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It seems there was a big meta comment-a-thon going on last weekend. I guess now is as good a time as any to post this essay of Six Feet Under meta that has been chewing at my brain for the last month or so. This meta is focused on a single scene in 'Ecotone' (5x9) and if you've watched the show then you already know what that scene is. Please please do not read this meta if you are intending to watch SFU and wish to remain unspoiled.

Six Feet Under Meta: The Ecotone Dream
The place where the Supernatural and the Psychological overlap.

"We are so fucking lost..." Nathaniel Sr (5.9)

Can Six Feet Under be described by the term 'Magical Realism'? Since finishing my marathon, I've been feeling compelled to write about one undeniably magical scene in 'Ecotone' and consider how subtle supernatural elements work within a show that is largely about the harsh realities of life and death. Sure we see a lot of talking corpses on SFU. But when dead characters talk we may assume everything they say is psychological projection from the living character in the scene with them. The Fishers are used to the presence of death in their home. They have imaginary conversations with the dead to pass the time between embalming and funerals. There aren't really any ghosts in the show, right? When the Fishers talk to the Late Nathaniel Sr. it's only in their heads.

But if that were always the case, how can we explain the final scene of 'Knock, Knock' (1.13) where the Late Nathaniel Sr. stands at the top of the staircase, looking down at his family who are in the slumber room celebrating the birth of Rico's second son? In this moment, the Late Nathaniel is not appearing to us out of any of the living Fisher's imaginations. In this brief magic moment, the show suggests that Nathaniel Sr. really is a spiritual presence watching over his family. In another episode Nate says to David "Sometimes it feels like Dad's still around" and David dismisses Nate's superstition despite the fact that David often talks to his dead father out loud when working in the basement. I wouldn't argue that either Fisher brother is wrong. The Late Nathaniel Sr. often appears as a psychological manifestation of Nate or David's self-loathing. And I don't believe the real Nathaniel Sr. loathed any of his children.

But for Nate jr. psychology isn't enough. Nate wants to believe in something. Nate wants to believe in the human soul and a spiritual world beyond life and death. Nate wants to believe in magic. It was Nate who brought Brenda to his father's secret room, asking if she could pick up any vibes. It was Nate who believed that his dead wife Lisa might be following him around a graveyard in the form of a dog. It was Nate who felt immense peace and connection in the silence of a Quaker church and his wife Brenda thought that Nate was being ridiculous. But Nate's sense of spirituality is not mocked or denied by the show itself. At the moment of Nate's death, something magical does happen which seems to affirm Nate's faith in an indefinable something beyond the physical world.

At the moment of his death, Nate and David share the same dream.

"I wish you could come with me." Nate (2.13)

Before Nate falls asleep and dies, he is lying in a hospital bed with David sitting at his bedside. Nate tells David he's tired so David suggests they relax and watch TV. On the TV screen we see a shot of birds diving into the sea. In S5 we have seen Nate being haunted by birds - the bird who Nate saw pecking at his wedding cake and the bird that kept invading Nate's house during his 40th birthday party. Nate always seemed unsettled by the presence of these birds as though perceiving them to be an omen of doom. In the hospital, those birds on the TV screen must have been the last thing Nate ever saw with his waking eyes. When we pull back from the TV we see that Nate is asleep while David is still awake. At first, we are led to believe that this is Nate's dream alone.

The dream begins with Nate in the Fisher house. A dream!David calls Nate outside to where he's waiting in the driveway with the old white van that they always use to collect dead people. In the dream, David doesn't look anything like David. Why is David suddenly a scruffy surfer? David has appeared in Nate's dreams before and Nate's subconscious has never re-imagined David as a completely different person. David, however, has often put on false appearances to please his family and to disguise his feelings of inadequacy. If there is any reason for David's surfer suit then I'd say this is something that David's subconscious is bringing to the dream; an early indication that there are already two spirits connecting in this shared dream realm. Nate wouldn't imagine David differently because he loved David the way he was. David however may have wanted to be a cool laid-back guy who his big brother would want to take this trip with. And where exactly are Nate and David going? It's not specified but surfer!Dave says they've been waiting for this their "whole fucking lives".

And Nate always wanted to make this final journey with David. In the S2 finale, Nate plans his own funeral in case of fatality during his first AVM surgery. During in his preparations Nate says to David; "I wish you could come with me". David thinks Nate means go with him to the hospital but Nate says "That's not what I meant". It seems creepy to suggest to your brother that you wish he could die with you, but David seemed touched by Nate's declaration. As a religious man, David believes in an afterlife, so David accepts that Nate simply wishes they could make that inevitable transition from life to death together. For Nate, David must seem like the perfect person to face death with. For the Fisher sons, death was their inheritance, their birthright. Nate ran away from the family funeral home in fear while his brother stayed and accepted the death they were born into. In Nate's eyes, David is the strong one.  

"You're in the game now, buddy boy." Nathaniel Sr. (2.1)

Nate has often had visions or dreams of his father as a Grim Reaper figure who is forever trying to drag Nate or Nate's loved ones into the beyond with him. So it's appropriate that Nathaniel Sr. is in the driving seat for this little family holiday to the brink of death. When Nathaniel Sr. stops the van, he yells at his sons like they're little kids, saying "Am I going to have to separate you boys?" Which is exactly what is about to happen. Nate and David are about to be permanently separated, yet the playful tone of this scene doesn't prepare you for that impending tragedy. The Fisher brothers have been passing a dream joint between them and are laughing their asses off. But let's think about what is happening outside this dream at this moment. Outside the dream, Nate's brain is bleeding to death. Nate is safe in his subconscious and doesn't feel any pain, but if Nate is getting giddy and hysterical that may be the reason.    

Nathaniel Sr's next line "We are so fucking lost" echoes the title of the S3 finale episode 'Sorry I'm Lost' in which Claire strays into the spirit world and speaks to several dead characters - her dad, Gabriel and his little brother, Lisa and her aborted child. Once again, the viewer can view this sequence as something that takes place purely in Claire's imagination as she wanders around a cemetery searching for her father's grave. However when Claire takes her walk through the spirit world, she does not know for certain that Lisa or Gabe have died, so it could be the show is magically bestowing Claire with temporary psychic powers. "Sorry I'm lost" was actually a Claire line that was cut. So let's say that being 'lost' is something like being in limbo. No actually; let's call it the ecotone. Earlier in the episode Nate explains the term 'ecotone' to Rico as "an area where two ecological worlds overlap". This dream sequence takes Nate and David to a different kind of ecotone; a transitional realm where life and death overlap. It looks a lot like a Californian beach.

It makes sense that death would manifest as a beach in Nate's dream. Nate lost Lisa to the sea. He waited by the beach for days, staring into the ocean that had taken her from him. But even before his wife's drowning, we have seen beaches in Nate's fantasy sequences. At the end of 'In the Game' (2.1) Nate sits on a beach and imagines himself walking fully clothed into the ocean. This moment comes not long after Nate's AVM diagnosis has been confirmed. Nate seeing himself slipping beneath the waves feels a lot like Nate trying to accept his own mortality. Nate has been running from the reality of death for so long but in the last five years (between working as a funeral director and learning he has a potentially fatal brain condition) Nate has reached a certain level of peace and acceptance. He doesn't want to die, yet at the end of the ecotone dream Nate is running towards the sea and diving right in. Nate liked to think of himself as spiritual man. In his ecstasy dream Nathaniel Sr assured Nate that the spirit goes forever and certainly that's what Nate wants to believe. But the truth is that Nate was more of a frustrated agnostic in life. Nate was in love with Brenda, an atheist who kept insisting that life is random and meaningless. Nate could never stop yearning for something more, hence his conversion to Quakerism and his affair with the more idealistic Maggie. Again, I don't think that Nate ever wanted to die, but as Nate runs towards the waves declaring "This is what we came here to do!" (ie. we're born to die) I can't help wondering if it was partly the suspense that was killing him.

"I feel like my face is coming off." David (5.11)

As Nate disappears into the sea, the dream shifts its focus to David, revealing another ecotone at play - the overlapping of the two Fisher brothers subconscious minds. As Nate slips away so does David's surfer disguise and he is back in his customary funereal suit. David is used to putting on false appearances. He spent all of his twenties in the closet and even as David has grown more accepting of himself, he still regularly represses his true feelings and puts on a brave face to please others. When David's fears take over, his mask slips. Or as David will say in a later episode; it feels like his face is coming off. For David this trip is not an exciting leap into the unknown. For David this is another abduction. They came to the beach in the same white van of his carjacking and Nathaniel Sr. is suddenly holding out a crack pipe. The last time David got this close to death it was terrifying and he is not ready to face it again.

For David
, the afterlife is not a place of peace but a realm of consequences. The last thing David yells to Nate is "There could be sharks!" because even now David believes that God is waiting to judge him (to judge everyone) after they die. After his kidnapping ordeal, David tells Claire he forgot to pray when he feared he was about to be shot and David seems to view this as a failure. David has always been hard on himself and I think his breakdown following Nate's death has a lot to do with survivors guilt as much as grief. David was the one person who was with Nate when he died. And David fell asleep. I doubt David could have done anything if he had stayed awake (Nate's seems to die very quickly). But in the days following Nate's death, David isn't sleeping at all and he starts having daylight hallucinations. When Ruth pesters David for details on exactly how and why Nate died David lashes out with "Do you think I killed him?"

We don't know if David remembers the beach dream. Likely the shock of w
aking up to find his brother lying dead in his hospital bed would cause David to forget the dream instantly. And even if David did remember the dream it's not like Nate can ever tell David "Woah, I dreamed the exact same thing, bro! How about that?" But if David remembers anything it seems to be a subconscious feeling of witnessing his brother's death and not being able to stop it, the same feelings of frozen helplessness that David experienced when Jake was holding him hostage. Only the viewer gets to see the ecotone dream from both sides. For Nate it seemed like a moment of peace and even enlightenment while for David it was a traumatizing nightmare. Like David, I was too distraught over seeing the screen turn to white and Nate's name appearing to appreciate the magic and hope the show offers through the ecotone dream. While the show doesn't outright promise us that Nate and the other dead characters are all having carnivals and card games in the afterlife, it does hint that there is some kind of collective unconsciousness that keeps all these characters connected, even beyond their deaths.

* Don't ask me why Livejournal has decided some parts of my text should be big while other parts should be small. It's been randomly doing this on all my entries lately and since the new updated LJ doesn't let you choose your text size there's not much I can do to fix it.  
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