For many television fans, when a favorite series ends, there is no genuine sense of closure. Viewers might feel that plotlines were left unfinished, or that the fates of characters are needlessly ambiguous. For viewers of Six Feet Under, there was no such ambiguity. In an emotionally charged masterstroke of a finalé Alan Ball, the creator of the show, and his writing staff show the audience the deaths of every regular character. It’s so simple, and so effective, that one can’t help laugh at its obvious perfection — if you can laugh through the tears.
One could argue that we are not given the final fate of everyone we came to care about, that there are a few lose threads, but those characters that were in every episode from the first — the Fishers and those closest to them — are given a finality not often seen in long form television programming. By giving us these deaths, Six Feet Under aligns itself closer to a novelistic form rather than that of a standard television program.
Every episode, excluding the very last, of Six Feet Under began with a death. These deaths were sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes just plain weird, and generally the body made its way to Fisher and Sons Funeral Home. The deaths, besides working as a cold open for the show, also tied into the episode itself, a commentary of sorts on the main action. Because Six Feet Under took place in a funeral home, the deaths brought the viewer into Fisher and Sons along with tying itself to — or spurring on — whatever was happening in the ongoing plotlines or themes of the show.
In one of final episodes of the program before the finalé, viewers were confronted with the shocking death of Nate Fisher (Peter Krause), and how the emotional fallout of his death leads to the other characters being freed and able to move on from that moment. It’s such a cataclysmic event, that it shakes the Fishers out of their torpor, setting them off on new paths to the future.
During the course of the following episodes and spinning off into the future past the show, Ruth (Frances Conroy) gives herself over to reconciling with second husband George (James Cromwell) and letting go of her old home. Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) finishes college and begins raising the two young girls left to her. David (Michael C. Hall) and his partner Keith (Matthew St. Patrick) finish the process of adopting two young sons, take over the business, and cement their relationship. Claire (Lauren Ambrose) decides to move to New York to attend NYU and begin a photography internship. And finally, Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez) decides to move on and create his own funeral home using what he has learned at Fisher and Sons. Without Nate’s death, it is implied, none of this would have happened.
This mirrors how the show began with the death of the patriarch Nathaniel Sr. (Richard Jenkins), which set all the action of the show in motion. His death brought Nate moving back home and lead to the five seasons that viewers watched. Nate’s death bookends the program we’ve seen, moving the rest of the characters to action in the way that his father’s death moved them similarly at the beginning of the program. With the opening of the final episode, the show begins the process of creating a sense of finality. By the end of the episode, the characters are moving apart and viewers begins the process of saying goodbye to these characters they’ve been watching for five years. This ending flashes forward to the deaths of each character, giving the audience a look into their life after the narrative of the show has ended.
The final six minutes of the finalé begins with Claire getting into her car and putting in the song “Breathe Me” by Sia, heading down the highway to New York City. As she drives off, hurtling off into an unknown future, the viewer heads down the road with her, the highway becoming a conduit for the rapid passage of time, hitting on significant live events, with the deaths of Keith, Ruth, David, Federico, Brenda, and, finally, Claire cascading one after the other. For each character, their death appears to be a logical extension of who they were in life (i.e. the run of the series) and it provides a closure to their narrative. During their deaths the Fisher family sees not only those around them as they die but specters of past loved ones who have died. The characters appear to experience “somatic intuition, a bodily knowledge or awareness of the presence and possibility of death that promotes an ever-increasing awareness of separation between ego and self” (Mudd, 131). As they pass away, they are surrounded with their family. For the audience these deaths are comforting as they give us a comforting, humane view of life’s final moment.
As always, Six Feet Under shows the deaths of the Fishers as integrally interwoven into the narrative of the show, except unlike the grotesque or comic deaths that generally opened the show each week, these are profound, elegiac and universal. The characters’ deaths are their endings, but they also reflect back onto the lives we have seen them live during the course of the show. And oddly, even though this is indeed the end, the characters are not transformed by their death, they do not “end”, it is only a transition. “We offer the concepts of transitory movements, which draws upon the idea of transition — an oscillation or wavering movement between states — rather than transformation, which would imply a marked, radical conversion” (Shoshana, Teman, 568). The audience gains the ultimate closure by seeing the “finalés” of their favorite characters within the finalé of a beloved television program, leading us to have a complete viewing experience that most shows do not provide their audience.
Beyond the actual final moment, we are given “short stories”, in montage, that lead up to each death. These episodes confirm and enhance what the viewer thinks about each character. When Keith is gunned down while leaving an armored car, we are not just seeing a crime; we witness Keith as the owner of a company doing a job he loved throughout his life. Keith’s masculinity was a major part of how he saw himself and so while a needless tragedy, the viewer understands that his death would have been how he would like to face death: brave, manly, and working. Ruth dies “peacefully” in a hospital surrounded by her family, David dies of an apparent heart attack at a family picnic. In both cases they also see someone they loved (son and lover respectively) waiting for them. Federico’s death occurs while on a vacation with his wife on what appears to be a luxury cruise line. Brenda dies listening to her brother Billy drone and prattle on about the need for closure (ha!). True to her nature throughout the entire series, her death appears to be a sarcastic comment on Billy’s neediness and constant therapy-speak. And finally, Claire dies in bed surrounded by photographs that she has taken and we see that her eyes have been clouded by cataracts. But, it was her photos and, truly, her sight that we used to see the others.
Within the world of Six Feet Under, throughout the entire run of the series, “the dead speak, ghosts/specters commonly engage with major characters in surreal sequences in which the characters negotiate critical moments in their subjectivities” (Munt, 270) and within the finalé this trope is continued, but this time it leads them to the most critical moments, their deaths. By continuing this through the shows final minutes, the writers of the show work to help the audience watch the deaths of the characters we have grown so close to.
In the instances of most long term narrative shows, the end is not truly the end. The characters continue to live on in the viewer’s imagination and within the world of their show. The ending of shows rarely ends in the end of the lives of the characters. But Six Feet Under shows viewers an end with a capital E. There is no way for the audience to make up an imagined future. Much like a great novel, Six Feet Under is a narrative that definitely wraps up everything, does not leave the viewer hanging. In this way, Six Feet Under does something that aligns itself with being closer to a novel than with a standard television program.
Beyond just the death scenes, Ball gives viewers a full narrative to those paying attention. Keith and David get married and their adopted sons begin families of their own, one a homosexual relationship and the other a multi-racial family. The Fisher family grows to be much less homogenous and hermetically sealed as the time goes by. Claire returns home, marries her on again, off again boyfriend Ted many years after she left home. The viewer is given the plot to a whole show they won’t see. The characters move, marry divorce, adopt, and live lives outside of the show we have watched. We are given a timeline in miniature. Ball and the writers work to give an entire epilogue that feels as fully fleshed out as the prior five seasons.
And, as the final kicker, the audience slowly comes to realize that the entire story has been seen through Claire’s eyes (she was, significantly, an artist and a photographer). She has moved the farthest, grown the most, seen the most. By ending with Claire, her eyes glazed with cataracts, we see that the entire narrative has been through her, the curtain coming down over as her eyes cloud and go blind.
Books and film, because of their finite-ness and sure authorial voice, provide a deliberate closure, but television, due to internal and external factors of long form storytelling and TV economics, is generally not so compliant. Most television programs have a level of incompleteness. But with its final six minutes, Six Feet Under achieved a rare moment of perfection in finality, ending with a true conclusion that answering the audience’s questions about the characters’ fates, and even answering questions that they had not known to ask.