Alan Ball has been quoted as saying that one of the big inspirations for doing Six Feet Under was the death of his sister when he was 13 years old. It should come as no surprise then that one of the driving forces behind the series is the relationship between the Fisher siblings. Six Feet Under presents one of the most beautiful, honest and painful views into sibling relationships ever presented on television. In fact, the idea of siblings permeates almost every character on the show and, often times, is the impetus for a character’s growth and betterment. Specifically, the heart of the show is the relationship between the two oldest children, David and Nate.
Nate Fisher is four years older than his brother David. When we meet the characters in 2001, they have gone through an interesting inversion of the typical older/younger brother relationship. Nate left Los Angeles years earlier, leaving David to the typical eldest sibling responsibilities: going to Church with Mom and Dad, helping out with the family business, being the “responsible” brother. Nate is content with visiting at major holidays and otherwise being absent.
David continues to do these duties because he feels it is the “right” thing to do. David seems perpetually concerned about doing the right thing—it has informed almost every decision he has heretofore made. He holds off on Law School because it is proper to help with the family business. He keeps his homosexuality a secret because it wouldn’t be appropriate for a good Episcopalian funeral director to be gay. David, in the first season, becomes a deacon at his mother’s church, not because he feels necessarily drawn to it (in fact, he was attending a more progressive, pro-gay church for a time), but because, again, it will be good for business and appearances.
Nate has his own view of doing the right thing—for him, it means being an idealist, and always choosing to be “real.” At his father’s funeral, he refuses to follow proper funeral protocol—he instead chooses to embrace his true emotions, to hell with appearances and propriety. When his mother confesses having an affair, Nate wants her to let it all out and be truthful. To top it all off, Nate works at a food co-op—an idealistic job if ever there was one.
The conflict between David and Nate comes to a head in the pilot episode when Ruth brings up the aforementioned affair. Both siblings respond in their own view of being the “good” son. At their father’s viewing, David ushers the crying Ruth out of the main viewing room and brings her off to a side room where she can scream and cry in private. Nate, angry that Ruth’s real emotions are being hidden, storms in to reprimand David and console Ruth. When Ruth begins confessing, David wants nothing of it; Nate encourages her to let it all out.
David: Can you even begin to fathom the impropriety of this? Your husband is lying in a casket out there!
Nate: David, she’s grief stricken, ok? Fuck propriety!
This exchange perfectly sums up the Fisher boys relationship to each other at the start of the series. David cannot fathom saying the words that Nate yells; Nate cannot imagine caring more about protocol than people. To David, his professionalism is what gets him through the day; when life gets hard, you follow the rules to keep you afloat. He’s been doing this for years, and has settled into the rhythm of funeral directing—it isn’t his dream, but it is his job. For Nate, all the rules do is numb you to real life, and being numb is worse than being in pain. That being said, Nate avoids pain by avoiding intimacy, challenge, and responsibility. Nate has left every situation when it got too hard, which makes his decision to stay and help run the business that much more crucial: Nate has never does anything he didn’t want to do.
Once Nate does decide to stay and be one of the sons in Fisher & Sons, he begins to see David’s point of view as a more manageable one; in turn, David is inspired by Nate’s spirit and becomes slightly more free spirited. When David, Nate and Brenda go to Las Vegas late in Season One, we see David speak out against Kroner in a way that seems inspired by Nate—railing against a large corporation, talking about not always looking at the profit margin, caring more about consoling people than making money. David isn’t becoming Nate, but he is being inspired by his big brother.
Nate also begins to come closer to David’s point of view as Season One moves towards its conclusion. He begins to look at ways to cut costs and be more efficient at work and begins to be a part-time, second-rate father figure to Claire, something you would expect much more from David (we’ll get to that in a little bit). Nate’s big awakening though has everything to do with embracing his family, warts and all, after years of pushing them away. David has been a Fisher first and a happy person second, whereas Nate cared very little about being an active part of his family and did everything to serve himself. David’s awakening is the converse of this; as he comes out of the closet, he allows himself to be a full person for the first time in his life. And, by David embracing himself, he becomes a better son, brother, and funeral director in the process.
However, as time goes by, each brother’s idea of being good changes, and, as their definitions change, they grow closer together. David eventually realizes that it is okay to be gay; that it is good to speak his mind; that he can let loose a little and still be the good son. Nate eventually begins to take more responsibility, tones down his bachelor’s lifestyle, and gets more business savvy. David is who Nate first turns to when he finds out about his AVM (arteriovenous malformation), and David is the most constant and ardent supporter of Nate throughout his illness. David, in turn, leans on Nate in a way that allows David to blossom outside of the funeral home. With Nate there, David has time to devote to the other parts of his life; he enters therapy with Keith, joins a gay men’s chorus, and makes non-sex friends for the first time in what seems to be a long time. Because of Nate, David doesn’t have to be tethered to the business; because of David, Nate has a tether to keep him from floating away.
It is Nate’s AVM that provides the brothers with their one of their most tender and touching scenes: David interviewing Nate for his Pre-Need Form, in case he doesn’t make it through his AVM surgery. Nate is scared and is looking to lean on David for support, and David provides. However, this is not the David we meet in the pilot—this David tells Nate that his is scared too, and cries and embraces Nate. David has grown into not just a better brother, but a better funeral director. David used to be almost as stiff as the bodies he prepares; here he allows some of that to melt away and be present for his brother in every possible way.
As the show progresses, we see the bond between the Fisher brothers deepen in a surprisingly realistic way. At work, they have a rhythm that feels natural and comfortable but when we see them with their significant others at dinner parties and family gatherings, there is a distance between them. When David speaks about Nate to Keith, the realism drips off the screen—in one breathe he is bitching about something small and catty, and the next he is genuinely worried about Nate. This show does such a good job developing its characters that we even know what they would say about each other behind closed doors.
Many of those closed door conversations happen around the year or so that Nate is married to Lisa—a woman he used to live with in Seattle and who he slept with and got pregnant on a business trip in Season Two. Lisa and Nate make an unusual couple and Nate’s relationship with both David and Claire changes significantly during his marriage. Nate and David try to bring their significant others into their relationship and, although not a complete disaster, it is not exactly a rousing success. Keith and Lisa couldn’t be more different; Keith is a meat-eating cop and Lisa is a timid vegan chef. Keith never seems to be himself when with the Fishers, but especially so when around Lisa. Lisa can be judgmental, and Keith and David aren’t free from that trait. Nate finds himself defending his family, something he has never done before. His relationship with Lisa is a strained and difficult one, like David’s is with Keith, but Nate and Lisa never get the chance to work through their problems.