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The many lovers of Six Feet Under’s Ruth Fisher

What was it about Ruth that attracted men to her? Was it her long, red hair, her porcelain skin? Was it her ability to make anyone she spoke to seem special? Or was it her own attraction reflected in them?

If you ask a Six Feet Under fan who got the most action on the show — or at least, who was involved in the greatest number of mismatched relationships — the answer would probably have to be Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy). Even if five different men in five seasons doesn’t really sound like a lot, it’s the fact that she’s, well … old.

Not old as in senile, just old as in middle-aged, to the point where people usually stop seeing people and either get used to being alone, or settle on one person. But the thing about Ruth is that the person she had settled on — her husband, Nathaniel Fisher Sr. (Richard Jenkins) — died in the first episode. (Not that he was the best choice for her anyway, as her many flashbacks of being a disgruntled housewife to an unemotional man, as well as her infidelity, tell us.)

Perhaps the abrupt ending of her marriage provided a catalyst for her to start treating all of the men in her life as “something to try out” — and if it didn’t work, it was over. I can’t imagine Ruth leaving Nathaniel if he hadn’t died, but once the union was broken, it seemed as though all others that followed simply couldn’t be as strong. Or, they couldn’t be strong enough for her.

Below, I’ll give a brief refresher of the various men Ruth was involved with on the show — as well as my comments. Feel free to add your own thoughts below!

Nathaniel Fisher, Sr.: As mentioned above, Nathaniel was Ruth’s husband from 1965 until his death in 2000. Despite her lengthy marriage, Ruth seemed ill at ease in the flashbacks featuring the two of them. She probably stayed with him for the children, as well as because she didn’t know what she might do in another role. Was he nice to her? Not terribly. Was he good for her? Well, that’s up for discussion. I say no, because she couldn’t really be “herself” with him — all she could be was a nurturer and housewife. Any of her own needs or wants were squashed by her marriage. But some might say that although Nathaniel didn’t exactly make her happy, he knew her better than anyone, and she loved her family, which he had helped her create. Maybe being a subservient housewife was the role she felt the most comfortable with for most of her marriage, until gradually she wasn’t anymore.

Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that some type of discord occurs in most marriages where one or more kids are involved — at least for a period of time, anyway. We have to make sacrifices and forgo pursuing our own interests in the name of familial obligations and “being a good wife[husband, partner] and mother[father].” I suppose that once children grow up and move away, parents can feel free to reintroduce themselves to things they used to do, or begin new hobbies or activities. But for Ruth, the kids really never grew up and moved away, because the business and the home were one and the same. Perhaps that’s why she felt stifled: her husband could never escape his work, and her children were always participating in that work, or at the very least surrounded by it.

Hiram Gunderson (Ed Begley, Jr.): I always thought Hiram was too much of a softie for Ruth. This chef-turned-hairdresser with whom Ruth had an affair, and then later a relationship, always puzzled me. He seemed to really care about Ruth, but would act like a jerk to her and play dumb as if he didn’t know he was hurting her feelings. He was in touch with nature and was environmentally conscious, yet couldn’t seem to treat his personal relationships with the same respect. I remember laughing when Hiram told Ruth he wanted to see someone else, and she was relieved because she didn’t want to be with him anyway.

Nikolai (Ed O’Ross): Does Nikolai’s character even have a last name? I couldn’t find it, and never heard it mentioned on the show, so for our purposes, he’s just Nikolai. I actually enjoyed this relationship, because it was so different. This outspoken (although Ruth would probably call him a loudmouth) Russian flower shop owner entertained me the most in his courtship of Ruth. My favorite exchange between the two is when he comes to the funeral home and she says something to the effect of, “You can’t go skulking around here with that look in your eye.” To which he responds, “What look?” And Ruth says, quite offended, “That sex look.”

Ruth’s pattern of insubordination recurs when she dotes on Nikolai in her home after his “injury” (when some guys to whom he owes money break his legs), but then creates an uncomfortable dynamic when she pays off his debt to the Russian mob. All in all, not such a great relationship, but I think she might have been looking for a departure from the two men she’d already had relations with.

Arthur Martin (Rainn Wilson): Before he was Dwight K. Schrute, beet farmer and office oddity, he was Arthur, apprentice caretaker at Fisher & Diaz. Similarly to seeing Michael C. Hall in Dexter after Six Feet Under‘s David had already become ingrained in my mind, it took some getting used to when I had to un-learn Arthur and replace his quirks with Dwight’s. Anyway, Arthur and Ruth’s “relationship,” if you can even call it that, was more of a Harold and Maude-esque friendship. It didn’t really make sense to anyone except the two of them. Additionally, although Ruth would have preferred otherwise, their relationship was not sexual. All they shared was a kiss (pictured above) and Arthur rejected even that.

What was Ruth thinking with this? Watching Ruth enter Arthur’s room late at night as he listened to music or walked around in his pajamas reminded me of college, when it was completely natural to knock on your crush’s door at midnight and sit on the edge of his bed, talking about something dumb and waiting for him to kiss you (which he usually didn’t). Did Ruth feel special that a much younger man, one who was sensitive and talented and interesting and intelligent, wanted her company? Was she attracted to him? To his interest in becoming a mortician? (Shudder.) Yes, I guess she was. Aw, Ruth.

George Sibley (James Cromwell): Wow. This was the relationship that took the cake for me and made me feel as though the show really honed in on the intricacies of why a relationship doesn’t work.

It’s not that George was a poor match for Ruth, at least at first. They seemed like a good fit. He was kind, polite, age-appropriate, and seemingly “normal” at first meeting. His instability, controlling nature, and mental health issues slowly unraveled on the show, such that the change was almost indistinguishable — until, all of a sudden, he was nuts.

George didn’t have too much working in his favor, from his and Ruth’s extremely brief (six-week) courtship; to Ruth’s children expressing everything from confusion to vague disapproval to repugnance; to his slew of ex-wives and estranged children. For me, George needed to get out of Ruth’s life as soon as he started speaking disrespectfully to her, started keeping things from her … oh, and there was that whole “We’re going to die in the apocalypse, so we’d better live in this bomb shelter I created” thing.

Hiram (again): In episode 9 of Season 5 (“Ecotone“), Ruth reunites with Hiram briefly and the two go camping. She seems so uncomfortable with them and realizes that she’s outgrown him — or, at least that’s the way I saw it. Even though she thought she was ready to try again, she realizes she’s not interested in camping with him, sleeping with him, or even being with him at all.

Maybe it’s because her son Nate was in the hospital after suffering another AVM rupture, but all the scenes of Ruth and Hiram in this episode made my skin crawl. I felt suffocated just watching her. In fact, it’s in this episode that Ruth has visions of all of her ex-husbands and relationships and shoots them all in a crazed fantasy, but not before humorously and succintly telling each one of them what his problem was.

George (again, sort of): George attends Nate’s funeral and says a few kind words about him (he takes over for David, who panics during his eulogy). This is a nice gesture considering George and Nate didn’t get along at all. George also sits at Ruth’s bedside as she passes away in the finale. While the couple’s marriage was obviously unsuccessful, it seems as though the friendship/courtship they have at the end is more suitable to both of them (living in separate places but still maintaining a relationship).

It seems as though the best “relationship” that Ruth has invested in was the one she shared with her sister Sarah (Patricia Clarkson) and her friend Bettina (Kathy Bates). This is a relationship that took work, but each woman stuck with the other, and together they formed a strong bond — so much so that Ruth ends up moving in with them.

I’m realizing through completing this article that Ruth seemed like the type of person who never wanted to be alone. (Well, who really wants to be alone?) I guess that’s not really a criticism. But it did explain why she often settled for less than what she deserved because she’d rather have that than nothing at all.


Photo Credit: HBO

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