Sunday’s final episode of Lost, that is… a show I’ve been watching with fascination for five years now. (No, not six… I missed S1 when it aired, but got hooked by the DVDs.)
That’s not to say that I found it completely satisfying, especially on an intellectual level. But clearly the show was shooting for emotional catharsis in the finale, more than anything else, and on those terms it succeeded very effectively. It was true to the characters we’ve come to know and care about, hitting emotional beats that almost brought tears to my eyes more than once. And it didn’t do that by resorting to cheap sentimentality; it was well-earned sentiment. As a viewer, one had to have been following along with these characters through years of travail, had to understand who they were, what they’d experienced, what kind of redemption they’d been seeking, in order for those moments to work. When everything is weighed in the balance, I think that this will go down as one of the most ambitious, and artistically successful, shows in television history.
That said, I understand the complaints some people have, and to an extent I share them. By the standards I look for in fiction, Lost was firing on all cylinders from the very beginning: it had an ensemble of interesting characters portrayed by talented actors, it explored moral and philosophical issues in a way that respected viewers’ intelligence, it had a fair dollop of irreverent humor, and it built up a complex and distinctive mythos. On that last count, however—the mythos—the finale left a lot of questions unanswered. Some viewers liked it despite that, or even because of it; others felt put out, or even betrayed.
I’ve seen well-written, ambitious shows with passionate fans do far worse when the time came to wrap things up: the 2009 finale of Ronald Moore’s Battlestar Galactica springs painfully to mind, wherein all the complications of the plot and characters were swept away with the massive rationalization that “God did it,” in a story where multiple characters turned out to be (no kidding!) angels, and the cast was dropped onto a paleolithic Earth in a way that was supposed to be evocative but which, in reality, rendered anything they could possibly do both scientifically and historically irrelevant, all while blatantly contradicting key story points from earlier in the series.
And I’ve seen such shows do far better, as well: J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 still stands out as the most effective long-term television arc I’ve ever seen, playing out a science fiction epic over five years in a way that provided satisfying dramatic closure for all the characters, plots, and political and psychological themes that had been painstakingly set up along the way, succeeding despite such real-world obstacles as cast changes and season-to-season renewal dramas.
Lost, I think, falls somewhere in between.
Showrunners and co-creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have often said that Lost was all about the characters, but that’s something of an overstatement. Certainly it was a very character-driven show, and that was a large part of its appeal… but not all of it. From the beginning it was an adventure drama with clear strains of mystery and science fiction, and those strains only grew stronger as the show progressed and its complex backstory grew. The mythology was more than just decorative; it was a significant part of what kept people watching the show, and talking about it. It was intrinsic to the premise. Without it, you’d have had just another soap opera.
So it’s not at all unfair for viewers to wonder about such questions as these:
- What explains the Dharma Initiative food drops from S1? Why (and how) would anyone from the outside world have done that?
- Why was Michael’s son Walt so “special,” and why were the Others originally so set on kidnapping him (and other children as well)?
- Speaking of the Others… just who were they, originally?
- What’s the deal with the Numbers? Seriously.
- Why was the Smoke Monster unable to cross either a circle of ashes, or a hypersonic boundary?
- Perhaps most fundamentally: the finale confirms (for anyone who still doubted) that events on the island were “real.” That is to say: events on an island that somehow bottles up a huge “electromagnetic” force that can heal injuries and diseases, grant immortality, move people and the island itself through both time and space, and zap airplanes out of the sky. Among other things. And it’s apparently been doing these kinds of things for a long time: centuries, in fact, going back to ancient Egyptian times. So, what is the origin of this island? We have literally not a clue.
That’s far from a complete list. Many others can be found online in places such as the painstakingly catalogued Lostpedia. In all fairness, some people also keep bringing questions that have actually been answered along the way, if sometimes only via background details (e.g., Where did the polar bears come from? –The Dharma-ites imported them, when they were researching freezing subterranean chambers. Why couldn’t women carry to term babies conceived on the island? –Side effects from the 1977 electromagnetic event).
Lindelof and Cuse have also said that they always knew the endgame they were working toward; that they had planned out the show’s final shot as far back as S1. I think this is both true and false, depending on how one interprets it… but ironically, both interpretations are problematic in that they work against a finale that could satisfy expectations about the show’s mythology.
I think it’s true insofar as they knew (as did actor Matthew Fox, from what he’s said) that the show would end with Jack dying on the island, his eyes closing in a shot that symbolically mirrors how he woke up at the beginning of the pilot. They’d also figured out a lot of the major plot beats it would take to get there. This is problematic in the sense that it made the destination—and in particular the destination for one character, Jack—more important than the journey… as was especially blatant around S3, when they didn’t yet have an end date for the show and were vamping for time.
I think it’s false in the sense that, aside from Jack’s fate and perhaps a few other major plot/character beats, they really were making most of it up as they went along. This is even more problematic, insofar as it meant putting only as much “worldbuilding” into any single episode (or season) as necessary to make that particular story work, without necessarily figuring out any detailed explanations for how (or even if) it all fit together into a bigger picture. Some incidents of this were obvious as the show developed; e.g., the way the Others went from being an unkempt band dressed in rags to having modern clothes, technology, and even a cozy village. But while minor inconsistencies with elements of the earliest episodes are excusable and can be rationalized away, once the writers knew the show was a success and had the time to work out a long-term plan, they really should have put a lot more effort into the worldbuilding than they appear to have done.
Early on, the showrunners seemed to understand the importance of having the mythos make sense, but more recently they haven’t exactly hidden that they took a more casual approach: in fact they’ve been quite open about it, as in a recent interview when Cuse said,
I feel like it’s a cautionary tale for people who are obsessed about their own specific little question getting answered in the course of the show. So when we say we don’t really want to deviate from our narrative, from telling an entertaining story to answer questions… [well], the answers are never as satisfying as the resolution of what happens to these characters and the remainder of the show is really focused on the characters.
But that’s a bit of special pleading, really. No one’s saying they should’ve traded entertainment for exposition, or ignored character-building; just that world-building was equally important to the concept of a show like this. And the kind of questions itemized above aren’t “specific little questions” about minor details; they’re about major elements that occupied a lot of screen time and on which significant story developments hinged. Set-ups without payoffs. The writers put Chekhov’s gun on the wall—an entire armory of guns, actually—then turned away without ever firing most of them.
(The whole focus of S6 exemplifies this problem, in a way. Jacob and Smokey/Man-In-Black thrust forward as the fulcrum around which everything hinges? Both suddenly at the center of an alleged Grand Conflict between Good and Evil, on which the fate of the world may turn? This reeked of far too many narrative clichés, and while things thankfully didn’t turn out quite as black-and-white (literally!) as they had appeared for a while, still the season stood apart as something very different from the kind of morally ambiguous human-level conflict that prior years had seemed to be all about, and the disconnect was sometimes bewildering. When the writers sat down a year ago to break S6, the very least they should have done was re-watch S1—still the show’s high-water mark—and decided how to work toward closure on more of the major lingering mysteries.)
So to the extent that one enjoyed Lost primarily for the SF/mystery elements and the intricate mythology, there’s no question that things ended with way too many frustrating loose ends.
On a character level, almost everything worked. If the writers had failed to put enough thought into the backstory of the island itself and the forces fighting over it, they certainly didn’t fail to put that level of thought into the characters, their relationships, their strengths and weaknesses and tragic flaws. With very few false notes (Jack’s tattoos??), the character-based flashbacks that were part of the show from the beginning (and later the flash-forwards, and even S6’s “flashes sideways”) built the show’s shifting cast into complex, believable human beings. It was clear, from very early on, that this show wasn’t populated with stereotypical one-note protagonists: the castaways, and the allies and adversaries they encountered over time, were people with deep-seated issues, seeking redemption, and their presence on the island gave each of them the opportunity to pursue that, in their own ways. In being lost, they got a chance to find themselves.
And this is why the parallel “alternate universe” storyline in S6 was such a brilliant device (often more interesting than the on-island story, in fact), giving us an opportunity to meet these characters again in light of how we’d come to know them, and see them (re)discover what matters to them under different circumstances. The last few episodes, and the finale in particular, played this out to terrific effect, as the characters reunited via individual moments of epiphany about their on-island lives. Seeing Desmond meet Penny all over again, but without his crippling sense of inadequacy; seeing Sun and Jin realize how they overcame her family baggage and his chauvinism to revitalize their marriage; seeing Sawyer James and Juliet rediscover a love neither one had ever expected to have… these were deeply touching moments. Hurley and Libby. Charlie and Claire. And also those characters like Ben and Kate and Locke and Jack, whose epiphanies were not romantic but personal, about each one realizing a previously elusive sense of purpose. (Out of all of them, the reunion of Sayid and Shannon was perhaps the weakest; despite what they once had, one can’t help feeling he should have wound up with Nadia. But that may be an artifact of how the final scene works, as I interpret it; more below.)
In comparison the on-island plot seemed almost secondary by the end, but it too played out in a way that resounded with strong character notes. We got Frank Lapidus back! We got Richard back! (Both predictable, but still pleasing.) And Bernard and Rose and Vincent. Hurley finally found his sense of self-worth. Ben got a chance to work toward redemption himself. And Jack discovered that the central character flaw he could never get over, his obsession with fixing everything, really didn’t work out well for him in the end.
Thematically, meanwhile, the story was thankfully more sophisticated than the Good vs. Evil conflict that I’d feared much of the season seem to be building toward. The two recent “historical” episodes were especially enlightening in this regard: even as they (yet again) kicked the can down the road in terms of explaining the mythos, they fleshed out Jacob and especially Smokey/MIB in ways that defied moral simplification. It was MIB, we learned in “Ab Aeterno,” who actually rescued Richard Alpert from otherwise certain death—asking a favor in return (against Jacob, of course), but with no other threats or recriminations—and it was Jacob, although he disabused Richard of the impression that he was the Devil, who also convinced him of the equally dubious proposition that the island was essential to contain a “great evil”… leading to Richard’s 140 years of servitude. Even more significantly, we learned in “Across the Sea” that neither Jacob nor MIB are actually godlike or even particularly supernatural; and moreover that Jacob was basically an unquestioning momma’s boy while his unnamed brother wanted nothing more than to get off the island and find a life of his own… for which desire he was progressively exiled, attacked, and finally killed transformed. (We also learn that the show’s writers can be just as creepy with mommy issues as they’ve always been with daddy issues, and that they know how to use Freudian symbolism. But I digress.)
Among the upshots of all this are three central points, all confirmed in the finale. One, that Jacob isn’t particularly wise or good, and MIB isn’t so much evil incarnate as just a guy who’s been craving one simple yet inaccessible goal (freedom) for so many centuries that he’s made all other moral considerations secondary to achieving it. Two, that the “rules” that people like Ben and Jacob and others keep going on about aren’t so much cosmic truths as just personal interpretations that have been handed down word-of-mouth from one island “protector” to another for a long, long time… and which can thus be discarded in favor of something better and fairer, as Hurley promptly chooses to do when he inherits the role. And three, that the energy contained by the island isn’t actually Good or Evil, it’s what you make of it: in a case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, uncorking it returned MIB to corporeal form, finally making it possible for him to leave… but also making it possible for him to be killed.
And what does all this mean?…
Obviously, there are strong mystical/spiritual elements to S6 in general, and especially to the finale, and most especially to its last five minutes. On the one hand, I find this somewhat annoying: I’d have very much preferred it if the show had remained a straight SF vehicle and stuck to the premise that, no matter how weird things may seem, “there’s always a scientific answer” for it all, as Lindelof promised back in 2005. On the other hand, it’s not nearly as jarringly heavy-handed and out-of-place as was the case with BSG, and thus I find it easier to come to terms with.
For one thing, these elements (and even occasional Biblical allusions) aren’t being used to prop up some sort of half-assed theme about Faith or Destiny or anything else that demands people set aside their innate capacity for reason and self-determination. Quite the contrary, in fact. In earlier seasons, Locke was the character desperate to find something to believe in, some object for his faith, and it didn’t work out well for him at all: as a result he wound up following a path of misdirection and desperation and eventual destruction. More recently, since the Oceanic Six’s return to the island, Jack has stepped into that role, setting aside his earlier skepticism in his craving for some higher destiny… and as previously remarked, that didn’t end well for him either (although one could argue he at least achieved the kind of self-sacrifice he’d been seeking). Moreover, faith in authority figures (no matter how seemingly powerful or knowledgeable) is repeatedly undermined in Lost, right through to the end: not Ben nor Richard nor Jacob nor MIB nor anybody else has ever had all the answers, or even been able to point in their direction; all any of them know is what they’ve been told by others. The most reliable source of information in the entire series was in fact Daniel Faraday, a scientist… and unlike the rest, he figured out the answers on his own.
For another thing, the redemption the characters were seeking was never spiritual, and that remained the case to the end. It was personal, moral, psychological. It was about each of them discovering what he or she really valued, and being true to themselves, and letting go of preconceptions that were holding them back. It was an internal process, not an external one. Even Sayid and Claire, supposedly “corrupted,” recovered their own consciences before the end.
Finally, as other commentators have observed… just as was so often the case throughout the show, even in the finale, events remain decidedly open to interpretation. Yes, at the very end, Jack’s father appears and plays Exposition Fairy, telling him that there’s “no here and now” in the alt-universe, that everyone he knew has died at some point and that, having done so, they’re just waiting there to reunite and “move on” to some sort of afterlife. This seems like a pretty explicitly religious ending, and it also ticks off a lot of fans who’ve been assured since the beginning that (despite widespread speculation) Lost’s characters were not dead and being tested in purgatory. So now we’re asked to accept that although the island itself wasn’t purgatory, the seemingly real alt-universe was in fact some ecumenical version of exactly that?
Well… sorry, but no, not necessarily. I feel no obligation to accept Christian’s explanation at face value. As noted, that’s always been a risky thing to do in this show. And it feels like a cop-out not just because it’s “spiritual,” but because it has no logical connection to anything we’ve seen before. Moreover, accepting it would leave several nagging open questions that actually go away if we consider a different interpretation.
If the alt-universe is just a quasi-afterlife construct, then how did the Losties “create” it as Christian claims? How does it contain a whole world of other characters who aren’t among our core group, like Charles Widmore and Eloise Hawking, Daniel and Charlotte, Alex and Danielle, Jack’s son David, and countless others? They seem to have minds of their own—are we to accept that they’re mere illusions, props in the Losties’ fantasy world? If so, how do we account for the ones who appear to know what’s going on, yet choose to stay in that reality temporarily (like Ben Linus) or even permanently (like Eloise) rather than “moving on”? Moreover, how do we account for the people not present in the church or even completely unseen in the alt-universe, despite having been emotionally important to others present—like Desmond and Penny’s son Charlie, or Sun and Jin’s daughter Ji Yeon, or Juliet’s sister, or Locke’s fiancée Helen? Or Frank Lapidus or Miles Straum or Richard Alpert, who helped rescue Sawyer, Kate, and Claire in the on-island part of this very episode? Or Michael, or Walt, or Mr. Eko? Did none of them achieve personal redemption or deserve an epiphany?
No: taken at face value, it just doesn’t add up. The alt-universe was one bit of backstory that actually didn’t need further explanation. It makes a lot more sense if we interpret it as exactly what we all believed it to be until this episode: a genuine parallel reality that branched off when the nuke exploded in 1977, in which the island sank and thus Oceanic 815 never crashed, just as Daniel hypothesized to Desmond a mere six episodes earlier in “Happily Ever After.” Consciousness can bleed over from the original reality, however, apparently triggered by contacts or experiences that evoke emotionally volatile moments from that reality: thus, our characters’ reunion epiphanies. Having thus seen “behind the curtain,” most of them want to gather and celebrate what they’ve discovered. However… Eloise knows, because her son is alive, but doesn’t want to spill the beans and risk losing him. Ben knows, but never had a close enough relationship with Alex or her mother for them to have a similar epiphany, so wants to take the time to build that from scratch rather than celebrating with the others. Ditto Daniel and Charlotte. Some other absent characters may simply not have been triggered yet, or (horrors!) not have been in L.A. that day, or (like Charlie and Ji Yeon) aren’t even born yet.
And that’s how it goes—all real, nothing mystical—until Jack enters the church. That part’s another story entirely… it’s a glimpse of the alt-universe filtered through his last moments alive on the island, as his dying neurons fire wildly, the same phenomenon responsible for near-death experiences. Essentially, it’s his “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Jack imagines a reconciliation with his father than he could never actually have. He imagines the people who were important to him on the island, as he knew them, but not others he cared less about, or other people in their lives that he never knew. And he imagines the classic White Light as he dies. Curtain. And no more awkward questions.
At any rate, that’s my interpretation and I’m sticking to it.
It’s only fair to mention that regardless of what one thinks about how various story elements were handled (or avoided), this was a superbly executed television episode in its own right. It was written with gripping dramatic pacing (commercials aside) and sharp dialogue, including well-timed moments of humor (from Kate’s “Christian Shephard? Seriously?” all the way through). The cast all brought their A-game (I think Michael Emerson in particular deserves plaudits for making Ben come across as so relatable, despite all the character’s manifest moral shortcomings). The production values were superb, as always on Lost, and the show quite simply looked beautiful. And I was reminded for, sadly, the last time, how much of the show’s success is owed to Michael Giacchino’s music; his exquisite compositions have kept the series emotionally powerful from beginning to end.
So. While unanswered questions and ambiguities are never fun, still, all told, the show came to an end that did it justice. I’m really going to miss Lost. It was a wonderful, memorable, completely unique series… and an ironic testament to the narrow vision of Hollywood executives: had it originally been pitched as the sort of thing it actually became, one can hardly doubt it would never have made it on-air, being shot down as too risky and cerebral. Certainly, despite many imitators, nothing comparable has hit the screen over the last six years. Nor, sadly, does there appear to be anything on next year’s TV schedule that invites the same kind of devotion. Lost may have spoiled me for lesser serialized dramas for some time to come.Tags: Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindelof, Lost, television, writers