Surprises on Six Feet Under

As I believe I mentioned the other day, I’ve recently started re-watching Six Feet Under, which I believe is one of the greatest television series of all time, for a lot of reasons. I also discovered that evidently my landlord is also a fan who recently started watching (and I think he reads this site sometimes, so, uh, know that there are some spoilers ahead, Anonymous Landlord!). It’s been so long since I watched the show that a lot of it feels new to me, especially minor plot points, and that’s why I was kind of startled when I realized that abortion kept coming up as a recurring theme, and that the framing often felt very “pro-life*” to me.

I don’t think that the show as a whole is necessarily “pro-life,” but rather that abortion was an inevitable topic, and that the creative team took it in some interesting directions, and some of those directions apparently included a “pro-life” perspective. It’s also a show which is very evidently and heavily about death, and so there’s a clear contrast between the potential of life and death which was being utilized through the depiction of the abortion debate. And I do think that Ball was pretty daring, as a producer: this was one of the earliest shows to depict raw homosexual sex, as well as abuse in a gay relationship, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that Ball appeared to buck Hollywood orthodoxy when it came to the subject of abortion.

In the second season, Nate learns that a one night stand with an old fling resulted in a pregnancy, when he runs into Lisa Kimmel at a supermarket and she reveals her very pregnant belly. Lisa has moved from Seattle to Los Angeles with her pregnancy, and it seems rather evident that she’s chasing after Nate and a dream of love, even if she won’t admit it. Nate experiences some deep conflict over the idea of impending fatherhood, especially since he is about to marry another woman.

Six Feet Under often uses ghosts to say things that the characters can’t or won’t, and the same holds true here, with Nate being treated to a procession of his aborted children who casually talk about how he killed them (“The Secret,” Episode 10, Season 2). It was a scene that totally threw me. It played so heavily on “pro-life” rhetoric that it almost felt like propaganda, and felt a bit heavy handed, actually. The scene was designed to impress upon us that Nate felt confused and conflicted, that he was struggling with the consequences of his previous sexual escapades, and that he was morally troubled by the abortions, but it felt a bit clunky to me, probably because of my own political views.

Ball’s discussion of this scene on the commentary focuses on Nate’s unease at being confronted with his own mortality, and he says that the scene was meant to be about a thorny issue “without being about the issue.” But he goes on to explain the very deliberate staging, which was definitely designed to push the idea of happy families and ideals about having children to viewers. At the end of the scene, we even are reminded that Ruth has been deprived of being a grandmother, as she wanders through a room filled with children, carrying a tray of cookies and milk.

The plot also briefly played with ideas dear to the heart of men’s rights activists, with Nate being asked to sign a document which would give up all paternal rights, and feeling conflicted about this as well. The context is clear: Nate was happy to “kill” earlier unplanned pregnancies, but when it came to giving up rights over something sharing his genetic material and living somewhere in the world, he can’t do it. Interestingly, although Lisa’s choice figures heavily in this pregnancy, we are not given information about the role of the women in the previous terminations. They are presented without context, as though all that matters is Nate and his genetic material, not the women.

Ultimately, Nate is pushed into “doing the right thing” by Lisa and marrying her so that he can play an active role in the child’s life as a parent. Later he expresses a lot of bitterness and anger about being “trapped” by Lisa. This parallels the marriage between Nathaniel and Ruth which resulted in Nate’s birth, yet another example of the circular nature of Six Feet Under, a show which constantly references itself and ponders the outcome of decisions large and small by exploring numerous possible events.

Was the scene supposed to leave viewers with the idea that abortion is murder? That Nate thinks abortion is murder? That if you knock someone up, you need to marry them? I’m not sure, but it was a troubling sequence.

The theme of abortion came up again at the end of Season Three, with Claire seeking an abortion after breaking up with Russell when he has sex with her art professor. Like much of of Six Feet Under, the scenes play out in a quiet, repressed way. But the overtones are also very heavy. The abortion clinic is depicted almost like a processing line, with girls being pushed through the assembly line one by one, and Claire opting for twilight anesthesia which allows her to forget the procedure (and allows the show to elide the actual process of the abortion).

The ultrasound, which is actually routinely performed before an abortion to determine the stage of the pregnancy in the real world, was depicted as a grim and horrifying moment for Claire instead of a routine medical procedure. Thank Pete, we weren’t treated to an image of her cringing at a screen depicting the fetus. The episode also underscores Claire’s sense of isolation: she doesn’t tell any of the family, and ends up going to the clinic with Nate’s ex-girlfriend. Bad girls who get abortions, you see, can’t tell their families, and then end up on the couches of their brothers’ nymphomaniac ex-girlfriends, wracked by guilt and cramps.

Later, Claire meets the product of her abortion in another dreamlike sequence, in which Nate’s now-dead wife Lisa assures Claire that she will take care of the baby. If you read these recurrent sequences with the dead in the show as the invention of the minds of the characters as an expression of their subconscious, which I do, then this scene could read as Claire constructing a soul for the baby and a caretaker for it to feel better about her actions, which suggests that she does (and perhaps should, in the eyes of the creators) feel regret over the abortion. It also carries the suggestion similar to the sequence with Nate, that the product of conception has a soul more or less immediately, and that, therefore, abortion is murder.

The first episode of the fourth season includes Claire’s confession about the abortion to Russell, in a stilted scene in which he refers to the fetus as “his” and becomes bitterly angry that she didn’t tell him. She responds with sarcasm and anger, saying “you’d already done enough” when he says that  he wishes he could have been there, and the scene sort of underscores the message that Claire somehow wronged Russell by having the abortion. He tries to suggest that she is cruel and callous, while she is never given a chance to defend herself or explain her reasoning. Her dialogue with Russell parallels the theme of the episode, which involves conflicting choices and the consequences of making choices against the will of others. The whole scene was very unpleasant, and it played on a lot of stereotypes about abortion.

Craig Wright, the writer, claims that this scene was supposed to show a man’s perspective on abortion, and his grief over “his own loss.” He treads kind of fine ground when he says that viewers can either have sympathy for Russell, or not, suggesting that the reading of the scene actually reflects more about the beliefs of the viewers than it does of the characters (which may well be true). In fact, he almost argues against commentaries themselves when he suggests that the illusion of a connection between viewers and creators generated by commentaries just generates a lust for knowledge which can never be filled, and that perhaps viewers would be better served by just being able to experience the art. (Joss Whedon seems to share this view when he talks about experiencing discomfort because viewers insist on seeing his work through the lens of perception informed by what they know about him.)

The scene is mirrored at the end of the fourth season when Russell throws the abortion in Claire’s face as she is riding on the high of her success with her first art show. It’s a very bitter, angry scene: he accuses her of stealing his idea and using it in the art show in the same breath that he screams about the abortion (which he is clearly viewing as his stolen manhood). As a viewer, I can’t say that I felt terribly sympathetic to either claim, but I can see how the scene could be read with Russell as the wronged party. In the commentary, Ball calls the fight “ugly and nasty and stupid” which kind of  skips the overtones I saw in it; the scene exemplifies how repressed everyone is, and how the characters continue to subvert their pain in weird ways. It was far from stupid, and much closer to tragic.

The abortion issue rears its ugly head again at the start of the fifth season, as Nate and Brenda have a vicious argument when prenatal testing reveals that her pregnancy may have a problem, and the doctor recommends an amnio. Nate pushes for the procedure, to learn more, and Brenda opposes it, saying that she will carry the child no matter what and that Nate just wants to “kill” the fetus if it does indeed have a problem. Now, prenatal testing is actually pretty complicated, nuanced, and not always correct, which means that she may have been justified in wanting to carry the child because there might have been nothing wrong. But the pretty extreme rhetoric which got used was rather intense.

Like the framing of the issue with Claire and Russel, this scene really highlighted the issues that can be created in a relationship when one partner wants to abort and one doesn’t. Brenda’s tendency to go behind everyone’s back manifests when she sneaks off for another ultrasound, much like Claire went behind Russell’s back earlier, and Nate becomes extremely angry over this. Nate pushes for abortion, while Brenda is vehemently opposed, and it pretty much tears their marriage apart. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the failure of Nate and Brenda’s marriage on the dispute about the pregnancy, but it definitely plays a pretty major role. It is fascinating to watch Nate evolve over the course of the series, and this argument also touches upon an issue I’ve been pondering lately myself: abortion for disability, and the accompanying moral implications.

It’s weird that I totally missed the discussion of abortion in my previous viewing of the series, and I think that says more about me as a viewer than it does about the show itself. Obviously, abortion wasn’t really on my mind when I watched the show as it aired, but now it is, so I find myself drawn to the framing of abortion in the show.

It’s kind of inevitable that a show about death would touch on abortion eventually, especially since the show deals with the intersection between sexuality and death. But this unexpected portrayal of unplanned pregnancy and choice was sometimes rather stark and unpleasant, for me, and it makes me wonder about Ball’s personal positions on the issue. I note that in the director’s commentary on the episode in which Claire meets her baby, Alan Ball claims that the show wasn’t trying to send “pro-life” messages, and that it very much supports a woman’s right to choose, but that’s not entirely the way in which the scenes read, and Ball makes no comment about his own beliefs.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Some of the depiction of abortion does seem fairly balanced, and I think that the scenes involving abortion did raise some interesting issues and spark some serious thought. It seems like the creators were trying to bring up the issue of the fact that abortion often becomes a source of conflict in relationships, and that repression and lack of communication in relationships can make the process way more complicated than it needs to be, but the portrayal felt a little heavily slanted towards the non-vagina-owning partner in the discussion. I’m not entirely sure that discussion of abortion was strong enough to sway viewers one way or the other, nor did it need to be, but it did sometimes create situations in which people could choose which character to sympathize with, which is a little different from the usual framing of controversial issues, in which readers are only really given one side to connect with. The conscious decision to allow viewers to choose their sympathies was pretty remarkable, and an illustration of how innovative Six Feet Under was.

Wright’s discussion about commentaries (and Joss’ insistence that his intentions should not be considered when viewing his work), brings up some interesting points. In this era of DVD sets, public events, and direct dialogue between consumers and producers of art, we do expect a lot from the creators of artistic works. We want to know more about them as people, and we want to be able to pick their brains about the content of their work. Are we, as viewers, overthinking things? Or is this actually an era of opportunity in which we get to explore intentions and interpretations in totally new and interesting ways? Should the thoughts of the creators really matter, all that much, when we consume their work?

*As explained elsewhere, I put scare quotes around this term (even though I hate scare quotes) because I think that the so-called “pro-life” movement is way more interested in restricting and controlling women than it is in the sanctity of life.