Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Dying is Easy, Living is Hard

HBO’s Six Feet Under (2001-2005) presents viewers with a rather paradoxical situation:  although ostensibly a show saturated with death (the main characters work for a family-run funeral home), the series’ core is a frank exploration of human existence in the wake of the deceased. Quite literally, the show is about life after death.

It follows quite naturally, then, that the third season episode “Twilight” concerns itself less with the moral arguments surrounding capital punishment and instead chooses to focus on the effects that the act has on those who survive. Taking this argument a bit further, we can see that while, on one level, the opening teaser of “Twilight” could be viewed in terms of lethal injection and punishment, it also more broadly sets up a theme that resonates throughout the rest of the episode:  in what ways do we choose to let things die (symbolically or otherwise)? In effect, “Twilight” asks us to consider that capital punishment isn’t necessarily something that is solely defined by midnight stays and candlelight vigils; we make choices in our everyday lives that sentence others to a kind of death, whether it consists of the termination of a relationship, accepting the reality that a missing loved one might be permanently gone, or having an abortion.[1] Importantly, while displaying all of this, the show does not pass judgment on individuals, but instead examines the inner turmoil incurred as part of the decision making process and suggests that although the choices made by the characters might indeed be the right ones for them, they do not come without emotional consequences.

Six Feet Under thusly takes a rather unexpected third position in the debate over capital punishment:  instead of proclaiming the deed right or wrong, the show asks viewers to consider if they are prepared for the emotional fallout that comes from literal or figurative execution. This episode, like many others in the series, asks us to contemplate the role and power that death has in our lives[2]—and I would argue that determining this answer for oneself greatly impacts one’s view on the morality of capital punishment. Ultimately, as we struggle with the notions of how and why life is sacred, we are also challenged by the show to consider the ways that we routinely (and virtually without notice!) determine that a life, or lives, are not worthy.


[1] The title of the episode also evokes a sense of the liminal state with twilight literally representing a sort of transition period but also manifests as a sedative taken by Claire during her abortion procedure and is described by the nurse as invoking a state in which “You’re not really gone, but you’re not really here.” There is, perhaps, no better line in the episode that describes the relationship of the dead to the living.

[2] As noted in Gary Laderman’s Sacred Matters, our constant preoccupation with death manifests in myriad ways, from Gothic Horror (my particular area of interest) to popular music to philosophy. The significance of the condition is also demonstrated by the various rituals that we have constructed to deal with death and dying—from the often-present funeral and wake (which are, to me, mainly an effort by the living to create a sacred space that confers a sense of community during a time of crisis) to the rite of the last meal and the rather morbid recording of prisoners’ last words in the state of Texas (http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/executedoffenders.htm). The existence of these rituals indicates that we continue to struggle with the uncertainty and finality of death and also place particular emphasis on actions undertaken prior to crossing over.

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