Leave it to Six Feet Under to achieve a happy ending by showing the deaths of each of its major characters. Well, happy in a depressing, make you reach for a Kleenex while contemplating the meaning of mortality kind of way. But who would want it any different? If nothing else, Six Feet Under has, in a pop-cultural sense, normalized the end of life, pulling back the curtain to remind us that the process can be painful, absurd, violent, funny, peaceful, sad, and beautiful, sometimes all at once. And certainly, the final moments of the Fisher clan were dying proof of exactly that.
One minute, I’m getting a lump in my throat as Ruth expires, surrounded by her family, in a hospital bed in 2025; the next I’m suppressing a chuckle watching Brenda get talked to death by Billy, way down the road in 2051. And while I winced witnessing Keith get gunned down in an armored car robbery in 2029, how touching was it seeing David flashing back on a vision of his young, exuberant husband right before keeling over at a family picnic in 2044? Sure, the ”old-people makeup” was a little wonky, and the music was amped up for maximum sentimentality, but is there any reason to fight a good cry, especially when you’re saying goodbye to a series that even in its least successful moments, challenged you by never giving you easy choices on how to feel about its characters and story arcs?
As much as I reveled in Six Feet Under‘s final set of death sequences, though, I don’t think they’d have succeeded if we hadn’t gotten to enjoy watching our beloved characters living so fully in the series finale. I sure was glad Alan Ball didn’t conclude last week’s cliff-hanger by killing off newborn baby Willa, not only because it would’ve been a cheap exit strategy but also because it would’ve robbed us of the finale’s most surprising (and surprisingly touching) connection. Indeed, while five seasons of evidence would have led me to name Ruth the character least likely to extinguish Brenda’s deep-seated maternal fears, by the time Ruth delivered her ”Motherhood is the loneliest thing in the world” speech, what might have seemed like a pat attempt to reconcile these formidable women came off as completely genuine. Dramatic success, of course, was in the details, and Ruth’s acknowledgment of the slight hesitation in her daughter-in-law’s voice became the sword that helped Brenda slay her disturbing internal visions of an angry, judgmental Nate. And while we know Brenda will always be saddled with a heavy backpack of self-doubt, the baby steps toward self-awareness throughout Six Feet Under‘s run have brought her a long way.
Almost as much of a breakthrough as Ruth and Brenda’s truce, however, was the former’s realization about her own unfortunate fashion sense. Perhaps smarting from Margaret’s priceless putdown — ”It isn’t the ’50s anymore — no matter how you dress” — Ruth finally turned off the Just Shoot Me reruns and opened her eyes while packing to vacate the Fisher homestead. And the terse observation she made caused me to howl with laughter: ”My entire life I’ve been wearing clothes that I hate.” Priceless! Ruth has always been a character defined by her repressions — but some of those drab skirts and sweaters seemed insanely out of touch for an under-60 woman living in modern Los Angeles. For Ball to slyly wink at this absurdity in the series’ final episode was to bring loyal viewers in on the joke in a clever, thoughtful manner. (And anyhow, Ruth’s going to have to ditch the devil’s cardigans when she and bawdy Bettina become hookers, or meth manufacturers.)
But even putting Ruth in a vinyl miniskirt couldn’t compete with the extreme makeover given to the Fisher homestead by David and Keith. (Those stainless-steel appliances sure were nice, but Bettina’s remark that ”it’s a 100 percent gay kitchen” — another throwaway line delivered with unabashed glee by the delightful Kathy Bates — was right on the money.) Now I may be in the minority of folks who wish they didn’t have to (literally) see David fight, then embrace, his own inner demons — golly gee, the red-hooded tormentor is none other than…himself! Oy! — but since he and Keith got to live happily ever after (complete with a same-sex marriage ceremony), I won’t complain. Too much anyway. Okay, let me just ask: When you’ve got a physically and emotionally rock-solid partner like Keith, are you really going to look to your big brother as your main source of strength and protection and, as a result of his death, suffer a complete mental breakdown that risks your hard-won family’s well-being? I think not. But whatever David’s journey, it was all worth it to see him and Keith at the dinner table with the boys, with David offering thanks for two sons ”who have given us a home every bit as much as we have them.”
Achieving happiness with far less angst was the series’ other funeral director and his spouse. Maybe it was just a little too conventional a plot device that the Keith-David-Brenda cash connection allowed them to buy out Rico’s share in Fisher & Diaz, and allowed Rico and Vanessa to start building that delightful espresso bar in the back nook of their new funeral home, but at least we got to see the couple’s ferocious ambition without a hint of rose-colored tint. I was glad Rico didn’t spend the episode grappling with some misguided sense of loyalty to David and the rest of the self-absorbed Fishers; it’s only natural the guy wanted to branch out on his own and not have to worry about competition from his old bosses.
The most exciting and uncertain future, though, belongs to Claire, who suddenly rediscovered her sense of humor for the series finale. (”I’m eating fruit salad in bed with a naked frat boy who voted for George W. Bush” ranks as her finest quip in quite some time.) Yet while it was hard not to feel hopeful as Claire popped her ”Ted’s Deeply Unhip Mix” CD into the car stereo and began the long journey to New York, those ethereal dying eyes of hers all the way off in 2085 forecast that Claire has both darkness and light in her future. After all, as her mother said while freeing her from the Fisher nest, ”I pray you’ll be filled with hope as long as you possibly can.” That might sound like a bleak world view with which to wrap your average TV series, but for Six Feet Under, it’s pure poetry.
What do you think? What will you miss most about the series? What did you think of the finale? With Willa and Maya being raised by Brenda and Ruth, and getting quality time with Margaret, Olivier, and Billy, will we have enough neurotics to populate a sequel series in 20 years? And, oh, is it just me, or is Maggie totally pregnant with Nate’s baby?