More Thoughts on the “Six Feet Under” Finale

The entire episode is amazing, and it could have ended with Claire leaving her home, having taken the last “present-day” portrait of the Fischer family, to pursue her new life as an artist in New York.

But, for those of you who have seen the series, you know it doesn’t end there. We are given what is (for me at least) the most heart-wrenching 10 minutes of television, as one by one all the major characters of the show die. Not in one big, terrible swoop, but across the years, dropping in on them in their final moments.

For starters, this inclusion is obviously supposed to make us sad. We’ve spent five seasons with these characters. We love them. And we love seeing their respective deaths as means of finding peace. Ruth, who spend much of the series feeling lonely and isolated, dies among loved ones. Michael, having lost Keith years earlier, sees a vision of his late husband moments before dying himself. Claire dies surrounded by pictures of her loved ones, wrapped up in her own memories. For something as sad as the deaths of these characters, they all move on in pretty satisfying ways.

But writer/director Alan Ball is smarter than that. These emotionally devastating scenes aren’t included just to make us sad, or even to make us happy or to wrap things up. I think his main goal is to remind us that everything, in fact, does end. As viewers we take it for granted that the characters we grow so attached to will live on forever and ever, in our dreams and our hearts beyond the series finale. No matter how happy their lives go past the present-day of 2005 (where the series ends, for the most part), they all will die. We need to remember that. They are not eternal.

Sure, that’s tough love and it’s a very challenging and trying experience to sit through. But it’s a necessary one, and it really hits the point of Six Feet Under home. As borderline-traumatic as that finale is, I can’t imagine what is undoubtedly one of the finest TV series ending any other way.

Six Feet Under (2001-2005)

I have never seen a TV series as emotionally devastating, and perhaps as satisfying, as HBO’s Six Feet Under.

Over the past year or so, I have worked my way through five seasons with the Fischer family, who run a funeral home in Los Angeles. As can be expected with a series with such content, it is often very grim and filled with heavy thematic material. In addition to death, we are often confronted with issues of intrafamily conflict, drug abuse and addiction, terminating pregnancies, infidelity, incest, and everything in between. For a show this serious in tone, it certainly earns its chops.

While it does balance these themes with glimpses of humor and fantasy, the show is mostly a realistic but wholly human drama. Six Feet Underdoes not try to take the easy way out of any storyline or reduce its wonderfully developed characters to caricature. The artistic, liberal daughter surprises herself by falling in love with a conservative lawyer. The uptight mother occasionally literally lets her hair down and barrels through bottles of wine and drug experimentation. The list goes on and on.

This show is so special and so extraordinary because it fosters these characters who are consistent yet surprising; this is a difficult balance that most shows do not achieve, and do it convincingly. Over a mere sixtysomething episodes, this family does become alive to us, and makes the finale that much more heartbreaking.

The series finale is easily the most emotionally traumatic episode of television I’ve ever seen. Hands down. The loss of the “main” character Nate (even though all the Fischers, and then some, are essential to the show) was devastating enough, but watching the deaths of all of the family and those we the audience have come to love has upset me in a way no other television, or maybe artistic work period, has. THAT, however, is the hallmark of great television. It transcended the line between what is fiction and made it real to the viewer, overcoming the nearly impossible challenge all art faces.

I initially became interested in Six Feet Under because creator Alan Ball also made the excellent HBO series True Blood, and I am so happy I put in the effort. He has given us a wonderfully ambitious series, that meets and surpasses any expectations of a show that tackles death on a weekly basis.This is a series that often challenges and provokes the meaning of life and what we can do to make our short time on Earth worthwhile. It does not try to offer any easy answers and it does not condescend its audience to teach us any lessons. What it does do, very effectively, is present us a five-year window into the lives of a family that we can’t help but see ourselves in, and forces us to re-examine our own lives and how to make the most of what we have. This is one of the few TV series I can call important and even essential viewing.

Seven Samurai (1954)

After seeing Seven Samurai, I now consider myself a Kurosawa fan. I was first impressed by the groundbreaking Rashomon, most noteworthy for its visionary storytelling techniques. While Seven Samurai follows a more straightforward narrative, it is an excellent epic rich with meaning and emotion, earning its hearty 3 1/2 hour length.

First and foremost, Seven Samurai just tells a great story. The basic premise is that a rural Japanese village is being ransacked by bandits, and upon the advise of the town elder (the Old Man), they seek the aid of samurai to defend them.

As the film’s title suggests, it is as much about the samurai as it is about the community. Each man brings a different set of experiences to his mission, and the ways in which they mesh or conflict with the townspeople are what bring the movie its true fire. We experience issues like class conflict, and the tension between loyalty to one’s own versus the community.

We are given an extraordinary performance by Toshiro Mifune (star ofRashomon), as a wild and coarse samurai. His acting is consistently entertaining and, while his role is not as twisted as that in Rashomon, he is still very fun to watch and he really gets a chance to prove his emotional range through this film.

While the script’s structure is not as groundbreaking as Rashomon, the overall atmosphere and mood Kurosawa establishes is often dark and unsettling, creating a distinct and somewhat surprising mood. (Granted, as someone who is used to the classical Hollywood tradition, most Japanese films surprise me.) The treatment of women, for one, is often a very unique element throughout the film; there is a difficult scene in which a farmer forcibly cuts the hair of his daughter, for fear that she be found by the bandits and captured, or worse. When the bandits do come to town, the male villagers round up the women and essentially cage them, forcing them to watch their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons fight the more aggressive and better-equipped bandits from the sidelines.

These battle scenes are particularly unsettling, as they are very realistic and un-glamorous, providing a fresh interpretation of the often too-sleek samurai story. There is no glory in these battles, filled with cheating (even the most honorable samurai steals a musket from the bandits) and desperation as both sides are crawling through the rain and mud fighting for their lives.

That is what is so extraordinary about this film; the setting may be another time and place, but it was impossible for me to watch without wondering what I would do in that situation. We see ordinary people pushed to do what they have to do to protect themselves and their own. At the end of the day, the townspeople are able to reclaim their land back as their own. The samurai, tragically, do not, as the survivors stand in solace at the graves of their fallen brothers. The leader says the victory is the townspeople; the samurai, however, have failed.

Seven Samurai is full of profound statements and often difficult emotions and situations to grapple with. The film may be easy to follow, but it is anything but certain how to weigh the moral uncertainties Kurosawa presents us with. This Japanese epic is an extraordinary film that is worthy of its ambition.