A Capsule Analysis of Six Feet Under
by Wayne Studer

Although I have no proof of it nor have read any corroborating statements to this effect, I believe that Alan Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under, chose the name Fisher for the family at the heart of the series for a very specific reason. In short, I believe he was invoking the mythology of the Fisher King.

To summarize, the Fisher King is a figure sprung from pre-Christian European fertility myths who appears in the Arthurian legends that, in their Christianized form, focus on the quest for the Holy Grail. Assigned (in some variations of the tale) guardianship of the Grail, he is the ruler of a realm that can only be described as a wasteland. (This is, in fact, the same legend that T.S. Eliot drew upon for his monumental poem The Waste Land.) His kingdom and its people are trapped in famine, sterility, and despair, while he himself is weak, sickly, and oblivious to the desolation around him. Rather, he spends his time "fishing" in a dried-up lake or river bed—hence his title, the Fisher King—apparently unaware of the futility of even that activity. Cursed, crippled, and impotent, he is emblematic of the most dangerous form of despair: despair that doesn't even know that it's despairing.

The fate of his kingdom is linked to his own. The land will continue to lie in waste and the Grail remain hidden as long as he, a "wasted figure," rules it in illness and despair. Therefore his kingdom's only hope—as well as the only hope for recovery of the Grail—resides either in his healing or in his death. But that's easier said than done. For although he himself is not consciously malevolent (he doesn't mean any harm) and he's hardly in any condition to resist or defend himself, he is nevertheless an extremely dangerous figure. To approach him, even to enter his kingdom, is to fall under the sway of the curse. And the closer you get to him, the more powerful the influence of the curse becomes. Those who would rescue his kingdom by granting him either recovery or death invariably succumb to despair as well and fail in their quest. Legend has it that the only person who has any chance of succeeding is his own son and heir, who long ago fled the kingdom into exile.

I believe Nathaniel Fisher, Sr.—the father who was killed in the very first episode of Six Feet Under—was, in effect, the Fisher King. He obliviously ruled a land (his family and his mortuary business) that was trapped in waste and despair. And he was essentially killed by his "exiled" son, Nate (Nathaniel Fisher, Jr.), in that he died in a crash with a bus while driving to the airport to pick Nate up. In this way, the son slew his father, or at least indirectly caused him to be slain. This would presumably have the effect of pulling his family out of the wasteland.

The only problem is that it takes time to emerge from the wasteland. And the process of emerging from it can be as agonizing as the wasteland itself. That, I believe, is what the five years of Six Feet Under were largely about. And, as it turns, the final emergence only occurs after Nate, the Fisher King's heir—the new Fisher King, as it were, essentially "crippled" by his incurable brain tumor—himself dies. (In fact, in some variations of the Fisher King mythology, there are indeed two Fisher Kings, father and son, both of whom must either die or be cured to break the curse.)

Nate's death provides his family with one final, tortuously painful break with the past. This final break is symbolized in the next-to-last episode by Claire's crashing and totaling her lime-green hearse, given to her years before by her father. And it's also why a couple of seemingly "throwaway" lines in the final episode—Anthony asking Brenda if childbirth hurts, to which she responds that, yes, it does—are so extremely important. Just as giving birth is painful, so too is rebirth. The Fisher family emerges from the wasteland, and is essentially reborn, through the deaths of the Fisher King and his first heir, along with all of the horribly painful surrounding events.

And just what is the nature of this wasteland? To be sure, it's many things, but I think Alan Ball—who not only created and guided the show but also wrote its final episode—is suggesting that it's the solopsistic self-absorption that is epidemic in contemporary American culture. (It's probably no accident that the show was set in Los Angeles, which the early twentieth-century American writer Nathanael West suggested was America "boiled down" to its essence, symbolic of America overall.) Look at how the members of the Fisher family behaved throughout nearly the entire run of the show. They were an incredibly self-absorbed lot, using and abusing those around them, even those they loved the most. Consider, just in the final season, Ruth's shameful behavior toward her second husband George, abandoning him when she learns that he's in dire need of her care, or Nate's semi-abusive lack of support for Brenda during her pregnancy. In fact, they all behaved like little Fisher Kings, radiating despair and dragging those around them into the wasteland.

But in the final few episodes of the series—particularly after Nate's death—they finally leave the wasteland behind. Ruth gains greater acceptance of George and not only surrenders her granddaughter Maya to Brenda but also stands by and supports Brenda when she gives birth prematurely to Willa. Even more significantly—in perhaps one of the most important scenes in the entire series—Ruth and Claire both escape their self-absorption and, conversely, truly gain themselves only by sacrificing themselves. Claire dreams of fleeing to New York to begin a new life as an artist, but, when she sees how desperately unhappy Ruth has become in the wake of Nate's death, says that she will give up her dream in order to stay behind with her mother. But Ruth, seeing Claire's willingness to make this tremendous sacrifice for her, refuses to let her do it. (Ruth had made such a sacrifice for her own mother, much as her biblical namesake refused to forsake her mother-in-law Naomi.) Instead she insists that Claire go ahead to New York, even facilitating it by freeing up her trust fund. In making this sacrifice—refusing to accept her daughter's sacrificial offer—Ruth frees herself from her own self-absorption.

Is it too much to suggest that Ruth and Claire have thus found the Grail?

Meanwhile, David—whose own name suggests a giant killer and future king—symbolically slays his father after his older brother's death, putting an end once and for all to the Fisher King's curse. And along with his lover Keith he escapes his own self-absorption by devoting himself to the care of two orphaned children desperately in need of a loving, stable home. Brenda also escapes the wasteland by finally finding someone she can truly love and who will truly love her: her infant daughter Willa. Even Rico—something of a symbolic "bastard son" of the Fisher family—escapes by reconciling with his estranged wife, breaking away amicably from the Fishers, and establishing his own mortuary business.

And it is through Claire's eyes (Claire = "clear" and/or "clairvoyant"), both as she drives (no longer in the hearse) across the desert (a literal wasteland) toward New York and as she dies decades later, that we see the Fisher family in the years that follow, as each of the central characters dies in turn, having lived full, loving lives in the years left to them. Claire herself lives more than a century, the last of the central characters to go, dying with her eyes open in a room lined with photographs that provide a record of both the lives of the Fisher family and her own eventual success as an artist. It's tempting, in fact, to think of the entire series as Claire's personal reminiscence of the painful but transformative five-year period that enabled her and those she loved to escape the wasteland.

To be sure, this is not all that Six Feet Under was about. (For one thing, the persistent denial of death in American culture was also a dominant theme.) But I do believe that Alan Ball carefully constructed a symbolic landscape that suggests the only path out of the despair of the self—in effect, achieving the quest for the Holy Grail—lies in selflessness. It may seem like truism, but it's a truism all too often forgotten in the modern world.