When it debuted 15 years ago, Six Feet Under (available to stream anytime on HBO Now) set itself up to tell the story of the Fishers, a family in Los Angeles that lived and worked out of a funeral home. While they dealt with death and the resulting grief as a profession, as a family they were certainly not immune to devastating heartache when death came for someone close to them. In a show where coping with loss is a central theme (there are even obituaries for every death that took place in each episode), there is certainly no shortage of heartbreaking and affecting moments to highlight when pondering the impact and greatness of the show, but we decided to try and focus on five moments that have stuck with us, even after all these years.
5. Nathaniel’s Death
Typically, a pilot episode serves to give you a loose introduction to a show’s characters, along with their situation, and proceeds to map out where the plot is headed throughout the rest of that first season. This is exactly what Six Feet Under did, though it framed it around the very sudden and unexpected death of family patriarch Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Harris). Killed instantly after being hit by a bus in the family’s new hearse, the Fishers abandon their plans for a quiet Christmas together to plan his funeral and scramble to figure out the future of their business.
Although just because Nathaniel’s dead, we quickly learn that he’ll continue to be a big part of the show. Over the course of the episode, he appears to each member of his immediate family, as they reflect on their individual relationships with him. David (Michael C. Hall), projects his role as the son who constantly disappointments, Ruth (Frances Conroy) sees herself as an unfaithful wife, while Claire (Lauren Ambrose) seems to just kick back and shoot the breeze with him. It’s his interaction with Nate (Peter Krause) that is the most telling. The eldest son who left L.A. to strike out on his own sees his father briefly in flashbacks, and after his death when he promises to deal him into a game of cards he’s playing with other corpses at the morgue, in a bit of ominous foreshadowing.
Six Feet Under let you know exactly what this kind of world this was; one where death might drive the family business and the family psyche.
4. Lisa’s Disappearance
While this eventually revealed itself to be one of the most impactful death’s in the course of the show, it was presented as a kind of slow-burning anxiety spread across several episodes. It starts when Lisa (Lili Taylor), Nate’s wife, takes a trip along the coast to visit her sister. She has a phone call with Nate, which gets cut off due to bad reception, and that ends up being the last time he ever hears from her. The anguish of not knowing causes him to become increasingly unraveled, aimlessly trying to find solace anywhere he can, mostly through alcohol and anonymous sex. Weeks go on as Nate all but abandons all of his responsibilities, including his infant daughter, while lashing out at everyone around him.
When Nate does eventually get some confirmation of her death, his first reaction is to again drink himself into oblivion, and push a random bar patron to beat him. Afterwords, drunk and bloodied, he drives recklessly down the California highway, with visions of his father in the front seat and Lisa in the back, the two of them demanding he drive the car off a cliff to join them in the afterlife. Only then does Nate break down and realize that he’s not ready to die, before going back to the arms of his ex, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) before slowly beginning the process of putting his life back together.
Still, it isn’t until the following season opens when Nate, remembering Lisa’s request for an all-natural burial, decides to honor her wishes. He gives her family the long-unclaimed ashes of another, then takes her body far out into the desert, where he digs a hole to bury her in the earth. At the end, he screams with relief, frustration, angst, and at long last, the beginning of a real sense of closure, and a real sensation of utter heartbreak.
3. David’s Kidnapping
While Nate dealing with Lisa’s disappearance took four full episodes to culminate, the second half of season four’s “That’s My Dog” shows David being kidnapped and held at gunpoint by a hitchhiker named Jake he had impulsively picked up on the side of the road. The story stays with David as he drives around town while being robbed, beaten, and forced to smoke crack before Jake ultimately drives off in his van.
The unflinching tension of David’s increasingly unhinged assailant and his constantly changing set of demands does, eventually, give way to heartbreak. As he’s dragged out to an alleyway to suddenly chase down a dog, he’s covered in gasoline and told to close his eyes. Then, suddenly, his life flashes before his eyes, as we’re shown brief flashes of alternately loving and horrifying moments from his life. In these moments he tearfully begs for his life, knowing that while he deals with death everyday, he’s simply not ready for it himself.
While Jake is eventually arrested, David later visits him in jail so he can face him directly. While he comes looking for closure, or at least some kind of rational understanding as to what happened to him, he’s left to have a conversation with someone who clearly has no regret over what he’d done, much less a comprehensive grasp on reality. It hardly seems like the kind of closure David’s looking for, but he realizes it’s all he’s going to get, and like his clients, he has no other choice than to pick up the pieces of his life and carry on.
2. Nate’s Death
Nate may have cheated death before over the course of the show, but his brain condition (AVM) continued to be a concern. Then, one day, seemingly out of nowhere (even by Six Feet Under’s unsentimental standards), Nate had a seizure and was rushed to the hospital. At first, it looks like everything’s going to be fine until he’s alone in the room with his brother and sister and the show takes us through one of its signature fantasy sequences. This one has Nate climbing into a van along with David, who’s inexplicably cast as a laid-back stoner. The two are driven around by their father who laments about being lost before the three find themselves on a beach. As Nate runs into the water, suddenly David returns to his normal buttoned-down self, and this vision that presumably started as his brother’s is now suddenly his as he’s offered crack by his father (a call back to his kidnapping). Only then does David wake up to Nate laying in his hospital bed, lifeless.
The death of a major character (arguably the main character) is the kind of drama usually reserved for a series finale, but putting a moment like this as a closer would have made everything about Nate’s death. Though there were harbingers of this going all the way back to the show’s first episode, Nate’s death was ultimately not what the show was about. Instead, it spent its final episodes much like the pilot, with the Fisher family coming together in their time of grief to mourn one of their own. While death, and the resulting grief, was their profession, their shared heartbreak was a poignant reminder that the show was more about the struggle to continue on despite life’s endless barrage of unexpected, unplanned, and sorrowful moments.
1. The Final Montage
Leading up to that closing montage that made pretty much everyone cry, the final episode of Six Feet Under took its time showing the varying degrees of success (or lack therof) that the Fishers had moving on with their lives after Nate’s death. Ruth is depressed and inconsolable, David’s wrought with nightmares and struggling to save his relationship, while Claire looks to a brighter future in New York.
Still, it’s an episode full of optimism, first in the beginning, which showed the birth of Nate’s second child, Willa, instead of the usual anonymous death. Then, near the end, the Fishers, their friends, and extended family sit around a table, where David talks fondly of his deceased older brother before they collectively offer up a toast in his name. The next day, as the Fishers prepare for their future once again, they gather together on the porch as they see Claire off. She commemorates the moment with a photo, all while Nate appears behind her, telling her “you can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.”
It was at that point when the show that had defined itself as one that was always able to break your heart managed to outdo itself. Claire leaves to start a new life in New York and the gut-wrenching montage slowly starts to reveal the deaths of everyone she knew, showing us what happens well into the future, up until her own final moments at age 102. It’s here that the show reiterates that it was not about death, but rather about the life that everyone chooses to live up until that moment of death.