A Matter of Life and Death
Celebrating 20 years of HBO’s Six Feet Under
by Martin Le Brech
A troubled, grieving customer asks Nate: “Why do people have to die?”. He replies, looking right at us, “To make life important. None of us know how long we’ve got. Which is why we have to make each day matter.”
Six Feet Under opens with the death of Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins), the 57-year-old patriarch of the Fisher family that runs funeral home, leaving behind his traditionalist wife Ruth (Frances Conroy), and three children: Claire (Lauren Ambrose), the youngest, a high schooler who struggles with the lack of love and bond she has with her family; David (Michael C. Hall), a control freak who hides his homosexuality to his family; and Nate (Peter Krause), who moved to Seattle to escape the everyday grim business of death that comes with the family. But, as the haunting spirit of Nathaniel reminds his oldest son in the pilot, “nobody escapes”.
No one escapes the earthquake that is the death of the one that they thought they knew; part of the family they thought they weren’t dependent on but suddenly realise the importance of. The death of Nathaniel is hurting each and every one of them, as well as their relatives, friends and lovers.
Six Feet Under does not shy away from facing difficult topics such as death, the meaning of life, sexuality, love, mental health and many more. Always heavy subjects, those are always written in a light way, that, at the end of the day, will make you both think and smile.
Alan Ball, the showrunner, portrays death as being brutal, unexpected and life-changing. It is, after all, the everyday business of the Fisher family. However, when it starts to affect them, they become aware of the importance of the meaning of death in the most intimate way and, in effect, of the meaning of life. Although the subject is not addressed before the end of the fifth season, Six Feet Under depicts a version of post-9/11 America, which youth is disillusioned by the constant threat not only of terrorism and corrupt politics, but also of an upcoming financial crash, and is profoundly haunted by the destruction of the many things that previous generations could hold on to.
Claire is the embodiment of the millennial as we conceive it today; she is born in an environment of privilege of a family in which success was never really questioned and which owns a successful business in the heart of Los Angeles. Yet, she has to step up to maintain the same level of success that her parents demand from her with the difficulty of a teenager whose innocence is taken away by the death of her father. What rings as truly authentic is that Six Feet Under does not illustrate these issues in a simplistic way.
The people of the older generation aren’t exactly successful and perfect as they like to be portrayed. They are terribly troubled by the same issues that the younger characters have to face. Soon we learn that Nathaniel was using drugs, hiding dark secrets from his family and had fallen out of love with his wife. Six Feet Under invites us to look at these issues, to approach openly our mental health issues, instead of sweeping them under the rug. It also encourages us to reflect on our sexual and romantic behaviour, not to jump once again in another toxic relationship — and, on that note, it does something tv shows are hardly ever bold enough to do: it invites us to question our own toxicity. Six Feet Under invites us to fully live the life we have and cherish the things we have before they’re gone forever.
Six Feet Under is a deeply optimistic and positive piece of television. Many are the times over the five seasons that the audience is left in tears. We are left upset, saddened and embarrassed, because these are emotions we are facing every day of the amazing journey that is life.
Yes, the final episode leaves the audience in tears, but this time these tears are tears of happiness and satisfaction, of hope and possibilities.