Though the pilot of Six Feet Under famously opens with the sudden death of the head of the Fisher family in a violent car crash, it was, at the end of the day, a deceptively quickly resolved family trauma, necessarily providing the main dramatic impetus for the action of the show, setting the wheels of the Fisher family’s five season trials in motion. The grief over the loss of Nathaniel Sr. was tempered by his immediate return as a sardonic, ghostly commentator on the lives of the rest of the Fishers, and though their mourning is portrayed, to be sure, as a signal event, an overture to the themes of the show, it is most significant as a catalyst pushing them along the road of personal upheaval and growth. Death comes home, but oddly, for all the right reasons.
Thereafter, through the first two and a half seasons, the Fishers perch in a weird state where, though they live over and work among the dead, death never directly intrudes back into their personal space. Professionalism and familiarity with death– with the business of death — perhaps inures them to the stark realities of a sudden death for the living, despite having gone through this themselves so recently. The routine of working day in and day out with others’ horrible personal loss and grief has walled them off from the lurking emotional fallout.
The disappearance and death of Nate’s wife Lisa late in season three changes all of this, shattering the already fragile shell that the Fishers – Nate especially—have circumscribed their world in, and ensuring that they would never take grief, fear and death for granted again. The ominous creep of dread that permeates this four episode arc – and the finality with which the crows come home to roost — radiates out to contaminate the remainder of the series. After this, nothing can ever be the same, for the characters, for the audience, for the show. Six Feet Under jettisons much of its quirky humor, becoming increasingly erratic, morbid and terrifying, an entropic drift dragging the characters apart even as they walk along together, one foot in the grave.
The show quietly builds up to all this, hiding things in plain sight throughout the third season, laying its trap expertly, and then pulling the wire without the audience noticing it. But when it is pulled, it catches everything –though, in the end, not everything that comes about is terrible. Just don’t tell that to Nate. His ordeal – his rapid unraveling and descent into a booze-fueled, self-pitying nervous breakdown – is equally parts terrifying, emotionally harrowing and pathetic. As usual, Nate becomes the focus of attention (both his own and that of the show), but the fracturing of his mental and emotional state holds up a fragmented mirror to the unraveling of the rest of the Fishers, and to us all, our reactions to his grief providing some sort of clue to the state of our own broken souls.
Here’s how the breakdown breaks down, episode by episode, mostly from Nate’s point of view:
“Everyone Leaves” (S3:10): This sets the wheels in motion, nestling Lisa’s departure (to go visit her sister up the coast) in with all the other usual Fisher drama. Nate and Lisa seem to be the only happy ones, actually, getting along for the first time in a long time, trying to “make love work” (to echo the title of an earlier episode where the couple tried to rekindle their sputtering relationship). Her trip seems incidental, not worthy of attention… except that one, little throw-away line Lisa says as Nate is seeing her off: “Are you trying to get rid of me?” Boy, will that one loom large and ominous.
Meanwhile, Claire leaves Russell in dramatic, adolescent fashion; David leaves Keith after a big fight with Keith’s homophobic father; and Ruth breaks up in frustration with her young paramour, Arthur. Everyone leaves someone….
So Nate calls Lisa a bit later, and they chat briefly as she sits on the hood of her car, staring out over the ocean. The connection between them breaks off, and Nate hangs up. He calls later, with no answer, then more repeatedly, as the night goes on and Lisa doesn’t call back. He calls her sister, who says that Lisa still hasn’t shown up. The first nervous butterflies (or crows) start to beat their wings – in Nate, in us. The episode concludes with a montage of the various Fishers going to bed that night, falling into a nightmare from which they won’t wake up anytime soon.
“Death Works Over Time” (S3:11): An avalanche of oddball deaths (and presumably the death of Lisa off screen, though we don’t know this while watching for the first time) opens the episode, all heralded by an earthquake, signaling seismic events rumbling up from below for the Fishers. The tone becomes more ominous and sinister, the lighting dimmer, and Nate becomes increasingly frantic, drinking and smoking, unable to sleep. He ends up holed up in a hotel at the beach where Lisa’s car is found, David and Claire showing up in the middle of the night to comfort him, even though he is starting to drift beyond their reach.
“Twilight” (S3:12): Weeks have now passed. Nate begins to have waking nightmares of possible, increasingly gruesome scenarios for Lisa’s disappearance, and is haunted ceaselessly by visions of Lisa herself, who alternately chides him and consoles him. He drinks himself blind in a local bar, and has anonymous rough sex with various floozies.
Meanwhile, Claire experiences a harrowing loss of her own, going through with an abortion, a trauma she can’t share with any of the rest of the family. As the anesthesiologist puts her under, she tells Claire that she will be sedated with “Twilight”, a waking sedative where “you’re not really gone, but not really here”, which tidily sums up not only Nate’s near catatonic stupor, but the emotional blinders all the Fishers have brought down.
“I’m Sorry, I’m Lost” (S3:13): Buried under a final tidal wave of despair, Nate bottoms out, running out on his job, on caring for infant daughter Maya, on his own self worth. Early in the episode, he goes out for a cigarette at 2 AM, and charges off down the road, literally vanishing into night, into the abyss. He lashes out at everyone, blaming Ruth for keeping him home after Nate Sr. died, which has lead, in his fevered mind, in a straight line to all this trauma and horror.
After receiving a phone call from the police, informing him that Lisa’s remains have washed up on a beach, he drinks himself into oblivion at the dive bar and, not content beating himself up emotionally, he taunts one of the rougher patrons to kick the shit out of him. Blood soaked, bruised and beaten, Nate drunkenly careens down the highway, heckled and chastised by Lisa and urged to drive over a cliff by the cackling ghost of Nate Sr. Nate winds up at Brenda’s door, bloody, beaten to a pulp. Fade to white: Lisa Kimmel Fisher 1967 – 2003.
Our Primal Fear
It’s all a very agonizing four hours of television to watch – a family catastrophe unspooling in slow motion — and Six Feet Under does its best to milk, for all it’s worth, the nightmare scenario of a loved one seemingly vanishing into thin air. The insidious tidal pull of dread as days, and then weeks, pass and Lisa is still unfound and unheard from is at times almost unbearable, especially as the encroaching certainty that she is dead becomes more of a reality (watch Ruth’s reactions from episode to episode chart the explicit emotional stages of loss: initial certainty that Lisa is just fine, followed by dread, final despair of any hope, and then quiet acceptance). All three times I’ve watched this, none of these feelings have mellowed; it’s all just as potent as the first time.
What has changed, each time, are my feelings towards Nate, and his reactions and behavior. The first time, since I didn’t know where any of it was headed, it was easy to inhabit his headspace — not knowing what the hell has happened to Lisa, imagining all the nightmare scenarios, and just feeling that leaden anxious dread pushing down, obliterating all other concerns. His various reactions–and the loosening grip he has on himself– seemed “reasonable”, and his palpable despair at his own “guilt” in having wished Lisa gone so many times seemed worthy of empathy. It was classic Nate: Nate the Charmer, Nate the Martyr –he’s the victim here, not Lisa – and it was so convincing that he has you fooled, easy, dead in your tracks (as he does so much of the time the first time you watch Six Feet Under).
The second time through, I saw straight through Nate – as does Lisa, in her visitations to him in his grief wracked dreams; as does the ghost Nate Sr., who mocks Nate’s self-pitying guilt. Like so much else with Nate, his guilt and despair are entirely self-serving and self-indulgent, everything always reducing back to himself, his strident righteousness devouring him from the inside. Lisa’s death is tragic for what it’s done to him, and his eternal quest to make things right.
Nate has a dream of meeting Lisa on the beach, a conversation that sums up his character to a tee. “None of this turned out the way I wanted it to. I had this once in a lifetime chance, and I fucked it up”, to which Lisa replies, succinctly, “I’m not a chance, I’m a person.” This, in a nutshell, is the essential problem with Nate, and why he can be so infuriating – he is always looking for his own redemption, and treats everyone as some sort of pawn on this road to this salvation. The lost chance he laments is not the chance to love her better, but what loving her better would have done for him. That it takes her death to finally confront this, to have someone throw it back in his face (even if she is dead), is not tragic – it’s pathetic.
The third time, this time – well, now I’m not so sure. Six Feet Under plays a shifty game with our sympathies and moral compass each time you pass through it, and none so much as with this narrative arc and how it plays out. Taking a more detached, clinical approach, it could be that it’s all a classic, and morbid, play on the old “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” trope, with Lisa being the unfortunate victim of Nate’s comeuppance at the hands of the universe. In some way, he is completely at fault for Lisa’s death – in his mind, he might as well have killed her with his own hands. And, of course, this just places Nate back at the center of things, and I don’t think Six Feet Under really wants to teach us a lesson at poor Lisa’s expense, either.
But see, on the other hand, Lisa never did much to earn our sympathy. Though maternal to a fault, and deceptively meek and kindly, she was at her core a possessive, passive-aggressive shrew who Nate might have rightly thought was trying to entrap him in a loveless, joyless marriage. She was possessed of a streak of self-righteousness that was much more suffocating and despotic than Nate’s own selfish brand. She was also posited as a double for Ruth, though Lisa was never so lively and surprising as the erratic matriarch of the Fisher family. So, in which case, maybe Nate’s agony and despair is all out of proportion to what we as an audience actually feel towards Lisa, which is why it all seems so grotesque. Or are we maybe being unfair in calling Nate to the carpet because we can’t feel cut to the core of our being (as he presumably is) by the death of a character we never loved ourselves?
In which case, the writers of Six Feet Under might be even more clever and sadistic here than it initially appears, making us so closely identify with Nate that we hate him because we hate ourselves for not lamenting Lisa more, his guilt at not loving Lisa enough our own guilt at not loving her enough. We all lose, because the deck was stacked against us from the get go – the universe is a cruel and heartless place, and even our own ability to grieve and mourn mortality is hurled back in our face as a petty, selfish thing.
But at the end of the day (and because Six Feet Under’s ultimate message is a humane one) I think it’s just be as simple as it appears on the surface, Six Feet Under going straight for the jugular of fear, of our own emotional inadequacy in the face of inexplicable loss. Though certainly prone to histrionic and ridiculous plotting, Six Feet Under was a remarkably simple show thematically, revolving around probably the three most basic components of human existence: love, sex, and death. It treats of all three forces with immense reverence, even awe.
Lisa’s disappearance and death is a simple and direct distillation of our primal fear of death: the essential unknown of where someone has gone when they die; the uncertainty of what has befallen them reflecting our uncertainty and fear of what awaits us; and how those left behind must deal with the fallout. Lisa’s fate throws this all into high relief, in the ways that even the death of Nathaniel Sr. doesn’t quite provide. The key of death – the most horrible thing — is the unknowing, and the obsession with it, the feverish speculation can lead to a self-perpetuating vortex of despair from which it can be impossible to escape. That the show whiffs on all this, and later provides a turgid, soap opera-ish solution to Lisa’s death in season four, does nothing to lessen the immediate and visceral impact of these episodes.
And the simple truth that the living have an obligation to press on through great trauma – that hope is truly the only fuel we can survive on – might be this arc’s most obvious message, so obvious that it’s tough to see, but is the essential truth of the entire show. Hope is fleeting, but we grasp what we can. Out of the tragic ruin of Nate’s marriage arises a chance for a final shot at happiness for Ruth with new husband George. From the crushing stress of trying to keep the business and his brother and his relationship with the man he loves afloat, David finds a new inner strength to stand up for himself. Brenda, after fending off the latest incestuous advances of her brother Billy, seems finally set to strike out on her own, living a life free of Chenowiths and Fishers (well, until Nate knocks on her door). Life must simply subsist and continue, and it will not stop.
But the pall, now lowered, never rises again off Nate. The coda that follows in the season four opener, with Nate burying Lisa’s body out in the middle of the desert (to honor her wishes of a green burial, against the wishes of her parents) and then letting out a primal fit of howling at the shit the universe has piled on him, serves as the death rattle for his chance at any happiness, though he doesn’t not know it yet. The fallout of Lisa’s death – of the crows coming home to roost–courses through the rest of Nate’s journey through the series, underpinning his toxic marriage to Brenda, his dissatisfaction with his career at the funeral home, his inability to find any sort of peace at any state of his life. The final consummation of his sudden death late in season five, mirroring his father’s in the opener, is perhaps, then, a mercy killing, though his true salvation comes in his final appearance as a ghost, urging Claire to leave home for New York, and sending her shooting off into the show’s sublime final six minutes.