I always hated the ghosts on Six Feet Under. No other TV series had such a surplus of spectral visitors. Extinguished characters returned to goad the living, a cheap way of gesturing at psychological depth. A few weeks ago, Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) joined the phantom chorus and turned out to be the most irritating ghost of all. He butted in everywhere, spreading existential wisdom with even more smirky sanctimony than when he was breathing. He saved the lion’s share of his haunting for his wife, Brenda, alternately undermining her confidence and egging her on to commit incest. “I’m just saying, you only get one life. There’s no God, no rules, no judgments, except those you accept or create for yourself,” he informs her in an elevator. “Once it’s over, it’s over.”

From its debut episode to this week’s series finale, Six Feet Under has been a show about loss. It began with the demise of patriarch Nathaniel Fisher, but as the seasons went on, the deaths that prefaced each episode got more cursory and less crucial to the plot, often a kind of ghoulish comic relief to offset the Fisher clan’s latest setbacks and sexual skirmishes. Corpses were just a mundane element of the business, and the series quickly morphed from a job-based drama into a high-class family saga. Sure, a smidgen of morbidity remained in scenes where David or Rico chatted while working over a grotesquely mutilated body, but mortality took a backseat to the beautifully acted tribulations of Nate and co.

All that changed a few weeks ago with Nate’s death. Yet it wasn’t his abrupt end that was so shocking; he had become such an unsympathetic figure that there was even a degree of satisfaction in it. It was the aftermath—a protracted intensity of mourning you just don’t see on television, even on Six Feet Under, a series ostensibly about bereavement. In the past, we caught glimpses of grief in the Fishers’ clients, but they passed by in a flicker, overshadowed by Brenda’s sex addiction, say, or Claire’s adolescent self-absorption. The final episodes of Six Feet Under focused all their melodramatic energy on a messy emotional reckoning that (as someone who experienced a lot of personal loss in the last year can vouch) felt all too authentic.

Suddenly, the folks who live in the house of death are smacked upside the head by it. David, so expert at discussing funeral plots with his patrons, cracks completely, pursued by visions of the psycho-stalker who abducted him last season. Claire, who has blithely tooled around in an old green hearse since the start of the show, acts out her rage in a typically self-destructive manner. And in one of Rachel Griffiths’s most nuanced performances, Brenda—bloated with Nate’s unborn child—appears utterly bereft. “I used to think that I’d have more people in my life as time went on,” she confesses to her brother. Instead, she finds the people she loves falling away.

The surprise is that Six Feet Under turns out to have been a show about life rather than death. These were characters in constant, painful transformation, suffering frequent reversals that were as often as not self-inflicted.
And in what seems to me a cop-out, creator Alan Ball used Nate’s demise as a Get Out of Your Own Personal Jail Free card. As Nate passed away, we saw him finally allowing himself to let go and run into the surf. The trauma of his death creates a rift in the family reality that allows them, too, to let go of their rigid ideas of themselves. Claire is propelled into a glamorous New York future; Rico shakes off the domination of his priggish white bosses; Ruth, rooted to that old funeral home all these years like some kind of archaic plant life, finally lets her hair down and surrenders the homestead to David and Keith’s young family. In the final episode, we see that the couple has done an extreme makeover, transforming Fisher & Sons from ’50s frump to haute metrosexual and thus severing our ties with the central visual motif of the series. A new life for everyone, courtesy of Nate.

So many things that bugged me most about the series are inextricably tied to the things I loved, though: the way it so often tips over the line, from the sublime to the silly, from mawkish to epiphanic, from delicately subtle writing to hokey monologues that leave nothing unspoken. The final episodes gave in to the show’s worst excesses, yet again making missteps into strengths. As Ball himself says on the tribute special Six Feet Under 2001–2005, which airs on HBO this week, “In this culture, we just sort of grieve quietly. You don’t want to embarrass people by the big emotions.” Perhaps the most crucial thing you could say about Six Feet Under is, it was not embarrassed by the big emotions.

The final minutes of the series—a meta-ending if ever there was one—prove this beyond the shadow of a doubt. (If you haven’t seen the finale, stop reading here.) I felt grossed out by its cheesy artificiality but also deeply moved. As Claire speeds into the unknown, we see a fast-forward précis of the future: birthdays, marriages . . . until eventually the characters we have come to know wither and die, one by one, before our eyes. Ball refuses to allow us an open-ended fantasy of characters carrying on forever in televisual immortality; he even mocks this idea by having a wrinkled Brenda expire (whether of old age or boredom is not clear) while brother Billy drones on about his need for emotional closure. You want closure, you got it: This is the most final finale in television history. It renders literal the idea Claire maliciously lobbed at a co-worker: “Everyone you know is going to die.”

Instead of being bleak, though, the end is oddly exultant. We’re mourning all the living that the characters will get to do before they croak, all that misery and pleasure that we as viewers will never get to witness. One of the very few series that didn’t feel exhausted and played out, Six Feet Under went out with a gasp—not a second too late and far too soon.