NEW YORK - Befitting any drama about a family that owns a funeral home, "Six Feet Under" gives itself a graceful send-off to end its five-season run.
And befitting "Six Feet Under," this finale is not without tears, histrionics, four-letter words, dark humor and (naturally) death. The Fishers wouldn't have it any other way.
At the start of the episode (9 p.m. EDT Sunday on HBO), everyone seems to be going nuts. Small wonder. Life has been awfully punishing of late.
Nate Fisher, the conflicted man-boy, died three episodes ago from a brain hemorrhage. Now his younger brother David, sister Claire and mother Ruth, as well as his estranged wife Brenda (who gives birth prematurely to their child) sink further into gloom.
Meanwhile, Nate (Peter Krause) continues his post-mortem haunts, in this episode initially berating Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) for causing their infant daughter's possible brain damage.
Rebellious artist Claire (Lauren Ambrose) is panicked about moving from Los Angeles and launching her career. Ruth (Frances Conroy), whose husband died in the series' debut, has now buried her first-born and faces losing her daughter.
And what about David (Michael C. Hall), the dutiful son who ran the funeral home and served as the moral center of the series? During its run, he has confronted his homosexuality, formed a lasting relationship and adopted two boys. But now, grief-stricken, he has hit a wall.
To some extent, this is all par for the "Six Feet Under" course, as the series retrospective (8 p.m. Sunday) should bear out. For five rocky seasons, the Fishers and everyone who shared their orbit have taken it on the chin. They have waged war with themselves, one another and an unforgiving universe.
Smart, self-absorbed, unsettled, all too human - to us, these people were fascinating and often relatable. But not always easy to deal with. They could really try our patience. They were overdue for fixing.
Good news: By the end of the 75-minute finale, we can leave them secure in knowing their recovery has begun. And thanks to the wondrously fitting postscript, we will know a great deal more.
Even at the end, "Six Feet Under" doesn't go soft. But it takes its leave with its affairs in order. It can rest, at last, in peace.
A groundbreaking series (in more ways than one) when it premiered in June 2001, "Six Feet Under" dared to whistle past the graveyard with its fancifully discomfiting look at life and death. It fulfilled a promise by creator Alan Ball (who wrote and directed the finale) to be "a show about life in the presence of death."
Death was always dropping in. At the start of each episode (nearly every one, that is, except the finale), someone met his or her demise in a fashion that might be heartbreaking (claimed by sudden infant death syndrome), grotesque (cut in half by an elevator) or morbidly funny (hit by a car while witnessing the Rapture). Each slice of life (or, more aptly, slice of death) was meant to demonstrate the randomness and ineluctability of our common fate.
"Six Feet Under" thought a lot about death, and about death's impact on the survivors. After all, it viewed death through the eyes of a family that runs a funeral home - assisting at the cusp of the hereafter, while struggling with the here and now.
In its premiere four years ago, its tone was quickly established: The patriarch, Nathaniel Fisher, was killed while fiddling with his cigarette when a bus smacked into the hearse he was driving.
But he never went away. Played by Richard Jenkins, he engaged in an active afterlife throughout the series' run.
Now, on the finale, he reappears to bully his son David into saving himself. Later in the episode, he and son Nate jointly offer Brenda a much-needed blessing.
On "Six Feet Under," ghostly presences are skilled at saying what needs to be said, as when Nate gives Claire a pep talk about moving to New York to pursue her photography.
"You want to know a secret?" he counsels. "I spent my whole life being scared: of not being ready, of not being right, of not being who I should be. And where did it get me?"
Then, in the show's closing minutes, as Claire gathers the people she loves most for a farewell photo before she drives away, Nate, looking on, says a curious thing.
"You can't take a picture of this," he tells her. "It's already gone."
In this richly satisfying finish to a series like none other, we understand what he means. We see these characters as we have never seen them before. But as we realize how much we cared for them, we understand they're not there. "Six Feet Under" will be over. So the pictures that count will reside inside us. Long after it has gone.
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