Six Feet Under & Loss of Faith
Six Feet Under, created by writer of American Beauty Alan Ball, is a HBO drama/ dark comedy that ran in the early 2000’s. I recently immersed myself and watched all five seasons in under a month. I know, yikes. The show is about the Fisher family who run the funeral home Fisher & Sons after the death of patriarch Nathaniel Fisher. SFU constantly addresses topics such as death, the afterlife, and loss of faith. Ball once remarked “Six Feet Under refers not only to being buried as a dead body is buried, but to primal emotions and feelings running under the surface. When one is surrounded by death – to counterbalance that, there needs to be a certain intensity of experience, of needing to escape.”
Perhaps that’s why I was so drawn to the show at this particular time. The last few months of my life have been marked by losses, both external (a grandparent, a breakup, a job), and internal (loss of faith, self-restraint). External losses are not easier to grieve, but they are easier to compartmentalize. There are protocols in place, rites to mime. Breakups are a weird mix of both- a loss of friendship and intimacy but also a loss of the version of you that exists with that person. SFU deftly explores this dynamic, and how hard it is to give up that part, or any part, of yourself.
Prestige television such as Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, even Breaking Bad to a certain extent, keep telling us that people don’t change. And no, television characters can’t change (especially on network shows) because the inherent virtue of their roles is that they exist in a vacuum, in a medium that exists solely to entertain us weekly. SFU strives to disabuse us of this notion. However, characters (just like people) fall into the same patterns, so that even incremental steps forward feel monumental. Watching middle child David (wonderfully played by Michael C. Hall) angrily fall into the same “good son” role is frustrating. Then seeing him exquisitely self-destruct and rebel by liaising with a male prostitute is frustrating but completely understandable.
Similarly, Fisher matriarch Ruth is the definition of repressed. She got pregnant at 19, and has been cast as the role of the dutiful mother and wife. We find out early in the first season that she has been cheating on her husband for the past two years, and struggles to balance her guilt with the relief of being free of a burden. Ruth keeps slipping into the role of a caregiver, sometimes by choice, and sometimes by accident. At first she enjoys the familiarity of being maternal (especially since none of her own children seem to enjoy being taken care of), but eventually the resentment builds up and erupts out of her in tragic (and hilarious) ways.
Despite how you feel about Alan Ball’s particular blend of fantasy, dream sequences, and hallucinations, they are effective within the narrative structure of the show. Each episode (except for the pilot and finale) begins with the death of an individual. The way the person dies underscores the theme of the episode, but often it is random and inconsequential. As death is.
The way the writers are able to eloquently capture these fleeting characters allows the audience to connect with them briefly before they die. It encapsulates the greater experience of life in which we will never truly know anyone or anything before they/ it is taken away from us. Cynical and depressing perhaps but undeniably true. As I've spent the last few months also grappling with my belief in God (also karma, justice, fate, destiny), the idea of death and the afterlife has come up again and again. Even some atheists have not completely given up the idea of an afterlife, arguing that the survival of one’s consciousness is compatible with the laws of physics. For me, that’s never been true. I'm agnostic about any sort of afterlife, and I'm starting to think even the mere existence of one demeans our actions here and now.
For a show about death, it is only appropriate that Six Feet Under have a proper series finale, and boy, does Alan Ball deliver. It might be the best series finale I've ever seen, even if it gets a little heavy handed. (I cried for 10 hours anyway, so what do I know). All the characters get a proper send off, and there’s a sense of closure that I haven’t achieved with any other TV show. As the Fisher clan struggles to make sense of the random chaos the universe throws at them, I learnt to finally let go of these belief systems that I clung to out of habit. It caused an aimlessness, an unmooring of sorts. But those crazy Fishers got me through it. As prodigal son Nate (Peter Krause) says, "You only get one life. There's no God, no rules, except for those you accept or create for yourself. Then once it's over... it's over. Dreamless sleep forever and ever. So why not be happy while you're here?"
And so I am.
* I didn't even mention Claire, the closet to the audience stand in, whose journey was so fulfilling and provided a great lens into the other characters. She's great.