Before I get into why I think the final episode of Lost was the perfect capper for an incredible series while also being an exasperating near-failure that seemed determined to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory, please allow me to quote my previous blogpost, in which I wrote an elaborate love letter to the Lost showrunners:
Cuse and Lindelof told us the show was about character, and we all say yes, yes, what about the mysteries? But when Jack stood up to meet his destiny, the argument-for-character-drama won out. As much as I want questions answered, I know now that Lostdoesn’t necessarily need two hours of exposition about every single mystery still hanging. It will win out if the Man in Black is defeated, Sawyer meets Juliet in the sideways world, Jack is redeemed in both worlds, and my boy Frank Lapidus somehow thrives.
As you can imagine, the fact that all four things happened in epic, beautiful fashion made me deliriously happy, no matter what my initial reservations were. As soon as Miles and Richard saw my hero Frank floating on a bunch of inflatable life-vests, I think I cheered, or applauded, or something. It was emotional, I know that much, and got way worse as it progressed. A quick survey of Lost fans on Twitter and Facebook has shown that tears were shed at Sawyer and Juliet’s reunion, as well as Jack’s perfect death, and that the fight between our hero (yes, after all that whining and crying, Jack was a goddamn amazing world-saving hero) and the Man in Black was as epic and gratifying as it gets. For fulfilling those four criteria, Lost was already ahead of the game.
Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t dicey for a while. The growing realisation that Cuse and Lindelof had explained everything they intended to explain a couple of weeks ago made my stomach plummet, and the sight of the Oceanic survivors (and a couple of notable guests) sitting in a church waiting to walk into the light was not pleasant. Regular readers might remember my evisceration of the Battlestar Galactica finale, which I felt was a hollow, unsatisfying and pretentious mess. There were so many unanswered questions, which I angrily considered to be individual insults to the intelligence of the viewer.
You can imagine the knot that developed in my guts as the Lost finale progressed, each passing second devoid of answers. The hope that there would be one spectacular reveal that tied everything together dwindled and vanished by the halfway point: by then it was obvious we were getting pure story, not revelation, with an epilogue of woolly-headed mysticism to boot. That realisation was nowhere near as upsetting as the fact that I was almost certainly going to do what I had once mocked BSG fans for doing: forgiving a show for being a sugary coating around an enormous black hole devoid of answers.
It’s important to me to establish just why I found it satisfying when it did some of the same things that the BSG finale did, but which didn’t satisfy me at all. Was it simply that I liked one show more than the other? I had gone off BSG by the end of the second season, with a brief spike during the New Caprica occupation in season three, and the odd episode written by the magnificent Jane Espenson, whose sparkling dialogue and intelligence stood head and shoulders above the incoherent dourness of many episodes. In contrast, Lost was a near-constant delight, a journey that engaged me in a way that only a few other shows have managed before. While BSG‘s characters mostly left me cold — either by being boring or inconsistently written — the main characters in Lost were beautifully wrought and complex. When BSG finished I only really cared about four characters. When Lost finished, it was like I was saying goodbye to an entire world populated by fascinating individuals. There really was no contest.
Nevertheless, I was slightly ashamed as the final images of the Oceanic 815 footage rolled over the credits, knowing that I had ejected the critical thought processes I had angrily, impotently aimed at BSG in favour of giving myself up to Lost‘s final sentimental — and, at first glance, inconsistent — act like a brainwashed cult member. Would I have to retire from the Internet? Would some of the BSG fans I scorned come back to haunt me? Oh how I had mocked it for the angels, and the confused mythology, and the feeble explanations for some of the mysteries (the Opera House revelation was one of the dampest squibs ever), and the reliance on an omnipotent, unexplained, and motivation-lite God to answer all of the questions. And yet here was Lost, with a church and a Gods ‘R Us Room of Religious Symbology (some sort of Robert Langdon wet dream of menorahs and crucifixes) and the possibility that ::gulp:: they had been dead all along. My stomach has rarely plunged that suddenly and precipitously.
Even though I’ve had time to mull over the implications of those final moments, have come to accept them and love them and make arguments in my head that it was not Purgatory but a Tibetan-style Bardo that our heroes found themselves in, I won’t lie: my faith wavered. For about 20 seconds — pretty much from the moment Christian appears (though hey, how great to see John Terry again) until he stresses that the island and the adventures we followed for six years really happened and really mattered — I nearly metaphorically crumpled the show up into a ball and threw it into the bin. Part of this was a charge that has lingered: that the flash-sideways scenes have little connection with the main thread of the story. Daisyhellcakes has been vocal in her disappointment, and I see her point: it really does feel like a weird epilogue that came out of nowhere. It’s a criticism that I am working on reconciling, and will get to in a future post.
Mainly, though, the ending made me dread the gloating — something I had thought of as inevitable, but suddenly realised was going to be more fervent and hostile than I could have imagined. My immediate negative reaction came about partially because I felt momentarily betrayed, and partially as a pre-emptive strike before venturing onto the net to read the inevitable anger from former fans who felt even more aggrieved than I did, and non-fans gloating at anyone who had stuck with the show from the beginning. But I couldn’t dismiss those final moments. Was it my innate sappiness? The immunity from disappointment I mentioned in my previous post? A gut response to that stirring music by Michael Giacchino, which over the past six years has been arguably the most moving and ambitious score in TV history? No matter what it was, the ending felt right.
And that’s the key. Considering how the show had engaged my brain for six seasons, it had also worked on my heart as well without me realising it, so much so that Afterworld reunions like the one between Sawyer and Juliet devastated me. Even more surprising, considering my antipathy toward them, the reunion of Claire, Aaron and Charlie generated a similar response. By the time Jack hugged his father and told him he loved him, our living room was ankle-deep in tears, and the final shot of Jack’s eye closing made me cry so hard the saltwater shot out from my face as if my tear-ducts were water cannons. It was devastating. Call it fan service, or a failure of nerve, or a dreadful betrayal of our trust. I don’t care. It stabbed me in the heart with a blade of pure emotion, and so I am unable to feel betrayed. There have been few works of fiction that have affected me that profoundly.
Nevertheless, even over the sound of my racking sobs and occasional moans I could hear a small part of my brain saying, “But who was in the cabin that time?!?” As time passed I would remember some other question that had not been answered, a list that grew with the help of Daisyhellcakes, who was simultaneously moved by the emotional journey and irked by the lack of answers and tangential sixth season “epilogue” thread. Our reactions were similar in all but degree, and it has become my personal mission to explain why I felt the ending was a triumph despite its flaws, why I think the show would be diminished by answering too many of the questions it has posed, and how watching it as it aired is the only way to properly experience it in its full glory.
It’s all about faith. As I’ve said before, I’ve stuck with the show for this long due to my faith in Cuse and Lindelof’s ability to wrap everything up, mostly because hints and clues have hinted at a rigid internal logic. It’s as if we’re getting the jigsaw pieces, and they’re the right colour and there seems to be the right amount, but we have no real idea how they fit together. The final season was going to be, for most — if not all — fans, the photo on the back of the box that would show us how it all fits together. The tantalising links between the pieces we had given gave me confidence that the show was going to work out, and I felt satisfied that a show that addressed the conflict between men of faith and men of reason would rely upon the faith of its viewers to sustain itself.
Pre-finale, this faith was little more than an intellectualising of my expectations and my indulgence of the show’s slow-drip of revelation. I never really felt “faith” in the way that those with religious beliefs do. I had proof of my belief in the good intentions of the showrunners (contrary to popular belief, a lot of Lost‘s mysteries were answered, in a round-about way), which I had mistaken for blind faith. It took the finale to kickstart that particular… emotion? Subset of thought? I’m not really sure what to categorise faith as, but I feel it now.
If I’m honest with myself, Lost fluffed it with the last episode. It proved that the show was not going to address many questions posed by viewers (which is only irksome because of the once-charming, now seemingly aloof behaviour of Cuse and Lindelof in interviews), and then kow-towed to the fans with a soppy final scene designed to give them a happy ending even though their A-plot was destined to end on a mix of ups and downs. And yet I didn’t care, and in fact experienced some kind of hallucinogenic weep-overload euphoria. Not only did I not care about all of the finale’s flaws, but I seemed to be overwhelmed by an epiphany that this was a perfect ending, something that managed to hit every single emotional sweet-spot in my heart, but also keep my brain engaged with the show probably from now until the end of civilisation. It’s no coincidence that the fans and former fans are still debating this show across the net.
Those who feel betrayed will fade away and lose their enthusiasm for pointing out how wrong the rest of us are, but I have a feeling the show is not about to vacate the space it has taken up in my brain any time soon. Someone could sit down and tell me the show was a failure on every level (and many have spent the past few weeks doing just that), but even if I agree with many of these points, it will not shake my faith and love for the show even a jot. In my heart, the show did what it set out to do, and I’m not about to turn my back on it, or the time I have spent watching it and enjoying it. That’s the macro-level answer, but a micro-example might help: when the final season started to load up on religious symbolism and magical rituals to a greater degree than in previous seasons, I was willing to go along with it, especially as it didn’t negate the potential science answers.
When Mother passed on the guardianship of the island to Jacob using blessed wine, and when Jacob and Jack did similar things with water, there was a power and logic to those moments borne of the viewer’s understanding of the significance of that act in the traditions and mythologies of our religions, but without tying itself down to a single version of those myths. It was its own myth, with its own power. I don’t need to know why the role of guardian can only be passed in this manner, or the specific wording of the blessing Mother and Jacob (but not Jack) bestowed upon the magical liquid, though I understand why others might consider that a cheat. I just know that it made sense to me, and I suspect Joseph Campbell might have felt the same way (which is apt considering the debt the show owes to Star Wars, that most Campbellian of modern myths).
Is this my way of avoiding the uncomfortable truth, that a show about mysteries ended with no real answers? This appears to be a sticking point with a large section of Lost fandom: Daisyhellcakes and I have gone back and forth on this one quite a lot, and I can see her point of view, and that of everyone who feels cheated by not getting the answers they wanted. Not just that, but the way that Cuse and Lindelof spent the last few years cultivating that air of mystery and acting as if there were some revelation on the way. Looking back on footage of their Comic-Con appearances, and reading their interviews, it does indeed stick in the craw that they played the “Will we get an answer on this?” game when the final episode proved they had no intention of doing anything like that.
I’ve seen some fans counter this by saying that anyone who is disappointed with the resolution is “watching it wrong”, which is condescending to the nth degree. I hope that that isn’t the impression I give when I say that yes, answers would have been nice, but as much of the fun of Lost has been debating the “meaning” of it, the finale accomplished something I didn’t think was possible: it ensured its own longevity without having to resort to endless spin-offs & supplemental materials (not counting the epilogue to be included in the DVD and Blu-Rays of the final season, which shows Hurley and Ben’s recruitment of one more important former islander to help them do their “work”, whatever that is).
The finale also put the rest of the series into a new perspective, now we can stop fretting about whether the show would answer all of the mysteries, and instead revel in the game that can now be played with its Swiss Cheese structure. Instead of a solid block of story we got something riddled with holes, but though critics would charge the holes go nowhere — a consequence of the show being made up on the fly with no coherent mythology inside it – I think it’s just like that cheese in that the holes connect with each other, and we’re able to use those links to get a better idea of what the island is.
You could call them plot holes, but I prefer to think of them as “Interactive Plot Gaps”, and I’m totally serious when I say that the key to loving the show has been engaging with those unanswered questions. Many look at the unfinished tapestry in disgust and anger: I and many others just get to work finishing it off. I mocked the BSG fans for letting their dedication to the show evolve from fanwank into fanfic, and yet here I am, doing exactly the same thing, but perhaps on a larger scale. (That said, I do think the few answers we got from Lost were more satisfying than the many we got from BSG, but that’s just me.)
Cuse and Lindelof have been smart enough to throw enough detail, obfuscation, and symbolism into the narrative mix that there are a vast number of interpretations, which will allow fans to bicker and debate and split into factions from now until the end of time. Is the island a source of some magical power source from beyond time? Is it Omnium, as in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman? Does it rest on top of the Chamber of Guf /Well of Souls as posited by Darthshatner on Warren Ellis’ Whitechapel board? Do the mechanical power down / boot up sounds we hear when the plug is removed mean the island is some kind of enormous machine (powered, of course, by water and light, which is apparently the way things work on the island)?
I’m sure there are arguments for all of these viewpoints littered throughout all six seasons of the show, and none of them are demonstrably wrong. The showrunners have done an incredible job of hinting at two possible interpretations of each event, in order to cultivate our discussions or play with our expectations, a perfect example being an alternate world that we all assumed to be a parallel universe caused by the detonation of Jughead, when in fact it was the afterlife. This speculative tension is the special aspect of Lost that has made it officially my favourite TV show of all time (which doesn’t mean I don’t still love you, Buffy!). It will forever exist as an uncertain waveform that will never collapse, a cat in a box both alive and dead simultaneously. Some fans feel that is an insult and a betrayal: I think of it as a gift.
One of Daisyhellcakes’ other criticisms — I think it was one that was shared by other fans including Whitechapeler and friend of the blog Cat Vincent — was that the sudden change in focus by the fans from a fascination with the mysteries to the characters was a way to insulate themselves from failure, a last minute attempt at avoiding the crushing disappointment that seemed inevitable as the final season progressed with many of the island mysteries unsolved. In several interviews conducted in the final weeks of the show, Cuse and Lindelof stressed that their interest was in the characters, and in giving them the final episode they deserved. Their traditional way of answering questions with vague hints at least addressed the fact that the fans were interested in those answers, but in the final few weeks they maintained it had been about the characters all along. It’s hard not to think we’ve been gulled.
I certainly revised my expectations as they promoted this new line, and I will admit some of that was in order to protect myself, but when I think back to the previous seasons, my main memories of any revelations are inextricably tied up in the characters. Finding out Pierre Chang was Miles’ father was not as much of a revelation as it was a way to show why Miles is the way he is. Discovering Anthony Cooper was not only Locke’s father but the original Sawyer was a startling moment not because we found this out (most fans suspected it anyway), but because we saw how Locke was unable to kill him and Sawyer could, and how Sawyer was affected by finally exacting revenge on the man who destroyed his family. Knowing that failing to input the numbers into the computer triggers an electromagnetic incident, but it’s Desmond’s mad panic, Locke’s realisation that he is wrong, the knowledge that this might be what brought these people to the island: that’s the significant part. Otherwise it’s just a broken machine.
The finale certainly helped bring that home, as the Afterworld gave us glimpses of the characters’ pasts, flashing before us with Michael Giacchino’s heart-breaking score rising over them: an effect guaranteed to stir heavy emotions in those members of the audience who felt especially attached to these beautifully realised fictional people. Maybe this was Cuse and Lindelof’s final argument, pushed at us with as much emotional power as they can muster. With each reunion I felt my annoyance with the dearth of answers dwindle a little more, and when we saw Hurley metaphorically absolve Ben of his sins and give him the one thing he always wanted — acceptance by a father figure — I was totally won over.
All of the character arcs were fulfilled with such skill — look at how even a secondary character like Richard gets to complete his journey by losing his suicidal impulses — that I could quite happily forget about the mysteries, and just be grateful that we got to see Ben saved, Sawyer free to find his daughter, Kate’s mind made up (a bit late, but still), Hurley shaping his future (and possibly all of our futures), and Jack happy in the knowledge that he saved his friends, the woman he loved, and possibly the whole world. There could be no more perfect ending for him.
Nevertheless, despite that, the mysteries are still compelling enough that I want to ponder them, and to attempt to match up the Afterworld epilogue with the rest of the series, if only because that is the most troubling artistic choice Cuse and Lindelof made. Did they really fluff it at the end? More to come, in parts two and three…