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).
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“The Trip” offers the characters on Six Feet Under some intense highs as well as incredibly low lows. On a trip to Las Vegas for a funeral director’s conference, David stands up, once again, to Kroener… but is then arrested for having sex with a prostitute in public. Nate and Brenda take a much-needed vacation which seems like a fantastic idea, until they realize that Billy is stalking them. Meanwhile back home, Claire finally finds Gabe, discovers that he’s overdosed, admits she loves him and dives right into a terrible relationship choice, while Rico has to prepare a baby for a funeral—a task made even more difficult because his own baby is on the way. As the first season nears its end, “The Trip” begins to put pieces into place for the climatic season finale.
In “Familia,” it’s decided that Fisher & Sons won’t sell their business to a bigger company—they’re going to continue to give their customers a “personal touch.” The episode itself also works to give many of its characters a deeper personal touch, as details emerge that will have long-lasting importance throughout the run of the series. We see there’s a very real fear David has about concealing his sexuality, Brenda’s continually trying to find her place amongst the Fisher family and Federico attempts to become a part of the business in a way that will have serious impact. After the trifecta of episodes that began the series, “Familia” takes its time to build these characters it has presented, and does so with a foresight that sets these arcs up for years to come.
Brenda tells Nate early on in “The Will,” “We’re all wounded. We carry our wounds around with us throughout life and eventually they kill us.” In Nate’s case, he has old wounds that have recently reopened, as does the whole family. The reading of Nathaniel’s will causes everyone to question what his true intentions were. Nate gains half a company that he never wanted and David has to share the business he’s worked his whole life towards, creating new problems within the already troubled family dynamic. But “The Will” is all about the healing process, as Nate and David bond over their grief, while Ruth embraces being single for the first time since she was a teenager. The wounds aren’t going to go away anytime soon, but the process is slowly working its way through the Fishers.
Everyone that we’ve seen die prior to this episode on Six Feet Under has had someone that loved them, a family prepared to take care of the person that they have lost. “The Invisible Woman” presents us with Emily Previn, a woman who seemingly has no family or friends, and looks to have left no mark on the world. Previn’s story works well alongside Claire’s SAT stresses and her overwhelming fear that none of it really matters. And Ruth is afraid that one day she could become like Emily as well. “The Invisible Woman” has quite a few big developments—David and Keith hook up when they’re supposed to be seeing other people, Brenda’s sexual awakening begins and she proposes to Nate. But it’s the vulnerability, fear and uncertainty of Emily Previn’s death—and how the life she left behind manages to resonate beautifully with our characters—that makes this episode really stand out.
“I’ll Take You” succeeds with huge character moments, although it all feels incredibly convenient at times. For example, out of nowhere, Kroener files for bankruptcy and after Vanessa loses her job, Rico inherits $149,000. That all worked out well! But “I’ll Take You” does give some great backstory about how Rico came to work for Fisher & Sons, and what drew him to such gruesome work. And then there’s the big reveal of two huge secrets that make ‘I’ll Take You” great. Lisa calls Fisher & Sons, telling Ruth that she is now a grandmother and in one of the series’ most well-performed scenes, Nate and Brenda break up over each other’s infidelities. It’s an incredibly tough scene that’s still difficult (no matter how many times you’ve seen it) to watch.
“Everyone Leaves” sets up the final episodes of Six Feet Under’s third season by making a lot of big choices and allowing plenty of fears to come true. Billy kisses Brenda… far too romantically for siblings, followed by Brenda kissing Nate. Russell admits to having slept with Olivier and lying to Claire, and Ruth finally realizes she’s barking up the wrong tree with Arthur. But as a result of all these realizations, we get a wonderful mother-daughter moment between Claire and Ruth, in which Ruth tells Claire that when she does find love, “chances are it won’t be anything like you expect.” This is especially true for Nate, who seems to have finally found a good place with Lisa, even though it’s too late, since “Everyone Leaves” marks the last time we’ll see Lisa alive and the first time we get proof that Brenda and Nate still have feelings for each other.
Throughout “Parallel Play” we see characters both remembering the past and also trying to forget about what has come before. Claire ignores Russell at a party when only months prior they were deeply in love. Nate tries to move on and is slammed back to reality when he realizes he was just being used for sex. Brenda passingly remarks on her wild sexual past, before deciding that’s not what she wants anymore. So when “Parallel Play” ends with the Fishers burning the leftovers of their yard sale, it’s a clear representation of their burning away the past and trying to move forward. Claire blasts Radiohead’s “Lucky” as the flames rise, but for most of them, things are about to get much worse before they get better.
With all the problems that life throws your way, you can choose to be optimistic or pessimistic, hopeful or defeated. “The Silence” gives us the pros and cons of each outlook. Claire thinks she’s better than everyone else at her new job, then decides to be more open and gets closer to a new guy. Ruth is hopeful that getting out in the world will make things better, only to be knocked down by awkward social situations and jealousies. Keith and David’s differing parenting styles creates conflict over going to a show for their potential new child, but eventually they end up on the same page. But with possible problems arising in Brenda’s pregnancy again, the debate over whether they should keep the child or not tears Brenda and Nate’s already fragile marriage apart even more.
In the first episode written by creator Alan Ball since the pilot, “An Open Book” shows Ball having fun with the notion of expectations. For example, David comes out to Nate—a moment that is awkward, yet goes better than either of them could have imagined. By the end however, David has taken it back, hiding himself, even though he’s clearly been accepted. Meanwhile in a brilliant parody that takes on the relationship between Rory and Lorelei on Gilmore Girls, Ruth desperately attempts that type of bond between her and Claire. When the two share an evening with a mother and daughter eerily similar to what Ruth thinks she wants, she turns on it, deciding instead to create a relationship with Claire that might not be idyllic, but plays on the strengths of their originality and humor. Of course, this all comes in the episode where Nate meets Brenda’s psychiatrist parents, bipolar brother Billy and learns of the siblings’ troubled childhood. Ball writes them into this great episode as a family that can always be relied upon to never be what you expect.
“Life’s Too Short” begins with one of the series’ bleakest openings, as Gabe’s six-year-old brother accidentally shoots himself. However, the show counterbalances this tragedy (as it will go on to do with other tragedies) with some of the series’ funniest moments so far. Brenda and Nate test out various funeral homes to see what Fisher & Sons is getting right, and Ruth goes on a camping adventure that turns into an unintentional ecstasy trip. “Life’s Too Short” presents the simple idea that we should cherish every day while we have it, but without being overt and cheesy about it. Incorporating those dark moments and that dark humor creates an excellent balance that would continually work for the series.
Six Feet Under’s first season finale shows us the incredible amount of growth all of the characters experienced in the six month span of time that passed since the pilot. David, Ruth and Claire are much more in tune with what they want in their lives, and are willing to stand up for it. But Nate is the most changed. After discovering a problem within his brain that will become fatal years later, he seems far more content with family and loved ones, even seeming prepared for marriage and open to religion. At the beginning of this season, everyone was motivated by the overwhelming fear of death, but in “Knock, Knock,” everyone is finally motivated by the potential that life has. As Nate puts it, death exists to make life all the more special.
“Someone Else’s Eyes” is a huge step forward for most of our characters—as the majority of Alan Ball written episodes are. Nate accidentally finds out that he impregnated Lisa, Keith and David move in together and most importantly, Claire discovers that she might have a real future in photography. Ball’s writing is so excellent here, because he’s able to present both sides to a single argument equally. For example it’s easy to see both Brenda and Nate as The Bad Guy in their relationship, or to understand why Keith would want space in his relationship, and why David should move in. Ball is able to handle conflict in a way that allows the viewer to have their own input into the intricacies of these character’s lives—a gift that helps Six Feet Under resonate so well with its audience.
“Terrible things always happen at the same time, like when those celebrities die in sets of three.” So spaketh Claire in “Death Works Overtime,” and it’s of course true for the Fisher family. David and Keith are having trouble and Claire is now pregnant with her ex-boyfriend’s baby. But the resounding pain comes from the fact that Lisa is missing, and the uncertainty and fear that arises in Nate. Nate is someone who already worries about the unknown, but when there are actually stakes involved, it’s almost too much for him to handle. In “Death Works Overtime” the majority of the family is preparing for what could be the worst tragedy to befall the Fisher family since Nathaniel died. So watching them come together to help Nate in this desperate time is powerful, because we get that comforting and kindhearted Fisher family that always makes a lasting impression whenever it makes an appearance.
One of the biggest questions Six Feet Under asks is whether or not we can ever, truly change who we are, or if we are simply stuck in the positions we’re placed in. Nate returns to the funeral business after David needs some down time, George seems to be falling into the old patterns he had with his previous wives, Brenda starts freaking out about potential normalcy in her life and yet another Fisher—this time Claire—takes ecstasy at a family dinner. Much like his mother, David feels the need to keep his ongoing pain from his family, but when he finally does come clean to Claire, she and Nate rally together, to do what they can for the brother that would do anything for them.
After four seasons, Brenda finally marries Nate, and immediately starts taking on certain characteristics of the Fisher family. Although she has miscarried (the day before the wedding), she hides her feelings deep down and even has her own vision of Lisa on her wedding day. There’s an unfair expectation for special days, and even the TV episodes that celebrate them. With Brenda’s devastating loss, Ruth bringing George to the wedding fresh off electroshock treatments and Claire getting in a fight with her mother, “A Coat of White Primer” gives us the darker side to even the happiest days. It’s a heavy episode that also provides omens of the darkness still to come.
In the first episode of Six Feet Under’s fourth season, Nate argues that his father’s funeral is too antiseptic, clean and businesslike. He declares that the funerals in Sicily with screaming and guttural grief seemed more healthy. In “Falling Into Place,” Nate gives that type of funeral to Lisa, honoring her wishes and tricking Lisa’s parents into believing they have her ashes, when he really buries her in the desert and cries out to her at the top of his lungs. “Falling Into Place” is also about seeing these relationships in a completely new light, with Rico now having cheated on Vanessa, Brenda moving on, Ruth married and Claire ready to be alone forever. But somehow with all this grief, “Falling Into Place” gives us true warmth between this family, especially through David, who bonds with Claire over her problems, gets back together with Keith and even helps Nate cover up the highly illegal funeral for Lisa.
As the episode where David finally comes out to his mother, “A Private Life” runs the risk of feeling like a “very special episode” of Six Feet Under. But in taking on David’s sexuality in this way, Six Feet Under presents several different reactions, including the extreme—those who won’t tolerate his lifestyle—and those who are completely accepting. By bringing back the dead characters talk to the living, we see David’s internal struggle between who he is and who he believes God wants him to be, in a way that is still rarely seen in entertainment. “A Private Life” also brings the battle of Brenda and her brother Billy to a head, as she finally decides to commit him after he cuts off his tattoo in her honor. As the penultimate episode of Six Feet Under’s first season, “A Private Life” is quite dark—even for this show—but there’s a light of hope in the future as our characters finally take steps towards becoming the people they should be.
When Six Feet Under ended its second season, Nate needed all the love he could get from his family. In the third season finale “I’m Sorry, I’m Lost,” he escapes the pity of everyone around him when he finds out Lisa has died, and instead seeks solace in booze, women, brawls and in the end, Brenda. Ruth’s wedding is wonderfully sweet, especially considering she just met George a few weeks prior, but the moment when she sees her departed Nathaniel curled up in a ball, crying at the thought of his wife marrying someone else, is heartbreakingly sad. While David and Keith get together, Claire goes to her father’s grave to find comfort in those she’s lost, from Nathaniel, to Lisa, to Gabe—who may or may not have died, but in her mind, has been gone for years. At one point Ruth says, “We have this precious gift of life and it’s so terribly fleeting, and that is precisely why it’s important to keep on living and not give up hope.” But the counter-message of “I’m Sorry, I’m Lost,” is that it’s hard to keep hoping when everything around you suggests that you should give up.
In the first great episode of Season Two, “Driving Mr. Mossback” reminds us of just how excellent Six Feet Under can be, especially in its more shocking moments. Nate returns to his old home of Seattle, bringing Claire along. While there, we meet his old co-op friend/occasional sex buddy Lisa—who will end up playing a huge role in the next few seasons—and we see the effects of AVM on Nate for the first time. Brenda fantasizes about a man she met at a bar, and Nate may or may not have cheated on her with Lisa while in Seattle. In spite of all that we don’t see in “Driving Mr. Mossback,” it’s clear that the gap between them is growing and that neither of them is getting what they want out of this relationship anymore. At least for the time being.
Nate has always been concerned with the finitude of life, and how we’re all one day closer to death, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he freaks out on his fortieth birthday. As one of the last opportunities to get a bunch of characters together in one room, “Time Flies” is exciting, given the weird combinations of people we get. For example, there’s the cake-loving table full of incredibly minor characters (remember Lisa and Nate’s married camping guy friend? Can’t blame you if you don’t!)
But the episode also offers some really fun dynamics—watching George and Billy talk about their insanities, or seeing Ruth give a heartfelt speech to Nate, and then flip out on Claire when she makes a minor comment. The party also works to show us the true nature of these characters, as Nate and David fall into fatherhood nicely with Maya, while Brenda and Nate’s frustrations come to the surface in a big way. As another decade of life begins for Nate, it becomes clear that he used to be willing to put on a happy face for those around him, but now has no interest in faking his emotions anymore.
Taking place several weeks after Nate’s funeral, “Static” shows us how everyone is dealing with their loss in drastically different ways. Ruth seems much better than we might have expected, thanks to support from George and her own efforts trying to do what’s best for Maya. Rico stays busy trying to make sure the business isn’t lost. But David is having frequent and increasingly worrisome panic attacks, and Claire gets drunk at work, then totals her iconic lime green hearse. After Nate’s death, there’s plenty of uncertainty with “Static”—a sense that literally anything could happen. When Brenda fantasizes about being romantic with Billy, the dream lasts a bit too long, implying that maybe this could be true. The Fishers will always have each other, but Brenda seems the most lost here, as much of the mystery about her future has to do with her children. There’s the possibility that Maya could leave her to live with Ruth and that her new baby—born two months early—could be yet another devastating loss in her life.
As Six Feet Under leads up to its final run of episodes, “Singing For Our Lives” is largely about catching up with old characters and wrapping up ideas. Claire reconnects with her art school friends and realizes that she’s outgrown them, while Ruth runs back into the arms of Hiram. Meanwhile, Rico and Vanessa finally come to an understanding about their marriage, and Keith and David decide they are in it for the long haul with their foster kids. But we’re also at the beginning of the end, as the back-and-forth between Nate and Brenda’s relationship no longer seems significant. A new AVM surprisingly ruptures in Nate’s head—as he’s engaging in his same old sexual problems with Maggie—and the Fisher family gets ready for a disruption that they haven’t experienced since Nathaniel died.
In the early 2000s, television was rarely as ambiguous as it can be today, but “The Room” remains one of the best examples of ambiguous storytelling done right. Nate finds out that his father often traded goods and services in exchange for funeral costs, leading him to discover a room his father was given in a restaurant. Nate has no idea what happened in this room and will never find out. Even though his psyche might present his father to him once in a while, he will never know his father, and now that he’s gone, the mystery will nag at him throughout the series. But instead of trying desperately to find the answers, Nate understands that he can also enjoy the mystery of his departed father. In “The Room” we also come to see Ruth’s sadness in more powerful ways, as she begins to realize just how lonely she is. David tries to find comfort in another man, and Claire heads down a path that leads right to crazy Billy. But it’s Billy who brings the world of photography into Claire’s life, which will be of great importance to her and her future.
Nate saying goodbye in “The Last Time” is a collection of truly heartbreaking moments as he undergoes AVM surgery. He first bids farewell to his new friend Aaron, who dies in front of him, terrified that there’s no light to head into. Then he wraps things up with Brenda, as the two of them go their separate ways—Brenda is desperate to not let him go, since it could be the last time she sees him. But it’s when Nate says goodbye to Ruth that it all becomes just too much for him, and he breaks down into tears over how unprepared he is for the situation. “The Last Time” also gives us the wonderful moment when Claire and David decide that they’d rather be waiting in the hospital with their mother for news of Nate, rather than attending Claire’s graduation. Despite how disparate they might be most of the time, “The Last Time” gives us one more beautiful example of just how strong the Fisher family can be when one of them really needs it.
Even for an HBO show, Six Feet Under’s pilot is quite ballsy, as a bleak exploration of loss and the shock that comes from sudden death. The pilot introduces us to a series full of complex characters, who are scared, lost and trapped, all still trying to figure out life as death looms above them. It’s Christmas Eve that brings the Fisher family together, but it’s the death of Nathaniel Fisher that brings them closer, as we learn about Nate’s midlife crisis, David’s fear that he’ll forever be stuck in the family business, Claire’s issues navigating who she is as a person and Ruth, alone for the first time in decades, grief-stricken and buried under the guilt of cheating on her husband.
This pilot presents Alan Ball’s view of the American family, seemingly normal on the outside, but deeply screwed up on the inside. Another way to look at it, is to say that the show sometimes presents itself as this amalgamation of the two brothers—where David wants things orderly and business-like, while Nate wants life a little dirty. Ball’s take on the Fisher family’s tragedy is heartbreaking, moving, funny in awkward places and always realistic. By keeping Richard Jenkins’ Nathaniel Fisher as the “ghost of Christmas eve that just passed,” we learn far more about who these people are, through how they related to their father, but it also brings an uncertain reality that sustains throughout the series.
In hindsight, “Pilot” does have a few weird quirks that the show thankfully moved away from, such as the commercials for various funeral supplies and the episode’s slightly cheesy conclusion. But all in all, it bravely captures Six Feet Under’s general thesis about the darkly comedic relationship between life and death, and
the people who must navigate both spaces.
Six Feet Under’s biggest opening fake out, “Perfect Circles” begins with the death of Nate Fisher, before taking it back. What we see during Nate’s surgery is his envisioning of the multiple roads that his life could’ve gone down. There’s one where he’s dead, one where he and Brenda stay together, and even one where he’s just a redneck. The “Perfect Circles”’ opener is a shock, but by giving us these possibilities and also the reality of Nate surviving, we get to have our cake and eat it too. Taking place a year after the Season Two finale, the episode skips over a lot of dead weight—like the transition of Fisher & Sons into Fisher & Diaz, as well as Claire’s transition into college and Nate and Lisa’s marriage. Instead, we jump right back into this story, and there’s even a clear effort to heighten the visual experience of the series. “Perfect Circles” truly feels like a rebirth for Six Feet Under, altogether.
Though devastating, it was only fitting that the show would come to an end with the death of Nathaniel’s first son, Nate Fisher dying. Despite the AVM bursting, the coma and the fact that almost all of “Ecotone” takes place in a hospital, Nate’s death is a complete shock because of how the episode lulls you into a sense of security… right before it pulls the rug out from under you. Post-coma Nate is presented as a new person, one who just wants peace and a new beginning. But it’s Brenda who points out, that he’s just a narcissist that falls into the same patterns over and over again. If Nate had lived after “Ecotone,” would his life with Maggie have been any different? Probably not, but Nate can’t help but try, even going so far as to finally break things off with Brenda the last time he sees her. Nate’s death is an incredible surprise from the onset, but “Ecotone” makes it clear that this troubled man would have likely still had the same troubles, had he lived. It’s a difficult episode that supposes death might have been the better answer for him, and everyone else, in the long run.
With every episode of Six Feet Under, we are told that death can come at any time, without warning. “That’s My Dog” shows us that life can also terrify and shock us, in awful ways as well. David’s carjacking and the subsequent torture that he experiences throughout the night is one of the most horrific stories in Six Feet Under history. We watch a beloved character as he’s beaten up, forced to smoke crack and almost dies numerous times. “That’s My Dog” takes the audience on an emotional ride that is unnerving and uncertain, as we question whether it’s possible that Six Feet Under would actually kill David in this way.
Structurally, “That’s My Dog” is also a fascinating hour. Writer Scott Buck presents the rest of our characters with the beginnings of stories that we will never see the conclusions to—almost as if everything else needed to stop to focus on David’s plight. With this risky approach, Buck jolts the viewer and allows our attention to sit with David—where it should be—and gives us one of the most difficult, memorable and phenomenal episodes of Six Feet Under.
It’s important to remember that, when Nathaniel Fisher dies at the start of Six Feet Under, the arrangements afterwards are so routine and emotionless, partly because that’s the way things are done, but also because the Fisher family didn’t truly know Nathaniel anymore. But over the subsequent four years, the Fisher family had grown closer and closer to Nate, even though, as Claire says in “All Alone,” four years ago she was just as distanced from her father as she was from Nate. This is a brutal episode solely about grief, the many ways we deal with it and the many different ways a heart can shatter in the face of death. Ruth wonders why she couldn’t have been there for her baby boy, Brenda is understandably filled with a whole slew of emotions and for the first time at a funeral, David just can’t deal with the process he’s gone through hundreds of times before. Nate’s funeral is a mostly silent affair, with the exception of a poem (by the Sufi poet Rumi) being read, but so much detail is given so that the act of burying a loved one is filled with an incredible amount of layers. The Fisher family has dealt with tragedy for decades—their house is literally built above a beacon of sorrow—but no death ever had or likely will have quite the impact that Nate’s does.
It’s not only my belief that “Everyone’s Waiting” is the best episode of Six Feet Under, I’d say the series finale is very possibly the greatest TV finale of all time. The last 10 minutes represent, arguably, the most perfect segment of television ever. No matter how many times I see “Everyone’s Waiting,” it makes me cry uncontrollably, because Alan Ball has created a show and a family in the Fishers that’s so beautiful and emotionally powerful, this finale feels like you’re truly saying goodbye to a group of people you’ve come to know deeply and care for.
Every episode of Six Feet Under begins with the idea that everything ends, that this fragile life we all have will end one day—and no one knows the hour. But “Everyone’s Waiting” flips that on its head in a way, by starting at the beginning of life, with the birth of Brenda and Nate’s baby Willa. Yes, everything must end, but everything must also have a beginning and as human beings, we can each have many, many new beginnings.
As many characters have said throughout Six Feet Under, dealing with loss just takes time. It might not get easier, but it gets more manageable. While the effects of Nate’s recent death still resonate, as David remains filled with stress and Ruth is lonelier than ever, the loss also starts to become more bearable. Ruth learns that he was happy in his final hours, which makes the pain easier to take, and instead of seeing the worst side of Nate ready to berate her at all times, Brenda begins to see those positive qualities he possessed—the reasons she fell in love with him. Even at Claire’s going away dinner, mentioning Nate’s life doesn’t bring sorrow, it brings warmth.
After Nate’s death, everyone seems to be pulling themselves together and making their lives better. David and Keith create a new home at the old Fisher residence, Brenda finds comfort in being the best mother she can be, Ruth moves into her sister’s home, where she can be the person she always wanted to be and Rico opens up his own funeral home.
But for Claire, it’s kindness, love and hope that push her in the right direction. It’s Olivier seeing something in her that she had been struggling to see anymore. It’s Ruth giving her the freedom to experience her dreams and live from her mistakes. It’s her family and friends that have faith that her talent is worth working hard for. And it’s Nate—in Claire’s mind—pushing her to search for the happiness she wants and telling her that the best things in life are always worth fighting for, even if they’re scary at first.
As Six Feet Under ends, it gives us a brilliant montage, not just of the deaths of our main characters, but of their lives. Life isn’t about inevitable tragedy, it’s about the wonderful moments that we experience along the way. Many people in Six Feet Under fretted about how we all die alone, so it’s notable that almost everyone in the finale dies surrounded by those they love. Set to Sia’s “Breath Me,” (making it, also, our choice for the greatest music moment in TV as well) Six Feet Under manages to end full of hope, rather than full of pain. Life will always have an incredible amount of heartbreak and disaster, but the joy and memories along the way carry just as much weight. With “Everyone’s Waiting”’s perfect closing montage, Six Feet Under somehow captures how truly spectacular life can be.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.