Death has terrible timing. In case that point was still lost on us by the fifth and final season of Six Feet Under, creator Alan Ball pounded it home by striking down the show’s angst-ridden lead, Nate (Peter Krause), with a brain hemorrhage, right after he cheated on his pregnant wife and then dumped her from the comfort of his hospital bed.
For a show that has carefully avoided moralism at every turn, Nate’s untimely demise felt suspiciously like a message: that death is an appropriate karmic gift for the guy who has everything—and takes it all for granted. Of course, watching Nate suffer has always been part of the appeal of HBO’s award-winning series. Whether it was his deadly brain disease or his loveless marriage to Lisa (Lili Taylor), Nate navigated the bad times with the sort of torment rarely depicted in a medium that strongly prefers tough guys and stoic heroes over obsessives haunted by second-guessing and self-doubt.
But even as Nate’s life finally improved, he still seemed determined to whinge and wring his hands at every turn. At his 40th-birthday party, he announced, without her permission, that his wife, Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), was pregnant, then slinked off to whisper sweet, self-pitying nothings to his stepsister Maggie (Tina Holmes). He topped off the ignoble night by wielding a broom against an innocent bird that flew into his house, killing the bird while his guests watched in horror. If we didn’t already suspect Nate had it coming, his little To Kill a Mockingbird moment was certainly a red flag.
Nate’s stubborn refusal to live happily ever after was once part of his charm, but this season he took self-involvement and escapism to unseen heights, rationalizing the whole thing as part of some larger search for meaning. Then, out of nowhere, he was gone. Was he supposed to represent the coddled hothouse flower inside all of us? And did he somehow die for our sins, so that we wouldn’t cheat on our pregnant wives or take out our anger on little birdies?
Creator Alan Ball insists that there’s no moral to Nate’s story. “The message is that we die,” he says. “And sometimes we die in the middle of messy things in our lives. Death doesn’t wait until you take care of all your issues.” Ball’s non-message, though, may just be the most radical moral of all, especially in the context of a culture that’s dedicated to lulling us into a comfortable state of denial about death.
With Six Feet Under heading to its final resting place on August 21, fans have been frantically trying to guess how the series will end. Is Ball hinting that the show’s exit might be as messy—and as unresolved—as Nate’s? “I hope the audience finds the ending as gratifying as it was for us to create it,” he says, with the coyness of the Grim Reaper himself.
While every sporting event and celebrity scandal distracts us from our mortality, Six Feet Under still goes for the jugular, reminding us that death is as arbitrary and unexpected as it is inevitable. Still, it’s probably a good idea to be extra nice to little birdies, just in case.