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The Ending Of Six Feet Under Explained

"Six Feet Under" was prestige TV before we had a name for it. The story of the Fisher family and their Los Angeles funeral home gave us a portrait of grief and love that was at once darkly irreverent and profoundly moving. 

This is a universe in which death is literally a fact of life. As the Fishers watch countless mourning families come in and out of their own, they also find themselves confronted with existential questions about what it means to live and be alive. There is understandable excitement at the announcement that a follow-up is in the works: after all, Time Magazine included "Six Feet Under" in its 2007 list of greatest TV shows. So did IGN, and Complex had it as number 10 on its list of Best TV Dramas of All Time. The list goes on. 

Among the show's most fondly remembered episodes, though, is its finale. This makes sense. Even the best shows are bound to leave a bitter aftertaste if they can't pull off the last episode (looking in your direction, "Game of Thrones"). But when a finale hits the mark, when it gives us a chance to say goodbye to beloved characters in a fulfilling way and provides them a satisfying arc, it can be a masterclass in television. "Six Feet Under" provided just that.

Thanks a lot, Nate

Given that the show's pilot opened with the death of Fisher patriarch Nathaniel (Richard Jenkins), it would have been fitting enough for it to end with that of his son and namesake Nate (Peter Krause) too. But life and death are never so symmetrical. Creator Alan Ball, who was inspired to write the series by the grief he felt at the age of 13 after his sister's sudden death in a car accident (via The Independent), knew that it would be more appropriate to show us all the messy emotions all of our loved ones will be left with after we shuffle off this mortal coil.

For this reason, "Six Feet Under" doesn't have Nate die in the final episode, or even in the penultimate. Nate dies, as a result of the same brain condition he grappled with in prior season, in the ninth out of twelve episodes. And of course, it is far from being as simple as saying goodbye. Nate has done some regrettable things in the days before his death. His funeral sows more discord than resolution. Brother David (Michael C. Hall) now has the family business entirely on his shoulders. His sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose) is petrified by the sight of Nate's body, and spirals into a drunken bender at his graveside. Driving drunk, she ends up totaling her car, the signature green hearse she's driven the whole series.

Nate's pregnant wife Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), whom Nate had asked for a divorce right before his death, is tormented by images of him and the insistent presence of the woman he had committed adultery with, Maggie (Tina Holmes). Maggie also attends the funeral. And matriarch Ruth (Frances Conroy) is depressed and caring for Nate's daughter Maya, who Nate also had with another woman.

Mother's support

At the beginning of the final episode, "Everyone's Waiting," Brenda has her and Nate's baby. Willa Fisher Chenowith is born two months premature, and Brenda is wracked with despair and anxiety: first that the newborn won't make it, and second that she will be an unfit mother even if Willa survives. Brenda, like most other characters in the show, has struggled with her mental health, and the many health problems that her daughter may have simply confirms to Brenda that she is irreparably damaged. But when she has a vision of both Nate and Nathaniel caring for Willa, she takes it as a sign that Nate would have wanted her to take care of their daughter. Not only does she resolve to do so, but she takes Maya back from Ruth, who sinks even deeper into her own depression.

What finally brings Ruth out of her despair is calling up Maggie and asking her, bluntly, if Nate was happy in his final days. Maggie, who has left town after failing to make amends to Brenda, is seen in a hospital waiting room when she takes the call. This has led some fans to speculate that she too may have been pregnant with Nate's baby (via Screen Rant). We will never know of course, but the call is enough for Ruth to move on, too. When Claire tells her mother that she is going to turn down a job as a photography assistant in New York so she can take care of her, Ruth is insistent that Claire go. She also decides against moving in with her boyfriend (and Maggie's father) George (James Cromwell). After a life of being dependent on men, she instead opts to move in with her tough-as-nails friend Bettina (Kathy Bates) to start a doggy daycare.

Settling old business

Meanwhile, David — still reeling from his brother's death, unable to sleep, and likely suffering from PTSD — is ready to bail on the family business. What at the start of the series had been Fisher & Sons is now Fisher & Diaz, ever since Nate and David brought Rico (Freddy Rodriguez) on board as a partner. Now Rico, dissatisfied with the direction of the business, wants to start his own funeral home with his wife Vanessa (Justina Machado). He encourages David to liquidate the business after finding out his 25% share would be worth around half a million dollars.

David initially agrees. But after dreaming of his father Nathaniel, who reminds him that the funeral home isn't just his inheritance but his birthright, he changes his mind. David and his significant other Keith (Matthew St. Patrick) decide to buy Rico out, wishing him well. After struggling with his responsibility and the family's legacy for years, David, Keith, and their two sons move into the funeral home, redecorating and making it their own.


Despite her mother's well-wishes, Claire is still torn about leaving Los Angeles for New York. The job falling through gives her another reason to stay at home. Ultimately, it is not her family keeping her at home, but her own fear. Standing outside the family's home, she hears Nate telling her to go anyway. "Claire, you want to know a secret?" he asks her. "I spent my whole life being scared. Scared of not being ready, not being right, not being what I should be. And where did it get me?"

And so, Claire decides to leave and start her life anew. The family's final dinner is a cathartic farewell to her and Nate. And as Claire drives away -– not in a hearse, but a Prius -– we see every character's future and death play out in front of us. Not all of them are fair. Keith is killed in a robbery. Brenda is basically talked to death by her self-absorbed brother Billy (Jeremy Sisto). Claire has thick cataracts at the time of her own death at the age of 102, robbing her of the sight that made her such a keen photographer (she can't even see the many photos of her family that surround her when she finally slips away). But there are also birthdays, reunions, weddings, chances to do things over, and more people left behind to remember, too.

Best finale ever?

After news of its follow-up was announced, Kyle Munzenrieder of W Magazine wrote "Six Feet Under remains the gold standard for series finale episodes." It is easy to grasp why. For one thing, Ball made the deliberate decision to end the show when it was at its strongest. As Lauren Ambrose told Vulture, "When Alan told me it was going to be the last season, he said how it was a good thing to go out on top... We've gotten to stay this gem of a show."

The finale also highlights the show's central themes in a way that unmistakably wraps up each character's arc. To have the series finale break from previous episodes by starting not with a death but a birth, as well as having so much of it focused on motherhood, parenthood, and family, sets the scene. What's more, for several characters, it is either Nate or Nathaniel — or at least their memory — that encourages them to move on. The inevitability of life ending in death runs both ways as death gives way to life and grief gives way to affirmation. It isn't neat or symmetrical, but it gives us the chance to make our own decisions about what is really important.