You Can’t Fix Death: Living Life, Fisher Style

At the moment Claire Simone Fisher dies at the ripe old age of 101, she is blind and surrounded by photographs of her loved ones who have all died. According to the ghost of her older brother, Nate, these photos are mere approximations of things that were already gone by the moment the subject of focus was put to film: “You can’t take a picture of this — it’s already gone” (S5:12 “Everyone’s Waiting”). Yet while Nate the ghost–the archetype, the inner voice–tells Claire this as she leaves for New York, Claire takes the picture anyway, seemingly ignoring him. In fact, her life’s work is devoted to attempting to capture moments that are ultimately impossible to capture.

As it is her own inner voice speaking through the veil of Nate’s ghost, Claire seems to suggest that photos, like life, are fleeting attempts. No matter how close in time we can get to accurately displaying life, we’ll never be able to do it perfectly, because we can’t live life perfectly. We can do the best we can do, and that’s pretty much it. But what is the “best we can do?” Throughout the five seasons of Six Feet Under, one could have asked each member of the Fisher household and have gotten wildly divergent answers. The show did a superlative job of establishing contradictory views each member of the Fisher universe sustained regarding what the ancient Greeks called eudaemonia — roughly translated as “human flourishing” or “living a good life.” Though “happiness” is an approximation of the term eudaemonia, it misses a variety of meanings implied by the Greeks. It is not a singular emotional state, but a method and a process of living. Nate, when consoling a grieving Tracy Montrose by answering her basic question about human mortality, explicitly referenced this concept in the Season One finale: “Why do people have to die?” — “To make life important. A life well-lived — that’s all we can hope for” (S1:13, “Knock Knock”).

If there ever was a single source of major conflict in the Fisher universe, it is the characters’ differing views on what eudaemonia is and how to reach it — even if they largely have the same desires, as is the case for the pairs of Nate/David and Ruth/Claire. Not all conflicts between Nate and David, or Ruth and Claire, were explicitly resolved during the five season run of Six Feet Under, but for those that were, it was only after the Fishers recognized and accepted the other’s personal desires towards reaching eudaemonia. By allowing this foundation for conflict and resolution to develop over the course of the series, Alan Ball created a simple yet meaningful model that allows Six Feet Under to rest atop the mountain of TV serial dramas, posing the question, “If we don’t know how others view the good life and how to live it, how will we ever come to understand how we view and live it ourselves?”

The Brothers Fisher and the Quest for Transparency

“It’s Fisher and Sons. That’s got to continue.”

— Nathaniel Fisher, Sr.

The relationship between Nate and David is tumultuous from the beginning of the pilot episode. Their differing attitudes towards the proper way to express grief reveals the emotional chasm that has developed between them over the course of their adult lives, showing them sitting on opposing ends of the teeter totter of emotional disclosure. Though we are not entirely privy to the relationship between Nate and David before they were both adults, we are shown several old-style home movies during season one, suggesting that when Nate left the Fisher household at age 17, the closeness between David and him was shattered. These flashbacks also show that Nate was the emotionally reserved one in regards to the family business as a child, refusing to go anywhere near a body he father is preparing, while David plays with a doll next to the body, smiling and carefree. Yet at their father’s funeral, it is Nate who refuses to be emotionally reserved, grabbing dirt with his hands, throwing it on the coffin, and exclaiming that “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!” (S1:1, “Pilot”).

This direct outburst of emotion causes a heated argument between Nate and David on top of their father’s grave, which only amplifies when, an episode later, the brothers discover they are now equal owners of the family business. David, in a fit of defensive, jealous rage, attempts to invalidate Nate’s lifestyle in Seattle: “Thanks for making it so clear to me that my choice to dedicate myself to this business and to this family was really stupid. Because, apparently, I would have been rewarded just the same for wasting my life” (S1:2, “The Will”). Surprisingly, Nate doesn’t disagree with David, stating, just one episode later, that “My whole life, I’ve been a tourist. Now I have the chance to do some good, instead of sucking up air” (S1:3, “The Foot”).

Through these exchanges in Season One, we learn what Nate’s schematic for eudaemonia entails. Nate desires transparency above all else. It is transparency that the ghost of Nathaniel Sr. identifies as Nate’s talent: “You have a gift. You can help people” (S1:3). Even Brenda identifies Nate’s ability to “channel other people’s pain” (S1:4, “Familia”). This desire is not confined to familial obligations to run the business, though it certainly is inescapably tied to Nate’s new role within Fisher and Sons. It remains a constant concern for Nate, who, four seasons later, foot firmly entrenched in the grave and the family business, still worries whether emotional transparency is actually obtainable in his lifetime: “I just feel like all I do, all day long, is just manage myself, try to fuckin’ connect with people. But it’s like, no matter how much energy you pour into getting to the station on time, or getting on the right train, there’s still no fuckin’ guarantee that anybody’s gonna be there for you to pick you up when you get there” (S5:4, “Time Flies”).

As equal shareholder in the family business, Nate also wants intimacy and transparency in his professional and personal partnership with David: “You and me. Together. Brothers. Like we used to be” (S1:3) David ultimately wants the same level of transparency as well — his view of eudaemonia is really no different than Nate’s, though it takes the entirety of season one for him to realize it, and, as with Nate, it’s constantly challenged throughout the entire series. Spending the majority of the first season in the closet, David’s relationship with Keith fails for the first time because of his failure to publicly show intimacy in his time of weakness, even though he comes out to his brother in the fifth episode of Season One (S1:5 “An Open Book”), and actively embraces Nate in his arms after the funeral of a Gulf War veteran (S1:7, “Brotherhood”). Even then, David goes right back in the closet as he takes a position as deacon in the church, still struggling internally, even after punching a homophobic protester in an emotional outburst, later praying to God to “fill this loneliness with your love” (S1:12, “A Private Life”). While David succeeds at crossing a level of emotional intimacy with his brother, he is not yet successful at doing so with his lover.

The foundation of a more proactive form of intimacy has been formed between Nate and David by the end of season one, and only because David explicitly realizes the value of Nate’s view of eudaemonia as emotional transparency. In the seventh episode of Season One, David tells Nate that he “did the right thing” by arranging a traditional military funeral for Victor Kovitch, which was not the result of trying to obtain a higher profit margin, but because of Nate’s ethical obligation to respect Victor’s true wishes, and not the repressed desires of Victor’s brother. Because of Nate’s actions, Victor’s brother and army friends are allowed to mourn his loss in a more transparent manner, and David becomes more accepting of Nate’s role in the family business as a result: “Thanks for staying in L.A. And helping me run the business. Things have been a lot more fun around here since you’ve been home” (S1:13, “Knock Knock”).

Proof of this permanent shift in the relationship is constantly demonstrated throughout the remainder of the series. David is the first to know about Nate’s ultimately fatal arterial venous malformation (AVM) in Season Two, and helps Nate plan his funeral, even though David is visibly uncomfortable doing so. After failing to forge a successful and intimate relationship with Lisa, who ends up inevitably dead, it is Nate who increasing becomes emotionally reserved and shut off in Season Three, while David continues pushing for transparency, both in his relationship with Nate and with Keith. Unlike his struggle with the living in the closet in Season One, it is Keith’s failure to provide David with the emotional transparency he desires that leads to their second breakup, for David believes that he needs Keith on his side, but “it’s the one thing I never, ever have (S3:12, “Twilight”). Yet all the while, David remains strongly in Nate’s corner, immediately coming over when Nate calls him in the middle of the night about filing a missing persons report for Lisa, meeting up with him near the beach where Lisa’s car was found, and ultimately retrieving her body for Nate.

The tables are again turned in Season Four. After David is tortured by Jake in the divisive episode “That’s My Dog” (S4:5), David loses the ability to be transparent with anyone — including himself, having panic attacks in the middle of funeral services, becoming increasingly incapable of smoothly running the family business. But Nate’s desire for transparency was still there, even during the aftermath of Lisa’s death. David does not go to Nate about his attack — perhaps he thought that Nate had already been through enough regarding Lisa, so he tells Claire about the real nature of the attack. After Claire tells Nate about the severity of David’s post-traumatic condition, Nate comes back into the fold at Fisher and Sons, after previously escaping the emotionally draining environment, because David needs him. They remain partners and brothers until Nate’s unexpected death in Season Five.

Even though events like these challenged the intimacy of their relationship, Nate and David are forever bonded by the end of the first season, as they both come to understand the value of eudaemonia as emotional intimacy in both the family business and their personal relationship. They are largely successful in doing so, and because they understood and embraced the other’s desires for transparency, they are ultimately immune to the challenges they faced throughout the series, maintaining a powerful bond rarely seen on American television, especially between brothers.

Mother and Daughter: Escaping from the Inside and Outside

“If we live our lives the right way, then everything we do can become a work of art.”

— Claire

Claire is the precocious and perceptive member of the Fisher household, noticing even the most mundane details about those around her. In the second season episode “The Plan” (S2:3), she chides David for placing the uneaten Brazil nuts back in the cupboard — a most mundane action — as no member of the household truly likes them. She is able to notice things like this because, until the time when her father died, she remained on the periphery of the household, observing and listening. She is never, and will never be, tied to the family business.

Like Claire, Ruth is also on the periphery of the family business. Although she might have had a minor financial stake in the business, her role at Fisher & Sons is a very minor one. Letting external circumstances direct her course in life, Ruth is left struggling to find meaning outside of the domestic bubble that burst with the death of her husband and the realization that her tenure as a mother with dependent children has come to an end.

The death of Nathaniel Sr. creates a schism between Claire and Ruth that finally resolves itself at the end of the series, only when mother and daughter each realizes the value in accepting what will ultimately make the other lead a fulfilled life. After Nathaniel Sr.’s death, everyone’s focus turns to Claire — especially after her foot-stealing exploit — and she is forced to deal with the external impressions others have of her. In the first two seasons she is under constant assessment and scrutiny at home and at school– by her mother who is convinced she has an eating disorder or may be an arsonist, and by a counselor who believes that sexual tension between Claire and himself has developed over the course of a school semester.

This level of scrutiny continues upon her entrance into art school, where, interestingly, a majority of her initial success is tied to the stark realities of the family business. Her self-involved instructor, Oliver, is nauseated by her art, work that is reflective of her life of living in a funeral home. Oliver interprets his negative reaction as a measure of artistic success for Claire.

Fellow members of the Fisher household also react strongly to her art, but in an antagonistic manner, especially since it involves the family business — even if, for example, Ruth tells Claire she is “in full support of you going to art school” (S2:12 “I’ll Take You”). For example, in Season Four episode “In Case of Rapture” (S4:2), David chides Claire for taking pictures of Dorothy Sheedy: “This is our family business, Claire, even if I’m the only one in the family who gives a shit anymore… this is not an art project”. Even what Claire considers her most successful art — even better than that “pieced together mosaic crap” — was demonstrative of the antagonism she experienced between her art and the small world reflected in her art, thus still being dependent on the family business. In Season Four episode “Parallel Play” (S4:3), the pictures of the family belongings not sold at a yard sale — all set aflame — had her family and home in the background.

The fact that Claire’s most successful artistic ventures are tied to Fisher and Sons produces an inevitable stagnation for Claire, and she drops out of art school between Seasons Four and Five, after she realizes that art school is not a distinctive or useful way to learn her craft. For Claire to not only be happy, but to thrive as a successful artist and live an honest, artistic life, she must no longer live with her family, within the confines of the family business. Eudaemonia, for Claire, is to successfully manage her identity as an artist, independent of the home for which she can never be a full, active, thriving participant.

Though Ruth had an affair while Nathaniel was alive, her primary mode of existence operated through a heavily traditional, nuclear family driven domestic veil — so much so that, after Nathaniel’s death, the emptiness of her life was laid bare for us to see on screen. In Season Two episode “The Invisible Woman” (S2:5), Ruth daydreams of a bare kitchen, with cold, uninviting lighting, a direct antithesis of a warm, Rockwell-esque sphere of domestic bliss she had latched onto so strongly with Nathaniel was alive. This daydream-cum-nightmare directly contributes to an emotional outburst towards Claire in the same episode, revealing the lack of understanding each had regarding their other’s desires. In same episode, Claire expresses her dissatisfaction with managing personal identity due to other’s expectations and impressions of her life as the daughter of an undertaker, suggesting that Emily Previn’s introverted existence had serious merit, which Ruth cannot understand:

Claire: Maybe she [Emily Previn] was living the life she wanted. The life without the hustle of other people.

Ruth: What kind of life is that?!

(S2:5 “The Invisible Woman”)

Unlike Claire, Ruth hunts for opportunities to allow others to be dependent on her after Nathaniel’s death, where the ‘hustle of other people’ is used as her hunting ground. Her identity has largely been defined by others expectations of the fulfillment of her domestic role, which is something she can no longer sustain with a dead husband and a set of children who no longer need her. So Ruth takes what she can get. She is there on the morning of Nate’s initial surgery, cradling him, repeatedly saying that she’ll never let him go. She becomes an overbearing caregiver for Maya, to Lisa’s (and later Brenda’s) chagrin. And most sadly, she constantly questions her past effectiveness as a mother after Nathaniel’s death, telling Claire that “well, whatever you’re going through, I hope you don’t blame me” (S2:11, “The Liar and the Whore”). Her focus increasingly orients towards an internal assessment of herself, as it becomes more and more clear that her role of a domestic caregiver no longer has salience or meaning. Instead, she focuses on her ability to “speak fiercely from the I” (S2:3). Yet no matter how much she tries, no matter what self-help program or jargon she can latch onto, she can no longer maintain the domestic-infused identity that sustained her until Nathaniel’s death.

Tragically, Ruth does not fully become cognizant of this fact until the end of the series — like Claire, Ruth must find an identity independent of Fisher and Sons, the majority of her life having been hidden behind a domestically veiled farce. Ruth realizes the value in retiring her identity inside Fisher and Sons when Claire threatens to repeat her mother’s footsteps, directly telling her she would be willing to stay at home to watch over her. Realizing that Claire will limit her identity, and her opportunities in life, Ruth realizes that for Claire to be happy, and to experience eudaemonia, they both must form an identity outside of the environment of which they could never truly be a part, that Claire must not repeat her mother’s footsteps: “You would stay here for me? Absolutely not! Go! Live! I’ll unfreeze your trust fund. Take it and find whatever life has in store for you . . . I stayed home to take care of a sick woman and I’ve always regretted it. I don’t regret you, or any of my children, or Nathaniel even . . . but I do regret never giving myself any choice. I won’t let you make the same mistake!” (S5:12, “Everyone’s Waiting”). This mutual understanding of what will enable mother and daughter to live fulfilled lives serves as a capstone to their relationship at Fisher and Sons, and the beginning of their relationship outside of the confines of the family business.

Life as a Photograph

If we revisit the scene with Claire on her deathbed, we are faced with a plethora of questions regarding the room’s arrangement. Why are the photos still there if Claire is blind? How long as she been bedridden? Why would she arrange the photos as such? Did she want to memorize them before going completely blind? Why does she make a life and a living engaging in an activity that can never perfectly capture the moment it was designed to capture?

Of course, none of these questions has a correct, or a clear answer, or any answer at all. But perhaps the reason Claire does become a photographer is because it so mirrors the lives it captures to film. Every photo has a perspective — a perspective that is limited to a finite set of dimensions and angles. It captures a small moment in the fabric of time. It can be altered and distorted, and pieced back together, but the fundamental units must still remain — yet every photo also has an interpretation, based on the person looking at it.

Every life lived has a beginning and an end, and in between those two events, it has a perspective, a perspective that can be influenced by two things: the person living the life, and everyone else. Six Feet Under has shown as that, try as we might, we can’t in good faith determine what will enable us to live a life well-lived if we can’t know the lives of others — what their desires are, what others consider important. Whether the concept of eudaemonia is framed in the terms of ancient moral philosophy or modern humanist psychology, Alan Ball’s serial drama has shown the power in recognizing what other’s view as important for living a good life. In the case of the Fisher family, though every member is constantly reminded that there is no cure for death on a daily basis — that our inevitable non-existence has no escape — there is still much value in questioning, and knowing, what others and we consider to be “the good life.” It was critical to strengthening the relationship between two brothers, between mother and daughter, and provides a simple yet meaningful message to viewers to always consider what makes life valuable. In this respect, Six Feet Under makes death and its impending approach feel remarkably alive.