“The message is that we die. And sometimes we die in the middle of messy things in our lives. Death doesn’t wait until you take care of all your issues.”
— Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball
“Watching Nate suffer has always been part of the appeal.”
— Heather Havrilesky, New York Magazine
Typically, I avoid anything in the way of lists when I write an essay for PopMatters. Lists require next to nothing in the way of commentary, because they are usually designed just to generate controversy and debate, whereas I like to pretend that I produce content that’s at least ostensibly more thoughtful and critical. However, I recently found myself thinking about Six Feet Under’s Nate Fisher (perhaps because no television character not named Don Draper has been half as captivating as Nate Fisher since Six Feet Under ended five years ago), and Nate’s definitive scenes pretty much immediately became clear to me.
Further, it occurred to me that Nate is arguably the only character from Six Feet Under who lends himself to such an exercise. For Brenda or Ruth or Claire, the results would inevitably feel skewed, somehow. Any choice of scenes would seem unfair to those characters, or somehow reductive. (I’m not up to the task of taking on such an exercise for the character of David Fisher, but the results would certainly make for compelling reading.)
Now that I’ve committed to writing what is essentially a self-serious list, let us dispense with the question of credentials right from the start: I believe that Six Feet Under never jumped the shark. Indeed, in defiance of the critical consensus, I maintain that the series pretty much consistently became more compelling and beautiful and artful as it went along. It could be that this admission leaves me with no credibility in the eyes of most readers, but at least we all know where we stand.
I should also note that I could not quite muster the hubris to call this essay “The Three Scenes That Define Nate Fisher,” not least because I’ve only seen each season once, and so it would feel reckless to pretend that my choices are the only sensible choices.
Also, the brainstorming session that led to the body of this essay resulted in not three but five scenes that define Nate Fisher, and yet I was hesitant to change the title. In my defense, I think Nate Fisher would have liked the title of this essay. It’s a punny bastardization of a lyric from an old Jane’s Addiction song, and I’m sure Nate was a Jane’s Addiction fan. Plus, like Nate, the title is kind of poetic, but mostly just pretentious.
What follows, then, before we proceed to the Three Scenes, are the two Honorable Mentions that I found noteworthy… just not noteworthy enough to warrant a title change.
In the series finalé, a brief flashback to 1994 shows a (not particularly convincingly) younger Nate crying as Nirvana’s “All Apologies” plays on the stereo next to him. Nate explains to a bewildered but intrigued Claire, “Kurt Cobain killed himself today.” Then, comically and brilliantly and almost inevitably, he adds, “He was just too pure for this world.”
How typical of Nate to believe that someone like Kurt Cobain, an admittedly talented but also incredibly self-absorbed and hypocritical musician, could be “too pure” for this world. (Further, how typical that Nate would be moved to tears by one of Nirvana’s lesser, more pretentious, more self-conscious songs.) You could even argue that Nate saw Cobain through the same gauze of adoration and justification through which he viewed his own misdeeds and self-centeredness throughout the series.
Early in the fourth season, Nate goes for an invigorating jog, and a dog crosses his path. Soon, Nate is deeply struck by the dog’s penetrating gaze and, in a surreal but strangely stirring moment, he stares back at the dog and says, “Lisa?”
Nate was always searching desperately for deeper meaning and significance and patterns in his life and in the universe, and so it was perhaps not as surprising as it should have been that Nate would become convinced that his dead wife’s soul was peering at him from the depths of a dog’s eyes. (I realize that my strained description of this scene would seem to call into question my claim that the series never jumped the shark, but I repeat my suggestion that the scene works amazingly well.)
Moving on, here at last are three scenes that define Nate Fisher:
In the series pilot, Ruth Fisher stands by the grave of her husband, Nathaniel. Inspired by her son Nate, she quickly abandons the “stupid salt shaker” receptacle in favor of scooping up dirt with her bare hands in order to throw it on her husband’s coffin in a more intimate manner. She then collapses in tears. David, the fussy, petulant brother who is at this point in the closet about his homosexuality and yet is still more honest and self-aware than Nate, tries to establish some sense of normalcy, and Nate yells at him about grief not being an antiseptic, socially comfortable and appropriate affair. Essentially, Nate champions his and his mother’s right to wail painfully about the loss of Nathaniel, if need be.
Television Without Pity summarizes the scene thusly:
Nate jumps up and delivers a stirring defense of the cathartic benefits of expressing true grief in the face of rigid traditionalism. Rounding up to his big finish, he slams his handful of dirt into the grave and exclaims, “I intend to honor the old bastard by letting the whole world see just how fucked up and shitty I feel that he’s dead. Goddammit!”
It’s actually a very persuasive and moving lecture, in part because we’re just meeting Nate, and so we don’t yet realize what an asshole he is.
Our second definitive scene takes place after the death of Lisa, Nate’s first wife. Tormented by grief and guilt and the existential angst that permeates every character’s existence on Six Feet Under, Nate spends an episode or three engaging in self-destructive behavior. For example, he provokes fights in bars because he wants to be beaten. After one particularly brutal beating, he shows up unexpectedly at the doorstep of his ex, Brenda. She takes him in out of pity, and even shares her bed with him, albeit seemingly only in a platonic, nurturing sort of way. Then, Nate wakes in the middle of the night, dazed and seemingly still drunk, and unceremoniously rolls atop Brenda, and performs a few uninspired pelvic thrusts, and then immediately rolls over and falls back to sleep.
Though Brenda is basically reduced here to little more than a whore, this scene is in fact crueler by far towards Nate. It’s the most damning portrait of his selfishness and greed you’ll see in the entire series.
Finally, a bit of redemption, ‘cause he may be an egocentric, deluded user and an asshole, but Nate is probably my favorite character from the Six Feet Under series.
Lisa had once expressed her desire to not be embalmed and placed in a coffin. As a new age hippie, she preferred the idea of being buried in the ground with nothing to serve as a barrier between her body and the earth. I imagine that this was perhaps just a youthful, whimsical, misguided bit of musing on Lisa’s part, but Nate, in a profoundly selfless moment, decides to honor her wishes. The brilliance of the storytelling during the build to this scene is that Nate spends a brief scene or three driving his van late at night, and it almost doesn’t even occur to the viewer to wonder what he’s up to until he starts digging a hole on a desolate hilltop.
The labor of one lonely night of digging ends up coming across as more noble and heroic than Woodrow Call’s journey of several months to bury his friend Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove, and the agonizing sound of Lisa’s body sliding from the body bag into the makeshift grave and Nate’s wail of grief afterward make this scene Nate’s defining moment.
I YouTubed this last scene in order to ensure that I had all the particulars correct, and I was struck by some of the viewer comments:
The screaming at the end could have been really cheesy and forced, but Peter Krause makes it feel so real. Gotta love that guy. Amazing actor.
this was quite possibly the heaviest moment in television history.
I wept when I first saw this and it still brings me to tears & breaks my heart every time. Such palpable pain… Just another amazing scene in a long list of amazing SFU scenes.
the scream rips my heart apart.
I watched this episode last night. I’m not ashamed to admit that I bawled my eyes out.
God, I cried. I watched it online with crappy quality and I never liked Lisa. But I cried my eyes out.
Probably the most powerful scene in the history of tv.
I don’t think I’ve seen any scene from tv or a movie as powerfully emotional. I gotta go watch some family guy or something.
Incredibly, someone decided to use the clip as a forum for self-promotion:
First green burial to be shown on TV. Please consider this option! Hudson Valley Green Burial Association
It could almost be a joke from an episode of Six Feet Under. I like to think that Nate would be amused.