SPOILER ALERT – If you’re considering watching “Six Feet Under” do not read on. This is mostly about the ending and you do not want to read this unless you already watched it or you didn’t and you don’t care. I’m warning you away from this post because the show is just that good.
I just finished watching “Six Feet Under,” a show I probably couldn’t have watched any sooner since Philip died and which didn’t upset me for the reasons I thought it might, but did upset me for others.
Death is profoundly fascinating. It’s taken Philip away in body – but it’s also made us closer, changed our relationship. Which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather this whole fucking thing didn’t happen. It just means that it has and I can’t change it. And since I can’t change it, I’m damn grateful for what’s between Philip and me. Still, I wasn’t sure how smart it would be to watch a show that starts every episode with someone dying. From three-week-old babies to toddlers to teens to whole families. We’re all going to die and SFU doesn’t shy from it.
It wasn’t those deaths that got to me. It was the way the show ended. It was five seasons of getting to know these characters, watching their craziness. And wanting them to change, to come to some recognition of the way they participate in their own dramas. Mostly, it didn’t happen. As a viewer, it was clear to me what they were doing “wrong” and how they should change. Especially Ruth, the mom. She was controlling and reactive and her daughter wanted to get away from her which is so not like Natalie that I wanted to take Ruth and shake her awake. This is how you do it, I wanted tell her. You don’t yell, you don’t threaten, you don’t manipulate. You talk to your kids because they’re people and their job isn’t to behave in a certain way so that you feel better.
The setting of SFU is a family funeral home in California. The dad, Nathaniel, who ran the place, has died. Nate, David and Claire are the grown children. David is gay and Keith is his partner. They adopt two kids and wind up making it work. Claire is the youngest, still in high school, a high strung and talented photographer. Nate is the oldest and only involved in the funeral business because the family needed his help after their dad died. We watch him in one unhappy marriage where his wife wound up disappearing until she turned up dead, then in another unhappy marriage to Brenda, his pregnant wife who he cheated on, then died right after the deed was done. Nate had a condition called AVM. It has to do with blood vessels in the brain. He was operated on during the show, and if you’re tuned into illness, you might have kept that AVM in the back of your mind. Or if you’re like me, you assumed it showed up as part of the drama and when it was gone, it was gone. So when the AVM returned and Nate woke up after a second operation, I thought all was well. It wasn’t. He never left the hospital. He lived long enough to tell Brenda their marriage was over, so she got to live with the fact that he cheated on her and was leaving her and didn’t give her the chance to try to talk him out of it.
It pissed me off that Nate found yet another woman he thought was going to save him, that he died and left both her and his wife to clean up his mess. Still, I was shocked and unsettled when David, who was dozing off in the hospital room with him after the operation, woke to the sound of flatlining and just like that, Nate was gone.
Just. Like. That.
So the end. A fitting, disturbing, perfect ending. We got to see how, years later, each of the main characters died. Keith had a job as security guard for an armored truck. He was in the back, opened the door to get out and two guys shot him. Dead. Just like that. David lived to be an old man, until one day he keeled over. Ruth had been lying sick in the hospital when she died, her long red-now-white hair fanned around her like a dying bush. Brenda was an old woman, sitting at home, talking to her brother, when she fell back dead against the couch. And Claire, Claire who lived longer than any of them, who lived to 102, was lying on her death bed, looking scared, looking through rheumy eyes at the photos on the wall, a lifetime of photos, of memories, all past and gone, she on her way to joining all she’d lost.
The end of the last episode was a race through time. And connecting the lives of these characters to their deaths was frightening and unsettling. So much drama, so much anger and tears and dysfunction and then they’re all dead. What was it for? What is life for when one day, just like that, you’re dead? How disturbing to watch all that Keith and David went through to make a family, to pull it together, then BAM – Keith’s murdered and David and the kids have to live with it. For always. And the rest of them – after all that craziness, just like that, they’re gone. For days this left me disturbed. Because the only answer to “What is it for if we’re going to die” is to live well. And I don’t know how to do that.
The thing that makes it easier for me to accept Philip’s death, the thing that makes it so easy to communicate with him now, is the clarity that was between us while he was here. I said everything I had to say to him when I could. No regrets, no wishing I said or did something different. To have that clarity is to live well.
But I don’t know how to translate that into the bigger picture. Living well is not about the doing. It’s about the being. Philip and I did not do great things together. It’s the way we were together that lives on. Doing is pointless if it doesn’t come from being. Sounds like it should be the most natural thing in the world, but it isn’t. It’s the cause of so much unhappiness, this doing for the sake of doing, for the sake of winning, for the quest to be right, for wanting have the best and the most. Which we never will because wanting is a habit that having cannot satisfy.
I watched that last episode a second time before I wrote this. And what knocked me over was the scene that took place around the dinner table, where everyone was reminiscing about Nate and laughing at things he’d done when he was alive and that’s just it, when he was alive because his absence was the biggest presence in the room. Remembering him made him more gone. But forgetting was not only impossible, it wasn’t a consideration.
“Motherhood is the loneliest thing in the world,” Ruth said after her son died. Because the shock of a child dying leaves you in a place where you’re untouchable at a time when touch has never been needed more. You’re tumbling in your grief, hair flying and arms flailing and screaming screaming screaming but no one can hear. They were here, these precious children – how the fuck could they be gone, just like that?
© 2015 Denise Smyth