Please note: this post is chock full o'spoilers.
The series finale of Six Feet Under was an unbelievable comfort and release after an entire season of horribly depressing episodes that I watched the way one watches a train wreck. First there were those two adorable, long-suffering foster children of Keith and David, who clearly wanted very much to be loved and to be a part of a real family but who acted out because they didn't know how else to ensure that they would be the ones to push away the love of their foster parents, rather than vice versa. I cringed nearly every time these two boys were on screen. Then there was the parade of people from Nate's past who died untimely deaths - his high school friend, his first love - each one helping Nate to come to terms with the fact that his mortality was absolutely assured and it was only a matter of when. Add to that, Brenda's miscarriage, the bad AFP-test in her second pregnancy, the growing tension between Brenda and Nate, the unraveling of Billy's mental state, the cringe-worthy fights between Ruth and Claire, Ruth's systematic dumping of George into a sad little condo on the advice of her pseudo-hip-knitster friends, and Claire's sad but realistic induction into the "real world", where your art isn't always (or even often) appreciated and you can't always get the work that you want.
And then...just in case all of this wasn't depressing enough, Nate "narmed" during his one adulterous night with Maggie (despite that we had long ago breathed a sigh of relief that this AVM thing was a thing of the past), and then died after having a deliciously, mouth-wateringly delightful and loving conversation with Maggie in the hospital and seemingly making peace with everyone else in his life other than Brenda, thus forcing us to ask the uncomfortable question: what terrible ugliness were Nate's loved ones spared by virtue of Nate's death? Not to worry, as for better or for worse, there was plenty of other ugliness left to go around, as Ruth beat herself up for being off on some crazy walk-about through the wilderness, shooting imaginary boyfriends dead with an imaginary hunting rifle when she could have been at her first-born's bedside, and as Brenda berated a sheepish Maggie for "f-cking my husband to death and then bringing over a quiche". Not to mention breaking Brenda's front-door flower-pot in the process.
And all of this heartache is only what lay on the surface. Simmering beneath the surface of Six Feet Under was always the not-too-thinly-veiled apocolyptic themes of the battle between man and nature, and the battle between God and man. In the world the Fishers inhabited and in which the Fishers tended to the dead, all that would seem to be comforting and benevolent inevitably was revealed to be holding imminent danger and certain death. A night of partying with girlfriends meant decapitation through the moonroof of a limo. A hike in the canyon meant a fall into a chasm. A jog in the park meant mauling by cougar. A transcendentalist vision of Quakerism ("I sit in silence and wait to be filled with God") became the final religious solution to the question of how to worship a God that may or may not be there at all, paving the way for a Quaker meeting to be the catalyst for Nate's "narming" with his pants down. And the final battle wound inflicted upon the Fisher's God: Nate had a Jewish burial (let's face it - a "green funeral" is basically nothing more and nothing less than a Jewish burial, sans plain pine coffin), over which Rabbi Ari was to have presided had Ruth not had her way (besides, Nate had recently "beome" a Quaker, as Brenda pointed out, thus making the Jewish burial a sacrilege of two religions). But not before Ruth turned on her own smug and mincing minister at the funeral, informing him coldly: "God is an asshole."
Then there was George...formerly-womanizing, child-abandoning, bomb-shelter-dwelling, mental-illness-concealing George who became Ruth's "loving companion" (according to Ruth's obituary), yet who most strangely, and somewhat sinisterly, did not age even a day in the span of 20 years' time. Thus, as Ruth lay dying, a withered and white-haired virtual apparition, attended to by a white-haired and wrinkled David and a George who looked exactly as he did when we saw him last, we can only imagine that there must have been a picture of George Sibley hidden away in some attic somewhere that showed George aging in real-time, a la Dorian Gray. Come to think of it, how many other wives had George outlived? What sort of pact had George made, and with whom? And why?
And finally, there was Ted, the most enlightened, kind-hearted, honest, unselfish and decent human being ever to become involved with Claire, let alone to appear on the show, and what was he? A lawyer! Oh cruel fate. A lawyer as saint and savior.
As the final episode began with newborn baby Willa Fischer's unnervingly quiet life-death struggle, it seemed that there was only more suffering to come. But then the white screen appeared, telling us that not only had Willa survived, but she lived but lived far enough into the future that we couldn't even project when her death might arrive. I felt an incredible wave of relief, as it seemed to me to be terribly unfair to imagine that Nate's child wouldn't make it, but more importantly, it teased me into asking myself if perhaps I liked Nate more than I thought I did, since I wanted his legacy to continue...in spite of the fact that every time he appeared to Brenda in recent episodes, he came as an angry and mocking spectre.
But, of course, this was merely Brenda's projection of Nate, the husband who had cheated on her in his last hours of life, who had given up on their baby and their marriage. Others such as Ruth, Claire and David projected Nate more benevolently. But as Brenda made peace with the Nate of her imagination, I began to wonder about the nature of the imprint that we leave on this earth long after we are gone - which is just another way of looking at "karma".
It was Nate's voice that set Brenda free to make peace with Ruth, and despite that it was Brenda who created that conciliatory Nate-voice, it was the real-life existence of Nate and the vibrations that his existence left on earth that enabled Brenda to create Nate-the-benevolent. It was Nate's voice of courage and follow-your-dreams that inspired Claire to pursue a photography career in New York, even when the path to that career no longer seemed clear. It was Nate's brotherly voice that comforted David in his darkest moments of post-traumatic-stress. It was Nate's love for Maggie that brought Ruth peace about Nate's final hours. And it was Nate's child with Maggie (Maggie's scene at the doctor's office seemed to imply that she was pregnant with his child) through which Maggie would finally have get to have another child, as well as a small piece of Nate. A new life can never replace an old, but it can be something/someone to live FOR when all else seems lost.
The final moments of the episode may or may not have been Claire's projection of imagined events in the future; they may or may not have been what "really" happened to the characters. Yet what is important is not whether these things really happened but that everyone ultimately meets the same fate: death. As Claire angrily admonished her cube farm coworkers as she stumbled out of the office for the last time, "You're all going to die someday."
But the tears I shed as I watched each death unfold were not tears of sadness - they were tears of relief at the way the cogs of life's wheels just seem to work together. Ruth died with George and David by her side, ushered to "the other side" by her vision of Nate. It was at Ruth's funeral that Claire and Ted found each other again twenty years later, and they remained happily married and deeply in love for the rest of their lives. When Claire died in her bed at the age of 102, she was surrounded by photos of Ted that she had taken when they first became lovers, and her death may have been attended by one of her nieces, Maya or Willa. Brenda ultimately remarried (did anyone notice that her second husband's last name was...NATHANson!) and had another child, but Maya and Willa kept her close to the Fishers, and she always took care of her brother, Billy, who ultimately, and predictably, bored her to death with his talk of "emotional closure, blah blah blah, Brenda, Brenda...are you listening..." (I had to laugh at that). Brenda's death, like Nate's, begged the question of whether we do actually have some level of choice in when we we finally let go of life, at least on a moment-to-moment basis.
It seemed unfair that Keith died a violent death, but it was good to see that he was running his own security company, and that he left behind his beautiful sons, Durrell and Anthony and three grandchildren (see the Obituaries). Still I wondered what the implication was in the fact that Keith was the owner of a company that provided security for others, and yet he was ultimately unable to maintain his own safety. It could have simply been one of life's cruel, existential jokes. Or it could have illustrated the randomness of fate.
David went on to find love again, but ultimately at the moment of his death, he was surrounded by his family at a picnic (or possibly, a family reunion) and was ushered into the beyond by his vision of Keith as a young and beautiful man. His vision. Not the ghost of Keith. The shadows that inhabited Six Feet Under were never more than a projection on the part of those who saw them. Six Feet Under NEVER posed the possibility of heaven and hell or any sort of conscious afterlife. In fact, looking back at the episodes, it seems that a constant theme was that death is the ultimate loss of consciousness and absolutely final and that we embalm our dead and have viewings solely for the benefit of our loved ones, not so that we will have a body in which to inhabit when we "return". But as Nate explained to no one in particular as the family assembled to wish Claire bon voyage as she departed for a new life in New York City, "You can't take a picture of what's already gone."
Well, apparently, it is our very, very human nature to try. But in the end, the "picture" is what remains in the hearts and minds of those who are not yet gone, and that picture has the power to change the course of lives far into the future. Our death may be tragic, our death may leave a void. But it does not leave a vacuum. One might take the view that Six Feet Under presents a depressing and empty view of death: we live until whatever point in time at which we just so happen to die, and death is nothing more than a complete and total loss of consciousness. However, if you are able to see the connection between ourselves and every other living being who dwells on this earth, whether now or well into the future, you begin to see that notwithstanding that loss of consciousness, your actions while here on earth and the consequences of those actions continue to exist long into the future, long after there is any person on earth who is alive to remember you specifically.
And THAT is karma: everything, every action has a consequence, a vibration, an energy that ripples around throughout the universe, taking on a life of its own. Sometimes to illustrate this, I ask my students to listen to the silence after chanting "Om", to press their thumbs into their breastbone and feel the vibrations in their chest. We make our sound, and even though the sound is gone, the vibrations remain. Like the vibrational silence after the chanting of "Om", the ripples that our existence leave in the sea of lives around us and even the lives of future generations are just as significant as our existence, itself.
What an incredible series finale. Thank you, Alan Ball.
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Please note: this post is chock full o'spoilers.
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