Six Feet Under: Singing for Our Lives, Preparing for Our Death

The wheels were well in motion for the end of Six Feet Under prior to the eighth episode of the final season, titled “Singing for Our Lives”. This was the episode that prepared us for the final act however, one that few viewers saw coming. Looking back on this episode, there was a heavy emphasis on patterns and themes coming full circle. In many ways, this was a closure episode with some instances being obvious and some less so. While primarily remembered for its shocking ending, this episode stands out in a rewatch as a true highlight of the series and one that absolutely warrants a deeper look.

Back to Square One

In the beginning of the series, Ruth disclosed that she had been having an affair with her hairdresser Hiram. Their relationship dissolved early on and Ruth went on to have a series of mostly unhealthy relationships over the course of the show. In many ways, Six Feet Under showed us what Ruth’s teen years and early 20s should have been. The awkward relationships so many of us go through, fumbling our way through, learning what we want, what love looks like to us and how to love another person. Ruth didn’t get any of that. She became pregnant as a teenager, got married to Nathaniel before he left for Vietnam and was a wife and mother by 18, handling the duties of motherhood alone.

As painful as it was to watch Ruth have these messy experiences as an adult at times, it was also liberating to see her take control of her own life. When she married George in late Season 3 and his mental health began to nosedive, this relationship became symbolic of her childhood, taking care of her grandmother and also her marriage to Nathaniel, where she mostly had to go it alone. After experiencing growth through bad relationships, she fell back into a pattern. She became the caregiver and lonely wife again. When she was at her breaking point in her marriage to Nathaniel, she began her affair with Hiram and here, at a breaking point after finally leaving George and not knowing what to do with herself, she turned to Hiram again all these years later.

Revisiting this affair here in “Singing for Our Lives” was a positive for Ruth, despite the fact that Hiram wasn’t really someone she was interested in. Ruth wanted to escape her cycles and Hiram represented ending a cycle of Ruth living for other people. Whether this was a fact she was conscious of or not, Hiram was means to an end, a way for Ruth to feel free and unburden herself of those in her life that simply wanted her to take care of them. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough of all for Ruth would be shown in the next episode though. She didn’t give into Hiram’s sexual advances. That’s not what she wanted and she realized while with him, that he was also not what she wanted. It took being alone with him to realize that what Ruth wanted was actually to be alone, independent and left to her own devices.

Of course, breaking this cycle would have ramifications. Ruth wasn’t home when they called to tell her Nate was hospitalized, and then after leaving Hiram at the camp site, she was forced to walk through the canyon until she could find a bus home. Because of this journey towards independence, she would miss her son’s last day alive. There was a price to be paid for breaking her self destructive patterns but perhaps not being there for Nate’s hospitalization and later, death, spared Ruth from reverting back to those same patterns, feeling like she had to take care of everyone and everything in that moment. Instead, over the last few episodes, she was simply able to grieve and be the matriarch her family so desperately needed.

Ruth in the Fisher basement in Six Feet Under

Past, Meet the Future

Claire had been suffering from a crisis of self up until this point of the final season. No longer in school, she had joined the work force working a terrible temp job in an office she hated. She was questioning if she was an artist and what exactly the rest of her life would look like, just like so many of us did during our college years.

While on a coffee run for her co-workers, Claire ran into her train wreck of a former best friend, Anita. Much like many other series in their final seasons, Six Feet Under gave us an episode to say goodbye to several memorable characters from previous years, which happened in the form of Anita inviting Claire to an art show at her former school later that night. Tying her past to her future, Claire invited Ted to come with her to the show in exchange for Claire going with Ted to see several of his old frat brothers at a bar.

Despite the fact that they were as opposite as it gets, Claire and Ted’s relationship was in full bloom by this point and Ted seeing Claire’s old art school friends proved to be a powerful, yet hysterical, moment for her where she realized that she had grown up some. She had changed some and while she may not be attracted to the same art school drama that she previously was, she was still an artist and that was still her world. Personal maturity hadn’t changed who she was at her core, which was and has always been, an artist.

Claire and Russell at an art show in Six Feet Under

The scenes at the art exhibit were definitely “feel good moments” in the sense that characters such as Oliver, Russell, Anita and Jimmy had been such a big part of the show and this was a fitting goodbye to them. Over the top just like always, these characters represented Claire’s past, while she stood with the man that she didn’t know would be a part of her future, all while remembering exactly who she was. This episode set Claire on the path she would remain on for the rest of the series. She was able to shake her self doubts about whether or not she actually was an artist but also, retain this sense of personal maturity that she had gained throughout this season thus far.

Love Is Pain

Rico had always been a Shakespearean character in his own right, a bastard brother who was in close yet ultimately always on the outside looking in. In “Singing for Our Lives”, Rico was very much at a crossroads of sorts. Professionally, he wanted to be independent. Personally, he just wanted his wife to absolve him of his indiscretions.

The cold open death in this episode was a Latina, an attractive single woman whose parents didn’t speak English well. Nate attempted to handle the intake through his broken Spanish, which angered Rico. Rico sold the family a very elaborate, expensive funeral after he walked in on Nate dropping the ball and took over, to which Nate naively accused Rico of taking advantage of a grieving family. Nate’s lack of understanding about how Hispanic families honor their dead and not getting Rico to begin with angered Rico to no end, furthering his desire to be set free of this partnership with the Brothers Fisher.

Rico’s troubles at home manifested at work, with him envisioning the deceased woman telling him that if she were his wife, she would understand that men cheat. She would let him be the man and forgive him for anything he ever did. Rico at this point was so beaten down by trying to win back Vanessa, only to receive the cold shoulder for his efforts that he was at a breaking point. Later in the episode, he vocalized this to Vanessa, who was able to explain to Rico exactly how deeply she had been hurt by his betrayal. This was the first, genuine conversation the two had about their feelings and despite the difficulty of that conversation, a path towards healing was finally established.

This was a powerful episode for Rico and Vanessa. They needed this moment of finally laying everything out there. In many ways, the Diaz family was the “happily ever after” of this show. They mended their broken family and would go into business for themselves, after years of Rico being the bastard brother to Nate and David. This episode set all that into play.

Love Will Keep Us Together

New parents David and Keith left their adopted sons with Ruth for the first time. There was an obvious tension between the boys and Keith, which would spill over in “Singing for Our Lives”. The boys would escape Ruth’s care and steal a car, which they would take for a joy ride and get busted for. When Keith and David later confronted the boys, Durrell would pull a knife on Keith.

For Keith, this would be a climatic character moment. The man who grew up in an abusive home, who spent so much of his adult life treating people the way he had seen his father treat others, was at a crossroads. How would he react when faced with a situation that had the threat of violence in his own home, with the boys he was in the process of adopting?

Keith grabs Durrell's arm in Six Feet Under

When Anthony revealed that the boys were simply “having some fun before we got sent back”, referring to all of the foster parents who had given up on them before, Keith in that moment became a father to those children, the way David had already become. Keith calmed the boys fears and told them that they would go on vacations as a family, soothing their fears and making this situation real to not just the boys, but to him too. Previously David was the only one who thought of this situation as a permanent one. This explosion of potential violence and an honest answer from a young child knocked down the walls and made this group of four take a step towards thinking of themselves as a family.

In many ways, this episode was the culmination of Keith’s personal story line. Over the course of the series, we had watched him evolve from an angry, short tempered, violent man who chastised David for being closeted but really wasn’t much more open himself. We watched Keith evolve from being emotionally abusive to becoming a caring, loving partner and here with the children, not behaving like his own father and breaking that cycle of family abuse was Keith’s last hurdle. We saw that ugly pattern die and a family truly come to be.

Singing for Our Lives

Nate and Brenda’s relationship prior to this episode was already in a bad way. They were two separate individuals going through the motions. As I’ve written elsewhere, Brenda wanted the relationship to work. Nate was the one pulling away and Brenda was more reactionary. In this episode, Nate asked Brenda to join him at a Quaker prayer meeting, which Maggie was a part of. It was a request Brenda wanted to say no to but she went for Nate. She sat there, completely out of her element while Nate embraced the way he felt there. Nate was seeking a sense of peace, a chance to stop hurting and to just be OK. Brenda was fighting for the family she never thought she would have, then got, and now was in danger of losing.

While Nate asked Brenda to join him at the prayer meeting, Brenda did not ask Nate to join her at the doctor’s office for additional testing. Brenda, in an example of painful foreshadowing, learned alone that the baby was a girl and was indeed healthy. Despite the fight that ensued from Brenda telling Nate that she went alone and also, how uncomfortable she was at the prayer meeting, Nate asked Brenda to go again with him and that Maggie needed a ride. Brenda refused and was understandably hurt at yet another mention of Maggie, a woman she was clearly suspicious and jealous of, all for good reason. Nate wasn’t hiding his attraction to this woman.

The stage for tragedy was set. Nate goes to pick up Maggie for the prayer meeting and they give into temptation, sleeping with each other. Brenda, desperate to save her marriage and family, went to the prayer meeting wondering where her husband was. This is where we, the viewer have to question whether Nate, the character who always ran, simply ran into the arms of another woman or if he was finally at the end of his spiritual quest. He had long been a character full of emotional turmoil and pain, trying to fix situations and do what was expected of him. Here, he didn’t. He was attracted to a woman who also just wanted peace after a life full of pain. He gravitated towards her and in this moment, did what he wanted. All season long, Nate had been reminded of how short life is, as death kept getting closer and closer to home. The fact that Nate had a stroke right after sleeping with Maggie is both tragic and ironic. Most of all, it was sad. While getting dressed, his arm went numb and he yelled “Narm!” as he collapsed to the ground and credits rolled, setting up the end game for the final four episodes of the series, which would be some of the most gut-wrenching and powerful hours in television history.

Singing for Our Lives, Preparing for Our Death

“Singing for Our Lives” is synonymous with Nate collapsing but the episode is so much more than that. I’ve found the episode’s title, taken from the song sang at the prayer meeting, to be symbolic of what all of the characters were going through. Ruth was fighting for independence. Claire was seeking her identity and way in the world. David wanted to make his family work. Rico wanted to rebuild his family. And Brenda was fighting for a family that wasn’t meant to be, at least with Nate.

All of these characters knew what they wanted in life and they were singing out for it, crying out for what felt so close but they just couldn’t grab it. Here in this episode, many of them did find peace with what had been haunting them. Most of them did. “Singing for Our Lives” felt like a literal action for them. Except with Nate. He was the only one not fighting for something. As he said himself, he was tired of fighting. He just wanted peace. It makes some kind of tragic sense that while everyone else was singing for their lives, Nate was preparing for his death, even if he didn’t know it. He was shedding the masks he had worn for so many years and a more true version of himself was emerging. Maybe his actions were selfish? They were definitely harmful. In the following episode, mere hours before his death, he confessed to his very pregnant wife that he had slept with Maggie and that their marriage was indeed over. The last conversation Brenda would have with Nate was this one. But Nate could no longer hide behind a desire to make everyone feel better, to take care of everyone else the same way his mother did. He was shedding his layers of self deception and people pleasing, ending his cycles, preparing himself for what was to come and also, sparing Brenda a lifetime of wondering what really happened that night. She knew the truth, as painful as it was.

After spending five seasons with the Fisher family, we were setup for a final run of episodes that could leave the least emotional person with an empty box of tissues. Six Feet Under was always a hard watch in some ways and the final run of episodes, setup here in “Singing for Our Lives”, challenges our emotions in all the best ways, forcing us to grieve along with these characters and ask life’s hardest questions. While those last four episodes are what most people remember, “Singing for Our Lives” had us preparing for this landmark series’ death and we’re all the better for it.

Written by Andrew Grevas

Andrew is the Founder / Editor in Chief of 25YL. He’s engaged with 2 sons, a staunch defender of the series finales for both Lost & The Sopranos and watched Twin Peaks at the age of 5 during its original run, which explains a lot about his personality.

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