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Sex, Love & Grief in Six Feet Under

Six Feet Under was a series about death. That much was obvious from the title alone. It was a show about grief, about accepting death and figuring out how to move on in life after the losses that affect us to our very core as human beings. How do we pick up the pieces to pull ourselves together? We all experience this in life yet somehow, death remains taboo. Perhaps it’s because we’re all eventually going to die and that’s a fact most of us choose not to actively think about. Six Feet Under forced us to look at our own mortality and how we grieve, despite how uncomfortable that is. But that’s not all the show forced us to look at. It forced viewers and the entertainment industry as a whole to look at how both sexuality and love were portrayed and thought of. How people were being represented on screen. In this essay, I plan to explore how sexuality, love and grief were each portrayed in the series, and the powerful impact each of those components had on the show, as well as how they helped create a legacy for Six Feet Under.

Sexuality

Six Feet Under was a trailblazer in looking at several different issues related to sex. Television, in 2001, was less than 10 years removed from Ellen coming out on her sitcom. Topics such as teen sexuality were explored in shows such as Dawson’s Creek and we had seen affairs and divorces, but conversations pertaining to sexuality had not yet been introduced on a larger scale, with just a few exceptions.

David and Keith’s relationship on Six Feet Under was groundbreaking in the fact that they were portrayed as an actual couple, with issues that real couples go through and not as any kind of stereotype. David struggled with coming out. Keith struggled with issues pertaining to his abusive childhood and a tendency to go overboard with masculinity at times. Together they struggled with issues such as finding common ground in a relationship, sex outside the relationship, the topic of having children and more—relatable issues that many couples go through.

Keith and David stare and smile at each other in Six Feet Under

In 2021, none of this sounds remarkable in any way. It sounds like how a LGBTQ couple should be portrayed on television, but it was anything but the norm 20 years ago. There were no cheap, low brow jokes that were all too commonplace at the time, and in its place were two men who loved each other who were determined to make that love work for a lifetime. Couples like David and Keith weren’t getting the kind of representation they should have been getting on-screen in 2001 and Six Feet Under helped kicked that door in. They weren’t the token “gay couple”; they were a couple on equal footing with Nate and Brenda and that was a huge step forward in television history.

Another area where Six Feet Under pushed the topic of sexuality forward was with Ruth and people of a certain age being sexual. In television, sex had been mostly associated with younger people and most typically, very physically attractive people. Television avoided older people being intimate, but why? People over 60 are still sexual beings and this was another area where Six Feet Under treated something that wasn’t commonplace on television as being normal. Ruth had several sexual partners throughout the show. The emphasis was never on her age but rather on a woman who was enjoying sexual independence, something that had eluded her throughout her life. Ruth was married and pregnant by 18 and never got to have her “sexual 20s”, like many women from her generation. Six Feet Under captured a woman enjoying and participating in intimate relationships without any hesitation or turning it into a comedic situation. Much like with Keith and David, sexuality with older people was simply treated as being normal. Which it was, everywhere except for on-screen.

Nate and Brenda were both characters who used sex as an escape mechanism. Nate, the consummate runner, ran from sexual relationship to sexual relationship. He slept with Lisa—a woman he had routinely turned to for sex prior to the series starting—at a moment when he was scared about his physical well-being and was also doubting what kind of future he had with Brenda. This one night stand would lead to Lisa becoming pregnant and their subsequent marriage. After Lisa’s death, we would see Nate retuning to these patterns, sleeping with several random women and also carrying on an affair with Brenda, who was engaged and trying to become pregnant with Joe, played by Justin Theroux.

Nate and Brenda awkwardly dance at their wedding

Brenda, early in the second season, befriended a prostitute and began peppering her with random questions, citing it as research for her novel. We would soon see Brenda have a sexual encounter with a client she was giving a massage to, which seemed to open the metaphorical flood gates. Soon, she was sleeping with strangers in fitting rooms, attending swingers parties and sleeping with a couple many years older than her, sleeping with two local stoners that were probably 15 years younger than her and more, all while engaged to Nate.

What makes both of these situations with Nate and Brenda interesting is that Nate wasn’t portrayed in a positive light for sleeping with many woman and Brenda wasn’t vilified for being sexually promiscuous. Neither of them fell into a stereotype—the “stud” or the “whore”—but rather were portrayed as complicated people with a lifetime of baggage who used sex as means to cope with said baggage. These characters were flawed, therefore relatable, and their actions, while harmful, didn’t make them good or bad people the way television often tried to do, especially 20 years ago. They were people in pain and we were simply along for the ride on their personal journeys, which often weren’t pretty.

Love

Much like sexuality, love in years past was often portrayed on-screen in very simplistic terms. You were either in love, or you weren’t. You could be experiencing hard times in life but the complexity behind the act of loving someone was all too often ignored in favor of either a romantic and fairy tale-ish or dramatic depiction.

One of the things Six Feet Under did really well was capturing the grey areas that so many of us can relate to. Ruth loved Nathaniel, her first husband, and we’re led to believe that he loved her too. Ruth having a sexual relationship with Hiram, her hairdresser, for an extended period of time prior to Nathaniel’s death wasn’t because she didn’t love him. He didn’t escape to his “secret room” because he didn’t love her. They were emotionally absent from each other due to many other events in their individual lifetimes. The cumulative effect of lives lived led them to a place where they loved each other from a distance, all while trying to feel better themselves.

Nate and Lisa embrace as they speak in Six Feet Under

Perhaps the best example of love simply not being enough was Nate with Lisa. Nate did in fact love Lisa, despite the many difficulties in their marriage. He tried to make love work. We saw Nate’s path in the third season, at an accelerated rate perhaps, but each step was clear. He was first blindly trying to make the marriage work, despite their differences, out of a sense of feeling that this is what a husband and father should be doing. Then, he began to pull back and carve out a place to regain some sense of his previous self, followed by trying to find compromise to make love work.

That was perhaps one of the biggest tragedies of the show. Nate was finally learning how to love someone in a more healthy manner, where the balance of power in the relationship wasn’t drastically tipped in one direction or the other. He wasn’t completely happy and might have never been. He married Lisa for reasons other than wanting to be married to Lisa. He married her because she was the mother of his child. He married her because she was safe, after the painful breakup with Brenda and the near death experience with his AVM and the dangerous surgery that followed. All of that being said, he was figuring out finally how to build a life with her and appreciate her as a lover and partner, when her life was prematurely taken.

Many people in life are like Nate in the sense that they marry for reasons other than love. Some of those marriages end in divorce. Some end up like Nate’s parents, who become so closed off to one another that things like secret hideaways and affairs become the only way that they can stay together. Nate and Lisa appeared to be on a different path though, one where they acknowledged their issues and made a commitment to work through them, together, instead of pretending like they didn’t exist. Maybe that isn’t fairy tale love but it is love. Nate’s grief that followed Lisa’s death was in part because he was just starting to love her. He had just stopped wanting to run. He was confronting the issues that had plagued him his whole life head on and when he got to a place of wanting to dig his heels in and stay, his wife died. How’s that for tragic? That would set the wheels in motion for Nate’s story arc to conclude the series.

The Season 3 episode “Nobody Sleeps” has always stuck out to me as one of the strongest in the series. The episode features Kevin, a lighting designer for an opera company, coming to Fisher and Diaz because he had heard that they may be open to a “non traditional” service. Kevin’s partner of many years had passed and he wanted to build a Chinese opera set for the funeral. David was visibly overwhelmed by the dedication and commitment this couple had with each other and how their relationship had spanned decades. It was exactly what David wanted with Keith. Those feelings quickly turned when David saw Kevin flirting with a man building the set and a conversation that followed where Kevin disclosed that he and Robert were from that previous generation of gay men who slept with many partners without considering it cheating on their partner. It was crushing to David, temporarily, until he was able to get past the sexual behaviors and refocus on the fact that these men truly did love each other, the kind of life-long love that David wanted for himself with Keith.

The power here came from David. The character had always suffered from this sense that he couldn’t have what everyone else could. Seeing Kevin’s love for Robert made it real to him that he could indeed have that kind of relationship. His heartbreak over the numerous sexual partners was almost taking back his sense of hope, like that somehow invalidated this newfound belief that he too could have a person to spend his life with, to grow old with. Those feelings of doubt were short lived though and we saw a true turning point for David, which would carry him through the rest of the series. He was determined to have his own family.

David, Keith, their sons and Ruth in front of the Fisher home

Brenda was a character who had a complicated relationship with the notion of love. Her untraditional background made her cling to her mentally ill brother Billy, whom she very much did love. Taking care of him was really the only form of love the character knew for many years. As the series progressed, we saw Brenda begin to crave not just love, but the things she had previously convinced herself that she couldn’t have. She tried to settle down with Joe, but as she began to get to know him and his sexual habits more, she pulled back and fell back to Nate. Nate in a sense was like Billy to her, in that they both represented security. Billy was her constant for most of her life and Nate, despite their terrible breakup, had been the closest thing to a healthy relationship in her life. Nate had his issues, but he was the closest thing to “normal” Brenda had in her life. As she began to desire things such as a family, it made sense that she would gravitate towards Nate.

What is most powerful with Brenda, though, is the love she almost instantly had for Nate’s daughter Maya. Raising another person’s child can be difficult, but Brenda dove in without hesitation. Perhaps it was her desire to have a family. Perhaps it was related to her own upbringing. Ultimately, Brenda seamlessly became Maya’s mother and there is zero doubt in the viewer’s mind that even after Nate’s death, Brenda remained a strong, supportive and loving mother to Maya.

Almost equally as powerful is the unspoken love that Brenda and Ruth had for one another. There was an element of jealousy from Ruth, as Brenda led a life outwardly that Ruth was envious of, and from Brenda’s perspective, Ruth was the loving mother she never had. Their tension throughout the series made their moment together in the series finale that much more powerful, when Ruth committed to be there for Brenda and told her she understood her pain.

Brenda and Maya on the couch in Six Feet Under

The final topic pertaining to love in Six Feet Under I wanted to look at was the challenges of loving someone who needs considerable help. It’s a reality most people in long term relationships have to endure at some point and one that isn’t really, especially 20 years ago, discussed the way that it could and should be.

Starting with Ruth, she had been a caregiver her whole life. She cared for her grandmother as a child and teenager, while her sister Sarah left. She cared for her own children, while Nathaniel really wasn’t there. Her default mode was to take care of people, as we would see with Nikolai, despite the negative implications that would have on their relationship. By the time George came into the picture and had his mental breakdown, Ruth simply couldn’t do it anymore. We saw the exhaustion she endured as he slipped further and further into his illness. A cumulative effect of caregiving took ahold of her and she had simply had enough. She couldn’t take care of anyone else anymore and waited until he was well enough before setting him up with a place of his own.

Ruth in the Fisher basement in Six Feet Under

On some levels, this is difficult to watch. We want Ruth to be a hero, to take care of George and fit this preconceived notion of what a “good person” does. But she can’t. Ruth’s story arc all throughout the series was about her learning to be her own woman, on her own two feet and to break the cycles that had held her captive her whole life. As uncomfortable as it was to see her leave George while he was on the mend, it was also very empowering for Ruth to finally gain a sense of independence and to stop living to take care of everyone else and to finally live for her.

We see Claire begin to emulate her mother’s patterns in the show by caregiving for Billy. It’s almost instinctive for her to want to, a learned behavior perhaps. But with Claire, this wouldn’t be a lifelong issue. A large part of the final season would be centered around a dramatic tension between mother and daughter, with Ruth seeing her daughter taking on this trait, among others, and not knowing how to pull her daughter out of these problematic behaviors. The love a mother has for her daughter, complete with a desire for her to have a better life than she had, is something that all parents can relate to. The scene between the two in the series finale where Ruth holds Claire tight and tells her to leave and begin her life is one that I can’t view without tears filling my eyes.

Rico is the final example I wanted to look at here. In the third season, Vanessa begins to battle a severe bout of depression, following her mother’s death. The show did an excellent job not only documenting Vanessa’s very real grief and depression, but the helpless feeling the other partner experiences in situations like these. Feelings of wanting to help but not being able to. Feelings of wanting things to just get back to normal and the frustration that builds from not being able to help and the family dynamic being completely turned on its head. Rico would have an affair—something he likely wouldn’t have done under normal circumstances, and something that would nearly destroy his family. This was a moment of weakness on Rico’s part, born out of pain and frustration. It’s very easy to want to vilify him here, for betraying his grieving wife. The show never does though, choosing to focus on the complexities of the situation and the humanness of the situation.

It’s impressive to look back at how Six Feet Under pushed back on the precedent set previously on television of what love should look like. It’s often not a fairy tale. It can be messy, it can be painful and it’s often anything but what the stereotypes want us to believe love looks like.

Grief

Its one of life’s biggest mysteries, what happens to us when we die. What happens to our loved ones that go before us? Many of us want to believe that they’re with us still, in some way, shape or form. That they don’t really leave us and are there to help us as we continue to progress through life.

Six Feet Under, the show about death, explored this idea without making any definitive statements on what happens to those who have passed. In one of the many ways grief was addressed on the show, characters would see, talk to and interact with the deceased. What made this so unique was that the deceased would behave in a manner that spoke to the mental state of who they were engaging with. We would see each of the Fisher children at times relive their issues with their deceased father and then at other times, he would be there when they needed love and support. A prime example of this was with David in the Season 4 finale, “Untitled”, who was trying to pull himself together after his horrific carjacking and torture at the hands of a madman. Their father, who David mostly saw in times of self doubt or self hatred to ridicule him, speaking to David’s fears about how his father viewed him when he was alive, simply hugged his son and let him cry.

Six Feet Under’s Nathaniel in a lawn chair

When Ruth would see Nathaniel, which wasn’t as frequent as the kids did, it would often reference their complicated marriage. Except for on the night she married George, when she saw Nathaniel hiding in the pantry crying. It’s natural for a widow to wonder what their deceased husband would think about them remarrying. Was this Ruth projecting what she hoped he would be feeling or something else? That’s for us to decide and that’s part of the series’ magic.

In life, everyone handles grief differently. Some are overtly sad, crying hysterically, and their pain is written all over them. Some stuff their feelings because they don’t know how to publicly grieve or perhaps don’t feel like they should. That was the dynamic between Nate and David in many ways. Nate felt that people should get these feelings out, whereas David worried about ensuring that grief never made anyone feel uncomfortable. This was a debate that began in the show’s earliest days and in many ways, we saw the climax to this with Nate’s death in the final season.

Anyone who has seen the final season of Six Feet Under knows that the final three episodes aren’t exactly easy to watch. They are filled with tears, full body crying and a portrayal of grief that has never been seen before or since on television. The Fisher family shows us what losing a husband, brother or son would look like. It’s raw, it’s heavy and it’s genuine. The show about grief didn’t wait until the final episode to make us grieve or to leave us wondering what grief would look like for this family. We experienced it with them.

This final act, experiencing the loss of Nate, was a representation of what he had meant to them, and us the viewer. Nate telling David throughout the series that it was OK to grieve openly and David rejecting that, paid off here. Ruth, who stuffed her feelings much like David when her husband passed away to start the series, no longer had those restraints. Nate’s impact and his openness and permission to feel your feelings might have annoyed his closeted family but it sunk in with them. His death showed the effect he had on them and that to them, it was now OK to openly feel and not hide everything within.

David, Keith and Ruth walking to Nate's grave in Six Feet Under

I always recall Nate in the pilot remembering a trip to Italy and witnessing a grieving family cry out for their loss. That moment changed Nate and he brought that with him to his family many years later. As viewers, perhaps this series gave us permission or made us feel like it was OK to grieve too. I won’t say that was the biggest takeaway from the show, but it was certainly one of them for me.

The fact that almost every episode of Six Feet Under started with a death, and we often went through some of the grief experience with the loved ones of the deceased, normalized death in a sense. It happens every day. It isn’t taboo. It’s a part of every human’s experience, in the fact that everyone lives through the deaths of people they know and also, everyone dies. Six Feet Under put this on full display for us to see, for over 60 episodes. Sure, it’s traumatic and we should feel those feelings, but it’s also a part of life and not something that we should avoid talking or thinking about.

Conclusions

Six Feet Under  was a series that broke ground in many ways. It’s legacy will be not only that it pushed television forward in terms of the conversations it forced us to have and the concepts it portrayed on-screen, but also that it changed what television could look like. Television could embrace things that networks would previously run from. Television could be shot like an independent art film. Television could reference difficult subject matters. Television could catch up with the rest of society.

This series holds up over the years. In my recent re-watch, I laughed and cried, related to the characters and embraced their journeys of growth. I felt their losses with them. I questioned the big things in life with Nate and I realized how fragile and fleeting life can be, in each episode. Six Feet Under changed television but it can equally change the viewer. That’s a sign of great art.

Written by Andrew Grevas

Andrew is the Founder / Editor in Chief of 25YL. He’s engaged with 2 sons, a staunch defender of the series finales for both Lost & The Sopranos and watched Twin Peaks at the age of 5 during its original run, which explains a lot about his personality.

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