Sunday, July 13, 2014

Series Review - "Six Feet Under"

 Spoilers for Six Feet Under after the jump:

Six Feet Under is not the best television drama of all time, but of all the great ones I've seen, it might be the most concerned (in so many different ways) with exactly what makes us human. I'm honestly a little surprised that over the course of five seasons, the show never once used Kansas's "Dust in the Wind" as montage or closing music. Maybe such a song choice would have been cliched and on the nose, but it's not like the show ever ran away from such cliches. (I mean, "Don't Fear the Reaper" in a show that deals so frequently with the subject death? Come on. Let's get real here.) And nor should it have, cliche after all being one of the things we turn to most frequently when dealing with the most inescapable fact of human existence: everybody dies. Person X is in a "better place". It was person Y's "time". None of us know that, of course. None of us know much of anything, really, at least when it comes to the why the world works the way it does. But we say it and try to believe it, because the alternative—that in fact we are just a bunch of particles (dust) that exist only due to some random cosmic accident—is kind of terrifying. And so we reach out in a blind search for meaning: some of us towards faith, some of us towards work, and just about all of us towards other people.

The characters on Six Feet Under are constantly doing this, especially in their romantic relationships. And that's okay; the show posits (I think correctly) that it's through our relationships with others that we discover most of who we are. But they often don't go about it in a healthy way, placing too much stock in their significant others to provide their lives with shape. In the superb season three episode "Twilight", Nate Fisher has a vision of his late wife Lisa where she reminds him: "I'm not a chance. I'm a person." It's a haunting line that's basically the show's statement on intimacy boiled down to a single concise sentence, and one everyone on this show—especially Nate and Ruth—tends to unfortunately forget: other people are not there to validate our own existence. They have existences of their own, which is one of the things that makes true partnerships so difficult, and so often impermanent. Time and time again, we see the Fisher clan fall into this trap. In other cases they may go too far in the opposite direction, breeding resentment by placing the other person's needs too far above their own. It's a delicate balance, and one they struggle to get right. Nate's two marriages both ultimately fail (entirely through his own doing), Ruth navigates a series of relationships that all leave her unsatisfied, David and Keith struggle to overcome their wildly different personality types as well as all sorts of emotional baggage, and so on.

Yet it's essential. For as Six Feet Under never hesitates to remind us, we're all in the same boat, listening to (as Nate puts it in the series' penultimate chapter) the static the universe sends towards us, and inevitably failing in our futile attempts make sense of it. If there is actually any sort of meaning to be gleaned from our existence, it has to come from us. This can be either a prison or a liberation, depending on how one chooses to look at it. For Nate, it's almost always the former. He constantly reaches for meaning through doing what he feels he should, rather than what's in his heart. And it brings him misery, most notably in his desperately unhappy marriage to Lisa in the show's third season (one of its best). Which is not to say that Six Feet Under endorses selfishness; on the contrary, the series celebrates the need for selflessness and compromise in a good relationship as one of the most wonderful things on Earth. Where Nate goes wrong is that, while he may act selflessly, he always expects to get something in return for it: a sense of purpose, or some other sort of recognition. This is one of the major gateways to unhappiness, and he never really does figure that out.

Fortunately, most of the other characters fare substantially better, though their journeys towards peace and acceptance are long processes that only really take hold permanently in the series finale. Ruth goes through a series of dissatisfying relationships, and struggles to assign some sort of meaning to a life that wasn't the one she planned or wanted. She loves her children, but sometimes seems to want them to validate the choices she's made, which they of course cannot do. Only towards the end of the series does she finally seem to fully accept her life up to that point (in all its joys and sorrows) and resolve to move forward with a new outlook, while loving the people around her as best she can. And when she does, she finally gets to fully see how much she is loved back, courtesy of Claire's parting words to her: "thank you for giving me life". She means that in more senses than just the literal one of giving birth, too; it's a thank you not just for life, but for a life that's allowed her the freedom to find herself much faster than Ruth could. It's a goodbye, but it's also a culmination of the two characters' five-season searches for individual meaning, in which they finally see both themselves and each other clearly.

These kinds of inner searches are the lifeblood of many works of fiction, but they take on an added urgency on Six Feet Under because of the show's focus on death. Almost every episode opens with a "death of the week", a device that is initially unique, and during the first few seasons tends to tie beautifully into the themes of a given episode. The concept eventually wears out its welcome (at least until the final season, when it becomes highly relevant again), but even as these specific fatalities become more and more disconnected from the main fabric of the show, the idea of death itself is never far from its thoughts. Nor is the idea that many of the forces that shape us are beyond our control: the product of the fact that we share the planet and intersect with other human beings. If we're lucky, those experiences shape us in positive ways. But sometimes they don't. Heck, for the characters of Six Feet Under, they quite frequently don't. Brenda spends most of the series fighting the effects of a messed-up childhood, and David struggles over the last season and a half to overcome the lingering effects of a terrifying evening spent as a captive of a hitchhiker. Not only does this stuff happen, but every one of the characters seems at one point or another to fear (though not all speak this fear aloud) that their attempts to deal with it may not ultimately amount to much of anything. Their bodies and minds are all going to decay eventually anyway, so what difference does it make?

Well, it makes a pretty massive difference to the people around them, for one thing. Throughout the series, the Fishers are often visited by visions of their recently deceased clients and departed loved ones like Nathaniel Sr.. Both of these types of apparitions represent Six Feet Under's attempts (mostly successful ones, though in some cases the conversations can get tad heavy-handed) to externalize its characters' innermost dialogues, but in the case of the latter, they're also often the most compelling evidence of the sort of impact the deceased leaves on those still living. The dead may be gone, but one of the things about our living together on this Earth—in familial and larger social units—is that they continue to exist in the memories of those they leave behind. And whatever influence they may have had while alive still lingers as well, for better or worse.

The show's final episode—one of the best series finales in TV history—is built around this idea, as well as another one that flows naturally out of it: that our greatest contribution in our brief time on this planet is to leave a positive impact on those around us, and to let others know us as well as we possibly can. Nate's legacy in this regard is decidedly mixed (as discussed above), but while "Everyone's Waiting" certainly doesn't wash away his faults, it falls largely on the side of generosity towards him by reminding us of all the times his light did manage to shine on those around him in spite of himself. Generosity is the name of the game with this finale, as it allows all of its remaining characters (even the deservedly maligned Rico) to find some kind of happiness. So though the tears flow freely for most viewers (this one included) when that much lauded final montage begins, it's really the opposite of depressing. It's a montage of deaths, sure, but it's also one of lives: ones that, when all is said and done, demonstrated that meaning need not wait for any sort of possible afterlife. It can be found here, in the love and support for others we send out into the world we all share. We may indeed simply turn to dust once we're gone, but there is a heck of a lot we can do before then. It's a gorgeous final sentiment, and the perfect conclusion to a series that absolutely deserves to be considered among the greatest of all time.

Season Ranking

Season One (A): Six Feet Under had plenty to offer beyond the first season, but in terms of every element of the series working at an extraordinarily high level, it never really got better than this. This is the only year where Rico's storylines are consistently relevant and not irritating, for one thing. But beyond that, it's the season that makes the best use of the death of the week concept, connecting it to the ongoing narratives in clear but almost always graceful fashion. It also might be the show's funniest season, what with Claire's theft of a human foot, her and Ruth's delightful bonding in "An Open Book", and many other laugh-out-loud funny bits that establish Six Feet Under as a consistent joy to watch, despite its often heavy subject matter.

Season Five (A): Takes a few episodes to really find its footing, with certain early arcs frustratingly requiring some of my favorite characters to behave in a manner that doesn't feel entirely true to who they were in the first four seasons. (Plus there's quite a bit of Rico-related nonsense, though thankfully nothing quite as terrible as season four.) But good grief, the whole second half of the season—everything from "The Rainbow of Her Reasons" onward—is just flat-out phenomenal. The finale is the episode gets most of the attention, but the series actually concludes with four straight masterpieces that may well comprise the best closing quartet of episodes any television drama has ever had.

Season Three (A): It probably doesn't contain quite as many of the show's very best episodes as the two seasons above it, but the main arc of season three—Lisa and Nate's troubled marriage, and then her eventual disappearance and death—is arguably Six Feet Under's most fully satisfying season-long narrative (and one of its most devastating). It's hardly the only good storyline here, either, with Claire's first year as an art student and David and Keith continuing to navigate their lives together proving equally effective, both on their own and as part of the season's larger exploration of relationships and self-definition. The less said about Ruth and Arthur, the better, but that's a minor quibble in the face of such achievements as "Perfect Circles", "Nobody Sleeps", and "I'm Sorry, I'm Lost".

Season Two (A-): Doesn't really snap into focus until the final two episodes, and indulges in several frustratingly repetitive storylines—Ruth's joining of a self-actualization course being the biggest offender—that struggle to say anything new about the characters. That said, this is the season that really begins to expand the show's focus to include the trials and tribulations of romantic intimacy, while at the same time carrying forward many character arcs and themes from season one. So there's still lots to love here. And that last pair of episodes ("I'll Take You" and "The Last Time")? Both belong in the top five of the series in my book, and they do a lot to make up for the occasional meandering of the eleven (mostly still very good) installments preceding them.

Season Four (B): The season premiere and the back-to-back hours of "That's My Dog" and "Terror Starts at Home" are tremendous hours of TV, ranking as some of Six Feet Under's very best episodes. The rest of the season, however, is woefully uneven. Rico's arc is insufferable: easily the single worst story the show ever did. There's also that bizarre storyline of George's estranged son sending him feces in the mail, though at least that one is largely abandoned pretty quickly. And the otherwise superb season finale is marred by an ill-advised final series of twists involving the events leading up to Lisa's death. But Claire's storylines are a consistent delight (thanks in no small part to the awesomeness of Anita Miller), and there's some haunting material elsewhere, particularly in the back half of the season. A mixed bag, for sure, but still a worthy one.

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