Three Days Was the Mourning: Three Scenes That Define 'Six Feet Under'’s Nate Fisher

Nate was always searching desperately for deeper meaning, and so it was not surprising that he would see his dead wife’s soul peering at him from the eyes of a dog.

“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:

Scene 1

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.

Scene 2

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.

Scene 3

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.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.