You Can't Fix Death: Living Life, Fisher Style
The tumultuous, but loving, relationships within the Fisher family illustrate Six Feet Under's complex and often contradictory views of the well-lived life.
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.