Two years after Alan Ball’s Academy Award win for writing American Beauty, and just after HBO premiered The Sopranos, the two forces joined together to release Six Feet Under, a phenomenal drama centered on the Fisher & Sons funeral home. Premiering in 2001, a year that would, in many ways, be defined by tragedy, Six Feet Under was bleak, dark and often disturbing, rarely offering easy answers and constantly asking its audience to consider life’s most complex questions.
Over five seasons, Six Feet Under created a compelling cast of characters, scripts that surprised and shocked with profundity and hilariousness and an overall overwhelming emotional experience. Six Feet Under helped usher in a new era of drama, one that continues today in shows like The Leftovers, Transparent and The Affair. This series consistently succeeded in making its audience laugh and cry with ease, by giving us some of TV’s most multilayered characters. David, Claire, Nate, Ruth, Brenda, Keith and Frederico (and so many of their friends and clients) felt so, incredibly real, even when their situations were unbelievable at times.
I personally watched Six Feet Under for the first time as a teenager and these five seasons would ultimately help me hone my own ideas on love, death, marriage, war, life and a myriad of other topics. Every few years, I watch the entire series again and I always find something new to latch onto—a new character that I’ll sympathize with for the first time or a situation, or one that I see in a completely new light. Simply put, Six Feet Under is may favorite TV show of all time and might be the best work of entertainment I’ve ever encountered.
Without further ado, here is my ranking of all 63 episodes of Six Feet Under, from worst (still pretty great) to best (possibly the greatest TV episode of all time).
63. “Untitled” (Episode 4.12)
Early on in Six Feet Under the show presented the idea that things can’t always be wrapped up in a tidy bow. Even in “Untitled,” Claire presents her artwork without a name, so that people will be forced to just deal with it and accept it as is. For this reason, it’s surprising that her message doesn’t come across in the episode’s format; in fact, “Untitled” actually wraps up many of its storylines far too neatly, to the point where it feels disingenuous to the rest of the show.
From the very beginning, when a man is cut in half by an elevator, “Untitled” feels too over-the-top (even for Six Feet Under). After an entire season of Nate grasping at straws over Lisa’s death, he finally gets some closure and answers, before watching Lisa’s brother-in-law kill himself. Sure, it’s effective in terms of shock value, but it also makes Nate’s childish worrying ultimately pay off, and resolves a mystery that doesn’t really need to be solved (all while giving us one of the most out-of-place scenes in the entire series).
“Untitled” is saved by the highly realistic reaction to Rico and Vanessa’s dissolving marriage, and by a fantastic scene between David and Nathaniel. But in a show whose ethos has been strongly tied to how we can’t have the answers to everything, “Untitled” feels like Six Feet Under trying desperately to suggest the opposite.
62. “Grinding the Corn” (Episode 4.09)
“Grinding the Corn” allows George Sibley to become a more likable character for once, and sees Nate opening up to being in a meaningful relationship again. Beyond that however, “Grinding the Corn” is a pretty strange combination of weird ideas. A duo of comic book thieves break into the funeral home to steal a rare comic book from their friend. Ruth and Bettina go on a hellish road trip to Mexico, which ends with Ruth witnessing a horse getting shot on the beach. David is afraid that Keith basically wants a woman now after sleeping with Celeste, even though it’s clear that he doesn’t. At the very least, “Grinding the Corn” allows Claire to finally have an orgasm (a plot that feels like it went on for way too long… though maybe that was the point), and also sees Nate and Brenda getting back together, rather than continuing down their own self-destructive paths.
61. “The Plan” (Episode 2.03)
“The Plan” continues with Six Feet Under’s second season meandering, as characters continue to try and figure out where their lives should take them next. Ruth is still heading down the self-actualization route and rebels against it, which only results in taking her deeper in, while Brenda tries out a college class before quitting on the first day. Both believe they’re fighting against what is holding them back, but really it all just keeps them in the same ruts they were already in. But “The Plan” also incrementally moves our casts relationships along, as Brenda and Nate have quit having sex, David and Keith get slightly closer and Claire goes to the cops about Gabe.
60. “In Case of Rapture” (Episode 4.02)
Despite taking place months after the colossal fourth season premiere, “In Case of Rapture” feels very slight considering the big changes that have recently taken place. Here we see our characters gradually acclimating themselves to their newest situations, such as Rico living a double life between two families, Claire trying to reclaim her artistry again, Brenda and Joe taking their relationship to the next step, Keith dealing with his new job and Nate quitting the funeral business. You can tell “In Case of Rapture” isn’t a hugely important episode when the big climax is George getting a box of poop in the mail.
59. “Coming and Going” (Episode 4.08)
As the title implies, “Coming and Going” offers up a goodbye to many of the secondary characters that don’t really matter all that much anymore. Claire figures out she can’t pull off a lesbian relationship, so there goes Edie. Joe catches Brenda and Nate hooking up, knocking Joe out of the picture. Keith sleeps with his boss Celeste, which ends up landing him back in LA after she fires him. After Vanessa and her sister go to attack Sophia, Rico says goodbye to her as well. With the end of the season coming up, Six Feet Under weeds out the unnecessary elements in “Coming and Going” to focus on the characters that are far more important.
58. “Out, Out Brief Candle” (Episode 2.02)
As the second season began, Six Feet Under felt quite muddled. “Out, Out Brief Candle” highlights this problem by throwing together a bunch of ideas, with few of them actually sticking and becoming interesting. Ruth joins a cult-y program, Rico becomes indebted to his sister-in-law and Brenda throws a dinner party for an old friend that she can’t quite connect with anymore. It’s all fine, but it also feels inconsequential. However Nate finally comes clean to someone—David—about his AVM diagnosis, which ends the episode with a big bang, even when everything else here sort of fizzles.
57. “Tears, Bones and Desire” (Episode 3.08)
Despite how well-layered the main cast of Six Feet Under is, it’s always strange to notice just how awkward the dialogue between the minor characters can be. For example in “Tears, Bones and Desire,” David goes to a paintball game that pits his friends against David’s friends. It’s supposed to be a moment of brevity for this couple—and it is—but the stilted script gets in the way of it being truly fun. “Tears, Bones and Desire” also focuses on the uncertainties in many of the relationships, be it for Claire, who’s worrying that Olivier has made a pass on Russell, Ruth who’s concerned that she’s overstepping her boundaries with Arthur, or more importantly, Lisa, who’s afraid of what Brenda can offer that she cannot—especially after she secretly gets a massage from her.
56. “The Trap” (Episode 3.05)
The marriage between Nate and Lisa was never as idyllic as they liked to pretend it was, but with the return of Brenda in “The Trap,” the anger lurking beneath the surface of their marriage finally comes out. Meanwhile, Arthur Martin (Rainn Wilson) starts living at the Fisher home, packing that place to the gills, and Claire becomes an assistant/taxi to Olivier, which proves that her impressionable mind might need to sort out Olivier’s “sage” advice a bit more. In an episode all about new relationships blooming, it’s the old Brenda and Nate story that remains the most fascinating.
55. “Can I Come Up Now?” (Episode 4.04)
“Can I Come Up Now?” is very much about the endless delusions within the Fisher family, Nate believes a dog could be a sign from Lisa, and he believes in a psychic who tells him that Lisa is still around. Nate is so desperate, he’ll search for any bit of hope he can scrounge together. Meanwhile, Ruth is foolishly optimistic about getting George back together with his shit-mailing son, while Claire believes she has had an orgasm… when she likely never has. But for David, the delusion is the person he once was, as we finally meet his ex-fiancée Jennifer, who still harbors anger towards him for lying to her for years.
54. “Crossroads” (Episode 1.08)
While on a camping trip in “Crossroads,” Claire decides to purposely take a wrong path. Claire knows that she’s intentionally doing something wrong, but everyone else in “Crossroads” unknowingly heads down roads which they don’t quite realize are bad for them. Nate is far too paranoid about Brenda as she tries to unwind with old friends, David dates a dance instructor that is clearly not right for him and Ruth can’t decide which of the two men in her life she wants to date. But it’s Rico’s big change that is the most important here, as he takes a job at Fisher & Sons’ competitor Kroener, as a way to set up his own independence from the company that he believes he can never be a part of.
53. “Hold My Hand” (Episode 5.03)
The members of the Fisher family, for some reason, always seem attracted to insanity. In “Hold My Hand,” Ruth’s worries about George are increasing, as we learn about the roots of his trauma. Claire and Billy become incredibly obnoxious as they plan on moving to Europe, but are held up by Ruth shutting down Claire’s funds. The strength of the episode comes from a certain search for normalcy, as Brenda tries to make her family into something more solid (something she never had, growing up) and Rico’s fling with Angela—which surprisingly makes sense, and is just more proof that Rico isn’t good at the single life.
52. “Bomb Shelter” (Episode 4.11)
“Bomb Shelter” is fittingly explosive, as Rico and Vanessa continue to fight over their tattered marriage, David and Keith try to settle their lawsuit after a demand for half a million dollars, Claire and Russell fight over who is responsible Claire’s latest artwork and Nate blows up at Lisa’s side of the family when he finally comes clean about her ashes. But really, “Bomb Shelter” is simply lighting the fuse before the big bang that’ll come in the season finale and in the final fifth season (even though the strange decision suddenly give the Fishers a bomb shelter for George to hide in is admittedly silly).
51. “Making Love Work” (Episode 3.06)
Besides setting up some of the secondary stories of this season—Arthur and Ruth’s impending relationship, the death of Vanessa’s mother, whether or not Claire is now dating a gay man—“Making Love Work” is largely about reiterating points that the series has already driven home. Nate and Lisa also decide to go camping with another family, only to have their flaws come out. “Making Love Work” makes it clear that Lisa pined after Nate for so long and Nate eventually gave in, also partly because of Lisa’s pregnancy, even though the idea of Brenda still festers in his brain.
50. “The Black Forest” (Episode 4.10)
As Ruth tells George, being a family takes a lot of compromise, but the problems that arise in “The Black Forest” take a lot more than that. Vanessa flaunts new guys around Rico, now that they’re officially separated, Keith and David are considering the adoption options for a gay couple and Nate, Brenda and Maya act like a family while on a trip to have Lisa’s ashes put into the family mausoleum. We also start to see the rise of huge conflicts that will come up later, such as Nate switching Lisa’s ashes, Russell and Claire making art together and George’s paranoia over the end of the world.
49. “The Rainbow of Her Reasons” (Episode 5.06)
More often than not, life doesn’t go the way we expect it. Even when things work out the way we want them to, sometimes the results are completely different from we expected. “The Rainbow of Her Reasons” shows Claire taking a temp job that seems like it’ll be more permanent than she hoped. Rico moves back in with Vanessa, but it’s more a matter of convenience than romance. Keith and David are foster parents to the kids they wanted, but the situation is also far more stressful than they imagined. Claire successfully kicks George out, but his defeated response only hurts her more. All of this drama isn’t really what any of the character imagined happening, but it’s exactly what they need to grow as people and to defy their own expectations, in a good way.
48. “The Opening” (Episode 3.09)
Considering how depressing Six Feet Under can often be, it’s surprising that “The Opening” is the first episode to actually, explicitly deal with depression, when a woman commits suicide after her significant other leaves her. Rico tries to make things better for Vanessa, even though her sadness isn’t going away with the new medicine she’s on, and Nate and Lisa finally admit that marriage isn’t exactly what their relationship should be. At Claire’s first art presentation, we see that these characters want to grow into what their relationships should become, rather than what they have been in the past—Brenda and Billy try to move past what they formerly were and Nate and Lisa decide maybe they should transition out of the traditional notions of marriage. Though not without its flaws, this is another strong episode that shows how well Six Feet Under dealt with very real issues that often get swept under the rug, especially in an effort to preserve a relationship.
47. “In the Game” (Episode 2.01)
After Six Feet Under’s fantastic first season, the second season premiere “In the Game” is a bit of a let down. Nate and Brenda start to slip apart, both living in their own states of depression (momentarily alleviated by Nate accidentally taking ecstasy). Nate’s trip leads to one of the odder fantasy moments of the series, as he and his father watch Life and Death personified having sex in front of them. “In the Game” has plenty of nice allusions to the series premiere, but it also feels like Six Feet Under trying to find its footing after the break.
46. “You Never Know” (Episode 3.02)
Once this great show ended, there should have absolutely been a spinoff about Ruth, her sister Sarah and Bettina (Kathy Bates). In an episode that starts with an office shooting and shows Rico arguing about whether or not the shooter deserves the same treatment as his victims, the three ladies trying to get Sarah off drugs is, surprisingly, the lighthearted storyline. “You Never Know” also focuses on three relationships that are on the decline: one where the two are aware of how fragile it is (Keith & David, always), one that’s doomed before it even starts (Claire and her morgue employee boyfriend) and one that’s still ignorant of how problematic it might all be (Nate and Lisa).
45. “The Dare” (Episode 4.07)
Already in the second half of Six Feet Under’s penultimate season, “The Dare” begins nailing down those relationships that will last until the end of the series. David and Keith decide they should be completely exclusive (even though that won’t stick just yet), Ruth sees how difficult being with George can be and finds her true happiness with Sarah and Bettina, and Vanessa finally finds out that Rico cheated on her. But what’s most important is how Nate and Brenda seem to come to the same realization about each other independently: they should probably be together, since they both just might be screwed up enough to handle it now. Finally. Or, so they think.
44. “The Eye Inside” (Episode 3.03)
“The Eye Inside” finds Ruth and Claire among friends and teachers who help them become more clear about who they truly are. Bettina engages Ruth in some light shoplifting, while showing her that fun and frivolity can be more important than usefulness. Claire meets her most important teacher Olivier, who praises her for creating art that makes him want to throw up—but in a good way. But what makes this episode interesting is that it simultaneously shows how certain relationships might not be as strong as they seemed. Keith and David have a great vacation, spoiled by something as simple as traffic, whereas Nate’s balance between work and home is thrown off by a move back to the Fisher family home.
43. “The Foot” (Episode 1.03)
After setting up the darker side of Six Feet Under in the first two episodes, “The Foot” comes right in to showcase the levity that this series can dole out so well. After deciding to stay and join the family business, Nate’s first cadaver is cut in pieces, leading to some pratfalls with a bag of body parts. Ruth loses thousands of dollars gambling and Claire steals the aforementioned cadaver’s foot to get back at a boy from school. “The Foot” is all about its characters trying to do what feels right in the moment, which is why it feels safe to assume that Claire (in an effort to make David happy) has indeed burned down a neighboring house that will be future competition. However, much of the truth in this won’t come out until later, and will never really matter in the long run. “The Foot” is iconic for fans of the show, but like the quick musical interlude at the beginning of the episode, Six Feet Under would get better as it went on, combining those moments of harsh reality with segments that could release the tension.
42. “Twilight” (Episode 3.12)
“Twilight” is all about the Fisher’s managing their expectations and losing what hope they had at the end of the third season. Everyone, including Nate, seems to believe that Lisa is now dead. David tells Keith that they don’t belong together and Ruth and George decide maybe they’re moving a bit too fast. Despite all this, we get a great one-on-one plot between Brenda and Claire, as Brenda drives Claire to get an abortion. It’s an important storyline because we learn that, despite not having any real reason to, Brenda still obviously deeply cares for this family and wants to help any way she can, even if she can’t be with Nate.
41. “Timing & Space” (Episode 3.07)
When Nate and Brenda first met, it was quickly followed by the death of Nate’s father, which Brenda helped him get through. In “Timing & Space,” the two of them reunite when Brenda’s father dies, bringing out strong feelings within Nate, Brenda and especially Lisa, who is jealous of their bond. But “Timing & Space”’s strength comes in the quieter moments, like the simple act of Russell giving Claire paint as a present, but especially effective is the post-funeral at the Chenowith home, as Brenda’s mom mourns her husband and finally understands the bond she has with her children.
40. “Back to the Garden” (Episode 2.07)
To understand the gravity of this episode, we have to jump to the most beautiful moment, in its final scene, as Claire becomes aware that her mother isn’t all that different from Ruth’s hippie, artistic sister Sarah, who she looks up to. Deep down, the similarities between Ruth and Sarah are there, it’s just that Ruth has seen more pain than she cares to make known. In one of Six Feet Under’s most haunting scenes, Ruth sings along to Sarah’s Joni Mitchell cassette, opening Claire’s eyes to who her mother truly is. Even though “Back to the Garden” primarily features Nate and Brenda both trying to find themselves with other people outside their relationship and David getting close to a reunion with Keith, it’s this small, hidden moment between daughter and mother that shows more than it tells.
39. “Brotherhood” (Episode 1.07)
True to its title, this episode is especially concerned with the love between siblings. Nate fights for a Gulf War Syndrome soldier to get the funeral he wanted, but one his brother refuses to give him. He also, finally, tells David that he loves him after weeks of arguments. Nate also tells Brenda that he loves her, and their growing bond sends Billy into a tailspin. But it’s also an episode about the future, as Ruth continues her relationship with Hiram, David does what he believes to be best for the church and Claire begins to weigh her options for the next phase of her life. “Brotherhood” stands out as a first season episode that really sets up how these characters we’re growing to love will act from here on out: Nate will stand for a cause, David will do so as well—just more conservatively—and Claire will continue to confusedly try to figure herself out.
38. “In Place of Anger” (Episode 2.06)
With the arrival of Ruth’s sister Sarah (played by Patricia Clarkson), “In Place of Anger” gives us a new layer of depth to the Fisher family. Sarah is a wealth of information, bringing out wounds, like how a 15-year-old Nate lost his virginity to one of Sarah’s thirty-year-old friends or how Ruth got stuck caring for her family while Sarah had “fun.” But what Sarah truly brings out is the artistic side in Claire—the existence of which, frankly, hadn’t been made entirely clear up until this point. There are, however, plenty of plots in this episode that play like the writers are remembering some of these story lines still existed, such as Ruth’s relationship with Nikolai and Kroehner still having their sights set on Fisher & Sons.
37. “Dancing For Me” (Episode 5.02)
As the final season of Six Feet Under begins, “Dancing For Me” breaks down our characters, so that later they can be built back up again. With Maggie’s arrival, Claire’s fears about dealing with George become overwhelming. Claire and Billy are both having problems with their art, and so Billy decides to stop taking his medication. Rico lies to get closer to his wife again, after a girl he’s dating fades away and Brenda realizes she might not be as tough as she pretends to be. The fifth season is all about these character cementing who they are, before the end comes. “Dancing for Me” is a solid episode that shows they’ve still got a few more steps to take before they finish this evolution.
36. “Nobody Sleeps” (Episode 3.04)
In “Nobody Sleeps,” it’s the small acts of kindness that truly matter. Rico finally begins to become more openminded about homosexuality and Olivier’s praise for Claire’s art validates the work she remains uncertain about. But it’s Ruth’s joyous birthday party that gives the matriarch of the family a much-deserved great day. To cap it off, Claire offers to take Ruth out to museums and for lunch on the day after her birthday—it’s this incredibly simple, yet incredibly sweet gesture, in a very moving conclusion to a surprisingly light episode.
35. “The New Person” (Episode 1.10)
For the Fishers, “The New Person” might be one of the first times where the family gets so close, to the point where anyone else brought into the house is soon driven away. Rico’s replacement Angela seems like a good idea at first, but then the whole family agrees they need her to leave. (Angela notes that she’s “never worked at a funeral home that was this depressing.) David brings Keith back home, but when he comes on too strong, Keith leaves this aggressive David alone. In spite of the messiness of it all, it’s great to see the Fishers coming together as a team, not only up against Angela, but also when David and Nate both cover for Claire’s adventures with Gabe. They’re even there, helping her out when she gets her heart broken. Unfortunately, while the Fisher family grows closer, the Chenowiths pull apart, as they’re torn between whether or not Billy should be sent to an institution. Again.
34. “The Secret” (Episode 2.10)
There are plenty of secrets that could be the eponymous one in the title—Nate’s kid with Lisa, Brenda’s sex addiction, Karla hiding the fact that she killed a homeless man in a hit-and-run. But the most moving might be Ruth’s secret about Brenda. At Brenda’s wedding shower, Ruth admits she loves her future daughter-in-law for being so carefree in a way that Ruth can never be. This leads to Brenda blaming everyone for her problems—everyone but herself—a very common theme in an entertaining, secret-heavy episode all about directing the problems you have in very misguided ways.
33. “The Liar and the Whore” (Episode 2.11)
In “The Liar and the Whore,” we really get to see how our characters find emotional support in others. Ruth finds comfort in paying for Nikolai’s debts and preparing food for the family, Claire needs reassurance of her talents, and the couples (Keith and David, and Rico and Vanessa) find support in each other to make the right decisions. It all works to highlight the fact that, perhaps the reason Brenda can’t find what she needs, is because her support is more fleeting, and her distrust of others makes it difficult for her to be comforted. Despite how hard all of these characters might be working to try and prove her wrong, it’s very interesting that Karla (Keith’s sister) explains in this episode, “people don’t change, they just get older.”
32. “Eat a Peach” (Episode 5.05)
The opening death in “Eat a Peach” shows a diabetic man dying after giving in and eating a can of peaches. This type of potentially damaging, self-inflicted behavior is rampant in the episode—Nate wants to hang out with Maggie more, and Rico is lying to his son’s principal in an attempt to get in better with Vanessa. David and Keith are considering adopting two children, Ruth is trying to get George out of her house and Billy’s attempting to win back Claire by tricking her (with the help of his mother). Of course, these aren’t all bad decisions on the surface, but like the man at the beginning, these characters are (still) doing what feels right from them, rather than what might actually be right, an important distinction throughout this series.
31. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (Episode 2.08)
On the first anniversary of Nathaniel Fisher’s death, everyone in the family remembers the last time they saw their father/husband/boss, while several of the living also return. Billy gets sprung out of the asylum and Karla comes back to play good guy with her daughter. After the first season, Nathaniel’s appearances became much less common, but actually getting to see everyone’s final moments with him adds more depth to the family and their individual and collective suffering. It’s also the one-year anniversary for Brenda and Nate, and Nate finally tells Brenda about his AVM. He presents her with a newfound idea of living in the now, since tomorrow is not promised—especially considering the fact that his seizures are becoming more frequent.