During the penultimate episode of Lost the main character — Jack Shephard — quietly makes a choice, accepting enormous responsibility with a quick and resigned “I’ll do it.” No one questions him, there are no histrionics. He makes his choice, and that’s that. Daisyhellcakes — who has accompanied me on this island journey – was distracted from this moment by the sound of sobbing coming from the other side of our uncomfortable and cat-clawed sofa. I was in a figurative glass case of emotion, devastated by that choice. Though it’s not the first time I’ve cried at Lost – you should have seen me at the end of the fifth season — this was the first time I seemed to be crying at something that didn’t seem that emotional on the surface. Why the hell did I cry?
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve been experiencing a wave of sadness that it’s almost over, but it’s not just because my favourite show — in fact possibly my favourite ever story — is about to end. Part of it is the sense of occasion: as I said to ace tweeter @iambags on Friday, this final week feels like a royal wedding, though it’s not just localised to one country. All across the world people are dealing with this in their own way, either by doing what I’m doing with this post, or by getting really creative. This fan-made trailer has it right when it calls the finale “The Most Anticipated Episode In Television History”…
If that wasn’t enough to choke me up, this nearly finished me off: a superbly edited and written love letter from The Injustice League, featuring enough clips of iconic moments to reduce any Lost fan to emotional blubber.
To outsiders (or, as that song correctly identifies non-Lost fans, Others) this post is going to seem like an absurd perspective-free joke, but Lost has been a big deal for me since the first season, which I caught on DVD while going through some stressful events five years ago. It really helped me get through the tumult, and then did the same again, earlier this year, during which we undertook The Great Lost Rewatch. It has helped me out mentally, and probably spiritually as well. As an atheist I only have the word of believers that faith is a quantifiable and recognisable part of their mental landscape. I’m probably going to unintentionally insult many by saying this, but the only event in my life (other than the experience that the humans refer to as… love?) that has given me an insight into what it is to give yourself over to something even though it could well turn out to be a mistake is the commitment I’ve shown to watching, debating, and pondering Lost.
Yes, that’s a mighty bold claim to make about a TV show, even one that I have considered to be an emotional balm, and anyone reading this who doesn’t watch it — or really love it — will think I’ve taken leave of my senses, but for many fans, sticking with the show and defending it from the tedious criticisms of people who abandoned it early on or didn’t bother because “it just looks stupid” has demanded more than the usual level of fan commitment. From the amazing pilot onwards the show has rested on certain mysteries that prop up the entire narrative structure, and in fact the show itself has not just been about faith and belief in a mysterious purpose, but is also about maintaining an air of ambiguity and mystery that demands the audience has faith and belief in the mysterious purpose of the showrunners. Just as the flashback-laden plot structure was echoed by time-travel events in later seasons, the events in the show and the fan’s relationship with the show has grown to echo each other. Our brains (Jack) say it’s just a TV show and is destined to fall apart at the last hurdle: our heart (Locke) tells us there will be a satisfying ending that will justify the wait.
For the record, I’m not comparing God to a bunch of writers who used to work on Deadwood, Buffy, and Nash Bridges, and I’m not saying my experience with Lost is comparable with someone’s experience of God (whatever that might feel like), but I am saying my enjoyment of the show relies upon my belief that it will all have been worth it, and for the most part the show has felt coherent enough and complex enough that I have been able to hold forth about it against unbelievers with great confidence and even greater obnoxiousness. Nevertheless, the sixth season has seen the largest backlash against Lost since the beginning of the third season, where the wheels seemed to be idly spinning a bit too often. This year, as every episode passes without explaining what the Hurleybird was, or why the Dharma Initiative were playing around with Skinner boxes, my fellow Lostians have become angrier and angrier.
Two of my favourite TV critics –AV Club writer Noel Murray and AVC/HitFix/LA Times blogger Todd Van Der Werff — have been objective but also thrilled by the narrative boldness on display, but other critics have not been so kind. Heather Havrilevsky made me laugh (and froth at the mouth) earlier this week when she criticised the show for letting her down: amusing considering I have never — never in the last four years at least — read a review from her that didn’t complain about the show not being fun enough. Why anyone would rather the show had been little more than an adventure romp in the jungle ending each week with a freeze-frame of the characters laughing in their cave hidey-hole instead of featuring scenes with the consciousness of a beloved character being blasted into another universe by an electromagnetic shed is beyond me.
I gather Maureen Ryan has been vocally angry about it, especially the very contentious episode Across The Sea, but I can’t even look for her recaps for fear of bursting a blood vessel (here is a post in praise of Across The Sea from Overthinking It: essential reading). I’m still pissed at her for calling out Cuse and Lindelof in an interview for daring… DARING… to include a time-travel season in THEIR show. That, and blindly defending the chaotic end of Battlestar Galactica, and spoiling the end of Mad Men in a tweet several months ago, which resulted in my angriest unfollow yet (that showed her!). Earlier this week Alan Sepinwall posted an interview with Cuse and Lindelof that made the showrunners seem like testy assholes. It’s true, they do seem to lose their tempers, but seeing as Sepinwall pretty much asks the same question (“Why is the story going in the way that it is going and why are you not doing what is expected?” or thereabouts) in 15 different ways, I’d lose my temper too.
But then I’ve found myself getting increasingly annoyed by all of this to a degree that is scaring me. I won’t lie: this season has been a rollercoaster for me too, testing my faith far too often. Seeing other people allow their disgruntlement to completely turn them against the show has been exactly the kind of thing that makes me question my own feelings. Am I fooling myself? Some critics and hardcore fans I once allied myself with have jumped ship, and I’m left behind with no life-jacket. After the amazing season opener, there have been numerous moments where doubt has crept in. The temple scenes were mostly a bust (seeing John “Sol Star” Hawkes wasted as the pointless translator Lennon really pissed me off), some of the character deaths were fudged, and some of the answers have had their effect blunted by being hinted at before they are fully answered: deadly when a fanbase will pick over every line to the degree that it does, meaning the eventual reveal comes too late.
The negativity surrounding the final season has taken a toll on me (cue violins). I couldn’t help but feel deflated when What They Died For finished, even though I had been moved on an emotional level. With only a couple of hours to go there was still too much to be explained, and no time to do it. That said, this wave of panic feels more like an intensification of the perfectly natural faith-testing doubt I already had. What galls me is that I had already tried to avoid this, and it was all for naught. I began pre-emptively ejecting questions I wanted answered even before the season started, hoping to prevent any disappointment. First to go was, “What is the source of the electromagnetic energy?” I’m happy to accept that the island is a special place with a special thing on it that makes weird shit happen. Unless Cuse and Lindelof invent a new element — Mysterianium — there is no way a concrete answer would work. It’s magical stuff, either God’s Blood or supermagnetic 4D anti-matter. In my head, that’s fine.
Nevertheless, other questions (What are the rules that Ben was talking about in The Shape of Things to Come after Alex was killed? What is the nature of the corruption that allows The Man in Black to control people? How did MiB visit Jack in LA as his father?) are being scratched off my list as well, and soon I’m going to be left with nothing. That would be fine, but this week I’ve felt like the guy who throws every bit of luggage, seating, and extraneous material from a plane running out of fuel, but we’re still going to crash into the mountain no matter what.
It’s not like Cuse and Lindelof are unaware of these concerns: apparently the DVD/Blu-Ray of season six will have a feature where they explain things that have been left out. Their common defence whenever a critic has asked why we didn’t get to see Alvar Hanso and Gerald De Groot in front of a whiteboard covered with equations that explain everything have often said that it’s the characters that matter the most, and I’ve held onto the belief that they get that right even while my concern has grown, and for the most part this season has proven me right. The sideways world has featured many satisfying moments, such as Jack letting go of his anger at his father by bonding with his own son, or Sun and Jin becoming a happy couple without Jin’s corrupted values and paranoia getting in the way.
I have no doubt that the character’s arcs will all work out: my concern with the answers to the mysteries is that I will end up trying to answer them after the final episode has aired in much the same way I railed against BSG fans when their finale left dozens of loose ends: by explaining away inconsistencies at such length that it stops being fanwank and ends up becoming fanfic. I’ve already been taking solace in the fact that a lot of questions have already been answered but people kept bringing them up because they thought the answers were so unsatisfactory that there had to be something more there (e.g. Ben’s comments about the “Magic Box” and his subsequent abrupt about-face: guess he really had been pulling Locke’s leg after all). There is a very good chance I will be waving away concerns in the next few weeks in a way I found insufferable in BSG fans. I’m dreading it. I’ve bought some crow pie just in case Lost ends up fluffing it as badly as that show, but I don’t want to eat it. Crow tastes all nasty, like.
Debate about the meaning of the show is one thing, and will follow on naturally from the discussions that have formed so much of the Lost experience over the last six years. Once it’s all over, and the final DVD has come out, we’ll all be in a better position to assess what worked and what didn’t. Nevertheless, I worry that we will be trying to connect dots that aren’t meant to go together. During the Great Lost Rewatch we were pleased to see some mysteries made more sense once we applied knowledge from later seasons, with my favourite being Locke explaining the rules of Mouse Trap in season one, foreshadowing the events in the shadow of the statue at the end of season five. This gives me hope that in the minds of the writers there is a concrete answer to almost everything, but how will we know what is on the right track and what is an error of comprehension, and how much of our own explanations will be an entirely new story that we invent ourselves that misses the point of the show?
And yet despite all of these concerns, there are some things that give me hope, and make me believe we were right to commit to the show all along. Many of the complaints have been aimed at two of the most daring episodes: Ab Aeterno and Across The Sea. Ab Aeterno ruffled some feathers by showing us a Richard Alpert that had no answers of his own, in contradiction to what people had expected (i.e. he knew everything, and his flashback episode would reveal tons of new information), but most people responded to its incredible sweeping romantic moments and thought it was probably the highlight of the season so far (an opinion I share). However, I wonder if the free passes handed to it were only because the Jacob/Man in Black episode was coming up, which would surely answer everything, right?
Wrong. The sight of two confused and very human characters stumbling through the earliest years of the story and not giving anything up other than some vague information about the Mysterianium was the final straw for many, who hilariously and melodramatically vowed not to watch the last three episodes in protest. I’ll be honest: the thought of these two characters — who many assumed were God and Satan, or thereabouts — as just a couple of confused boys who fell out over a difference of opinion is so pleasing to me I want to hug the show all over again. For a long time I have been comparing the show to Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, a magnificent book which features huge events over a large period of time, but all in the service of making a tiny, seemingly insignificant thing happen (no spoilers, as everyone should read it). When Lost seemed to be introducing two demi-gods, that little absurdist element from Vonnegut’s book vanished, and I was sorry to see it go.
Happily, even though the stakes on the show have been revealed to be world-destroyingly vast, at the heart of it is still this mad idea that everyone who has been on the island has just been a normal, flawed person who has gotten in over their heads. To those who complain that the Dharma Initiative ended up meaning nothing (a viewpoint that I find absolutely baffling: the show could not have progressed without these hippie mad men in the background), I say this: they were just guys with too much money on their hands who came into contact with a magical island and made the same silly mistakes as Jacob and The Man in Black and back beyond them, probably to the dawn of thought itself. It was another iteration of this point: we’re insignificant, and vastly important, both at the same time.
Our troubles and misunderstandings shape us as much as these events of enormous scope, and though we are fools, we are also potential saviours. This aspect of the last few episodes is one of the things I have loved most about the show so far, and What They Died For continued that by having possibly the most momentous scene in the entire series be a chat during which all of the expected fireworks and melodrama were reduced to the tiniest of character moments, and what had been treated by fans as something as immutable as the carvings on the Ten Commandments tablets was “just a line of chalk in a cave.” This beautifully refined balance between the epic and the mundane is surely enough to give the show a break for almost any crime. Other than killing off Frank Lapidus. I think that’s going to annoy me no matter what happens. (We miss you Frank, you beautiful bastard!)
So it’s not all agonising for this doubting Thomas. As this week of worry has progressed, I’ve found myself taking consolation in my previous state of mind, that the story has been told so well so far, and has given me so much pleasure, that it is only fair that I forget about judging the finale as a success or a failure, and just accept whatever Cuse and Lindelof throw at me. As O.C. showrunner Josh Schwartz says in this Vulture post, when asked what advice he would give the Lost showrunners about their finale:
There is no advice that I can give to those guys. What they’re doing is on its own level. Anything goes, and I’m along for the ride. I will watch any way that they want to end the season at this point. No rules apply to this show.
He’s right: after all of this joy, how can I turn on them? I want to love the finale, so I’ll bloody well love it and that’s that. I wanted to love the end of BSG but to be honest I’d given up on it and become increasingly more annoyed by it about four episodes before the end of the second season, and only the New Caprica episodes gripped after that. Lost has never let me down, and my dip in enthusiasm this week was more to do with my worries about the imminent finale. The episode itself was great, with my favourite character Ben Linus getting to be the coldest badass he has ever been, and the scene with Jack that hit me with such force. This is a show that I don’t actually know how to hate. I just don’t know how that is possible.
So I can rationalise away my fears, and crystallise what I have loved about it, but what about the grief? And believe me, there will be grieving once the screen goes black (or white, as in the fifth season). Perhaps I can take solace in the knowledge that the show will almost certainly live on after it is over, as the debates rage. When this is all over, there will be happy fans and grouchy former fans who think the show failed, but I’d hope that everyone who has taken this journey feels it was worthwhile, if only for the mental workout it has given us. I feel bad for anyone who decides to give the show a try after the final episode airs, because they will have missed out on the slow build and the conversation between viewers and creators alike. I’d almost argue that we have all become “creators” as we watch and theorise, interacting with the show to an extent that it no longer qualifies as passive entertainment.
When I tell people one of my hobbies is watching TV I feel this swell of shame for admitting to enjoying something that doesn’t involve kayaking, but loving Lost leads to debating, interacting, studying. How telling that the final Lost ARG is Lost University: the community of like-minded people who have expanded their knowledge of the world just because of this TV show has made me feel as connected with humanity as I once felt while trapped on a small campus in the middle of the country, many years ago. We were in it together then, and bonded en masse. This feels much the same, but without the excessive drinking. It’s been humbling to see how many Lost fans are out there having the same emotional response as me; hundreds of thousands of fans on message boards, showrunners and writers and chat show hosts. Those of us who have metaphorically been touched by Jacob are in this together, and knowing I won’t be alone in feeling like crap tomorrow. Somehow the thought of a choked-up and bereft Jimmy Kimmel makes me feel better. Sorry, Mr. Kimmel.
So why did Jack’s decision make me cry? On some level I was crying because it’s almost over, but also because, maybe subconsciously, my faith was strengthened by the show’s confidence in bringing us to that point in such an emotionally satisfying way. In the face of a potentially calamitous final episode, there was a moment of quiet, perfect grace in the middle of all of this tempestuous attention, all of these end-of-season articles, complaints from former fans, and relentless promotion from ABC. 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 Lost doesn’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. I don’t know that these things will happen, but I do know more tears will be shed, and for the first time this week I’ve been able to expect that they will be tears of joy. I’ll see you on the other side, brothers.