“I have no idea how to do this.”
“You just say goodbye.”
Goodbyes are rarely easy, and even less so when they’re final. No television show knew this better than HBO’s Six Feet Under, which followed the eccentric Fisher family and their Los Angeles funeral home. For a series that dealt so plainly with goodbyes – beginning each episode with someone’s death – the show’s finale, titled “Everyone’s Waiting,” is an exercise in grief, both for viewers taken by its graceful handling of loss and for its characters, who were burdened and buoyed by consistent reminders of their mortality throughout the show’s run.
Television finales are a tricky balancing act. Most aim to catch and tie up loose ends, give enough closure to satisfy but not enough to bloat, and build the foundation of a long-lasting legacy. It’s a difficult feat to make a final episode of TV that checks off all of these criteria, especially when accomplishing one so often comes at the expense of the others.
The following contains spoilers for the series finale of Six Feet Under.
An achievement like that would be tenfold difficult for Six Feet Under, which boasted a collection of contradictory qualities: campy and somber, spirited and death-stricken, soap opera and prestige drama. Yet when it shuttered its doors, it did so with a measured poise that is still admired today, giving deserved closure to matriarch Ruth and her children Nate, David, and Claire, as well as the other people in their lives: Nate’s on-and-off partner Brenda, David’s partner Keith, and funeral home mortician Rico.
The finale unfolds over the course of a few months, staying with each character as they cope with a tremendous loss of their own: Nate’s death, sudden and crushing, in the penultimate episode. Ruth is severely depressed, unsure how she can go on after her firstborn is gone; David is wrestling with the future of the family business; Claire wants better than what Los Angeles can offer her; Rico wants a good life for his family; and Brenda, tormented by her newborn daughter’s unstable health, is haunted by visions of Nate.
Six Feet Under always understood the fluidity of grief, sometimes revisiting Fisher clients many episodes after they’d suffered their loss. It treats its own main characters with the same kind of patience and empathy, and one of the things that make the format of this finale so apt is that it’s entirely consistent with the show’s nature. Just as the Fishers sought to comfort their clients through a long and difficult grieving process, the finale walks us through the family’s response to Nate’s death in the months after. Some of the characters suffer terribly, some are almost immediately at peace, some experience their pain in peaks and valleys; if there’s anything that this show sought to teach its audience, it was that grief and death, even in their certainty, are cut from a different fabric for each individual they touch.
In doing so, the impending loss of the show itself left an enormous void for viewers stirred by such a personal piece of art. The final episode is meant to be a testament to life’s fleeting nature and the healing power of not taking that for granted: David and Keith buy the family home from Ruth, who moves in with her sister and promises to help Brenda — finally at peace with Nate’s memory — raise her baby. Many people remember the Six Feet Under finale for its final few minutes, a crowning jewel of a montage that begins with Claire hitting the road for New York and then shows the time and place of each remaining character’s death, recalling the show’s infamous cold opens.
With its striking sense of humor, consistent characterization, and respect for the loss of life, this episode and its concluding montage crystallize everything that Six Feet Under was revered for. It made any loose ends seem inconsequential, as they would be in the larger scheme of our limited time in this world. And when you give people an episode of television that perfectly mirrors what the show was trying to say all along, it makes for a rewarding and poetic goodbye; all these years later, we’re still grieving that profound loss.