“Six Feet Under” has always been a matter of life and death. And while it's fair to assume that death would be the primary theme in a show about a family that owns a funeral parlor, the true focus has always been life.
And life as it really is — random, relentless, painful, ecstatic, confusing, comforting, clouded and finally, finite. The fictional Fisher family sampled all of life's offerings — suffering more then their fair share of tragedy, but also enjoying great rewards.
As the series ended its five season run, it appeared that there would be yet more tragedy. Brenda's (Rachel Griffiths) baby is born premature and it appears she will have major health issues. Ruth (Frances Conroy) is mired in a deep depression, mourning the death of Nate (Peter Krause) and feeling her own loneliness. And David (Michael C. Hall) is spiraling into blackness too — unable to shake the fear of his attacker from last season, and his own mortality.
But a funny thing happened on the way to yet another deeply depressing and frustrating episode of “Six Feet Under”: there was no tragedy. Instead, the Fisher family finally, FINALLY realized that life — with all its nuances — is wonderful, especially when you have people around you who love you, flaws and all.
In the past two seasons, the once groundbreaking series had taken a dramatic turn for the maudlin and predictable. Instead of being surprised or stunned by what happened to the characters, more often than not fans could telegraph what was coming next. The Fishers never seemed to learn from their mistakes, falling right into the same old traps.
At the epicenter of this dramatic deja vu was Nate. Nate was always the center of this show. He was the hope — unrealized — of the Fisher family. He had escaped to the Pacific Northwest, away from the family business and the life that it would entail. As the series opened in 2001, Nate returned to Los Angeles for his father's funeral and begrudgingly stayed to help his brother David keep the funeral parlor operating. And from that point on, he was always looking for an escape.
Instead of saying farewell to funerals, however, he found escape with Brenda, a sex addict who was most definitely the product of a poor environment. Nate and Brenda ignited the screen with their passion but beneath the sizzle there was no substance. Brenda started straying — a lot — and Nate moved on, for a while. It was during this time that he married a girlfriend from his past, Lisa, who was carrying his baby. Acting yet again out of obligation, not really love, Nate dutifully tries to make the relationship with Lisa work. But as they drift further and further apart, she dies (at the hands of her lover — and brother-in-law). Free at last, Nate does exactly what we all hoped he wouldn't do but knew, thanks to the lackluster writing of the show last season, that he would do. No, not move on and find real happiness — nope, he gets back together with Brenda.
As the final season opened, Nate and a pregnant Brenda are on the eve of their wedding when Brenda learns that the baby has died. Oh boy, here we go again. And adding insult to ridiculous injury, the couple opts to go ahead with the ceremony with their dead baby still inside Brenda's womb, a foretelling of things to come. The same issues of estrangement and lack of intimacy that broke the pair up three seasons ago begin to chip away at their relationship again, even as Brenda becomes pregnant again.
But this time, Nate finally seemed to want really contentment and peace in his life. He finds that peace in Maggie (Tina Holmes), the daughter of Ruth's troubled husband George (James Cromwell). And just as they consummate their relationship and he is finally ready to do what is right for himself, Nate dies of a brain aneurysm (a dramatic turn that was, at last, surprising).
Ironically, it was in Nate's death that the rest of the Fisher family finally learned how to live — and it was Nate, appearing to them for one-on-one chats — teaching them how. Throughout the series, the specter of Nate Sr. would dissect and berate his surviving family, reminding them how they never quite measured up. But in a delightful twist, Nate returns to tell them that they are all just fine and should just let themselves be happy.
Claire lets go of her endlessly annoying angst, sobers up and stops judging everyone around her — especially herself. After being prodded by both her mother and her late brother, Claire heads off to New York to pursue her hopes of being a photographer.
Ruth sheds her dowdy clothes, her disappointment at her life choices and the pain of being left behind and beings to make a real life for herself on her own teams, reaching out to Brenda in the process.
David faces his fears, finds a little faith in himself and partners up with his lover Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) to upgrade Fisher and Sons funeral home and make a real home for their adopted sons.
And finally Brenda, broken and bitter throughout most of her adult life, stops listening to the negative voices in her head (or more precisely the voice of Nate in a brilliant piece of script writing) and embraces the positive. Her baby will be OK. Ruth is not the enemy but a valuable resource and David and Keith are her extended family, there to help her raise Nate's daughters.
In the wake of Nate's death, they all, finally, found life.
And what a relief for us all. As the series comes to an end, it died peacefully, in the due course of time. And despite the frustrations if sometimes brought out in its audience, “Six Feet Under” with be remembered for its life — random, relentless, painful, ecstatic, confusing, comforting, clouded and finally, finite.
Denise Hazlick is the entertainment editor at MSNBC.com.