The HBO series never sugar coated truths about loss and death.
This article contains major spoilers for Six Feet Under. If you haven’t watched it yet… get on that.
In the opening moments of Twin Peaks: The Return, a slow-motion flashback portrays a young girl running through the schoolyard screaming after finding out that her classmate Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) was murdered. The new season of Twin Peaks immediately reminds us of the heartbreaking way the original series began — with intense grief that shook up an entire town. Twin Peaks’ pilot episode begins with the pale corpse of a young woman, then introduces us to each character as they find out about Laura’s death. Characters react with screams, tears, denial, anger, and disbelief. The show brutally plunges viewers into the characters’ grief, and throughout the series slowly portrays how their feelings of loss change over time.
The return of Twin Peaks reminds us of how brilliant the original series was for dealing with extremely difficult topics which people tend to shy away from talking about — specifically, how horrific it is to deal with death and loss, especially an unexpected and untimely death. HBO’s Six Feet Under premiered almost ten years after Twin Peaks, and followed in its footsteps by focusing on death and grieving. While both shows are steeped in dark humor and morbid subject matter, Six Feet Under is an incredibly different show than Twin Peaks. Where Twin Peaks veers towards melodrama, Six Feet Under tends towards everyday drama.
Six Feet Under zeroes in on a family whose livelihood depends on other peoples’ deaths. The show does not deal with one death, but with many, many losses — of strangers, family members, friends, children, elderly people, porn stars, teenagers, accidental deaths, suicides, murders, natural deaths, and so on. Each episode focuses on a different bereaved family as they plan their memorial services at the Fisher & Sons funeral home. The Fishers are in one of the most morbid businesses, but what the series shows us is that it is an incredibly important business. Six Feet Under reinforces the fact that death is a part of life, and everyone deals with it differently. The characters grow and change and are deeply affected by all of the losses they see at work, as well as those they experience personally. The show is so brilliant because it consistently portrays grief in an honest way, showing all the messy, painful, ugly, and horrible parts of losing someone, and the way people try to deal with incomprehensible deaths.
Six Feet Under’s pilot begins with the death of Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins), the patriarch of the Fisher family. He is hit by a bus on Christmas Eve while driving his new hearse. Much like Twin Peaks, the episode introduces each character as they receive the news of Nathaniel’s death. The show establishes its understanding of loss immediately in how it portrays the differences between each family member’s initial reaction. Ruth (Frances Conroy) screams, falls to the floor and throws the telephone when she hears the news. Her immediate reaction is that of panic and fear, whereas middle child David (Michael C. Hall) reacts in his usual stoic way. David masks his pain under a straight face, as he feels obliged to be “the strong one” while everyone else in his family falls apart. Claire (Lauren Ambrose) has perhaps the strangest experience of learning about her father’s death — she is in the midst of hanging out with some druggie friends, and has just taken crystal meth when she hears the news. Claire’s reaction is that of confusion and disbelief. Nate (Peter Krause) was on his way home for Christmas, and perhaps has the most complicated feelings about his father. He feels guilty and confused because he left the family business to move to Seattle, and the unresolved feelings he had for his father begin to haunt him. At Nathaniel’s memorial service, Ruth breaks down and confesses that she was cheating on her husband, therefore her feelings about his death are more complex than anyone had assumed. This represents the brutal truth that sometimes relationships are messy and unresolved when someone dies. David also struggles with the fact that his father did not know that he was gay, and he continues to hide his sexuality from his family. His partner Keith (Matthew St. Patrick) attends the funeral, and David’s pain is furthered by the fact that he cannot be open about his identity at his most vulnerable time.
Nathaniel’s ghost appears to the characters throughout the series (beginning with the pilot), which is a common trope in film and television. Characters frequently see their deceased loved ones as apparitions and have conversations with them. The deceased usually comment upon the characters’ lives and perhaps provide them with advice or wisdom. Nathaniel haunts Nate all through the series, frequently criticizing him and condescendingly referring to him as “buddy boy”. The series constantly emphasizes the fact that Nate (and all the members of the Fisher family) has/have complicated feelings towards Nathaniel, and while some of them are negative, some are also positive and loving. Nate reflects on all of these complicated feelings as he interacts with his father’s ghost, sometimes sharing loving moments of camaraderie, and other times making snide comments at him. Even though ghosts may not appear to us in real life, this televisual trope acknowledges that our loved ones do not disappear from our lives when they die.
The show also emphasizes that there can be both negative and positive feelings leftover when someone dies and that over time one may have new realizations about the person they lost. Nate finds out information about his father that changes his perspective on him — for example, in “The Room” (season 1 episode 6) he finds out that his father accepted alternative payments from his clients in exchange for funeral services, and that he had a private room he rented out above an Indian restaurant where he went to spend time alone. This new information makes Nate feel closer to his father, although he also begins to wonder how well he really knew him. Just because someone has passed away, it does not mean they stop being a presence in our lives. The relationship Nate had with his father continues after his death.
Over the course of the series, the characters’ feelings about Nathaniel’s death change over time. The characters often speak about Nathaniel — sometimes lovingly, sometimes to lament the pain they feel about losing him, and other times to laugh about how much of a jerk he could be. His presence is always felt, especially since the characters carry on his legacy by devoting their lives to Fisher and Sons funeral home. The show beautifully portrays the interaction between the Fisher’s personal grief and the grief of each client who utilizes their services. Nate is reluctant to stay in California and run the business with David and Federico (Freddy Rodriguez), but after losing his father, he realizes how important it is to be there for people who are bereaved. It is a difficult and incredibly depressing job — not to mention, sometimes it is absolutely disgusting — but the Fishers, despite their flaws, want to help those in need as best as they can. Sometimes the clients are demanding, and sometimes they have strange requests — such as putting on an extravagant, theatrical performance that takes many days to set up as the mourners do in “Nobody Sleeps” (season 3 episode 4). In “An Open Book” (season 1 episode 5) the Fishers host the funeral for an adult film star, and many of the guests are eccentric porn stars. Ruth is initially shocked by the people in her home, but the family understands that everyone grieves differently, and everyone deserves to be remembered and celebrated when they die. The Fisher’s personal losses help them to be more sensitive and understanding with their clients.
The show frequently focuses on Nate’s changing opinions and thoughts on the grieving process. In the pilot, he comments on how in other cultures, the bereaved scream and cry and throw themselves to the ground in agony for months after losing their loved ones. He points out how in North America, people are awkward when dealing with loss, and frequently bury their feelings instead of letting them out. This comment is put into action when Ruth decides she wants to grab dirt in her hands to throw onto Nathaniel’s coffin, instead of gently sprinkling it on using a “salt shaker” container. Nathaniel commends her for this and joins in, noting that loss is messy and ugly and should be treated as such. Nate is often selfish, stubborn, and makes many mistakes in his life — but he constantly reflects on what it means to be alive, what it means to lose someone, and what it means to love someone. He changes and attempts to grow over the course of the series, and there is no better demonstration of this than how he deals with loss. He struggles, to be honest and open about his feelings, but he tries his best — when dealing with his father’s death, within his relationship with Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), finding out that he has a brain disease called AVM, and later on the loss of his wife Lisa (Lili Taylor).
The most horrific death of all comes in season 5, when Nate finally succumbs to his AVM and passes away. This represents the second major and unexpected loss for the Fisher family, but Nate’s death has an added layer of tragedy because he was so young, just beginning his life with Brenda and his daughter Maya (Brenna and Bronwyn Tosh). In “The Last Time” (season 2, episode 13), Nate undergoes surgery for his AVM and hallucinates that he has died. When Nate dies for real in “Ecotone” (season 5 episode 9), it seems as though it may be another hypothetical “death”, wherein Nate reflects on what life would be like for his family without him. This makes “All Alone” (season 5 episode 10) one of the most heartbreaking, tragic episodes of any TV show ever when it is revealed that Nate has truly passed away.
The episode shows each character as they numbly attempt to go on living immediately after losing Nate. David, Claire, Ruth, and Brenda all break down in their own ways. Claire smokes pot, cries a lot, and gets angry. Ruth lies on the couch and doesn’t move. Brenda refuses to try and number her pain in any way, refusing to drink alcohol because she doesn’t want to “take the edge off”. David begins to have PTSD-induced visions of the man who kidnapped him in “That’s My Dog” (season 4 episode 5) — Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times notes that following Nate’s death, David faces his own mortality more than ever, since he is now the eldest male in his family. This episode is one of the only times David breaks down and cries out for help, instead of attempting to hold things together. Nate’s death shakes him up so much that he cannot even try to be stoic. Federico speaks one of the most fundamental lines about Nate in this episode: “He had a natural sense of what to say to people when they were grieving.” Nate was not a perfect person, but his time at Fisher and Sons helped him to become a better, more sensitive person. Rico perfectly and pithily sums up Nate in this one line.
The title of the episode is taken from a line in the Nirvana song “All Apologies”, which ties into the episode. The song is heard twice in the episode, once when Claire has a flashback to Nate crying over Kurt Cobain’s suicide (Heffernan notes how charmingly Nate-esque it is to claim that Cobain was “too pure for this world”, and another time when Claire lies on her bed crying, remembering her dear brother. Claire listening to Nirvana in her room is one of my favorite scenes of the entire series. Having experienced a heart-shattering loss in my own life, I felt very close to Claire in that moment as I have found myself doing the same thing many times. Listening to music that reminds you of your lost loved one is one of the most cathartic and comforting things you can do when you feel sad.
Ariana Bacle at Entertainment Weekly wrote this beautiful article detailing how Six Feet Under helped her get through the loss of her brother. She writes that after her initial shock and horror at hearing the news, she tried to think of a TV show or movie where something similar happened to the characters. She makes the incredibly important point that having fictional characters to relate to in times of loss can be comforting — not simply because they are going through the same thing, but because we can see them onscreen going through all the ugly, messy, heartbreaking things that come with losing someone. In Six Feet Under, we see the characters as they cry, fight, embarrass themselves in public, make mistakes, and connect with others throughout their grieving processes. Six Feet Under shows all of the unexpected surprises that come with losing a loved one, and reinforces the idea that these things are normal. Six Feet Under immerses us in the fact that life is not always sparkly and beautiful, but it can be really terrible. There are always positive things and beautiful moments (babies being born, weddings, laughing about Nate’s embarrassing haircuts, Claire becoming a photographer), but things are often difficult. The comfort and feeling of solidarity that comes with sharing sorrow (even if it is with a fictional family) cannot be undervalued.
Heffernan writes that “All Alone” features various examples of poetry: Nirvana’s “All Apologies”, Claire’s Republican boyfriend Ted’s (Chris Messina) claim that Top 40 hits provide comfort in times of sadness, and the Rumi poem which Nate requests be read at his graveside (“Regarding him, say neither good nor bad”). Six Feet Under is one of the most unexpectedly poetic television shows of all time. Every episode provides a mediation on death, live, love, patience, growth, communication, and personal expression, while also being wickedly funny. Ariana Bacle sums up the show when she writes that “…you can’t get over a death, not one that rocks you to your core. You get through it. Six Feet Under didn’t just get this; it was made of this.” There may not be any other show that has ever dealt so openly or honestly with death and grieving, and its existence is incredibly comforting for anyone who has gone through a devastating loss.