If you’ve not watched the show yet, treat yourself to a box set before you read this.
Six Feet Under is a simple narrative complicated by three red herrings: Nathaniel Jr. (Nate), Nathaniel Sr. (Nathaniel), and death.
Six Feet Under constantly invites us to consider death as a way of life. The funeral parlour setting frames the story of each episode and frames the story arc. Into this structure the series opens with the death of the Fisher family patriarch – the enigmatic Nathaniel – which forces Nate to reconnect with the family business he tried to escape. In Nate the producers give us an archetypal male hero – he is the uncompromising, good looking, sexually succesful (and heterosexual) lead played by a named star; as an audience we would tend to understand Nate to be our key protagonist. Thrown back into a family business which he has no real aptitude for, he physically grapples with death just as the Fisher family must emotionally grapple with Nathaniel’s passing. But this reading becomes increasingly problematic as the series progresses. We must soon regard Nate as a flawed anti-hero, but his influence becomes increasingly corrupting on those around him until we find ourselves asking “is Nate the villain of Six Feet Under?“. In the final season, Six Feet Under presents a moment of crisis for this reading with Nate’s death, leaving the obvious reading of the show short of a hero for some four episodes; the death of Nate is where the producers show their hand, revealing the need for the audience to find a new story to explain Six Feet Under. We will now consider an alternative reading of Six Feet Under – while you may prefer your own reading, we feel that this explanation of the show is more effective than the “Nate as hero” reading as it overcomes the moment of Nate’s death while unifying the story to themes within the show other than death.
So what is Six Feet Under really about?
Read as a classic Hollywood narrative with Nate as a villain, the disruption to the stable world is Nate’s arrival; the new equilibrium can only happen when he’s dead. In the new stable world we see all other characters have changed, and grown, through their experiences with Nate – death aside Nate has not grown through the events, he has simply become more compromised and damaged more and more people. Within this reading, we will consider Claire Fisher, the youngest Fisher child, to be the true protagonist of the show.
There are a number of points in the storywhere we see key truths revealed through Claire’s eyes. Most notably, the finale of the show is seen entirely through Claire’s eyes, but her role as an observer of events is a consistent theme throughout the show. Claire is the first character to recognise and accept David’s sexuality; she is our witness whenever a character steps away from the confines of the funeral home and secret pasts are revealed, being present at Mya’s conception in Seattle and when her mother reconnects with her youth at the party in the canyon; Nate’s death is experienced most vividly through Claire, and she is the frst to understand Lisa’s fate.
Reassessing Nate Fisher
Nate’s role as a villain is complex but pervasive as he smothers other characters through performing his role as patriarch. Nate beats David at every turn: he takes the freedom (from the family business) which David craved, then walks back into the business as his equal (despite a lack of experience or qualification) and in doing so he annuls the years of life that David has invested into the funeral home. In his personal life Nate also beats David without trying, claiming fatherhood and marriage (twice); Nate cares for neither but they come to him easily, almost accidentally, enabled by social norms and laws that support his role as partriach. David has to work hard for success in family life and his business life, but social norms allow Nate to simply have these things even though he resents all of them.
Nate takes sex where he finds it, and while this easy sexuality will eventually be implicated in his downfall, no other character is allowed to have the same sexual success. David is criminalised and physically abused for taking what he wants, while Federico’s bumbling naive attempt to be like Nate is disastrous for his marriage.
Sins of the Mother, Sins of the Father
The big contrast between Nate and Brenda is in now they attempt to or resist becoming their same-sex parent. Nate truly does become Nathaniel Jnr in the end, proving just as inadequate a husband and father, underlined by the fact that his last act before going to his deathbed is to cheat on his wife. Brenda, on the other hand, actively resists trying to become her mother, Margaret Chenowith. This is understandable, given that Brenda’s parents psychoanalysed her and her brother Billy to death when they were children (combined with a total disregard for boundaries). Margaret’s lack of boundaries extends to how she speaks to her daughter, her words often cruel, hurtful and undiplomatic – yet whilst she is set up as a thoroughly unlikeable character, as the series progresses it’s increasingly hard to deny the truth in what she says regarding her daughter’s relationships. Brenda exists in a constant state of denial, particularly in Season 2 when she uses sex to mask her feelings of fear and vulnerability as she and Nate become closer. Possibly she is also starting to feel suffocated – a feeling of suffocation that ultimately overwhelms Lisa in the following season, triggering the events leading to her death. Thus, whilst Brenda’s form of release carries its own hazards, she does at least emerge alive. Something of a background figure for much of Season 3, Brenda re-emerges in Season 4 with a new relationship – only for Nate to blunder along and mess with her head. The result? Brenda acquires her own family at long last, albeit a rebounding widower and another woman’s child. Here again Brenda’s fears of becoming her mother come to the fore, as she and Nate argue over whether or not to tell Maya about what happened to her real mother. Brenda then herself becomes a mother, symbolically just after her husband’s death. Her own child, on her own terms, and one who she will bring up within an enriched extended family, one devoid of the destructive presence of a man who, had he lived would most likely have screwed up his relationship with his daughters just as he had screwed up his relationships with the other women in his life (except Claire, but we’ll come to her later).
Of course, mention of Brenda must also include mention of Billy, for parallel with Brenda’s coming-to-terms with her intimacy needs is her having to come to terms with her younger brother’s feelings for her. There are hints from the earliest episodes that Billy might harbour incestuous feelings for his sister, but these finally come to the fore in a scene in Season 4 when the pair are watching the animated film of Charlotte Light and Dark, the book based around Brenda’s childhood (and the mental disorders she feigned when being observed by her father’s various colleagues, just as she feigns intimacy with her sexual partners as an adult because it’s “what they want”). Billy makes a pass at Brenda, but she recoils from him – subconsciously however, she cannot have been completely repulsed as, in a dream she has shortly before giving birth (and triggered by a suggestion made by her mother), she gets into bed with Billy and they start to make love. Whether these incestuous impulses are ever realised is not answered directly by the show, although it’s notable that, amongst the future deaths of the main characters in the final montage, Brenda is seen dying in a nursing home whilst Billy drones on about their disturbed childhood for the umpteenth time.
Ruth is a different case altogether. Whilst Brenda fears giving in to her emotional needs, a lot of Ruth’s frustration stems from attempting to satisfy hers. Although appearing prim and uptight initially, it is quickly revealed that, even before her husband’s death, Ruth was having an affair with a hairdresser, Hiram. When this peters out, various other relationships ensue – Nikolai the florist, Arthur the junior embalmer, and finally geologist George Sibley. Ruth marries him after a whirlwind romance, only to subsequently discover a litany of ex-wives, estranged children and mental health issues. Significantly, each of these relationships entails Ruth assuming the role of mother and carer, rather than equal; even with Nikolai, who employs her for a time, Ruth still takes it upon herself to try and protect him, in particular when she uses part of her savings to pay off a gangster associate threatening Nikolai. The lack of gratitude that she receives in return signals the end of their relationship; this desperation to please being greeted by at best indifference and at worst ill-treatment is magnified to a grotesque degree in David’s experience with the psychopathic hitchhiker. Indeed, of the three Fisher children, David most closely resembles his mother in his behaviour and, like her, has to work his way through a long arc to self-acceptance and realising that his own happiness cannot constantly be subservient to that of others.
Part of Ruth’s journey to liberation comes through her relationship with her sister Sarah’s friend Bettina. Ruth sees in Bettina the woman she was never able to be due to marriage and motherhood coming upon her at a very young age – and indeed the woman who she envies Sarah for being (although Sarah tells Ruth that in fact she envied her for being able to have children; thus the two sisters symbolically appear to be two halves of the same person). In one episode, Bettina encourages Ruth to shoplift, explaining that they will get away with it because, as women over the age of 40, they are “invisible”. The transgression is perhaps less significant than the accompanying dialogue, as it highlights once again how certain groups tend to be marginalised in the Great American Narrative. It’s also a piquant comment on the treatment of actresses of a certain age in the biggest industry in the Fishers’ home city (made even more piquant through being delivered by Kathy Bates). Ruth’s crucial moment of revelation comes near the end of the series as, in a fantasy sequence, she takes aim at and shoots down all the useless, unreliable, demanding men with whom she has fallen into relationships. Significantly, this happens at the exact same time as Nate is lying in a hospital bed, his death just hours away. For Ruth’s eldest child, having repeated this sins of his father, is the one remaining man still holding her back. His death, whilst horrifically painful for her, is necessary in order for her to be truly free. Ruth goes forward as a friend, a lover and a devoted mother and grandmother – but on far more equal terms now that the men who demanded from her are either dead or neutralised.
One can compare and contrast Ruth and Margaret, Six Feet Under‘s two matriarchal figures. Ruth is very selfless, with anything she does for herself almost an act of rebellion. Margaret meanwhile is completely selfish and self-centred – but so is her husband, so they make a perfect couple. Whilst she might see herself as better emotionally equipped to deal with his loss than Ruth is to deal with Nathaniel’s death, in truth she is just as grief-stricken, and emphasising this through her melodramatic side is really just as effective a way of masking her deeper feelings as Ruth’s self-repressive streak. The funeral over, Margaret launches into a carefree relationship with Claire’s college tutor Olivier, someone else who plays around with and insults others unashamedly. Margaret has no real interest in being a “good” parent; Ruth has invested too much in trying to be one for very little return. Ultimately though, Ruth moves more towards a happier central position, whereas Margaret remains pretty much where she started, and is arguably less liberated and enriched than her counterpart by the end.
“regarding him say neither bad nor good for he has gone beyond the good and the bad”
While we do see Nate as a villain, he is allowed a brief moment of redemption, which is permitted through our hero Claire. As we say goodbye to Nate, Claire remembers him as a teenager, alone in his room, crying about the death of Kurt Cobain. It is perhaps also not entirely irrelevant that Kurt Cobain’s death was premature, and hastened by a self-destructive act. He left behind a wife (who has her own issues and is a not entirely sympathetic figure) and a young daughter.
Nate & Claire discuss memory and how the dead live on, and through this Nate is fixed in time for us as an innocent. Music from his room fades up – “What else should I be? All apologies” – as the family mourns for him, Nate reaches out to us through the music, which crosses from the diegis as though crossing from the afterlife and asks us to forgive him for after all, he only did what we expected of him.