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Tribeca 2016: Six Feet Under panel discusses finale

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HBO; Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Bring Six Feet Under up to any TV fan and you’ll hear two words: “That finale.” The HBO drama’s final episode concluded with glimpses at all of the main characters’ last breaths, a move that established it as one of television’s most poignant ending episodes — one that show creator Alan Ball went behind the scenes of Tuesday when he provided live commentary for a screening of that episode, which originially aired in 2005, at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.

“I remember when I wrote this episode I cried,” Ball said at the talk, moderated by New York magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz. “Pretty much the last four episodes, people were crying all the time. But it was good. It was grief. It was letting go of something, and I think it informed the show in a way that was very organic because the show was about people who help us to face our grief. It was pretty cathartic.” 

Also cathartic? The talk itself, which included Ball sharing how the show helped him deal with his own grief, why he didn’t break David and Keith up despite some writers’ wishes, his stance on life after death, and, perhaps most importantly, what Frances Conroy wore to her audition for the role of the Fisher family’s matriarch.

Some writers had very different ideas for how the show should end

One pitch: Ruth (Frances Conroy) gets Alzheimer’s disease. “I thought that was too depressing and not necessary,” Ball says. “There was even a pitch that the sixth season would be kind of like a post-Holocaust thing where they were trying to keep alive in post-Holocaust Los Angeles.” Those, obviously, were nixed in favor of one writer’s idea to simply kill everybody. “I said, that’s perfect. I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of it,” he jokes. 

HBO wanted Nate and Brenda to be as sexy as David and Keith

Sure, there were gay couples on television before Six Feet Under, but this show broke new ground by depicting a gay couple in a complicated, sexual relationship — in other words, it treated David (Michael C. Hall) and Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) like the normal couple they were. “I didn’t want David and Keith to be the gay characters,” Ball says. “I just wanted them to be characters. And actually, one of the notes I got from HBO after the first season was, ‘We need to make Nate [Peter Krause] and Brenda [Rachel Griffiths] as sexy as David and Keith are.’ I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ So we made Brenda become a sexual compulsive.” Despite HBO’s affection for David and Keith though, some writers were ready to end their relationship. “I’m so glad I didn’t break them up like the writers wanted me to, because that relationship is so much more interesting than just David going on a series of bad dates,” Ball says.

Ball’s own history with death informed some of the show

“My sister died when I was 13. My father died when I was 19. So I had been to funerals, and I knew that sort of weird, surreal turn that life takes when somebody who was part of your life is all the sudden just not there,” he says. Those experiences found their way into the show in both general and specific ways, like the scene in the finale where Ruth tells her daughter, Claire (Lauren Ambrose), to go to New York. “When my dad died, my aunt came in my room and said — I was going to go to school in Florida — and she said, ‘You need to stay here and take care of your mom.’ I told my mom, ‘I’m going to stay here and take care of you.’ She said, ‘No. Go live your life,'” Ball remembers. “And that was a huge gift, one of the greatest things my mom ever did for me.”

A bad LSD trip inspired David’s finale fight scene

At one point, David gets in an imagined, vicious brawl with a hallucination he at first thinks is his attacker from a previous episode. Ball had a similar experience when he took LSD with a group of strangers in an unfamiliar place, a decision he now calls “not the smartest thing to do.” “I hallucinated that this beast that I was fighting with was trying to kill me. Then I realized, in my totally drug-addled state, that it was just as scared of me as I was of it, and then I hugged it,” he says. “And years later, it ended up on television.”

Ball had a good feeling about his cast from the very beginning

Especially Conroy. “I remember the day she walked in, she was wearing weird little socks and sandals and a gardening hat,” he says. “I thought, okay, who’s this quirky person? And then she read, and it was like, okay, we found her. And then we actually dressed her kind of the same way throughout the show.” As for the decision to cast Hall, HBO had some doubts — but Ball stood up for the young actor. “I said, you gotta trust me on this,” he says. “Luckily, he ended up being great.” So great that he nabbed his first Emmy nomination for his performance in the show’s first season.

Six Feet Under helped viewers deal with grief — and it helped Ball, too

Although Ball, whose own personal faith is “much more aligned with Buddhism” than the Christianity his parents practiced, says he never wanted the show to make a hard statement about life after death, he does believe there’s something after your last physical breath. “I don’t know if our personal sense of self returns to a greater sea of consciousness or whatever,” he says. “But I do know that I was really, really fearful of death — and fearful of grief especially … I think the show was very helpful for me in terms of not so much expressing a specific idea about a specific faith or anything, but just being in that world constantly and wrestling with those questions.”