. There was a time before Nathaniel’s death, yet there was also a time before that. “It’s frightening how much we change,” Ruth says, but she sounds less frightened than she was before. The photos remind her that change has happened before, so it’s not a betrayal if it happens again. In a roundabout way, then, the room bestows one more moment of freedom as Ruth walks up to Hiram’s front door and, for now at least, agrees to stop punishing herself.

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.)
  • Annals of Questionable Direction: I’m not sure what the thinking was behind the abrupt, reality-bending cuts during Nate’s last vision of Nathaniel in this episode, but it detracts from the emotional effect of the scene. The showy style doesn’t match up at all with the simple, plainspoken truths that Nathaniel is offering. Here he is telling his son to move on with his life while he bounces around the room like a Scooby-Doo ghost.
  • I don’t quite buy the notion that Nate would read Charlotte Light & Dark right in front of Brenda.
  • “Sometimes we didn’t see him for months. Sometimes he was here every day.”
  • Ruth: “Please don’t sacrifice anything on my account.” Hiram: “A little late for that.” Good comeback.
  • David: “You know her. She likes to suffer in silence.” Father Jack: “Uh-huh. That seems to be a family trait.”
  • David: “Dad and I never talked about anything but work.” Nate: “That’s exactly the relationship you and I have.”
  • “I can’t have you skulking around with that look in your eye. … That SEX look!”
  • “Thank you, Nate. I appreciate your honesty, wrapped as it was in such a bouquet of condescension.”
  • “Some pretty little thing catches your eye, and the next thing you know, it’s been 56 years! And you shit all over yourself in a movie theater, and she’s the only one that’ll help you clean it up. That’s love.”