`Six Feet' taught us about life

HBO show about dying ends its five-year run

Observations

August 22, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Warning: This article contains information about the ending of last night's series finale of "Six Feet Under."

Last night, Alan Ball, the dark, sarcastic creator of HBO's Six Feet Under, gave us something in the final episode of this show about death that we fans never expected:

Happiness. Love. Peace on Earth. In, of all places, the funeral home of Fisher & Diaz.

It was almost disappointing.

Brenda's premature baby not only made it; she was fine. For once, the narcissistic Claire forgot herself and offered to give up a chance for a new life in New York to stay with Ruth, her grieving mother.

Ruth, who had had an annoying habit of holding back her young when times were tough, snapped out of depression, unfroze Claire's trust fund and told her to go. Self-hating David rallied to hold onto the family business that was slipping away.

The 75-minute final episode of the show's five-year run was starting to scare us. When the Fishers sat reminiscing around the dining table - with the formerly drab avocado decor replaced with David and Keith's strong reds and warm beiges - we feared what was next. Warm and fuzzy flashbacks of our favorite scenes, God forbid, as in the parting episodes of so many rote sitcoms? Could Ball really be so heartless?

We diehard fans didn't watch Six Feet Under to escape. We didn't watch it to see people treat each other well. We watched it to confront our most uncomfortable emotions, to hear our deepest demons speak, and sometimes to laugh at them. We watched shamelessly to see the dysfunctions of others.

Maybe we thought we could learn something about life's greatest mystery - what it is to die. We wound up wrestling with what it is to live. The talking corpses? Not nearly as gruesome as the day-to-day work of the characters' relationships.

We came to like the way the dead spoke in the minds of the living. Truth be told, our dead loved ones sometimes talk to us, too.

The show that began almost every episode with a death killed off nearly 100 people in its five years. They were electrocuted and impaled, crushed and drowned, overdosed and beaten, run over, hit on the head with a frying pan, a golf ball, a metal lunch box, a chunk of airplane waste. We felt their passings most when we didn't actually see the end, but divined its inevitable creep, as when a man with diabetes furtively treated himself to a can of cling peaches.

As a funeral director, Nate, the character at the heart of the series, was asked in an early episode why people have to die. He answered: "To make life important."

But the Fishers and the others who lived in their world frequently forgot those words. They bickered, got high, had sex, did anything to escape from their lives. Nate was most at home running, sweating in solitude down some remote trail, in a contradictory search for both meaning and freedom. After he died of a brain hemorrhage at the crossroads age of 40, the truest form of his ghost wore jogging clothes.

So how to explain this sudden epidemic of insight and reconciliation, this neat knitting-up of plot lines, this appreciation for the important things that Alan Ball was serving us at the end?

Just as Claire was leaving for New York, sentimentally snapping a picture of what was left of her family, we got it.

Ball had already taken his Fishers to heaven.

All their infidelities and transgressions, their harsh words and futile gestures and meaningless sex, had fallen away in a fictional world where everybody was forgiven, and the big questions were either answered or securely buried.

The future that flashed by as Claire drove away to start her new life was bathed in celestial light. It was a utopia where David and his lover Keith got married in white tuxes, and where, one by one and years from now, all the main characters died peacefully, painlessly or suddenly. Even Keith, gunned down by robbers of the armored car he was guarding at age 61, seemed not to know what hit him.

Most of them saw the faces of the ones they loved most as they went - in person, in visions, in pictures. Boozy, bombastic, lost Claire lived to be 102.

The Fishers went to heaven before they died.

In a fictional world, it's easy to do. But maybe, Ball is telling us, it doesn't have to be so hard for us, either.

Maybe, in all the really important ways, our lives are already perfect.

The finale of "Six Feet Under" repeats on HBO tonight at 10, Wednesday at 11 p.m. and Friday at 9:30 p.m. It will also air at various times on HBO2 and other HBO channels.

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