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HBO’s critically acclaimed series Six Feet Under began with the unexpected death of Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins) and ended with the death of the rest of his family. Aug. 21 marks 10 years since the quirky Alan Ball story about family and their owned-and-operated funeral home closed up shop, but the show’s final montage depicting how every remaining member of the Fishers and their loved ones would pass on still ranks among TV’s best series finales.
The idea of flashing forward to depict how each member of the Fishers and their loved ones would pass on seemed revolutionary in 2005, but Ball — who created the series and would write and direct its final episode — uses another word for it — inevitable.
“In the writers’ room — I beat myself up for this constantly because I can’t remember who it was that suggested it — we were talking about how we should end the show and someone said, ‘We should just kill everybody,’ ” Ball tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They said, ‘No, we should flash forward in time and be with each one of these characters when they die.’ Something in my head just went, ‘Click. Of course. How else could you possibly end this show?’ “
Star Michael C. Hall (David Fisher) admits he felt the shock of the decision when he first read the finale script, but understood it was the right move at the same time.
“I was, and I think as people were when they watched it, struck by how simultaneously surprising and obvious it was. It felt like an unexpected wave crashing over you, but as you stood there soaked by it you say, ‘Of course. Of course it ended this way,'” he tells THR.
It seems easy to recognize now that a show that focused so much on death should face the same theme head-on in its final episode. However, the emotional impact of it, Ball says, comes more from allowing people to face their own mortality as the Fishers faced theirs.
“As a culture, we are not particularly comfortable with the idea of mortality,” he says. “Everyone thinks about death, especially the older you get. There’s something cathartic about it. If you’re a fan of a series and you’re watching the finale, you are kind of emotional anyway. I think the fact that everyone started dying gives people an outlet to grieve our collective mortality.”
The conclusion was also a “bomb” for Six Feet Under‘s leading man Peter Krause (Nate Fisher), who died two episodes before the finale, but returned in the final episode to help his family move on with their lives after his passing.
“When I first read the final episode it felt like a giant mortality bomb to me, like we’d been emotionally and existentially strafing our first viewers for years and this was meant to be a final death blow with brutal aftershocks. And it was,” Krause tells THR.
For the less existential television viewer, the Six Feet Under finale was able to provide what many series are unable to do with their endings — closure. The episode revealed the fates of every major character that the audience had grown to love and faithful viewers could be at peace with how their favorite characters’ journeys ended. That helped create a legacy that has remained and kept Six Feet Under as part of the conversation 10 years after its end as such critically adored series including Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy and Parenthood closed up shop.
“The success or the resonance of that finale helped secure the show’s legacy. I think it was therapeutic, it certainly was for me, to simulate the death of these characters who we had spent so much time living with so intensely,” Hall says.
That feeling was tenfold for the actors who had been with the characters for five seasons and 63 episodes.
“The character I played got to be the one to say goodbye to the family and the experience that I had over the years,” says Lauren Ambrose, who portrayed the Fishers’ youngest, Claire. “Just having the opportunity to bid Six Feet Under farewell as we shot the final episode was such a gift. Claire leaves and goes off and starts her own life. The woman taking the photographs of the family and driving off — it felt like that was exactly what I was doing with this project that I had been involved with for so long.”
Hall, meanwhile, notes that the finality of the way the show ended helped allow him to close one chapter of his life before moving on to play a serial killer with a code on Showtime’s Dexter.
“People ask me about this finale and the highlights and I realize that my memories are as if I was David,” Hall says. “They are all as if it had really happened. It was so intense that having a chance to film our ultimate end helped us all release it and let it go.”
That personal connection especially resonated for Ball, who created each of the characters and was the one who ultimately decided how each of their journeys would conclude.
“At the time [of writing the finale] I had a cabin and I went up there with my dogs. I remember my dogs looking at me because I was sitting on the couch with my laptop just weeping when I was writing that final montage. It made me very emotional. Granted, these are fictional characters but they felt very real to me,” he says.
Filming those scenes didn’t get any easier.
“It’s a cliché but it was like a family. It was like, ‘OK, now we have to watch members of our family die and grieve it.’ ” he recalls of the final days on set. “There was a lot of crying. Good crying though, healthy crying, I think.”
When the final episode was in the can, the cast and crew moved on. Neither Ball nor the actors have re-watched the finale since it aired in 2005, but the impact has rippled in different ways for each of them.
“I think of Six Feet Underand Parenthood like the two sides of one coin,” he says. “Regarding the finales of each: on one side it reads, ‘Death is Final’ and on the other, ‘Life Goes On.’ They are rather Yin/Yang sibling series and I love both of them.”
As for the impact the series finale would eventually have among fans and critics alike, Hall and Ambrose both knew it would resonate the minute they finished watching it friends together in 2005.
“We watched it as it aired that Sunday night. When I saw the final product I thought, ‘Well that was entirely successful,’ ” Hall says. “In the coming days, weeks, months and, I guess, years, we’re still talking about it. That’s been confirmed time and again that it really resonates with people.”
Ambrose’s memories remain more with shooting the finale than watching it or what came afterward.
“I was the last person shooting anything because we did all of the driving scenes out in the desert. We had a helicopter that was flying along,” she recalls. “That driving off in the desert was the last thing I did on that show and it was all very fitting. It felt like it was the proper ritual to release the project.”
The finality of the show’s conclusion also eliminates any talk of a Six Feet Under reunion special or reboot — not that Ball would have any part in either.
“I’m not sure there’s ever been one of those reunion things that I’ve watched, or liked or cared about. You’re trying to re-create something that’s over,” he says. “Usually, the whole point of it is money, ratings, things that aren’t particularly inspirational to me. I can’t imagine doing a reunion show of anything.”
But with the entire series of Six Feet Under available on HBO Go and HBONow, the Fishers are always a few clicks away and the show is able to find new fans 10 years after helping to spike Kleenex sales with its devastating series finale. So as the cast moves forward, there are legions of new people following the Fishers’ journey, allowing Six Feet Under to continue past its beautiful trip to the grave.
Krause perhaps best captures how magical that actually is. “There is a rather steady stream of new viewers, all of whom report being as emotionally blown away as those who watched it when it first aired,” he says. “Ironically, it is a finale that will not die.”
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Robert De Niro