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So much anticipation pools up around the concluding episode of this concluding season that you might be tempted to head straight for said finale, titled "Everyone's Waiting" (and it's so rich you'll find yourself drawn to repeated viewings). But if you can avoid that impulse, it's worth following the full build-up of one crisis after another to get the real payoff. On an episode-by-episode basis, Six Feet Under's fifth season has a decidedly uneven quality, shifting in tone far more drastically, say, than the intensely dark season 4. Character traits that have already been developed at length begin to seem annoyingly repetitious--Nate's (Peter Krause) self-centered frustration and furious lashings out, Billy's (Jeremy Sisto) resurgent psychosis--like leitmotifs run amuck. But this season also benefits from the knowledge we've developed, over the years, of the Fisher family and their loved ones, so that what they end up facing has a real emotional wallop, sometimes jump-starting the drama just where it seems to be in danger of churning itself into circles.
It's hardly a spoiler to mention that 6fu's final season, though bookended by the promise of new beginnings (a wedding in episode 1 to a departure for new prospects in the 12th episode), centers around loss and a pivotal death. The scripts contain more than an occasional sense of inconsequential filler, while some of the recurring thematics seem forced (we see David continue to cope with the scars from his abduction in the previous episode via over-obvious imagery of facing his "inner demons"). Other issues receive especially compelling treatment, above all Brenda's (Rachel Griffiths) desire to have a child and David and Keith's (Mathew St. Patrick) choice to adopt. But the real strength of this season lies in several gripping performances. Ruth (Frances Conroy) touches off a complex series of reactions, simultaneously sympathetic and judgmental, transcending the tendency to appear as a neurotic caricature. The super-talented Lauren Ambrose brings off Claire's emerging self-awareness and maturity with moving touches (she's also got some of the funniest moments as she takes on a stint as a temp in scenes that call to mind the hysterics of The Office). Griffiths' Brenda for her part undergoes a parallel maturing process. And as George's daughter Maggie, Tina Holmes adds a welcome tone of contrast.
6fu, of course, has always been about the paradoxes of finality. But anyone who has developed an attachment to the show's unique tone and creative sensibility will have a tough time saying goodbye. Alan Ball outdoes himself with his script (and direction) for the finale, "Everyone's Waiting," seeding it with echoes from the pilot episode that will enchant aficionados. And the famous fast-forward visions coursing through Claire's imagination as she heads down the highway give the perfect seal to this set of characters. Extras include especially insightful commentaries, including Ball on the finale, retrospectives, and a mini-feature on 6fu's cultural impact. It's safe to say that the show leaves some pretty unforgettable impressions in its wake.