Drifting Together, Drifting Apart: Sibling Bonds on ‘Six Feet Under’

[11 November 2011]

By Brian Salvatore

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.

David and Nate are at the center of the show

David and Nate are at the center of the show, and at the center of their family. On the fringe, in her mind and in reality, is Claire. Nate is 18 years older than Claire—he left home when she was still a baby, and has been, at best, a long-distance brother since. Their relationship has all the trappings of siblings who live far away:  a few inside jokes/memories, awkwardness and resentment. Nate, as the eldest, tries to discipline Claire and impart sage advice to her, but she sees right through his act—he was a fuck up, like she is, and has no real advice to give because for all his confidence, he still doesn’t have it all figured out.

Perhaps because they are so similar, Nate and Claire never really forge the relationship that could have been. Claire and David on the other hand, have a much more complicated and, eventually, deep relationship. David never really left home, and so he and Claire seemingly know each other much better when we first encounter them. Or, at least, they have a passable understanding of who the other one is. David thinks Claire is a drama queen and a hormonal teenager, and Claire thinks David has a stick up his ass.

Over time, David and Claire forge an unlikely bond; David becomes, without trying, the surrogate father Nate pushes to be. When Claire gets kicked off of a camping trip for school, she gives David’s cell number to the instructor and the instructor assumes this “Mr. Fisher” is her father. David never blows Claire’s cover; he sees that she has gotten something valuable from this experience, and lets her get away with it. David, to his credit, never really talks down the Claire—he doesn’t necessarily confide in her or lean on her for support the way he does with Nate, but he treats her as an adult and an equal long before anyone else in the family does.

Lisa’s disappearance is another defining moment in the Fisher family. Nate is understandably devastated by his wife going missing, and both David and Claire offer their fullest support for him. The clearest example of this is when Nate travels to where Lisa’s car was found and spends a night in a cheap motel room. He gets a knock on his door and opens it to David and Claire, there to do whatever they can for him. If we compare this to not even two years earlier when Nate and David don’t even share an embrace at the death of their father, we see how far they have come. 

The scariest, most disturbing episode of Six Feet Under is “That’s My Dog” (S4:5), where David tries to do what he thinks is the right thing by picking up a hitchhiker. The hitcher turns out to be a drug-addled maniac , who kidnaps David on an incredibly scary and dangerous journey around Los Angeles. He forces David to smoke crack, abandon a body, sticks a gun put in his mouth, and pours gasoline on him with the intention of burning David to death. It is, needless to say, a harrowing experience (and one of the most polarizing episodes of the show), shaking David to his very core.

David turns to Claire, who catches him having a panic attack at a viewing of a young man who was murdered, and explains to her the events of that night. Nate, at this point has walked away from the family business after Lisa’s death, is urged to return by Claire. She knows that David’s responsibilities and stress would both decrease a lot if Nate would come back to help. Nate is reluctant, but Claire pushes him: “You know he would do it for you”. And with those words, Nate acts completely against his self-interest, and returns to the business he never wanted to help his brother.

Late in Season Five, Nate suffers another seizure as a result of his AVM and winds up in a coma. Ruth is camping without a cell phone, and so it is up to the Fisher siblings to take care of this crisis themselves. Because of Ruth’s absence, and Nate’s disintegrating relationship with wife Brenda, David and Claire wind up being the people who spend the most time with their brother when he awakes from his coma. Claire, who has been in a weird headspace all season, finally starts acting like an adult; she is assertive, concerned, and caring, almost motherly, in the absence of Ruth.

David continues his ascent to the head of the Fisher family by running interference between Benda and Maggie (a former-step sibling who acts as the catalyst for Nate’s final rejection of Brenda and final embrace of spirituality), being the calming, stabilizing force at the hospital, and the selfless brother, sitting vigil by his brother. It is while sitting with his brother that the two of them experience a shared dream; father Nathaniel Sr. driving the van with a Shaggy-esque David and a normal Nate to the beach. Nate, on the beach, looks at the ocean and says “I’m going in!”  Nate runs into the water, and when David awakes, Nate has died.

Nate’s death devastates Claire and David. Claire spirals into an alcoholic stupor and nearly destroys both her relationship with then boyfriend Ted and her future. David is once again visited by images of his attacker, and his grief brings him to a place where he cannot be an effective father to his adopted sons, so David returns home to the Fisher house temporarily.

However, it is David’s grief and his working through it that leads he and Keith to buy Rico and Brenda out of Fisher and Diaz—once again, it is Fisher and Sons. It is also the bravery that Nate exhibited in leaving home at an early age that inspires Claire to move to New York, even if the job she had lined up falls through. Just as his return home brought the Fishers together, his leaving them sets them on their paths they will follow for the rest of their lives.

In many ways, David and Nate are their parents. Nate is his father—distant, hates his job, and needs to escape occasionally. David is his mother—his life isn’t exactly what he wants, but he tackles it the best he can, while trying to be everything to everyone. Claire is a little bit of each parent and, more evidently, a little bit of each sibling. Yes, she leaves, but because of a good reason—she is embarking on a career, unlike Nate, who just wanted to get away. Claire dedicates herself to her work—art and photography—the way David does, and seems to have a similar work ethic to her brother.

Continuing the Fisher family, both Nate and David have children of their own—a pair each. Nate’s children have two different mothers and both grow up without him, continuing Nate’s theme of not being there for his family. David’s children are adopted, but eventually see him as their true father; a shelter from the storm of life. Claire never has children; she once again has to break the patterns her brothers set out for her and forge her own path.

In so many other shows, the three disparate siblings from the pilot would be as close as could be by series end; Six Feet Under didn’t do that. Yes, they have grown closer, but Claire, David and Nate are still messed up, awkward, unsure people who don’t completely get their siblings.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/149522-growing-together-growing-apart-sibling-bonds-on-six-feet-under/