You start out with whatever your fucking parents and their sick fuck gene pool stick you with. If you see enough shrinks and for long enough and if you get your cocktail right you can get over yourself and have a life.
—Billy Chenowith, “Grinding the Corn” S4:9
Self-help seminars, self-improvement books, sessions with guidance counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists—the characters on Six Feet Under explore them all. Despite creator Alan Ball’s assertion that he does not “make a conscious choice for characters to be in therapy or to be therapists” (Fahy 2006, 21), Billy (Jeremy Sisto) and George (James Cromwell) will undergo psychiatric intervention; Claire (Lauren Ambrose) and David (Michael C. Hall) will see therapists; Nate (Peter Krause) and Ruth (Frances Conroy) will attend self-help groups; and Brenda (Rachel Griffith) will do both, eventually becoming a therapist herself. Throughout the series, the characters’ disenchantment with their lives is consistently met with their need to understand their subjective experience. They are “constant shoppers in the therapeutic marketplace” (Gross 2006, 87)—but they are not impulse buyers. Cautious in their consumption, they balance their “fear of therapeutic violation with their need for help” (Fahy 2006, 13). In this way, the role of therapy on the series is conflicted, a reflection of Ball’s views on the subject:
Certainly, if one of my themes is about the struggle to live authentically, therapy for a lot of people is a real step along the way, but at the same time, it can be its own trap. It’s like everything. It works, and it doesn’t work. There is good, and there is bad. It always comes down to balance. (Fahy 2006, 21)
In its depiction of the therapeutic process, the series mirrors this balance. It suggests both a need for it and a need to be cautious of it. This article explores Six Feet Under‘s take on therapy with an examination of season two episode “The Plan,” Ruth’s humorous attempt at self-actualization.
The emotional discourse of Six Feet Under reflects the dominant influence of therapeutic culture over American society. The show takes inspiration from individual centered therapies “that transferred agency from expert to patient” that appeared during the post World War II anti-authoritarian period (McCabe 2005, 122). These therapies revisited Freud’s “talking cure” (Starker quoted in McCabe, ibid)—the notion of self-help and counseling—and became a significant force in mainstream culture by the 1980s. Furedi argues that: “before the 1980s, terms like syndrome, self-esteem, PTSD, sex addiction and counseling had not yet entered the public vocabulary” (2004, 84). The 1980s, he suggests, was a period of “widespread disenchantment with public life” which “opened up new areas of personal life to therapeutic intervention” (85). In turn, the public turned to professionals to guide them through their problems. Troubles with spouses, parents, children, and colleagues left the private sphere and entered the public realm, helpfully mediated by professionals.
Television’s contribution to the trend has been to bring professional mediation to the masses. From Phil Donahue and Geraldo Rivera in the 1980s to Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil in the 1990s and 2000s, daytime talk show hosts have taken on the mantle of therapy. Offering advice on everything from how to beat addictions to “living your best life”, their motivational authority has quickly supplemented that of clinicians and cemented the role of therapy in popular culture. Reality television has also contributed to the rise of therapeutic discourse. Contests that offer the winner (and the loser) personal growth are taking over from competitions that reward an employment contract. In more overt examples, reality television has turned its lens on actual therapy with programs that chronicle the struggles of addicts and alcoholics as they seek professional treatment. While these programs have successfully capitalized on the popularization of televised therapy, they are also the beneficiaries of the “medicalization” of everyday life. Jason Jacobs argues that the 1990s, in particular, saw “an unprecedented intensification of the medicalization of everyday life” which was characterized by “regular health scares, the theorization of the “risk society,” [and] the promotion of “healthy living”… as a moral as much as a medical imperative” (2001, 12). “Medicalizing” everyday life meant elevating emotional conditions such as stress to the level of medical issues that again, require a level of professional involvement and intense self-analysis.
In the context of popular and televised notions of individual growth through therapy, Six Feet Under’s construction of the therapeutic ethos follows a cultural script that values self-knowledge and self-discovery.
The opening shot of “The Plan” is a man packing the trunk of a car in preparation for a trip. A dog barks off screen. The man tells his wife, also off screen, not to forget the dog. The scene cuts to a woman lying against white pillows. She wakes-up. The shot widens to reveal a hospital room where the man from the first scene is lying in a bed. In his sleep, he is muttering about a dog. When he wakes, he is confused and the woman, his wife, reminds him that he is sick. His mother is there as well and, unable to face the truth, tells him that everything is fine. He is in pain and desperately fighting it. His wife says: “it’s okay to let go.” She continues to comfort him and her eyes widen as she looks above his head. “Do you see?” she asks the man’s mother. “Above his head? The light?” The screen fades to white and the man’s name appears: Michael John Piper 1952-2001.
The next time we see Mrs. Piper (Mare Winningham) she is perusing the “casket wall” at Fisher and Sons, as Nate and David standby. David extols the virtues of one of the more expensive choices but she tells him that Michael finds the casket “tacky.” She chooses the cheapest option and appears to start an argument with herself before mentioning that she is a psychic and telling Nate and David that she is actually speaking to her husband. Instantly skeptical, David offers a condescending: “that must be nice for you.” Her obvious statement that the room holds a lot of pain adds to her lack of credibility, but then she turns to Nate with more prophetic advice: “You have a lot in…” She stops herself. “…on your mind. Don’t worry it’s all going to be okay.” The scene sets up Mrs. Piper as a fraud but her reference to Nate’s medical issues upsets this framing. The scene then cuts to the Fishers’ kitchen. The opening shot is a hand reaching for a jar of mixed nuts in the cupboard.
If the narrative leaves the question of Mrs. Piper’s “nuttiness” up to the viewer, it takes a more definitive stance on Ruth’s encounter with The Plan. A personal growth seminar, The Plan is a program of intense workshops where participants are taught to be “the architects” of their lives. Ruth’s co-worker Robbie takes her to the seminar, having successfully graduated from it in an earlier episode (“Out, Out Brief Candle”). On the morning of her first day, she is running late and rushes into the kitchen to grab some food. Finding all her children there, she quickly tells them where she is going. David and Claire are puzzled but Nate explains: “It’s one of those self-actualization things where they yell at you for twelve hours and don’t let you go to the bathroom.” Ruth pauses and asks thoughtfully: “Should I bring some type of jar?” before deciding against it and hurrying out the door.
At the seminar, the scene begins with Ruth staring intently at a stage where the instructor (Alice Krige) is speaking to a young woman. The woman tells the instructor that she is unable to forgive her father because he set her on fire and she had to leave her home country so he would not kill her. Sternly, the instructor tells her that she is working from an “old blueprint” and that she must invite her father to come visit her. The woman meekly protests that her father refuses to speak to her. The instructor turns to the audience and triumphantly announces that she must “tear down the walls and rebuild!”
At this point, some of the participants become angry and suggest that the instructor is blaming the victim unfairly. When she asks for a show of hands of who agrees, Ruth does not raise hers and the instructor singles her out. Ruth quietly says that she does not understand why the woman has to have her father as a house guest and then politely tells the instructor that she did not raise her hand because she was trying to understand her point. The instructor informs her that: “the only person sleeping in your house is you.” Ruth, not yet embracing the building metaphors, replies: “Well, I do have three children.” The crowd laughs and the instructor offers some guidance: “Ruth, you have to get out of bed, open the windows and let some light into your house so you can see the way things are. Then and only then can you begin renovating your life.” The camera cuts to Ruth as the instructor turns her attention back to the woman on stage. Unsure of what to do, she stands for a few moments and then slowly sinks into her chair as the crowd’s attention returns to the action on stage.
Despite her later report to Claire that the seminar was “horrible,” Ruth decides to attend day two because she thinks it’s the polite thing to do. Feeling sorry for her mother, Claire offers to make her some tea. When Ruth questions her motives, asking what she broke. Claire is offended and Ruth puts some of the day’s lessons into use: “I’m sorry. I was imposing my old blueprint on you. In the old blueprint of my old house you’re only nice to me when you’ve done something bad…”
On day two, an increasingly uncomfortable Ruth starts to rebel against the workshop. When the participants are instructed to go out into the hall and make phone calls to those people with whom they need to repair relationships, she pretends to call Claire. Back in the seminar room, the instructor notices Ruth’s impatience and again singles her out. When she asks where her house needs repairs, Ruth announces that she has a “very nice house.” She then turns to the crowd, exasperated and asks: “Can’t anyone just be happy? I’m happy!” The instructor disagrees and asks Ruth what she really wants to complain about. She starts out small: “The fact that the blood stopped circulating in my rear-end four hours ago.” Undaunted, the instructor prompts her for more and Ruth releases her inhibitions:
“You want me to complain? Alright, then fuck this. Fuck you. Fuck all of you with your sniveling self-pity and fuck all your lousy parents. Fuck my lousy parents while we’re at it. Fuck my selfish bohemian sister and her fucking bliss. Fuck my legless grandmother. Fuck my dead husband and my lousy children with their nasty little secrets. And fuck you Robbie for dragging me to this terrible place and not letting me have a Snickers bar!”
The instructor is ecstatic: “Congratulations Ruth! You have just leveled your fleabag hovel. Now you can rebuild the house of your dreams from the ground up!” The crowd stands and applauds. At a bar with Robbie at the end of the night Ruth tells him “I don’t know how to thank you.”
Despite the narrative’s comical framing of The Plan, it positions Ruth as having gained some benefits from it. In later episodes, she more openly expresses her anger, telling David that she is “tired of being the architect for this family” and calls old friends in order to “draft a new blueprint” for herself (“Driving Mrs. Mossback”). She even reconciles with her estranged sister (“In Place of Anger”). After a few episodes though, she tells Robbie that she no longer needs to speak in architectural metaphors and she has learned all she can from The Plan (“Back to the Garden”). A savvy consumer in the therapeutic marketplace, Ruth’s eventual rejection of The Plan suggests that: “therapies are commodities meant to be used and discarded like any other purchase” (Gross 2006, 91).
With its focus on a self-actualization seminar, the episode makes a statement about therapeutic discourse but Ruth’s encounter with The Plan suggests that a particular therapy, while beneficial, is not a complete path to personal growth. The juxtaposition of psychology with psychics in the opening death also suggests a narrative ambivalence toward the former as it ridicules the latter. “The Plan” is not uncritical in its portrayal of therapy even as it promotes its (modest) benefits. Yet, the episode’s focus on the attainment of authenticity as a way to achieve personal growth supports the series’ preoccupation with releasing repression through intense self-examination and personal relationships.
In his landmark study, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (1966), sociologist Philip Rieff explores the rise of individualism at the expense of tradition and reliance on social institutions. Since its publication, cultural historians have continued to expand upon the notion of Reiff’s “psychological man” or what they have come to call “therapeutic culture.” Furedi explains that therapeutic culture “regards the affirmation of self as the central element of the good life” (2004, 147).
For the Fishers, the good life of self-affirmation is always just out of reach. Ruth learns to rebuild her house with a new blueprint, but her excursion into the therapeutic marketplace leaves her unfulfilled. Yet, her and her family’s continual efforts to shop around suggest that the series’ narrative is strongly informed by a therapeutic ideology that promises that self-exploration is the key to bringing individuals in touch with their “true selves”. Ultimately, the series will show that it is the release of repressed feelings, a fundamental aspect of psychotherapy, that will allow the characters a real chance at personal growth.
* * *
Fahy, Thomas. “An Interview with Alan Ball.” In Considering Alan Ball: Essays on Sexuality, Death and America in the Television and Film Writings, Thomas Fahy, ed. 1-16. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2006.
Furedi, Frank. Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Gross, Robert. “Meet the Chenowiths: The Therapeutic Drama of Six Feet Under.” In Considering Alan Ball: Essays on Sexuality, Death and America in the Television and Film Writings, ed. Thomas Fahy, 86-105. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2006.
Jason Jacobs. Body Trauma TV: The New Hospital Dramas. London: BFI, 2003.
McCabe, Janet. “ ‘Like Whatever’: Claire, Female Identity and Growing Up Dysfunctional.” In Reading Six Feet Under: TV To Die For, Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, eds. 121-134. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.