“Why do people have to die?”
“To make life important.”
– “Knock, Knock” [1.13]
The concept was short and simple: a series set in a family-run funeral home.
In poetic fashion, nearly every episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under begins with the end of somebody’s life. Created by Alan Ball, the show focused on the Fisher family, an emotionally repressed and highly dysfunctional clan whose lives revolved around the grief and guts of the funeral business. Within the first five minutes of the show, we have our first death, and a significant one: Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. (played by Richard Jenkins), the Fisher family figurehead, is killed when a bus smashes into the hearse he driving.
Despite how it may have seemed, though, this was not a show about death. Instead it posed the question, “How do we grieve and continue living in the face of death?” What happens when a family surrounded by loss is forced to experience for themselves?
For those who watched and loved the show, it was a unique kind of therapy, allowing the audience to confront the unsettling and what is essentially a universal panic over death.
Six Feet Under was on the air for five seasons, and 10 years ago today, it aired its final episode. It is often regarded as one of the best finales of all time, earning five Emmy nominations including Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series and Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series nominations for Ball. Try to explain the episode synopsis to anybody and you end up with a remarkably satisfying spoiler:
Everybody dies in the end.
“We had the sweet spot of the emerging golden age of TV,” Michael C. Hall, who played the tightly wound and closeted David Fisher, told me in a phone interview. Just a few years prior in 1997, HBO has made its first foray into the one-hour dramatic narrative series with Oz and began a new trend. Soon to follow for the network were Sex and the City, The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and next in line? Six Feet Under.
“It was immediately clear that the show was inspiring to do something new and exciting. I think from the audition forward to shooting the pilot, there was just a sense individually and then collectively when we all came together to make it that we just needed to step up so that we got it right because it was so rich.”
Following both an Academy Award for his American Beauty screenplay and a failed sitcom on ABC called Oh, Grow Up, Ball took a pitch from HBO executive Carolyn Strauss about a series that would take place in a family-owned funeral home. Ball’s own experiences could unfortunately serve as inspiration for the broad idea: his sister had been killed in a car accident in which he was a surviving passenger when he was 13 years old. Within two years of that, he lost four other family members, including his father. The distinct memory of having his mother whisked away and carried off behind a curtain when she started to cry at his sister’s funeral may sound familiar to anyone who’s at least seen Six Feet Under’s pilot. That avoidance of grief and burial of emotions was a Fisher family specialty.
The response to Ball’s first draft? One note: “we love the characters. We love the story, but the whole thing feels a little safe, Can it be more fucked up?”
Great characters, great storyline and a little fucked up is now essentially the show’s calling card. But in talking with the cast, something becomes very evident very quickly: a universal recognition that Ball’s script was extraordinary.
“I read the script and was like, ‘I must be in this,’ and I think all my agents were like, “We have to make this happen,” Lauren Ambrose, who played Claire Fisher, said. “I just thought it was a really interestingly written part for a young woman. It felt very funny and real but in that whole Alan Ball voice and world still.”
“Within five or six pages it was clearly as good as anything I’ve ever read for the small screen, big screen or the stage as far as original work goes,” Hall recalled. “So I was really captivated by it and really, really put a lot into preparing for the audition.”
For Hall, who had major screen success with Dexter following Six Feet Under, it was his first role on television, coming straight from the New York stage playing the Emcee in Cabaret, a role which is perhaps as far from first season David Fisher as you can get.
“I think a part of having a sense of how to slip into David was informed by the fact that I was playing the Emcee. I flung all these doors wide open playing this pansexual, somewhat sinister, party thrower and I just slammed all those doors shut on David right there — the definition of repression.”
Frances Conroy, who played the matriarchal Ruth Fisher, was also starring on Broadway at the time in the play The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. For her, the role of Ruth was unexpected; Conroy is only 12 years older than Krause, who would play her eldest son, and concerns about her age left her momentarily tentative about auditioning in the first place.
“My agent told me about the show and gave me the script, and I read and I thought, “Well, I’m too young. What do they want me to come in for? My agent said, ‘You should go and audition.’ I said, ‘Well, okay, but I think I’m too young.’” Simple makeup, a tight bun and simple, plain clothing would have to do the trick, though — she was told she got the part while on the plane back from the network audition.
The real challenge, however, came in casting Nate Fisher, the free bird of the Fisher clan who would return to his family for the holidays but wind up staying to help run Fisher & Sons after the death of Nathaniel, Sr. Peter Krause, who had starred on Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, was most interested in playing the role of David due to the political and social aspects of the character. Rachel Griffiths had come over from Australia (complete with perfected American accent) to audition for the part of Brenda Chenowith, the highly intelligent and psychologically complex girlfriend of Nate. When Krause and Griffiths read together, Ball had his Nate and Brenda.
The early cast was rounded off with Freddy Rodríguez as Federico “Rico” Diaz, the skilled restorative artist and Nathaniel’s protégé, Jeremy Sisto as Billy Chenowith, Brenda’s manic-depressive and possessive brother, and Matthew St. Patrick as Keith Charles, David’s occasionally hot-tempered boyfriend. A masterful cast from top to bottom, Six Feet Under on paper had the potential to be wonderful. On the screen, though, there were no doubts.
“Sitting down and watching it — because, of course, you don’t see the scenes you’re in — just brought it together emotionally and visually,” Conroy remembered. “It was just very interesting sitting there and thinking, ‘Huh, here’s this story beginning and I’m part of it.”
“We all knew it was something really special but how it would be received we had no idea,” Jenkins said. “I mean, that you just never know how it all turns out, but there it was (laughs). It was as terrific as we all thought it was going to be.”
The network felt the same. Within a week of the first episode being aired, HBO renewed the show for a second season.
It should come as no surprise by the performances that the chemistry on screen is as dynamic off. Ten years later, the cast is still familial and occasionally heart-wrenchingly sentimental. Conroy is described by Hall as “a magical unicorn” and by Ambrose as having “a direct channel to God.” She, in turn, gushes about Jenkins’ kindness, Jenkins about everyone’s talent, and everyone about Ball’s writing.
And that combination — the talent, the writing, the love for one another, and some potential channels to the heavens — is what made Six Feet Under thrive, so much so that picking a great storyline or performance can be done entirely at random because of the strength of the show both collectively and in its parts.
What was refreshing, though, was the complexities and multitudes of each character. There is no feeling of forced loyalty and support, no character you know you’re supposed to be constantly rooting for. You’re rooting for them, but you also get mad at them for their stubbornness or for their glaring mistakes and terrible choices, and so much of that is born from where the family is at the start of the series.
“It starts at the edge of the cliff,” Hall said, “or maybe they’ve all just slipped over the edge of the cliff and we’re watching them all fall.”
The evolution and transformation of each character on Six Feet Under is what made the ride so thrilling. They were unyieldingly and sometimes uncomfortably human, trying to figure out how to do the right thing with their lives, or at the very least how to survive.
“She’s so confused at the start from so many things,” Conroy said of Ruth, a character so often conflicted from having grown into a caretaker but missing the affection she needed. “You have somebody in your life you’re taking care of and everybody starts growing and you don’t necessarily understand one another for stretches of time, and that’s hard to deal with. As time goes by, she’s finding things that she loves, finding things to love in herself and finding ways to love those around her in a different way.
“I found these scenes where she was able to let loose wonderful to play because she wasn’t in a straightjacket. Often she was in some kind of a mental or an emotional straightjacket, either because of her kids or something going on that was really weighing down on her. I loved that just because her cares were gone for a moment, and it was wonderful to let her fly, fly away and see where she would land.”
But they’re constantly reminded of the lasting impact by the recurring appearance of Nathaniel, not as a ghost haunting his family from beyond the grave but as a fiction of all of their minds, their presence as perceived by the person being spoken to, for better or worse — funny, sharp, occasionally brutal and occasionally comforting.
“I never really knew who he was because whoever was thinking about him, it was their image of him that I was playing,” Jenkins reflected. “They could do whatever they wanted this guy; there were like no rules. And they did. I think they used him really well.”
For Jenkins, it was important that Nathaniel strayed away from the being the vulture-like funeral directors that circled around the mourning.
“Being an undertaker and a good undertaker was important to him — that he believed he performed a service for families and he wasn’t just there to make money.”
He read and molded Nathaniel from The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, a memoir from an undertaker who grew up in the business, living above his father’s work, and how it dictated his decisions toward his personal life and family life as he followed the same path.
“I know Alan Ball said to me after the pilot, he said, “We’d like you to come back and do more because when your father dies you don’t stop thinking about him.” That was his thought. Kind of as the series went on, he kind of appeared less and less as one’s memory fades and you stop thinking about a deceased parent as much as they did in the first year or two after they died.”
It was the Fisher children that made the dynamics of the show click, however: Claire in search for a purpose, David struggling with self-acceptance, and Nate coming to terms with his own mortality.
“I felt very protective of the character and, like, hashed things out with the writers and kind of always wanted to choose props really carefully and bring things in from home and find things or songs that I would like campaign for to be in the soundtrack in my scenes and stuff,” Ambrose said. “It was Claire’s youthful passions that was fueling it (laughs).”
Essentially the legacy of David Fisher is that he is considered one of the first — if not the first — realistic gay leads on television. He emerged during a time of shows like Queer as Folk and Will & Grace where so many LGBTQ characters were either parotic or entirely based on stereotypes. David was something new: complex, emotional, fearful, full of guilt, and ultimately stronger than he thought.
“I certainly appreciated when I encountered David in the pilot script that he was and would be unique among television characters up to that point — he wasn’t incidentally gay or he wasn’t comic relief,” Hall said. “He was a fundamental part of a family and a multi-dimensional human being, and that, you know, I felt charged with a sense of responsibility as far as breathing authentic life into that for sure.”
There is no episode in the series, though, that packs a harder punch in David’s storyline than “That’s My Dog”, the season four episode where David, at the height of growing into himself and learning to deal with his own demons, is carjacked and held hostage, sending him into regression, fear and constant panic.
“I think while it throws him for a loop and he is victimized by this circumstance, I think it moves him towards his ultimate discovery that he’s his own worst enemy. That is a fundamental and maybe final stage of his self-acceptance and reckoning. So as traumatic as it is, maybe it helps move him toward a fundamental recognition that he wouldn’t be required to make without it having happened.”
This was a show afraid of nothing and allowed its characters to encompass life and death and all its difficulties to the fullest. Themes of mental illness, domestic violence, sexual addiction, every form of illness and malady imaginable, abortion, sexuality, interracial relationships…it’s impossible to talk about every lesson and aside Ball and his writers delivered.
Maybe most importantly, the show carried a lesson about accepting our own fates, as demonstrated by its most emotional death: Nate Fisher’s in season five’s “Ecotone.”
Ball and his team of writers had an idea that Nate would die; it was just a matter of how late in the final season it would be. The character who brought the show together and reunited the Fisher family at a time when it was sorely needed, Nate was Six Feet Under’s sacrificial lamb, the necessary symmetry to be a catalyst for anyone close to him to start anew.
But Nate’s death was the epitome of what the show was so good at: making characters and viewers alike question their actions, their emotions and their means of dealing with grief and trauma. He was the personification of our own struggles with mortality and our discomfort with death. For him to live was accept that mortality, but for him die was to trigger the realization that all of this is finite.
But of course, what’s more finite than a series finale where everybody dies?
“I was just crying. I thought, ‘This is magnificent. Where did Alan pull this out of himself? How did he find this?’” Conroy said of her first time reading the series finale script. “It was just gorgeous. And then, of course, we each had our scenes that took us through to the end.”
The task of ending Six Feet Under was a complexity in and of itself. The show was reaching both a natural and unnatural conclusion as the writers were uncertain they had anything new to say. Viewership was not as strong as it had been in previous seasons, dipping to an average of 2.5 million viewers and 1.5 million viewers at its episodic lowest. But the story was strong and the conflicts were leading the season into an interesting resolution.
At the tail of the season, there were enough loose threads left in the storyline that the paths were innumerable. “Once we figured out how to have [Nate] die three episodes from the end, suddenly it all started to fall into place,” Ball recalled in a 2013 interview with Vulture. Moving Nate’s death up a few episodes instead of concluding the series on it not only opened up the show to allow the remaining Fishers to grieve and grow, it also created the need to wrap everything up and leave no questions unanswered.
Inevitably, the show with death as a backdrop had an easy out. One of the writers in a story session suggested the ultimate conclusion: killing off everybody by jumping ahead in time to see everybody at their moment of death.
“I’ve never encountered something that was quite that simultaneously surprising and obvious,” Hall said. “So satisfying that way.”
Ball wrote “Everyone’s Waiting” secluded in Lake Arrowhead, and what resulted was one of the most memorable and cathartic finales in television history, rounded off with a seven-minute montage of the lives and deaths of the series’ major characters.
During the course of the episode, every storyline for each character is polished and resolved as much as possible. For the first time in the show’s entirety, the episode started not with death but with life: the birth of Nate and Brenda’s daughter Willa. David fights back from the hooded image of what he assumes is his carjacker but finds that it’s really himself and that he is his own worst enemy. He embraces both life and death full on and moves Keith and their two sons into the Fisher home, buying out Rico and Brenda and continuing the family business. Ruth has decided she has seen enough death and moves in with her sister and starts a doggy daycare. Brenda fights against the recurring negative visions she has of Nate and ultimately finds peace.
And Claire leaves for New York for something new.
“You meet her when she’s a late teenager, and those years are just so huge and transformative and you’re becoming who you are,” Ambrose said. “She has a big arc of how she’s changing, you know, and just going from being essentially a baby who’s completely in her parents’ care to leaving home.”
With Claire leaving and saying goodbye, the cast also says goodbye. The writers say goodbye. The audience says goodbye. The tone and content is as true to a farewell as you ever can get. The last thing she sees of her family is a vision of Nate jogging in her rearview mirror. It’s a new beginning, the continuation of life and as much of a step away from death she can and is “just going off in total hope,” as Ambrose puts it.
And one by one, as the Sia’s “Breathe Me” heightens, we learn the Fishers’ fates.
“If I’m in a film and it ends on a certain note, people say to me, ‘What happened to the character after?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, the movie’s over!’” Jenkins laughed. “But you can’t ask in Six Feet Under because you see what happens.”
True, it was so finite in a way where you can’t ask any questions. Everybody dies — the end. Compare that The Sopranos’ seven seconds of black and even Breaking Bad’s fan-generated ambiguity toward whether or not Walter White actually died (he did).
“It showed the kind of respect that Alan had for the audience,” he continued. “’You’ve been with us for five years — this is what happened. You deserve to know what happened to these people.’”
Bittersweet may be the word that comes to mind most frequently of the finale for many of the cast, crew and viewers alike. For others, it is not-so-simply “perfect.” It’s hard to disagree. Half of what makes “Everyone’s Waiting” so great was just how completely satisfying it was. How often do you get a denouement to the dysfunction, dissatisfaction and disarray that plagued the characters? And better yet, how often can a show do that while still encapsulating the same tone and spirit that drew an audience to it in the first place? To have deaths in a series-ending montage as polarized as a murder in the case of Keith’s and quite literally being talked to death in the case of Brenda’s is past the point of knowing your audience. It was so deliberate and carefully constructed — from the close-up of the wheels on Claire’s car matching the wheels of the gurney in the intro sequence to the parallel of Claire driving off to start her new life in a series that started with her father dying in a car accident — that it came together less like a puzzle and more like a novel.
“It really had that feeling of authorship that we were telling,” Ambrose said. “It was powerful to be able to take the picture of them and say goodbye to them.”
From a technical standpoint, “Everyone’s Waiting” is masterful. From the music chosen by music supervisors Thomas Golubic and Gary Calamar to the realism of the prosthetics and aging makeup — a feat that won the episode a Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup for a Series, Miniseries, Movie or a Special — it requires no suspension of disbelief and allows for total emersion in the story.
But most impressively, the montage where everybody dies in the end is not about death. You see the hardships this family went through for five seasons and then there are these great moments in the rest of their lives rolling in front of you: David and Keith getting married, David teaching his son the embalming process, Claire getting married, Willa as a happy and healthy baby, Ruth spending time with Bettina…it is the ultimate payoff to seeing so much sadness. You see Claire in her bed at 102 years old surround by the photographs her friends and family and you know she lived a good life.
All in all, this show so notoriously built around death is ultimately about life and while death is inevitable — “the great punctuation mark” — you get to see the incredible things you’re going to do before that happens.
If nothing else, it’s a reminder to just live.
“We all struggle with ruts in our sense of ourselves or there’s a story we tell ourselves about ourselves that isn’t necessarily true,” Hall said. “The show as a whole is just an invitation to relinquish whatever you can that doesn’t serve you.”