A Truly Grand Finalé: The Final Six Minutes of 'Six Feet Under'

Amy Patrick

Six Feet Under cements its legacy with a send off that is so sublime, so simple and so perfectly obvious you can't help but laugh... through buckets of tears.

For many television fans, when a favorite series ends, there is no genuine sense of closure. Viewers might feel that plotlines were left unfinished, or that the fates of characters are needlessly ambiguous. For viewers of Six Feet Under, there was no such ambiguity. In an emotionally charged masterstroke of a finalé Alan Ball, the creator of the show, and his writing staff show the audience the deaths of every regular character. It’s so simple, and so effective, that one can’t help laugh at its obvious perfection -- if you can laugh through the tears.

One could argue that we are not given the final fate of everyone we came to care about, that there are a few lose threads, but those characters that were in every episode from the first -- the Fishers and those closest to them -- are given a finality not often seen in long form television programming. By giving us these deaths, Six Feet Under aligns itself closer to a novelistic form rather than that of a standard television program.

Every episode, excluding the very last, of Six Feet Under began with a death. These deaths were sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes just plain weird, and generally the body made its way to Fisher and Sons Funeral Home. The deaths, besides working as a cold open for the show, also tied into the episode itself, a commentary of sorts on the main action. Because Six Feet Under took place in a funeral home, the deaths brought the viewer into Fisher and Sons along with tying itself to -- or spurring on -- whatever was happening in the ongoing plotlines or themes of the show.

In one of final episodes of the program before the finalé, viewers were confronted with the shocking death of Nate Fisher (Peter Krause), and how the emotional fallout of his death leads to the other characters being freed and able to move on from that moment. It’s such a cataclysmic event, that it shakes the Fishers out of their torpor, setting them off on new paths to the future.

During the course of the following episodes and spinning off into the future past the show, Ruth (Frances Conroy) gives herself over to reconciling with second husband George (James Cromwell) and letting go of her old home. Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) finishes college and begins raising the two young girls left to her. David (Michael C. Hall) and his partner Keith (Matthew St. Patrick) finish the process of adopting two young sons, take over the business, and cement their relationship. Claire (Lauren Ambrose) decides to move to New York to attend NYU and begin a photography internship. And finally, Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez) decides to move on and create his own funeral home using what he has learned at Fisher and Sons. Without Nate’s death, it is implied, none of this would have happened.

This mirrors how the show began with the death of the patriarch Nathaniel Sr. (Richard Jenkins), which set all the action of the show in motion. His death brought Nate moving back home and lead to the five seasons that viewers watched. Nate’s death bookends the program we’ve seen, moving the rest of the characters to action in the way that his father’s death moved them similarly at the beginning of the program. With the opening of the final episode, the show begins the process of creating a sense of finality. By the end of the episode, the characters are moving apart and viewers begins the process of saying goodbye to these characters they’ve been watching for five years. This ending flashes forward to the deaths of each character, giving the audience a look into their life after the narrative of the show has ended.

The final six minutes of the finalé begins with Claire getting into her car and putting in the song “Breathe Me” by Sia, heading down the highway to New York City. As she drives off, hurtling off into an unknown future, the viewer heads down the road with her, the highway becoming a conduit for the rapid passage of time, hitting on significant live events, with the deaths of Keith, Ruth, David, Federico, Brenda, and, finally, Claire cascading one after the other. For each character, their death appears to be a logical extension of who they were in life (i.e. the run of the series) and it provides a closure to their narrative. During their deaths the Fisher family sees not only those around them as they die but specters of past loved ones who have died. The characters appear to experience “somatic intuition, a bodily knowledge or awareness of the presence and possibility of death that promotes an ever-increasing awareness of separation between ego and self” (Mudd, 131). As they pass away, they are surrounded with their family. For the audience these deaths are comforting as they give us a comforting, humane view of life’s final moment.

As always, Six Feet Under shows the deaths of the Fishers as integrally interwoven into the narrative of the show, except unlike the grotesque or comic deaths that generally opened the show each week, these are profound, elegiac and universal. The characters’ deaths are their endings, but they also reflect back onto the lives we have seen them live during the course of the show. And oddly, even though this is indeed the end, the characters are not transformed by their death, they do not “end”, it is only a transition. “We offer the concepts of transitory movements, which draws upon the idea of transition -- an oscillation or wavering movement between states -- rather than transformation, which would imply a marked, radical conversion” (Shoshana, Teman, 568). The audience gains the ultimate closure by seeing the “finalés” of their favorite characters within the finalé of a beloved television program, leading us to have a complete viewing experience that most shows do not provide their audience.

Beyond the actual final moment, we are given “short stories”, in montage, that lead up to each death. These episodes confirm and enhance what the viewer thinks about each character. When Keith is gunned down while leaving an armored car, we are not just seeing a crime; we witness Keith as the owner of a company doing a job he loved throughout his life. Keith’s masculinity was a major part of how he saw himself and so while a needless tragedy, the viewer understands that his death would have been how he would like to face death: brave, manly, and working. Ruth dies “peacefully” in a hospital surrounded by her family, David dies of an apparent heart attack at a family picnic. In both cases they also see someone they loved (son and lover respectively) waiting for them. Federico’s death occurs while on a vacation with his wife on what appears to be a luxury cruise line. Brenda dies listening to her brother Billy drone and prattle on about the need for closure (ha!). True to her nature throughout the entire series, her death appears to be a sarcastic comment on Billy’s neediness and constant therapy-speak. And finally, Claire dies in bed surrounded by photographs that she has taken and we see that her eyes have been clouded by cataracts. But, it was her photos and, truly, her sight that we used to see the others.

Within the world of Six Feet Under, throughout the entire run of the series, “the dead speak, ghosts/specters commonly engage with major characters in surreal sequences in which the characters negotiate critical moments in their subjectivities” (Munt, 270) and within the finalé this trope is continued, but this time it leads them to the most critical moments, their deaths. By continuing this through the shows final minutes, the writers of the show work to help the audience watch the deaths of the characters we have grown so close to.

In the instances of most long term narrative shows, the end is not truly the end. The characters continue to live on in the viewer’s imagination and within the world of their show. The ending of shows rarely ends in the end of the lives of the characters. But Six Feet Under shows viewers an end with a capital E. There is no way for the audience to make up an imagined future. Much like a great novel, Six Feet Under is a narrative that definitely wraps up everything, does not leave the viewer hanging. In this way, Six Feet Under does something that aligns itself with being closer to a novel than with a standard television program.

Beyond just the death scenes, Ball gives viewers a full narrative to those paying attention. Keith and David get married and their adopted sons begin families of their own, one a homosexual relationship and the other a multi-racial family. The Fisher family grows to be much less homogenous and hermetically sealed as the time goes by. Claire returns home, marries her on again, off again boyfriend Ted many years after she left home. The viewer is given the plot to a whole show they won’t see. The characters move, marry divorce, adopt, and live lives outside of the show we have watched. We are given a timeline in miniature. Ball and the writers work to give an entire epilogue that feels as fully fleshed out as the prior five seasons.

And, as the final kicker, the audience slowly comes to realize that the entire story has been seen through Claire’s eyes (she was, significantly, an artist and a photographer). She has moved the farthest, grown the most, seen the most. By ending with Claire, her eyes glazed with cataracts, we see that the entire narrative has been through her, the curtain coming down over as her eyes cloud and go blind.

Books and film, because of their finite-ness and sure authorial voice, provide a deliberate closure, but television, due to internal and external factors of long form storytelling and TV economics, is generally not so compliant. Most television programs have a level of incompleteness. But with its final six minutes, Six Feet Under achieved a rare moment of perfection in finality, ending with a true conclusion that answering the audience’s questions about the characters’ fates, and even answering questions that they had not known to ask.

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Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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