Six Feet Under

Maybe we are better off dead. The recently completed third season of HBO’s superlative drama Six Feet Under suggests that life on this earthly plane, at least for the Fisher family and its associates, is less appealing than ever. After all, a year filled with disease, abortion, drugs, casual sex, murder, infidelity, suicide, insanity, incest, sick art, and gay paintball can make the Big Empty look positively inviting.

Dead punk Gabe (Eric Balfour) thinks so. “Life just wasn’t a good environment for me,” he told his former girlfriend, Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose), from beyond the grave during the season’s final episode. The fact that they were chatting in a sun-splashed park packed with carnival performers, made the afterlife look like a cross between a Fellini film and a Kiwanas father-son picnic, a sort of Six Flags Under. (When the grim reaper comes for you, you had better know how to juggle knives, or at least shoot a mean round of Frisbee Golf.)

This version of death — a shimmering green-space just a few blocks over from your condo — underlines Six Feet Under‘s tendency to tear down the barrier separating the living from the departed. But where its producers were once content to let the deceased return occasionally to offer witty bromides or give stern lectures on hot-button social issues, this past season’s final episode saw alive-and-kicking Claire, still reeling from an abortion, take a trip in the other direction.

Following her meeting with Gabe, she encountered Lisa Kimmel Fisher (Lili Taylor). The moment marked our discovery that Lisa is no longer with us. (Her husband Nate [Peter Krause] later found out the more traditional way, via the telephone.) In Claire’s vision, Lisa seemed positively psyched to have shuffled off her mortal coil. A big league party-pooper, a total disservice to vegans everywhere, Lisa embodied evil in an organically correct shape. Seemingly hardwired to repel any sort of fun, living in mortal fear of peanut butter entering her child’s mouth, she guilted Nate into a loveless marriage in order to care for their daughter. Lisa’s sudden disappearance near the end of the third season, while gimmicky, also gave the series the kick in the ass it needed.

Until then, viewers undoubtedly felt every bit as trapped as Nate did. No TV drama has ever revealed the suffocating side of marriage so absorbingly. In the season’s first episode, Nate momentarily died on the operating table during brain surgery and envisioned his life taking multiple alternative forms: as husband to Lisa and father to his child; as a brain-damaged shell of his former self; as the bratty member of a more class-aware, WASPy version of the Fishers. The sequence suggested that small choices leave large fault lines in our futures. And Nate made the decision after the operation to marry Lisa, whom he didn’t love, and raise his child with her.

Even as he did this, Nate appeared to shrink, to become less than himself. Once the most boisterous Fisher, he grew quiet. His cynicism was replaced with a Joe Lieberman-style syrupy sincerity. (“This isn’t the Matrix. The rest of us who don’t have babies, we’re real,” Claire tells him at one point.) His rebellion surfaced only in odd ways: backyard smoking and masturbating in his car; he seemed damned to hell for making the morally right choice.

His devolution was the sort of 20% shift in personality that many who enter into long-term relationships undergo, but rarely appears in popular media. The more typical approach is the one taken by Six Feet Under‘s creator, Alan Ball, in his script for the film American Beauty. There, marriage was a metaphor for castration, hardly a radical concept. Nate and Lisa’s union was a subtler and more terrifying thing. He agreed to a series of small sacrifices and surrenders that, when taken together, altered him radically. So, when one shiny California morning, Lisa vanished somewhere off the Pacific Coast Highway, Nate crumbled almost immediately.

At first, we (and he) believe that he underestimated his love for her. That fate, being the minx that it is, spirited Lisa away just when Nate was giving her a real chance. But the show, to its lasting credit, resisted the impulse to resolve Lisa’s disappearance in the succeeding episode or even the one following that. And that rare thing — space in a television drama for character development — gave us a chance to see the truth. As Nate grew increasingly despondent and helpless, as he retreated into alcohol and quickie sex with strangers, the reason for his darkness became clear. It wasn’t love that did him in. He was, instead, knifed by guilt. How many spouses, in their most bitter hour, have silently wished their partners might vanish? No bruises. No blood. No fingerprints. Nate was horrified by his most private fantasy made real.

He wasn’t the only character this season to discover that making the seemingly “right” choice goes unrewarded. His brother David’s (Michael C. Hall) relationship with his lover Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) played like a New Age production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf all season, with resentment piled upon recrimination. They went to couples therapy, engaged in three-ways, and competed in paintball, all without a hint of pleasure. (That said, the paintball game, with masculine and feminine sides of gay male culture squaring off, was the season’s most entertaining episode.) At the end of the season, after discussing a possible reconciliation, David and Keith weren’t thrilled or relieved. They just seemed exhausted.

Meanwhile, Nate’s former lover, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), took the sober path, swearing off the drugs and anonymous sex that made her the series’ most exciting and charismatic character. This made staying straight and getting cleaned up appear about as attractive as a guided tour of a Wonder Bread factory. And after the matriarch of the Fisher clan, Ruth (Frances Conroy), flirted with lesbianism in the season’s earlier episodes, then chased after a man half her age as an encore, her marriage to the dusty old bag o’ bones George (James Cromwell) in the season’s last episode came off less a celebration than a ritual of desperation.

And Claire? Her vision reserved its darkest implications for her. In the church, alongside the departed Lisa Fisher, sat the cherubic visage of Claire’s aborted child, grinning in glittering death. (“Don’t worry,” Lisa said, “I’ll take care of him.”) Just two episodes earlier, the show’s producers had done the brave thing. They had actually allowed a sexually active teenager to get an abortion. Where the old Hollywood cliché had promiscuous teens gulping hard, entering the abortion clinic, and emerging harder and wiser (see: Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times at Ridgemont High), the more recent, values-laden approach has been for a woman to pull the gutty, self-sacrificing move and raise the child alone (Jennifer Aniston in Friends). Claire’s decision to get an abortion while trying to survive art school was as realistic as it gets.

While Claire, understandably enough, felt the same vague sense of loss than millions of women in her place have shared, the show couldn’t leave it there. An encounter with an effervescent fetus on God’s Staircase suggests a certain scattershot moral judgment, a busted compass. All Aborted Babies Go to Heaven? Is that really what the show wants to say? It makes you wonder to which side of the abortion debate, if any, the show means to tilt. The pro-lifers would never want to concede that aborted children somehow sidestep the whole Life on Earth thing and go straight to the bonus round. And the pro-choice camp would never dream of acceding to the idea that a pre-viability fetus has a soul — much less a smiling face. The thematic confusion has one lasting effect. A Kodak moment with her aborted child can only make a woman feel even guiltier for a decision that was difficult enough to make in the first place. Claire is left more alone than ever.

Six Feet Under‘s challenging third season reminds us that the gulf between it and rest of the widgets that pass for television shows is monumental. Even when the series misses the mark, it confronts the viewer with choices in ways few series have ever had the courage to attempt. But after a long season of sadness, shadow and claustrophobia, I could use the break. I’ll choose Life over Death. At least until next season.