The Book of Ruth

Kim Akass

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.





Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression (premiere + interview)

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.


Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.


'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


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 .


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

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.