The ending of Six Feet Under is remembered as one of TV’s most gut-wrenching finales—even by the standards of this masochistic medium, which can take even a simple show about wisecracking dinosaurs and end it with global apocalypse. For those who haven’t seen that final episode, allow me to mildly spoil it: Everyone who lives, dies. It’s an inevitability the HBO series grappled with across five seasons and approximately 500 Peter Krause monologues, but most movingly illustrated with the finale’s century-spanning montage, a sentimental bloodbath in which the viewer witnesses the final moments of nearly every major character. It’s unbearably sad, of course, to watch these people you’ve grown to love (and hate) over the years, caked in aging makeup and keeling over in rapid succession. Still, it’s also strangely reassuring. It’s human. Watching it, you can’t help but imagine the deaths of your own family, your friends, of everyone you know, and there is an odd sense of peace. And if you are anything like my wife, to this day, you still get a little choked up when you hear that damn Sia song.
There’s a therapeutic quality to pop culture that’s often glossed over, but is very real. It can be escapist, obviously, but it’s also cathartic, allowing us to confront our fears by watching made-up people deal with them instead. At its root, the most basic underpinning fear of every story we tell, of everything we do, is death. Six Feet Under’s finale reliably moves my wife to tears because she worries, often and to no avail, about losing those she loves. But at the risk of sounding like a monster (note: I don’t want my loved ones to die), it’s not the deaths that get me. My biggest fear is captured in the moment that happens just prior to the culling, when Claire (Lauren Ambrose) takes one last family photo before leaving for New York. It’s there her brother Nate (Krause) says something in her ear that chills me every time I hear it.
“You can’t take a picture of this,” Nate says. “It’s already gone.”
I fear change. I hate change. Everybody dies—that I can deal with. We’re all dying right now. What really irks me, in a profoundly existential way, is the unpredictable instability, inherent to life and wickedly unfair, of everything you’ll ever know before it comes. Death, at least, has a swift finality to it. Living while everything is always changing around you is much more difficult, far more cruel. Like Claire, we can try to affix some permanence to that which is always receding. But the impossibility of holding onto a moment in time becomes a torment. Change is the hardest thing about living. Next to that, death is nothing.
In that way, art provides some comfort. For one thing, it’s something that reassuringly doesn’t change; no matter how many times I watch Six Feet Under, Claire will still try to take that photo, and she’ll still date all her idiot boyfriends. I’ll be 90 years old and breathing through a ventilator in my smog bunker, and I’ll still be grousing at her through my tubes not to fuck Russell. But also, watching the Fishers’ lives play out in microcosm always gives me solace. It reminds me that everything is always changing for everyone. It tells me that change makes for a good story. It reassures me that change is the only story. Without change, nothing happens.
Six Feet Under’s finale aired in 2005, amid one of the most stagnant years of my life—a year when I was most in need of, and most stubbornly resistant to, change. I played in a band, dividing my time between local gigs and shitty van tours, but really I worked days at a video store and my evenings at a Mexican restaurant. One night, I just up and quit the latter, during a Cinco De Mayo rush. Only two months before that, I’d moved in with my girlfriend (now my wife, somehow), and it’s a wonder she didn’t immediately kick me out when I came home early, grinning about my pissy little rebellion. I had no backup plan, no sense of responsibility, no remorse. I got drunk and stayed out almost every single night. I was 27, but subconsciously I believed that, if I just kept living exactly the way I had when I was 22, the party could just go on forever. Nothing would ever have to change.
My life had always been defined by that sort of stubborn inertia. When I was 18, I made one rare, bold move to Boston to attend college, but it was cold and I didn’t make friends right away, so I soon retreated back to Austin to be with my high school pals. I stayed there for the next 15 years, playing in bands and working in a video store, because that’s what I’d done since I was a teenager. If my wife hadn’t pushed me to submit an application to The A.V. Club—to at least try to make a change—I might be there still. I definitely wouldn’t be here, 11 years later, having left behind everything I knew for Chicago, muttering oh shit oh shit oh shit the entire way to starting my life all over again.
Because I hate change, I’ve always gravitated toward stories about people who feel trapped—by geography, by their personal codes, by their own inertia, by a refusal to take chances, by clinging to the past, by an inability to adapt. In my favorite TV show, The Sopranos, Tony is driven to therapy by his anxieties over the crumbling vestiges of the empire he’s inherited, his kids getting older, those proverbial ducks leaving the pond. In his downtime, Tony also seeks solace in pop culture, holing up on the couch with old gangster movies and World War II documentaries, retreating into the “good old days,” and attempting to give his messy, unfulfilling life the same mythological sweep. I can relate. Whenever I want to escape, I rewatch my Sopranos DVDs. I watch everything change for Tony Soprano, again and again, and I feel slightly better about my own life’s inability to be a smooth, satisfyingly written narrative.
Still, while I’ve probably spent more time over the years with Tony Soprano’s family than I have with some of my own, there’s no fictional character I’ve ever related to more than Six Feet Under’s Nate Fisher—kind of a terrible thing to confess, actually. Nate, funny and eloquent as he could be, was sort of an aimless shithead who was never quite satisfied with what he had, whose life was directed almost solely by capricious whim or the grudging obligations forced upon him, often through his own stupid decisions, and who always found a new way to implode it all. Yet you couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for him (or that’s what I tell myself, anyway). Because Nate, for all he talked about “making the most of the time we have” to the grieving widows in his family’s funeral home, also lived his life under the perpetual, very human fear of change.
That’s understandable, too. The changes in Nate’s life tended to be stuff like his loved ones dying, or discovering that his fiancée wrote an entire book about sleeping around on him, or contracting a debilitating brain disease. But as he warns Claire in the finale, “I spent my whole life being scared. Scared of not being ready, of not being right, of not being who I should be. And where did it get me?” And so he urges his younger sister to not make the same mistake he did—to get out of her comfort zone and move to the big city. To change, and to say goodbye to what’s already gone.
Six years after it aired, on that drive to Chicago to join The A.V. Club offices, I thought a lot about Six Feet Under’s finale, and not just because “Breathe Me” shuffled up on my iPod before I could skip the track (but not before my wife got all choked up again). As we drove away from our home—our first home—that we’d just sold to make this huge personal gambit, our entire lives and one pissed-off cat packed into a new car that, like Claire, we’d purchased specifically for our journey, I couldn’t help but think about those final scenes of Claire smiling through her tears, overwhelmed and terrified, as she similarly put her past in the rearview. And I’ve been thinking about those scenes a lot in the last year or so, as my life lately seems to have accelerated into its own montage: having our two daughters; having to say goodbye to that cat; having to adjust to a career that’s never seemed more uncertain; having to contend with everything always changing, quickly and mercilessly and with no consideration for my feelings on the matter.
It gives me comfort. It reminds me that change is the only way forward. And that all that matters is what happens next.