By Andy Mannix
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Last Saturday night I found my neighbor's pet rabbit dead in the street. It had a bald mark straight down its center, and its tiny legs were still in mid-leap as if it were trying to outrun an impending vehicle's tires before they careened down its backside. My neighbor came outside, and for few moments she just stood over the rabbit, shaking her head. And then, suddenly, she started sobbing, a staccato high-pitched whimper that sounded like an awkward laugh on a backward loop. "I'm sorry," she said, between gulps of air. "It's just that when my son was in the hospital with kidney problems I promised him if he got better and came home I'd have whatever he wanted waiting for him. He said, 'Gimme a rabbit, Mama.'" She pauses. "And my sons are the ones who let her out last night. Those brats...Damn those brats!" she half-yells, before busting out laughing.
In that moment, as a JC Penney bag crinkled with the weight of the rabbit, I thought of the pilot episode of Six Feet Under, where Claire (Lauren Ambrose), high as a kite and emotionally contorted, let loose a hyenalike laugh that had been welling up inside of her during her father's funeral. I didn't think about it because the incidents were necessarily similar, or because here was this woman, whose name I didn't know, outwardly grieving in front of me not only the death of her pet bunny, but moments and memories and losses even larger.
I thought about the HBO drama because almost everything makes me think of this show: a fountainlike California palm, a hearse in front of me on the highway, a guy at Pepitos who shares the same hair color and simultaneously discerning and flirtatious half-smile as David (Michael C. Hall), my own selfishness (I am so like Peter Krause's Nate), my idealism (Nate again!), my struggle with my nature-and-nurture-determined anhedonia (I am the entire Fisher family).
Since I began my one-sided relationship with the Fishers four years ago, SFU creator Alan Ball's dysfunctional characters, like my own family, have become reference points for my own neuroses. For example, I wonder during the SFU series finale, Would Claire sit on her couch, a handful of balled-up and shredded toilet paper in her hand, heaving with sobs over a television show? Yes, I decide. Because Claire, at the tail end of her cynical youth, has realized that "coolness" is more superficial than the embalmed remains of life that fill her home on a daily basis.
The season finale exposed how impossible it is to do what Claire did: crack the facade of complacency and composure and jadedness and embrace the maudlin, to grieve unashamedly and to unabashedly seize on the cracks of hope in between with equal measure. Is there anything really so wrong with publicly weeping over a pet bunny, or grieving the loss of fictional friends? Unlike all of banal entertainment, SFU didn't squelch or numb our feelings; it instead forced us to feel what we're too afraid, or too embarrassed, to feel.
In its last two seasons, Six Feet Under has been unfairly cast as an overwrought "soap opera," a criticism that's akin to calling Lindsay Lohan the new Sissy Spacek. At it's best, SFU delivered some of the rawest and most unflattering depictions of human interactions on television. Even at its supposed worst (season four), when many fans felt the show had gone astray, it was its willingness to depict a character like David, bloody and high on crack and vulnerable to his bones, that made the show so revolutionary. Nothing about the show--not the death and grieving and struggle with acceptance that was at its core, nor its cast of characters--was ever black and white. On SFU, even death wasn't cloaked in an ominous black cape. It was simply an inevitable encounter less difficult than being born, but more difficult to handle than anything else. There were no villains on SFU, only characters so complex that they defied concepts of good and bad. Take David, who on one level was so perfectly pressed and pragmatic it was annoying, and on another was so tender and exposed, combating his conscience in the form of visits from his deceased and disapproving father.
In the moments before Nate's death, when he dumps pregnant Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) for Quaker Maggie (Tina Holmes), it's hard to know if Nate's supposed near-death enlightenment is another one of his many illusions about life, or a crystalline moment where he realizes that achieving happiness is all that matters, even if it means others have to feel a mess of pain because of it. Does this make him narcissistic and piggish, or brave and triumphant? Or does it make him both?
Then again, death never really offers closure; it leaves behind all the things that went unsaid or should've never been said to begin with. And though it was far from preachy, SFU taught us that in the end, as in life, we're all alone, which is the one thing that binds us together. It's okay to grieve and wallow and find empathy and hope and beauty in even the dimmest moments. Because death--as it did with Nate and Brenda, Claire and Ted, Maggie and Nate, Ruth and George--can bring us together. And is there anything more beautiful than that? As Nate would say, death makes us appreciate life, man.
Alan Ball will probably never reveal what he intended with that scene before Nate's death. And I'll probably never figure out how, exactly, his characters burrowed into my life so deeply. But I have a hunch I'll dream about it for weeks.
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