Alan Ball made some kind of TV history Sunday night with the stunning coda to the final episode of his HBO series "Six Feet Under." (A word of warning: If you have yet to watch the episode, do not read on, or risk spoiling what should be experienced raw.)
To put it bluntly, Ball killed off all his main characters. That in itself wasn't spectacular; what was spectacular was the taboo-busting way he projected the deaths into a dream-like sequence that stood for all our lives, all our deaths.
Those last 15 minutes (or whatever it was) took your breath away, although one presumes Ball had his loyal audience at goodbye. Nevertheless, it was stirring: Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose) driving off to New York in her Toyota hybrid as, in montage, the Fishers' future lives are revealed in otherworldly flash-forwards, the faces ravaged by age. Then the shocker: each of their deaths, punctuated by an epitaph, the trademark of each episode's beginning.
Ball must have pulled it off; I forgot to feel manipulated. Even the distressed-girl-with-guitar pop song that scored the sequence, "Breathe Me" by Sia, felt true to the panoramic, life-affirming tone of the whole. As ersatz poetry, it worked better than that floating trash bag Ball used in "American Beauty." In the end, it seemed, he was finally releasing "Six Feet Under" from the claustrophobia of its often-brittle, if refreshingly biting, approach to TV melodrama.
The episode, written and directed by Ball, was like a corrective to everything that had come before it: Ball dropping his honed cynicism to reward viewers with scenes of reconciliation, harmony and, yes, uplift -- the stuff "Six Feet Under" had seemed hellbent on insisting was patently false.
At first, it appeared, Ball would end his series in the dining room of a gay couple who had done a fantastic remodel of a corner-lot Craftsman/mortuary. That would be David (Michael C. Hall) and Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), the adoptive parents of a multiracial family, who became, in the end, the new nuclear incarnation of the Fishers, carrying on their funeral business.
And so here, you were fooled, was where the episode -- and the series -- would end: Everybody -- or whoever remained of the extended brood of the medicated, the numb, the depressed, the ostracized and the merely disaffected -- comes together to say goodbye to Claire, who is finally embarking into the unknown of an artist's life. The camera takes us on a tour of the Fishers' reborn home, with its warm lighting and high-end appliances, the extended family hanging out in unexpected groups that suggest its new un-pressured, togetherness vibe.
They raise a toast to the lost son, brother and husband, Nate (Peter Krause), whose death three episodes before the finale seemed to be "Six Feet Under's" last brazen act of plot-pointing (even Krause, in an interview that ran in the Toronto Star last week, grumbled a bit about the paces his character was put through. Saying, for instance, of his deathbed breakup with wife Brenda: "I think, honestly, there was something that was rather unclear and murky about this story arc -- why it was exactly that Nate and Brenda couldn't remain intimate together. I didn't buy it. Let me just say that."
Can you get post-traumatic stress from acting on a TV series? As someone who didn't become a regular viewer until this season, I had a vague awareness of the sourness and bathos in which the show stewed. But I never had to act in it. And this season, I enjoyed myself immensely. Finally, a show that goes for it emotionally and tries to say something about human relationships -- to shout it, even. So what I miss?
I suspect there were those of you during the finale who were thinking: How can "Six Feet Under," of all shows, leave us and its characters in a happy place, using, of all things, a family dinner as a backdrop?
And yet if anyone had earned a perfectly pleasant meal, it was these people. In that first hour, to be sure, the characters were delivered in tidy fashion from the other side of the post-Nate abyss. Claire seemed to get her first big break as a photographer and melted into the love of a Republican; Ruth (Frances Conroy) woke up from her hopelessness and endless reruns of the aptly named "Just Shoot Me" to make room for kindly George (James Cromwell) while also forging, finally, a life where she was not stifled.
David by degrees seemed finally to best the demons of his brutal abduction and his own gay baggage, mellowing enough to become a contented paterfamilias. Brenda gave birth, then seemed to be conquering all her crushing ambivalence and fear about taking on the role of mother. Rico (Freddy Rodriguez), the artist over a corpse, finally got out from under the Fishers to start his own business.
Were they scenes from a show's deathbed conversion? I don't know. I went with it all. The death of a loved one can be -- also, amid everything else it is -- oddly freeing. Nate, throughout the episode, played the ghost of traumas past and the otherworldly guide toward a peaceful place (as did Richard Jenkins in his turn as Nathaniel, the father, whose untimely death in the pilot was when it all began).
It was Nate who guided the viewer into the show's true end, the provocative one.
You knew Ball wouldn't want to end his show on a neat or complacent note; his achievement was in figuring out a way to stay true to its overarching themes and to give us a jolt, without the whole thing feeling trite or collapsing under the weight of its angst. But death, ultimately, became "Six Feet Under." If the show's grimly ironic voice could be too controlling, too bombastic, in its ending that voice was set free.