Mother and Daughter: Escaping from the Inside and Outside
Claire is the precocious and perceptive member of the Fisher household, noticing even the most mundane details about those around her. In the second season episode “The Plan” (S2:3), she chides David for placing the uneaten Brazil nuts back in the cupboard—a most mundane action—as no member of the household truly likes them. She is able to notice things like this because, until the time when her father died, she remained on the periphery of the household, observing and listening. She is never, and will never be, tied to the family business.
Like Claire, Ruth is also on the periphery of the family business. Although she might have had a minor financial stake in the business, her role at Fisher & Sons is a very minor one. Letting external circumstances direct her course in life, Ruth is left struggling to find meaning outside of the domestic bubble that burst with the death of her husband and the realization that her tenure as a mother with dependent children has come to an end.
The death of Nathaniel Sr. creates a schism between Claire and Ruth that finally resolves itself at the end of the series, only when mother and daughter each realizes the value in accepting what will ultimately make the other lead a fulfilled life. After Nathaniel Sr.’s death, everyone’s focus turns to Claire—especially after her foot-stealing exploit—and she is forced to deal with the external impressions others have of her. In the first two seasons she is under constant assessment and scrutiny at home and at school—by her mother who is convinced she has an eating disorder or may be an arsonist, and by a counselor who believes that sexual tension between Claire and himself has developed over the course of a school semester.
This level of scrutiny continues upon her entrance into art school, where, interestingly, a majority of her initial success is tied to the stark realities of the family business. Her self-involved instructor, Oliver, is nauseated by her art, work that is reflective of her life of living in a funeral home. Oliver interprets his negative reaction as a measure of artistic success for Claire.
Fellow members of the Fisher household also react strongly to her art, but in an antagonistic manner, especially since it involves the family business—even if, for example, Ruth tells Claire she is “in full support of you going to art school” (S2:12 “I’ll Take You”). For example, in Season Four episode “In Case of Rapture” (S4:2), David chides Claire for taking pictures of Dorothy Sheedy: “This is our family business, Claire, even if I’m the only one in the family who gives a shit anymore… this is not an art project”. Even what Claire considers her most successful art—even better than that “pieced together mosaic crap”—was demonstrative of the antagonism she experienced between her art and the small world reflected in her art, thus still being dependent on the family business. In Season Four episode “Parallel Play” (S4:3), the pictures of the family belongings not sold at a yard sale—all set aflame—had her family and home in the background.
The fact that Claire’s most successful artistic ventures are tied to Fisher and Sons produces an inevitable stagnation for Claire, and she drops out of art school between Seasons Four and Five, after she realizes that art school is not a distinctive or useful way to learn her craft. For Claire to not only be happy, but to thrive as a successful artist and live an honest, artistic life, she must no longer live with her family, within the confines of the family business. Eudaemonia, for Claire, is to successfully manage her identity as an artist, independent of the home for which she can never be a full, active, thriving participant.
Though Ruth had an affair while Nathaniel was alive, her primary mode of existence operated through a heavily traditional, nuclear family driven domestic veil—so much so that, after Nathaniel’s death, the emptiness of her life was laid bare for us to see on screen. In Season Two episode “The Invisible Woman” (S2:5), Ruth daydreams of a bare kitchen, with cold, uninviting lighting, a direct antithesis of a warm, Rockwell-esque sphere of domestic bliss she had latched onto so strongly with Nathaniel was alive. This daydream-cum-nightmare directly contributes to an emotional outburst towards Claire in the same episode, revealing the lack of understanding each had regarding their other’s desires. In same episode, Claire expresses her dissatisfaction with managing personal identity due to other’s expectations and impressions of her life as the daughter of an undertaker, suggesting that Emily Previn’s introverted existence had serious merit, which Ruth cannot understand:
Claire: Maybe she [Emily Previn] was living the life she wanted. The life without the hustle of other people.
Ruth: What kind of life is that?!
(S2:5 “The Invisible Woman”)
Unlike Claire, Ruth hunts for opportunities to allow others to be dependent on her after Nathaniel’s death, where the ‘hustle of other people’ is used as her hunting ground. Her identity has largely been defined by others expectations of the fulfillment of her domestic role, which is something she can no longer sustain with a dead husband and a set of children who no longer need her. So Ruth takes what she can get. She is there on the morning of Nate’s initial surgery, cradling him, repeatedly saying that she’ll never let him go. She becomes an overbearing caregiver for Maya, to Lisa’s (and later Brenda’s) chagrin. And most sadly, she constantly questions her past effectiveness as a mother after Nathaniel’s death, telling Claire that “well, whatever you’re going through, I hope you don’t blame me” (S2:11, “The Liar and the Whore”). Her focus increasingly orients towards an internal assessment of herself, as it becomes more and more clear that her role of a domestic caregiver no longer has salience or meaning. Instead, she focuses on her ability to “speak fiercely from the I” (S2:3). Yet no matter how much she tries, no matter what self-help program or jargon she can latch onto, she can no longer maintain the domestic-infused identity that sustained her until Nathaniel’s death.
Tragically, Ruth does not fully become cognizant of this fact until the end of the series—like Claire, Ruth must find an identity independent of Fisher and Sons, the majority of her life having been hidden behind a domestically veiled farce. Ruth realizes the value in retiring her identity inside Fisher and Sons when Claire threatens to repeat her mother’s footsteps, directly telling her she would be willing to stay at home to watch over her. Realizing that Claire will limit her identity, and her opportunities in life, Ruth realizes that for Claire to be happy, and to experience eudaemonia, they both must form an identity outside of the environment of which they could never truly be a part, that Claire must not repeat her mother’s footsteps: “You would stay here for me? Absolutely not! Go! Live! I’ll unfreeze your trust fund. Take it and find whatever life has in store for you . . . I stayed home to take care of a sick woman and I’ve always regretted it. I don’t regret you, or any of my children, or Nathaniel even . . . but I do regret never giving myself any choice. I won’t let you make the same mistake!” (S5:12, “Everyone’s Waiting”). This mutual understanding of what will enable mother and daughter to live fulfilled lives serves as a capstone to their relationship at Fisher and Sons, and the beginning of their relationship outside of the confines of the family business.
Life as a Photograph
If we revisit the scene with Claire on her deathbed, we are faced with a plethora of questions regarding the room’s arrangement. Why are the photos still there if Claire is blind? How long as she been bedridden? Why would she arrange the photos as such? Did she want to memorize them before going completely blind? Why does she make a life and a living engaging in an activity that can never perfectly capture the moment it was designed to capture?
Of course, none of these questions has a correct, or a clear answer, or any answer at all. But perhaps the reason Claire does become a photographer is because it so mirrors the lives it captures to film. Every photo has a perspective—a perspective that is limited to a finite set of dimensions and angles. It captures a small moment in the fabric of time. It can be altered and distorted, and pieced back together, but the fundamental units must still remain—yet every photo also has an interpretation, based on the person looking at it.
Every life lived has a beginning and an end, and in between those two events, it has a perspective, a perspective that can be influenced by two things: the person living the life, and everyone else. Six Feet Under has shown as that, try as we might, we can’t in good faith determine what will enable us to live a life well-lived if we can’t know the lives of others—what their desires are, what others consider important. Whether the concept of eudaemonia is framed in the terms of ancient moral philosophy or modern humanist psychology, Alan Ball’s serial drama has shown the power in recognizing what other’s view as important for living a good life. In the case of the Fisher family, though every member is constantly reminded that there is no cure for death on a daily basis—that our inevitable non-existence has no escape—there is still much value in questioning, and knowing, what others and we consider to be “the good life.” It was critical to strengthening the relationship between two brothers, between mother and daughter, and provides a simple yet meaningful message to viewers to always consider what makes life valuable. In this respect, Six Feet Under makes death and its impending approach feel remarkably alive.