Death Only Opens Questions in the Six Feet Under Pilot

Nate and David face off standing in a cemetery

The Six Feet Under pilot (written and directed by Alan Ball) premiered on June 3, 2001, in those halcyon days before the towers fell. I turned 21 that summer, and while I can’t claim to have watched Six Feet Under right away when it debuted, I did shortly thereafter, as it followed The Sopranos in bringing forth an era we’ve come to refer to as that of “prestige TV.” More importantly, the show marked something of a turning point in my interests away from film and towards the smaller screen. I started renting TV shows on DVD from the video store and engaging in an old-school binge necessitated by the avoidance of late fees.

Six Feet Under doesn’t really grapple with 9/11—at least not directly—but the event occurs within its world and its explorations of death were certainly informed by such real-world darkness. Yet I mention it now mostly because on a rewatch of the pilot I experienced a knee-jerk scoff at Nate and Brenda’s airport hook-up before reminding myself that yes, this was June 2001 (or December 2000). This used to be possible. And somehow that resonates with the theme of the pilot and its inaugural death—some events change the world, whether that world is of grand historical scope or determined by interpersonal coordinates smaller in scale. The world isn’t just beings and things; it’s in how we make sense of them.

Ruth Fisher looks contemplative as Nate stands at the refrigerator in the background with his back to her, in the Six Feet Under pilot

Six Feet Under is a show about death—it’s in the title—but more importantly it is a show about life and the search for meaning, or purpose. And this is established in its pilot through the main cast of characters that will form its core. Ruth Fisher has defined herself through her roles as wife and mother. David has defined himself largely through his role as a son and what he was supposed to do (and be) as a member of this family. Nate wanted to break away from those bounds and went off wandering to try to find himself (he didn’t). Claire doesn’t know who she is yet, but she’s muddling through to figure it out, seeing these paths taken by the older members of the Fisher family and struggling to find her own.

And then there is Nathaniel, who we only meet briefly in the pilot before he’s killed by a bus. Ruth didn’t want him smoking in that new hearse because no one wants their dead loved one rolled around in an ashtray, but the characterizations of Nathaniel are quick. The important thing is that he is the father who is now gone and that he was something of an enigma even to his own family. Not in any strange kind of way, but in an ultimately banal one, resembling how many of us may feel we’ve never really gotten to know the true version of our fathers, as we always see dad in the midst of playing a role.

Nathaniel Fisher laughs in the sun while wearing a hat and sitting in a lawn chair

“Are you mad at him or the fact that we’re all gonna die?”

Nathaniel haunts his children in the Six Feet Under pilot, but not in a supernatural way. They each see him, or imagine they do, but perhaps it’s not quite right to call this imagination. The dead haunt us just like this in real life as we feel their absence like a presence. It simply doesn’t make sense that they’re gone.

People want to believe that everything happens for a reason (and perhaps some do truly believe that), but even if there is a reason for death it eludes comprehension. This is what Albert Camus is getting at when he characterizes death as absurd—we seek a justification for it, but none is to be found, or the best we can come up with still feels woefully insufficient, or unsatisfactory at a metaphysical level. Death is. Death happens. But what it is and why it happens confounds us.

If you’ve experienced it come for someone close to you, you’ll hardly need me to tell you that death is absurd, or to expound on what Camus has to say. You’ll have felt it for yourself, particularly in that early stage of grief so infelicitously labeled denial. It’s more like an inability to accept reality because it doesn’t make any sense.

Nathaniel Fisher has a cigarette hanging from his mouth as he sits behind the wheel of a car

As it happens, as I have been working on this article to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the pilot of Six Feet Under, I awoke one morning to learn that an old friend of mine had been murdered in Mexico. That was the message, and those the words used—apparently it was the word used by the consulate. There was no further information immediately available.

The mind flails in the face of death—how is it that this person who was just here is now gone? Perhaps you had just spoken to them on the phone, or were even on the phone with them at the time…perhaps you had plans for dinner. And of course you want to know how it happened, but what does it really matter that Nathaniel Fisher was messing with a cigarette when a bus slammed into his car? Are you inclined to judge him to have been stupid or to think that he had it coming? Does it feel better to conceive of this as an accident, or would there somehow be some consolation to be found in an underlying malicious intent?

On hearing of my friend’s death, my mind went immediately to Camus, not just because of the senselessness of it and how starkly it serves as an example of the absurd, but because it happened on a beach like the murder in The Stranger. And then I thought of John Justice Wheeler coming to Ben Horne in Twin Peaks, fashioning myself in his image in a fantasy, I suppose. A good man is dead, murdered in Mexico (or Brazil). But there was no reason for me to go do anything, or anything for me to do.

We crave narrative significance when it comes to death, and TV so often gives it to us. This was and is what is most striking about Six Feet Under—the way in which such significance is withheld. Sure, Nathaniel’s death is the impetus to the show, but this isn’t even why Nate had come home—he came home to see his dad, perhaps, but not to mourn him. The accident is stark and sudden, catching the viewer off guard. We knew going into a show called Six Feet Under that it would be about death, but that the guy driving the hearse would himself die in the opening minutes…

When Claire tells her friends (if we can call them that) what’s happened, they laugh and not just because they’re high. It’s preposterous to think that one second you’re smoking meth for the first time and the next your dad is dead. The absurd is terrifying and perhaps this is also why we laugh at it. After all, as much as we may look down on Claire’s meth-smoking friends and their lack of empathy for her loss, I am also sure that we all laugh as Claire utters her sarcastic thanks at making this all “burn a little brighter” for her.

Claire Fisher yells at her "friends" in the Six Feet Under pilot

And Six Feet Under will often spur us to laugh at death. This isn’t to make light of it.

What is an appropriate response?

The first hour of Six Feet Under is punctuated by a series of ads, for the Millennium Edition Royal Funeral Coach, Living Splendor Embalming Fluid, Wound Filler Cosmetic Molding Putty, Franklin’s Earth Dispenser (which puts the “fun” back in funeral)…

There is the attempt to restore the facade of life to the dead, which is here ramped up to the level of something resembling an ad for The Gap, as if a beautiful corpse could compensate for the loss of a soul. These ads do not recur throughout the run of the show, as I thought they would when I first saw the pilot 20 years ago, but their theme is also present in Rico’s excitement over his reconstruction work, and Six Feet Under will continue to explore the intersection of death and business through the Fisher funeral home.

Is there something to do to make things OK? How and when should money be involved? Is it honoring the dead to lavish funds on an ornate coffin or disrespecting them by making a show of their demise? Do we build a pyramid or lay the body humbly into the ground? The only thing that seems clear is that one must do something, and that it matters what—at least, it matters for the living.

David in a suit and tie looks concerned as his mother Ruth, whose face is closer in the frame, to the left

The real question of the Six Feet Under pilot is how to grapple with death, and while the dirt sprinkling device provides a nice opportunity to bring the conflict between David and Nate to a head (as the latter compares it to a popcorn salt shaker), Six Feet Under is less interested in leveling a critique of death-related commodity fetishism and more interested in the various ways we attempt to process it. The ads themselves represent the movement of denial and play with the absurd in the direction of the ridiculous. It is only right that Six Feet Under would eschew returning to them as it moves into further phases of its development. Consumer products offer a non-answer to a problem that cuts (six feet?) deep into the ground of the soul.

“Your father is dead and my pot roast is ruined.”

It is the aforementioned conflict between Nate and David that forms the thematic core of the pilot. The former is what Hegel might have called a beautiful soul (it’s not a compliment). Nate is defined by his attempt to reject rules and strictures. He left home in search of something—in search of himself—and he did not find it. Nate bucks against the enforced decorum of the funeral services. He doesn’t understand the need for propriety, and of course he’s right when he mocks the sprinkling of dirt from a sanitized distance—the whole point of that ritual is to get your hands dirty.

But David is also right to point out how these rituals, as silly as they may seem, are important to people. The rules and the decorum stave off the terrifying absurdity of death, or attempt to. One longs for order. The loss doesn’t make sense, but the ritual does. This is what we do.

And David himself needs this kind of order. He lives in fear of chaos. In a humorous moment in the pilot, his veneer of propriety cracks and he screams in the funeral home, but the deeper significance lies in the juxtaposition of this scene with the previous one, wherein his scream was only a fantasy. David dreams of being able to express himself outside of the confines and strictures of norms, but he’s terrified of what that would mean.

David screams at a women as they stand in the funeral home

From this point of view, the fact that he is in the closet as Six Feet Under begins exemplifies his character. I don’t know how this might play to someone coming to this pilot episode for the first time 20 years after it aired, but in 2001 it was all too realistic to see a man like David hiding his relationship with Keith from his family. They play racquetball together.

It’s worth noting how much things have shifted in those two decades with regard to prevailing cultural views in the U.S. Still, in 2008, support for same-sex marriage was too controversial for Barack Obama. Later he’d claim that his views had evolved, but for someone like David, it would be precisely this kind of social recognition that he desires. He’s not interested in being subversive, he just wants to be himself, but he only knows how to be in relation to prevailing norms.

“Everybody forgives everybody for everything.”

The Six Feet Under pilot uses the death of Nathaniel to throw the lives of the other Fishers into question, but of course life is always a question and this is the space that the show explores so poignantly through its five seasons. In the beginning, Ruth defines herself through her marriage and her role as a mother, but the pilot already gives us the way in which there has been a crack in that edifice for some time. She may worry about being a “whore” and how Nathaniel now knows that she cheated on him—and so does God, but wouldn’t God have already known? I digress. But really this will be an opening into Ruth’s journey of self-discovery.

Claire is on such a journey, too, though her life is hardly settled as Six Feet Under opens. She’s just a kid at the beginning, truly, and perhaps this relates to the appeal of her character from the get-go. Things are wide open for Claire, even if they are messy.

Which brings us back to Nate, who is and has been adrift in a more adult way. Another TV series might center itself around his journey and how he finally figures out how to live in the wake of his father’s passing, but Six Feet Under is not that series. In Nate, it will ultimately make us confront absurdity again. It’s the very lack of consistency to his story that makes it so realistic, with the lack of a narrative reason for how it ends.

Nate makes a Nate face in the hallway of the hospital in the Six Feet Under pilot

And overall this is what remains so striking about Six Feet Under 20 years on. There is a lot of death on TV, and even in other shows that begin virtually every hour with one, like Law & Order, the tendency is to always imbue the death with an overarching significance, if not justification. On TV, people die for a reason. In life, not so much. And yet it happens every day.

Six Feet Under explores the question of how to live in the face of death and in its wake. The show’s finale is powerful in the closure that it provides, but its pilot is perfect in opening its questions, which when you think about it not even the most complete closing of every narrative arc could ever resolve.

Because death itself is a question—not what comes after but the thing itself. And so is life—absurd in its lack of justification but beautiful in its openness. Of course it ends. Everything ends. What is important is what happens in the meantime.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

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