Monday, August 22, 2005

Six Feet Under: More Final Thoughts

If you haven't seen these yet, the HBO site has obituaries for all the characters who died in the last episode, and that's basically all the characters, so it's definitely worth checking out. They basically tell us what we can figure out from the future sequences, but there are some interesting bits, like the last name of Brenda's new husband, Nathanson. She just can't get away from the name.

One really great sequence I forgot to mention was the "I Just Want to Celebrate" sequence, with Nate singing against a white background. It recalled the ads for funeral products from back in the pilot and gave a really nice jumpstart to the end of the episode. That was the first part of the finale that really had me excited.

The other thing I realized was how important it was for Nate to die before the finale. In this last episode, we see a new family being born out of what was left of the Fisher and Cheniworth families, both in turmoil since the death of their patriarchs. In the end, the families are brought together, and as we see at Willa's first birthday party, they become a functioning unit.

Thing is, Nate was never one for family life. He ran from home as soon as he could, and always resented being pulled back in to the funeral business, forced to abandon the life he had built for himself in Seattle. Over the first two seasons, Nate entertains the idea of marriage and kids, of finally growing up. However, he always has Brenda's problems as a crutch, it's not his fault that they're not functional, it's hers.

Then, in year three he finally is in a family, married to Lisa. He has a daughter he loves and everything seems to be going well, but he can't help but think of other ways that things could have went, perhaps because of the visions he has in 'Perfect Circles,' the life with Lisa is one of many he could have had, but is it the best? He becomes increasingly discontent with his life during that season, and always uses Brenda as the excuse, he married Lisa out of necessity, but he really loved Brenda, and she becomes this figure of the exciting life he could have had, instead of the dulling existence he has. So, Nate distances himself from the family unit, not unlike his own father had.

At the end of the third season, Nate gets exactly what he'd wished for, Lisa vanishing, but guilt torments him through the fourth season, and it takes that long for him to recommit. When he goes to Brenda at the end of the fourth season, it would seem that Nate can now have the life he wanted, and a family with the person he really loved all along.

However, what the fifth season shows us is that Nate isn't someone who's willing to sacrifice, he always has to do what's in the best interest of himself, and he gets bored very easily. Now that he has Brenda, there's no one else he can use as a fantasy figure, a what if, but then Maggie comes along, and in her he sees everything that Brenda isn't, much like Brenda was everything that Lisa wasn't. Nate once again abandons his family for another woman, and with this we can see that Nate just isn't someone cut out for family life. Claire is willing to give up her trip to New York to care for her mother, David chooses his responsibility to his family over the money selling the funeral home would provide, but in the end, Nate isn't prepared to sacrifice anything, and he sleeps with Maggie, justifying it to himself by saying that things between him and Brenda would never work.

And that's true, but what it really comes down to is that Nate is too selfish to ever have a successful lasting relationship. He's more about himself than others, and that's why the family can only re-form after his death. From the way Ruth talks about Nathaniel, there are clear parallels, both of them retreat from family responsibility to do their own thing. And now that they're both gone, there's the chance to form a successful family, and that seems to be what happens, to the point that when David dies, the family is at a picnic playing touch football.

I don't mean to be harsh on Nate. He's just not built for the life he tried to fit himself into. When he was in Seattle, living on his own, he was probably very happy, he's the kind of person who needs to be able to do what he wants to do. And with a family, that's just not possible. I guess Nate's tragedy is that he thought he could change and fit himself into this role, even though it became apparent at the end that he could not.

So, it's a tragic arc for Nate, but the ending shows why the dark times with Lisa were necessary, contrary to what a lot of reviewers will tell you. I think the third season was the best, but I do have an odd attachment to seeing characters suffer, and Nate certainly suffered. Still, he was my favorite character on the show, I think his problems were the most compelling, and even with his flaws, he was the most charismatic character in the series.

And once Nate's out of the way, the characters are able to put aside their differences and form a family unit. Ruth and Brenda finally reconcile, David faces his demons and Claire finds purpose, and at the end the Fisher family is reformed and stronger than what it had been before.

Six Feet Under: 'Everyone's Waiting'

After five seasons, the show is over, and it went out with the best sequence in the entire series. The episode as a whole was solid, but not up to the series' best, however the final five minutes was completely astounding, going far beyond anything the series has done in the past.

But back to the beginning. The first forty minutes or so of the show actually didn't feel that finale-like, the plots moved along, the characters had problems and life seemed fairly normal. I guess the most notable thing was seeing all three of the surviving Fishers at a crossroads. Ruth was completely alone for the first time in forty years, David was thrown out of his house and Claire had to decide if going to New York was the right thing to do.

It was interesting to see Ruth breaking down because she'd spent the whole series putting on this false mask of control and here we finally see her lose it and admit that she is unhappy, notably in the phone call to George where she could even muster the effort to sincerely lie and say she's fine.

My favorite scene in the early going was Claire taking pictures of Ted. It was really sweet and made the character even more likable. The crucial moment here was when he tells Claire that being hip is an adolescent concern, so he's glad to be beyond it. Claire, and a number of other characters on the show, most notably Brenda, were always so concerned with not being cliched to the point that they rejected sincerity, and here Ted basically punctures that, allowing Claire to be emotionally open with her mother and her whole family at the end.

The other really great bit was seeing the Cheniworths together as a family. This episode's main theme seemed to be about the rebuilding of family, a counterpoint to the shattering of the Fisher family back in the first episode. So, we get to see Brenda's family rebuilt, and for the first time, she actually seems happy to be with them.

So, then there's the question of rebuilding the Fisher family. As the episode progressed, it seemed that David would sell the home, the family's base. There is a certain justice in this, but I like the way things played out better, and the dinner scene where the new incarnation of the Fisher family is assembled was one of the highlights of the episode. The warmth and love in that scene was such a contrast to almost all the dinner scenes in the past, where drug induced awkwardness was the norm. Even though it was a bit sappy, I did really enjoy the toast to Nate.

Up until the point where Claire leaves, I was liking the episode but was a bit underwhelmed. After the incredible intensity of the last few weeks, this episode felt like a bit of a letdown, as plots were resolved and the conflict disappeared. It felt like a fairly conventional series finale, one character leaves and this provides a chance to say goodbye to all the characters, with the obvious implication that we are saying goodbye along with Claire.

However, once she starts driving away, the episode ascended and presented us with one of the greatest sequences ever shown on television. There's a ton to talk about, and I guess I'll start with the aesthetics. I really like the odd way everything was filmed, the all white interiors and oddly tinted exterior shots. Some of the aging makeup wasn't exactly convincing, but I'll forgive that. But most of all I loved the way it was integrated with Claire driving along. The song, also used in the season five trailer, is great and perfectly fit with what was going on here. I liked the way the future scenes were presented exclusively as visual moments, with no attempt to explain exactly what's going on.

After all the problems they've been through over the course of the series, it seems like most of the characters get a pretty happy ending. Ruth and George are apparently together until her death and judging from his reaction to her passing, they have deep feelings for each other.

David and Keith's story was one of the best flash forwards. Their wedding scene was very cool looking, with the two white tuxes. Keith's death was the most shocking, but at the same time, we get to know that he sets up his own successful business. One of the things that confused me was why it seemed like one of their children grew up to look exactly like Keith. In David's death scene, I figured it was David hallucinating that Keith was there, but there was another scene where that didn't seem to be the casae. I guess that's something that we'll never know.

Brenda seems to marry someone else, though what happens in her long term future is unclear. Maya and Willa don't appear after the wedding scene, and her husband only appears that once. Though I guess it's fitting that in the end it's just her and Billy. It seems that despite her temporary happiness, Brenda really is destined to be with Billy, and it's the bond between the two of them that outlasts everything else she has. I would have liked to see how Billy died, but I guess he didn't qualify for a death scene.

The best part of this flash forward was knowing that after all her problems Claire finally did find happiness. Even though he stands for a lot of things I don't like, I couldn't help but like Ted more and more with each passing episode, and I'm really happy that in the end he and Claire end up together. In the previous seasons, Claire had always taken on men who were needy and unstable, like Gabe and Russell, so it's fitting that in the end she gets to be the needy and unstable one because there's someone to support her. The good thing that this episode did was make getting together with Ted compatible with being an artist and being herself.

I guess that Claire and Ted don't meet up until her mother's funeral in 2025, so we can infer that in the interim Claire lives the independent lifestyle that her mother never got to have. Ruth clearly sees Claire as a chance to make up for her mistakes, and it seems that Claire has achieved the dream of independence and love that eluded Ruth.

The final future vision, of Claire's death, was sublime, seeing the photos on the wall, the face sculptures from year four, the photo of Ted from this episode, it was a really powerful moment, and to see Claire dying intercut with the beginning of a new phase of her life worked really well.

The final move up to the clouds reminded me of another one of my favorite series finales, Cowboy Bebop's 'The Real Folk Blues: Part II.' In looking at past series finales, I'd divide them into three catergories. There's those that leave you wanting more in a way that's unsatisfying. I would put Buffy's there because I just needed some more time with the characters to see where they were going. The plot was resolved, but the character issues were not.

There's those that leave you wanting more, but in a good way. This would include Angel and Twin Peaks, shows that end on what seem like cliffhangers, but in fact serve as great final statements.

Then there's the elusive catergory of those where you're completely satisfied and don't want any more, but not because the show has run too long, because all the issues have been resolved and the story has been told. The Office and Cowboy Bebop were the only shows I'd place in this catergory, but I think I'd add Six Feet Under. The present portion of the episode left everything tied up nicely, but it was missing something.

However, with the jump into the future, I got the literally final moments with the characters that I needed. I think this device was phenomenal and the perfect way to in five minutes show everything we need to know about what happens after the show ends. It's a really bold device and I consider it a complete success. It gives each character their turn in the spotlight and we can infer what we need to know about the background characters as well.

Is there anything I'd like to have seen that didn't occur? I'd like to know more about where Maggie ended up. Why was she at the doctor's office? I was thinking maybe she was pregnant with Nate's child, but it would be a bit ridiculous to have Nate just churning out kids from beyond the grave. Was it a psychiatrist, to talk about her problems, or I think her job was selling medical supplies, so that could be it. We can infer that Rico is a success from the fact that he's taking a cruise as he dies, but I'd have like to have seen some of his family life running the home and also more of Vanessa in the role of funeral director. Also, more of what happened to Billy. But, on the whole, these issues are not that important, it's up to the viewer to come up with a story that will connect the dots.

That's really what the whole future story is, a guideline that the viewer can use to see where things end for the characters and give us a frame in which we can build the rest of their lives after the show. I love the device and I'm extremely happy that Alan Ball did this. It's so good that I wish every series would end this way, I know I'd have loved to see something like this at the end of Buffy or Angel. Or even not this specific device, just a really bold stylistic departure that conveys the essence of the series and takes full advantage of what we already know about the characters. I've always contended that the episodic TV series is the best vehicle for really avant garde stuff because you have a huge base of knowledge to work off of. So, you can do an episode like Buffy's 'Restless, the Twin Peaks finale or the opening twenty of minutes of 'Perfect Circles' and it works because we know the world and the characters, so we can accept the abstract purely visual storytelling. And the longer the show's on, the more craziness we can take. This future scene takes full advantage of the fact that we know the characters to in five minutes show us the rest of their lives, it's something that could only be achieved after so thoroughly building a universe over the course of five seasons.

So, at the end I have to say I'd consider the show a total success and its final moments the high point of the series. The thing that made the show more than just a soap was the undercurrent of metaphysics, the gravity that death gave to the events on the series, and never was this better used than here at the end.

I went into the episode thinking that I'd absolutely dread the final fade to white, and it turns out there wasn't one. But, even if there had been, I got everything I needed, I feel completely satisfied by what happened and am content to let go of the show. Those final five minutes were basically the viewing for Six Feet Under, giving us the opportunity to say goodbye before the show was lowered into the ground. And with this blog, I throw some dirt on the casket and stand back as it is lowered into the ground beneath a grave that reads:

Six Feet Under
'Beloved Show'

And with that cheesiness, so concludes the thirteen blogs about the show that I did over the course of the season. I'd never written about every individual episode of a series before, but there was enough in each for a lot of words on every episode, and that's the sign of a good show.