A decade on, Ruth Fisher, the deceptively buttoned-down, wildly unpredictable matriarch on Six Feet Under, remains a singular representation of motherhood on television.
Four years after the June 2001 premiere of Six Feet Under, British TV critic and reviewer Mark Lawson, in a spirited defence of why British academics should be allowed to write about American TV without the disdain of their colleagues, wrote in the foreword to Reading Six Feet Under: TV to Die For that “the importance of Six Feet Under is not that it is like anything else, but that it isn’t” (Lawson 2005: xxii). Consider the premise: each week the show opened with a death, the tragedy of which was often undermined by black humor and an incongruous musical accompaniment -- a man cracks his head on the bottom of a swimming pool while Dean Martin croons “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”; a newly divorced woman loses her head (literally) to a traffic light while Gloria Gaynor sang “I Will Survive”; a man driving to the airport to pick up his son for Christmas is killed by a bus while Bing Crosby croons “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”. Each weekly death was both a prologue to and commentary on the ensuing episode, framing and commenting on the proceedings. Often darkly humorous and always emotionally challenging, Six Feet Under took us where TV had never taken us before, routinely and frankly staring down mortality week in and week out.
Back to the car accident, which kicks off the pilot -- the driver and victim is patriarch Nathanial Fischer Senior, on his way to pick up son Nate. Quite an audacious start to a new series, killing the main character within the first five minutes, but the family’s reaction to this catastrophic accident revealed much about the tone that the series would take. Matriarch Ruth’s (Frances Conroy) reaction to the news of her husband’s death is startling and dramatic -- throwing the phone across the kitchen, followed by the dinner, dishes and knives, all the while howling like a wounded animal. Telling her son David (Michael C. Hall) “There’s been an accident. The new hearse is totalled. Your father is dead…. Your father is dead and my pot roast is ruined” clues us into the fact that nestled in a cast of extraordinary characters, Ruth was never going to be a run-of-the-mill mother.
And that is what attracted me to Six Feet Under from the get-go: Ruth. The middle-aged, menopausal matriarch who found herself widowed with three grown children to care for; a woman who, in the prime of her life, suffers the most unexpected blow and has to somehow pick her family and herself up, continue the family business, reconcile her feelings of guilt (she had been having an affair when her husband was killed) as well as negotiate a relationship with troubled teenage daughter, Claire. Ruth: the character who in the past decade remained singular in her representation of motherhood and the woman who gave me hope for an unruly middle age once my children were adult.
It isn’t as if there haven’t been other middle-aged mothers on our TV screens. All in the Family’s Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) who benignly tolerated her husband’s prejudices; Maude’s Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) who shocked viewers by choosing to abort her late life pregnancy; The Golden Girls riotous mothers; and last, and by no means least, Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand), passive-aggressive victim supremo, who openly plotted to have her son murdered for daring to put her into a retirement community. But Ruth Fisher was different. Ruth made us look at motherhood, particularly middle-aged motherhood, in a completely different way.
Who can forget the way her representation worked within the kitchen, heart of the home, the place where mothers are most usually comfortably placed? Alan Ball obviously worked against type here as he explains how the kitchen “is the heart of the home, the source of nourishment and sustenance, the congregating place, the hearth” (Ron Magid, 'Family Plots'. American Cinematographer. 83.11 (2002): pp 70-72, 74-79). And despite this, from the moment Ruth wrecked the kitchen it became the epitome of a “not … completely warm and rosy place” because, as Ball says, “the Fishers live in the constant presence of death” (ibid). The kitchen was also symbolic of Ruth’s inner journey as the series progressed and the more lost she became, the larger and more overwhelming the space seemed. From her statue-like stance, gripping a saucepan, in “The Room” (1:6); to her dream of a cold and unforgiving cavernous space in “The Invisible Woman” (2:5); through to her solitary dinner of a pork chop, potatoes and a few Brussels sprouts in “Back to the Garden” (2:7), Ruth’s relationship to the kitchen was inextricably linked to her spiritual and emotional journey.
Ruth’s journey towards self-fulfilment was unforgettably hijacked and then aided and abetted by friend Bettina (Kathy Bates) who took her through various adventures from shoplifting (“The Eye Inside”, 3:3) to the unforgettable episode where, on the set of the next day’s funeral, she enacted her own death and tipsily danced to the strains of ‘I’m an ordinary girl/Burning down the house.’ And burn down the house is exactly what Ruth and Bettina continued to do over the course of five seasons of Six Feet Under. “Grinding the Corn” (4:9) saw them taking a road trip to Mexico rather than babysitting Ruth’s granddaughter Maya for yet another afternoon. Drinking Tequila and laughing outrageously on the way to Rosarita, the trip only ended after Ruth’s horse died underneath her. But the damage was done and her liberation was more or less complete.
And yet Ruth’s journey was not quite over. Even though she never really went back to her old ways, her choice to continue to care for second husband George in his dementia took her to a completely different level of caring, transcending her former traditional role. By the end of the final season Ruth seemed to have truly reconciled her feelings of guilt. She had survived the loss of Nate Sr., weathered the throes of middle aged passion with her various suitors; survived the death of her eldest son Nate; and was able let her daughter leave home with her blessing, to waving to her as she drove off to a new life in New York. Ruth’s obituary tells us that she opened the Four Paws Pet Retreat in Topanga Canyon and spent the last twenty years of her life caring for animals with her friend Bettina -- a truly fitting ending to a life spent caring. And yet, there is part of me that hopes that her last 20 years were not only caregiving years but also unruly, raucous ones.
Ruth gave much life to Six Feet Under. Her representation was painted with a truly human brush. There had never been a TV mother quite like her and I worry that there will never be another one. As Nate tells Claire in the last episode: “You can’t take a picture unless it’s already gone.” In the same vein we didn’t truly appreciate a mother like Ruth until she was gone. A decade after the premiere of Six Feet Under and we are still waiting for someone like her to fill the void. I fear it will be a long wait.