Spoilers abound. Read at your peril.
I spent the last twenty minutes of last night’s final episode of Six Feet Under crying my eyes out. And rewatching it tonight was not much different. There were wobbly scenes, and a few too many overblown teary moments, but I nonetheless hold that this may have been the best series finale I’ve ever seen.
Some of this wobbliness, and of the too-muchness of the emotional overflow, has to do with what I see as a process of acceleration in this final episode. There’s something in this acceleration that fascinates me; time, since Nate’s death, has moved faster and faster, despite the lingering pain that has made everyone appear to be standing utterly still. This final episode moves fast, fast, fast, allowing us not to feel that the show is coming to a stop, but instead that the characters are speeding into the future, a future moving too quickly for us to follow. Willa is born prematurely — and the show plays with its own conventions and gives us, at a moment when we’re fearing for her life, a white screen with her name and the year of her birth — and the weeks speed by, and then months. And we see everyone moving on — Claire moving to New York; Ruth gradually recovering a sense of herself; David and Keith genuinely building a family, and a family business; Rico and Vanessa moving out on their own.
And in that speed, and in that motion into the future, is my major disagreement with much of what I’ve read about the episode today. Writers including Heather Havrilesky and Rhetoric and Democracy read the show’s final montage, showing the deaths of each of the major characters, as being the product of Claire’s imagination, as she drives toward New York. I want to argue that the juxtaposition is much more pointed than that, as indicated by the use of the death-date title card convention — that these are actual futures, not imagined futures. Suggesting that these deaths are Claire’s imaginings puts her in the position of having a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy; she, of course, has in a way the most beautiful death, at 102, in her bed. And I just can’t think of these scenes as being that crass. Additionally, the first few cuts from her driving away back to the future of the Fishers are of happy moments — Willa’s first birthday; David and Keith’s wedding. It’s only after this that the deaths follow, and I can’t see those deaths as being any more imagined than the happier life-goes-on immediate future that lies just outside the show’s reach.
Instead, I’d argue that as the episode accelerated into the future throughout, the acceleration continues in these final moments. What we see, in each of these poignant, or tragic, or faintly comical deaths, is an inevitable, unstoppable future, the one that each of these characters, like Claire, is driving purposefully toward. The final match cut from the cataract-filled eyes of Claire on her death bed to the clear, focused eyes of Claire on the road to New York underlines for me not her imagined ideas about possible deaths, but instead her actual life, as she drives clear-eyed into the future.
It’s gorgeous. As Nate says in Claire’s ear, in his last line, “you can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone.” We all already are that future, and, as the show has told us throughout its five seasons, the only thing to do is make the most of the drive.