If you watched all five seasons of Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under and do not, on some level, feel as if the Fishers have become part of your family, you’re either lying, heartless or in denial. Or perhaps you simply can’t handle the raw, naked emotion, and all the many outspoken truths about your own mortality that was rubbed in your face at every opportunity.
Death was the Fisher family’s way of life, and although they may not have shared a connection with the many deceased who passed through Fisher & Sons, a link was always established the minute the empty shell of a questioning spirit was wheeled into the basement. The many parallels that tied Nate, David, Claire and Ruth to their clients’ unspoken regrets and guarded memories shaped the people they would become. Here are some of the most significant people they helped along their journey, and vice versa.
Death, as we all know, is a natural part of life. And if you grew up in a funeral home, it becomes a part of your every day existence. One might even assume this line of business will harden you emotionally, and maybe that’s partly true—at least until someone from your own family clan passes away. When the family patriarch dies in a horrific car accident. While his spirit is still close and his specter present, his wife Ruth and children Claire, Nate and David find themselves in limbo. Nate will never have a chance to rekindle the estranged relationship with his father; David will never gain the approval he longs for and he also missed his opportunity to reveal his true self to Nathaniel. And as for Claire—well, her experience of her father’s death is like a bad trip. Literally. She had a deep hit of crystal meth minutes prior to the phone call that would change her life forever.
Thus, what was supposed to be a happy family reunion on Christmas Eve, with Nate returning home from Seattle for the very first time, turns into a feast of family grievances and silent mourning.
Although we got to know Gabe’s sensitive side through his relationship with Claire, he always fell back into the role of the slacker trouble-maker. He feels at home with the tweakers and never seems to worry about anything other than where he’ll get his next dime bag from. These are pretty much the only concerns on his mind when he’s looking after his little brother Anthony. When his friend arrives with some fine smelling cush, Gabe tells Anthony to “go play in mom’s room” and the kid obliges unenthusiastically. As Gabe and his friend discuss the latest parties and drug trends, Anthony rummages through his mother’s drawers and finds a gun. Suffice it to say, there’s no happy ending for Anthony. The episode seems to have a strong focus on reality versus escapism. Gabe turned to drugs in a desperate attempt to cloud his mind and avoid dealing with the reality of his dreary life. This storyline (in)directly ties in with David’s own double life: the reality he has created for himself as a closeted, homosexual funeral director and the fantasy he chases in clubs and one-night stands. The conversation Gabe and his friends are engaged in at the time of Anthony’s death highlights our oblivion towards the things and people in life that really matter and the haunting realization thereof—usually when it’s too late.
“Read a fucking Bible, you pervert”—these are the last words Marcus Foster Jr. hears before he is beaten to death by a group of homophobic hair-metal heads. His only crime was a moment of uninhibited affection with his partner who, fortunately, managed to escape the bullies. Although David immediately agrees to take on Marc’s restoration, the case weighs heavily on him. Though Ruth’s reminiscing of David being a quiet baby who “hardly ever made a peep” is taken entirely out of the context of Marc’s story, this anecdote feels essential to the person David has become. David still prefers keep to himself when it comes to his own sexuality, and innermost feelings and concerns. Whether or not it’s a survival mechanism that he thinks might shield him from hate crimes and judgement from his family and friends is irrelevant; what matters is that David is undergoing an intense personal struggle that has him questioning his own identity and future, and he seems to be crumbling underneath the pressure he exerts on himself. David has shared many a conversation with the deceased on his table, but none were quite as intense as the moments he shared with Marcus. His fantasy usually allows the deceased to take on their former bodies, alive and sound, when they share their intimate chats. But his mind refuses to let him see Marcus for who he really was, insisting, rather, on making him appear to David with the freshly gaping wounds and bruises that killed him, thus manifesting the fear, hatred and disgust he feels for himself deep down. Marcus challenges David’s inner battle, urging him to tip the scale and decide on a path of love and self-acceptance, or hate and self-loathing. Fortunately for David, he opts for the former.
It’s a hot day and a team of young, fit football players are getting ready to warm up. The team’s star player, Josh, is in great shape, any exhaustion he might be feeling is invisible to onlookers. Quite the opposite of his scrawny team mate Sam, who is struggling in the blistering heat and collapses after a few laps. As the team huddles around Sam, trying to get him to regain consciousness, Josh walks out into the field, keels over and dies—age twenty. Josh’s story shakes Nate to the core; for the longest time he has been living in denial about his AVM, desperately trying to convince himself that he is invincible, that young, healthy people are not meant to just die. Confronted with Josh’s death, he is finally forced to face facts: Neither Josh nor Nate, nor anyone else for that matter, is immune to death. Everybody dies. But that doesn’t mean that Nate can’t feel the fear. Josh appears to him in quiet moments, sobbing, desperately searching for answers: What’s gonna happen to me now? Nate can’t find it within himself to comfort Josh, as this is a question he is not yet ready to face. When Nate finally allows himself to truly look at Josh, he finds a new determination to make the very best of his days… However many or few there may be.
Emily Previn led a solitary life, so when she chokes to death on her lunch, it takes an overwhelming smell wafting from her house to alert anyone of the situation. While Nate and David deal with Emily’s case in a respectful but unemotional manner, Ruth feels a strong connection to “the invisible woman.” Ruth longs for intimacy, to be needed by her family, but her pleas fall on deaf ears. She takes it upon herself to offer Emily a dignified send-off, carefully picking an outfit for her and forcing the entire Fisher clan to sit in on her empty funeral. It’s almost as if she’s sending a desperate message to her family: I am not invisible; please mourn me when I’m gone. Though Nate isn’t as invested in Emily’s story as Ruth, the situation makes him ponder his own (in)ability to form bonds with people. Without his knowing, Brenda is dealing with similar self-discoveries; only, true to her nature, she explores her emotional impotence to the utmost extreme. At this stage in the series, Claire is still the one most disconnected from the family unit and she carries the same sentiments towards her high school peers. She has come to the realization that no one has real friends during high school; the people who come in and out of your life are merely “fillers.” When the Fisher boys and Rico muse about what type of person Emily must have been to lead such a lonely life, Claire comments that maybe that’s exactly how Emily wanted to live her life, sparking a strong reaction from Ruth: What kind of life is that?! Nobody wants to be a filler.
Ramona and Edith share the same room at the nursing home Rico’s wife Vanessa works in. Unlike Ramona, who suffers in silence, Edith is extremely vocal about her aches and pains and, frankly, the old bat is getting on her nerves. So Ramona puts Edith out of her misery by suffocating her with a sausage. The discovery may seem a tad humorous at first but, as always, the parallels between the Fisher family and the deceased on their tables are indisputable. While Ramona used food to put an end to her roommate’s pitiful existence, Ruth uses the offer and preparation of food as bait, in an attempt to create the intimacy she craves from her children. Claire is more interested in munching on magic mushrooms as opposed to the pizza Ruth offers to get for her sleepover with Parker. Luckily for Ruth, the shrooms allow Claire to see Ruth in a different light, and she finally seems to form a new sense of understanding of her mother. In wanting to celebrate the beauty she’d never quite found in Ruth, Claire makes a pair of colorful harem pants for her, complete with psychedelic vibes and bells. Ruth is incredibly touched by the gesture, and the loving words and looks she shares with her through dilated pupils. But as day breaks and Claire’s buzz wears off, the mother/daughter bond that was established through the peaking hours seems to crumble once again, and all there is left for Ruth to do is make sandwiches and coffee.
Following a brain hemorrhage, Nate is on the operating table undergoing surgery. The surgeon makes the exact kind of comments we don’t want to hear as he’s drilling into Nate, and it seems like Nate can hear every word. Before we can even begin to grasp what’s about to happen, the screen turns white… But he’s not gone just yet—he’s traveling through various alternate realities, getting a glimpse of all the different paths his life could have taken. He starts by enjoying a meal of fenugreek with his father in a heavenly diner, before moving on to observe himself and Lisa oohing and awing over baby Maya. His father guides Nate through different realities, prompting him to choose one that will ultimately answer his question as to whether he’s alive or dead. When the episode finally snaps back to a singular timeline, we realize Nate is indeed alive and well—but has he chosen his perfect reality? The title of the episode ‘Perfect Circles’ relates to Claire’s art school assignment: she has to draw the perfect circle. But what the hell does that even mean? Art is not about perfection, and neither is life. Each member of the Fisher clan has their very own vision of what their perfect lives should constitute and yet, even when they fall into the routine of their self-professed perfection, they slowly come to realize that the divide between wishful fantasy and reality is a big one. The question inspired by Nate’s death might be this: are they willing to embrace their chosen realities, or will they instead continue to chase after a vision?
They’re not quite Amish and they wouldn’t really fit in with the Oneida Community either, but you can most definitely call “The People” a cult. Lead by the patriarch Daddy, The People—consisting of his many wives and children—live by The Book of Daddy, an exclusive manifesto with various loopholes. The People live self-sufficiently and have their very own ideas about the mind, body and soul. As Daddy finishes up teaching an ambiguous lesson in subtraction to his hoard of children, he looks out onto his tribe, smiles contently and falls asleep forever. The Fishers are intrigued if not slightly puzzled by The People’s customs and beliefs, but their curiosity comes without judgement. The contradictions and incoherence of their belief system is a great play on the Fisher’s own efforts to find something to hold on to, if even it’s just a concept to find comfort in. And what if that concept is love? Ultimately, that’s what they’re all looking for, but neither Nate, Claire, David or Ruth are finding it in the people they expected.
The episode opens to an endearing scene between a father and his young daughter as they set free a pigeon they nursed back to health. The father explains the idea of karma in simple terms. Had this scene been taken from one of those incredibly uplifting videos that goes viral in under a nanosecond, the clip would have highlighted the pay-it-forward theory. But this is Six Feet Under, so what we get is the chaos theory. The healing of a pigeon signifies the death of Anahid Hovanessian. “I’m Sorry, I’m Lost” ties in with the natural instincts to kill off or sabotage painful presences or memories, in order to kick off the healing process, and the Fishers are, each in their own way, engaging in mute massacres. The only time the family comes together in their confusion of optimistic denial and frantic concern is on a battlefield of personal and unified mourning, one common ground existing in a house that thrives on detachment: the kitchen. Eventually, though, they all have to allow themselves to feel their pain and share it, or at the very least find an outlet for it. Nate is the obvious victim here; he is frantic and caught in a vicious cycle of self-loathing and blame over Lisa’s disappearance. But the person we feel is mourning deeper and more intensely than anyone else is Claire and, as per usual, she is completely alone in her sorrow. Seeing her break down after three seasons of longing to crack the hardened shell of her strong, sarcastic exterior felt like a sigh of indescribable relief.
Lou Thornton is celebrating his wedding anniversary in style; the champagne is a-flowing, his wife Anne Marie is in party mode and things get pretty hot and steamy in the jacuzzi. Life couldn’t be better and at this very moment, Lou Thornton is extremely aware of that fact. He sits back contentedly as his wife slips off to get more booze. Suddenly there’s a scream, glass shatters and Anne Marie is gone—all it took was one silly slip. For the entirety of this season, David had been sitting in the proverbial jacuzzi. Things may not have been perfect, but he was satisfied in life and his relationship with Keith. He had finally found his place, let go of his intense self-loathing and found his own form of happiness. It never would have dawned on him that picking up a stranded hitchhiker would spoil the sense of security and confidence he had fought for so long. More than thirty consecutive minutes of this entire episode are dedicated to David and his psychotic passenger, forbidding you to break from the horrific experience until the bitter end.
James Dubois Marshall seemed to have his death planned out down to the very last detail: He gets up one day, goes through his daily motions as usual, drives to the Fisher home, arranges a goodbye note on the dashboard and dies.
James’s death is reflected in the Fisher family’s need to (re)gain control over certain aspects of their intimate lives. They’re all stuck in their respective patterns of doubt, dissatisfaction, fear and submissiveness and are desperate to break free from whatever’s keeping them confined to their respective crises. For Claire, it’s her inability to let go of her questioning, high-chasing nature in order to achieve orgasm—a sensation you simply cannot achieve without losing control. For Nate and Brenda it’s their anxiety over the loose grip they have on their current life situations and their incapability to succumb or move on. Ruth finds herself reliving the loneliness she often felt in her marriage to Nathaniel, now that she’s married to George. Although she has learned to stand up for herself, she fails to motivate his coming towards her. The Fisher most conflicted by his lack of control is David. The incident with the hitchhiking tormenter left a deep scar on David and try as he might to go on as normal, he is suffering from a serious trauma he can’t get through on his own. As we all know, David is an impressive actor who knows how to fool his audience into buying his composure—no one notices anything out of the ordinary. In fact, Claire goes as far as to say: “If you were any more controlled, you’d be a sculpture.”
It could be argued that, thanks to new advancements in technology, none of us really live in the present anymore.There’s so much to plan ahead for, we forget to enjoy the moment. For the Gorodetsky family, this modern affliction ends fatally, when the distractions of a noisily chattering episode of the Power Puffgirls, Coco’s mobile phone conversation and the GPS instructions cause them to take a left turn into death. Similar to the Gorodetsky family, the Fishers are also distancing themselves from their respective relationships by focusing their energies on the futures’ may and may nots. David, Nate and George all envision imminent doom, if not the apocalypse. Claire is finally allowing herself to visualize her future as an artist and to grow in her work and personality as she readies herself for greater things to come. She’s no longer hiding in the safety of her former shadow Russell, or any other broken boy soldier for that matter. She is braving it on her own, adopting her artistic being and connecting it with her background, without a trace of concern about the journey ahead.
The death we witness in the beginning of this episode has little to do with the Fishers, and everything to do with George and the man he is today. His mother Loretta was a troubled woman who suffered from psychotic depression and forced her child to watch her die on an overdose of painkillers. George never seemed to evolve after this traumatic event and is forever trapped in the mentality of a pre-teen boy. Ruth lets her resentment be felt and it’s extremely sad to see him becoming aware of her growing impatience and hostility. She feels betrayed, as though their marriage was a sham and she will not be given the golden years she rightfully deserves. This is the underlying theme of the episode, as Nate, Claire, David and Ruth feel betrayed by the external forces they perceive to be hindering their own personal growth. Brenda’s brother Billy has quit his meds and is embracing his true self, in all its manic glory. His excitement is tangible and Claire readily hops on his plan to take Europe by storm and embark on a journey of artistic and romantic discovery, but Ruth interferes by projecting her concerns onto her daughter. Brenda, having been given a glimpse into the type of family life she longs for, tries to slip into a role she can’t quite convince herself of yet, and feels like she will never be allowed to move on from the rebel image she once relished.
The opening to Ecotone is misleading and we understand why—Alan Ball (et al) wanted us to go into this episode with hope in our hearts and so we did; only to have it broken in the final minutes. Laurence Hall Matheson is speed-walking through the woods when he stops, out of breath and hunched over. In Six Feet Under you can always expect the unexpected. We had our money on this healthy, middle-aged guy keeling over with a stroke. Instead, a cougar jumps out and kills him. Following Nate’s collapse, his life seems to be coming full circle. But, just as with Laurence Hall Matheson, we just didn’t see it coming. Nate had spent the entire show running from death, as it was a constant, obscure cloud hanging over his personal and professional life. No matter how hard he tried to escape his own imminent demise, he couldn’t. Fortunately, he did manage to outrun his fear and, in his last hours on this Earth, he found the peace he had been searching for all along. His love for Brenda had always been intense and often exhausting; nothing about their relationship was ever tranquil or easy. As Nate skips back and forth between two realities, he finds clarity and decides to choose to give up their eternal fight for serenity and trade in his running shoes for a wade in the warm waters. Nate’s final dream sequence is incredibly touching and so very representative of the Fisher men’s personalities and bonds. You will never mourn a fictional character’s death quite the same way you will Nate’s.
It was actually terrifying seeing the final episode of Six Feet Under opening with Brenda giving birth to her baby. She’s going through much more than the pain of birth; the exhaustion is so much more than physical. She is emotionally spent, but with one last push she gives life to her daughter while still mourning the death of her husband. When the screen turns white, our hearts stand still for a moment and we take a deep breath, knowing that we are not prepared for the words that are about to appear. And we’re not. We are faced with a first: the series that has gripped us from the onset by confronting us with the last minute of peoples’ lives now gives us the opportunity to witness the very first breath of the Fisher family’s newest member, Willa. She’s a real fighter, just like her parents and she willed new life into the Fisher family. She brought a close bond between the most unlikely of candidates, namely Ruth and Brenda, establishing a whole new dynamic. As Willa discovers the world from within the security of her home, Claire readies herself to spread her wings and, this time, Ruth is prepared and confident. Everyone’s Waiting. The world is waiting to get to know the soft, creative spirit that is Claire. And everytime she returns home for festivities, for weddings, births and funerals, her family is there, waiting, with open arms, biting honesty and a whole lot of love.
We spent four years with the Fisher family and I’m not sure there’s been a TV family as real and loveable as Nate and co. since. We felt so invested in their lives, watching them grow as individuals was a privilege that was taken from us so abruptly and yet so beautifully, it was impossible to watch without a big production of snot and tears. We get to see all their lives pan out and watch them grow old together, as they slowly begin to make way for the new generation of Fishers and the many memories in the making.
We advise a mourning period of at least one week following the viewing of this episode. We’re happy to provide a sick note for your boss.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.