LOST Discussion: A Retrospective on the Finale and the Series

31 05 2010

I have to admit, I’ve started and stopped writing this entry multiple times.  It’s extremely difficult to put into perspective just what this show has meant to me over the years, and it’s important to me to do justice to this type of summary.  In addition, my understanding, perceptions, and emotions have all changed numerous times since I first viewed the finale.  It’s almost as if I needed to give it more time to wash over me before I dove in.  But I feel like I have it where I want it, and am ready to share it with you now.  So here it is…the final entry of interLOST.

Writers’ unwritten contract?

As I said in the opening, I’ve actually let the thoughts and ideas flow about 3 or 4 separate times before pushing out this post.  And to be fair, most of them were negative in nature.  In fact, immediately after the finale, I felt cheated on many levels.  Obviously, if I’ve spent many, many hours writing a blog trying to unearth the mysteries of the show, and trying to analyze each of the tiniest of clues, I’m going to feel a little bit of disappointment if the show failed to answer those questions in a straightforward fashion.  I think that’s natural.  Even after waking up the day after the show, I still felt somewhat robbed.  My disappointment actually turned to resentment.  How could they do this?  How could they leave so much unanswered?  Allow me to digress for just a moment, so I can help you understand my perspective.

Some of you readers may disagree, but I think that writers have an unwritten contract with their audience.  I think that people choose to watch a show based upon the “rules” that the show operates under.  For example, if you like comedy but hate sci-fi, you’ll probably watch something like “How I Met Your Mother” or “Modern Family” as opposed to “Fringe” or “Caprica”.  But how would you feel as an audience member if “How I Met Your Mother” slowly morphed into a “CSI” or a “Law and Order” rip-off?  I imagine you’d feel betrayed.  You started watching a comedy, and it turned into a cop show or a courtroom drama.  You were hooked in by one thing, but then the show changed.  You’d probably jump ship and stop watching…but you’d have to be disappointed that you invested time in the show just to have it make a u-turn on you. 

That may be an exaggerated scenario, but I think it gets my point across.  LOST always had to balance a fine line between the mythology/mystery,  and character development.  And whether or not they succeeded, they always seemed to at least make the effort.    Character episodes like “I Do”, “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead” (which I loved, by the way), and “Some Like It Hoth” were balanced by mythology episodes like “Lockdown”, “Flashes Before Your Eyes”, and “Cabin Fever”.  Sometimes they even pulled off episodes with great mythology and great character development in the same episode, like what we got with “The Constant”.

But by dedicating half of Season 6 to the flash-sideways, they clearly made the decision to prioritize character development at the expense of the mythology, despite the fan reaction they had to know was on the horizon.  And really, the most bizarre part of that, is that any of the character development that happened in the flash-sideways is largely a throw-away.  Yes, they’re the same people, as we found out in the end.  But the only purpose of the flash-sideways is to get the characters to reach enlightment together, so that they can advance to the next realm.  Most of the experiences we saw in the flash-sideways leading up the finale are even less relevant than anything done during any character’s island time.

Dismissing the hard-core viewers?

That’s what makes the ending so puzzling.  Obviously, the show started as a character drama in Season 1.  But it clearly moved into a genre show as the years progressed.  In fact, it embraced it…even to the show’s diminishing ratings.  As the show shifted more and more to a science fiction bonanza (where time travel, possession, and teleportation were all in a day’s work), more and more viewers decided it wasn’t for them.  Viewership diminshed, but there was a hard-core fan base that stuck with the show through it all…and these were the folks that wanted some sort of payoff for the years they watched the show.  But then, when the show  reached the ending, it’s almost as if the writers made a conscious decision NOT to cater to the fans that stuck with the show as it became straight-up sci-fi, but instead, to appeal to fans on the edge, or those that checked out long ago.

When you think about the series as a whole, and try to make a critical assessment of it, it’s important to remember that the writers created these mysteries.  Major narrative thrusts and episode-to-episode cliffhangers centered around things like the numbers, the infertility issue, and Jacob’s cabin.  In some cases (like the blast door map, what the smoke monster is, and who the Others are) questions were answered well.  In others (like the first ones listed above), the attempt wasn’t even made.

Here’s a way to look at it: do you think that LOST would have continued to have the ratings it had if the writers came right out from the beginning and said, “we’re not going to answer all of these questions, so prepare yourselves now.  We’ll answer a few, but don’t get too emotionally invested in any one specific mystery, because there’s a good chance we won’t get to it.”  In a very real way, that would be a slap in the face to a viewer that was considering investing 6 years in a show.  I’m sure many viewers would check out right then and there, for fear of that the question they wanted an answer to wouldn’t be resolved.  It seems to me that the same question should be asked now that the series is over.  What hammers that point home the most is when you think about someone who’s thinking about starting from the beginning, asking you about the mysteries of the show and whether or not they were answered.  What could you say?  I think trying to sell that person on the fact that the show isn’t really about that, but more about the journey, would be selling them a bill of goods.

Nailing what they set out to accomplish in the finale

All of that being said, I must have hated the finale, right?  Well, no, not exactly.  Actually, I think that the writers did a masterful job with what they wanted to accomplish.  (I’ll get to that in just a minute.)  But the point I’m trying to get across is that I think the writers did a disservice to their most die-hard fans by not even trying to give resolution to some of the key plot points.  And what’s the most discouraging about it is that it seems to me that it could have been done with a single Jacob/MIB flashback episode.  Simply walking back through some of the critical moments of the show from the perspective of either Jacob or MIB could have brought resolution to things like the infertility issue or Jacob’s cabin, and they could have even squeezed in the outrigger shootout in the process.  It’s quite puzzling: the writers requested to shorten the series to 6 seasons because they felt as though they couldn’t keep “treading water”, but in the end, they failed to answer some of the questions they themselves posed to the audience.  It appears to the casual viewer that they ended the show too early, and/or they planned the narrative exit strategy very poorly.  Either of those thoughts is very discouraging.

On a positive note, despite not giving all of the answers they promised, the writers largely achieved what they set out to do in the finale: create a compelling sense of closure to the characters.  Three other shows I watch also had series finales this year: Heroes, 24, and FlashForward.  And each of them paled in comparison to the LOST finale in terms of scope and closure.  Heroes and FlashForward may have an excuse: the writers thought they were writing a season finale, not a series finale.  Typically, that’s the reason why series finales are so poor: half the time, the show is getting cancelled, and the writers didn’t have the opportunity to write an over-arching, compelling wrap-up to the storyline.  But this was not an excuse for 24, whose writers knew it was coming to a close.  And in reality, that show is a perfect example of a show that knew the end was coming, but still couldn’t wrap it up in a meaningful way.  The moral of that story is: even when you know the end is near, it’s still hard to wrap it up exactly the way you want.  But that’s where I think LOST hit a home run.

Yes, it was a season-long lead-up, and perhaps could have been achieved with a tighter narrative and less time devoted to it, but it was absolutely a clever and unique way to send all of these characters off with a happy ending, and not render the entire time on the island meaningless.  (It still lessened the characters’ time on the island, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)  With any show, you want those final moments to be a time where the characters have resolution, and that there’s a sense of closure.  The way the writers dovetailed our desire for closure with the characters need for enlightment to advance to the next stage of the afterlife was incredibly brilliant.  I can’t imagine a better way to engage the audience than seeing each of the character’s remembrances of their times on the island, and having the viewers “move on” along with the characters.  In and of itself, it was a conceptual masterstroke for finale writing.  But because LOST is what it is, it’s hard to judge simply within the context of the finale itself.  You have to judge it in the way it fits in with the rest of the series.  And that’s where it again fals a bit short of expectations.

If it’s about the characters, how do you explain John Locke?

I’ll get right to the point.  I was a big fan of the character of John Locke.  And while the show gave meaningful and fully satisfying character arcs to Jack and Ben, they really seemed to make Locke’s journey an ultimately bitter one, despite the finale’s last scenes.  He got to his spiritual enlightenment via Jack’s help, he got a heartfelt apology from Ben, and he got to advance to the next realm with all of his friends from the island.  But here’s what he didn’t get: redemption.

Locke was a man that was deeply troubled in his off-island life.  He had a horrific relationship with his father, one in which he was pushed out of building 8 stories up, and was confined to a wheelchair.  Even later in life, that same father stole one of Locke’s kidneys in a terribly emotionally painful long con.  When Locke came to the island, it granted him a second lease on life.  He regained full mobility and could ditch the wheelchair.  He took advantage of the situation and attempted to be the person he never was during his off-island time.  And because this magical place granted him this 2nd chance, he invested his faith in it.  He wasn’t always 100% faithful; at times he failed in his beliefs.  But early on in the series, it was Locke’s faith and belief that the island was a special place that superceded everyone else’s, including the eventual savior of the remaining survivors.

But as it turns out, it was all a long con.  Locke put his faith in the island, but what he was really putting his faith in was the manipulations of the Smoke Monster.  The monster used Locke’s undying faith to create an opportunity to get to and kill Jacob.  In essence, Locke was simply a pawn…as MIB put it later in the series, when he was using Locke’s physical form: “Locke was a sucker.”  And that is the legacy of John Locke.  A man who provided so much inspiring, blind faith on a show that concluded with a huge leap of faith required by the audience about the afterlife, met with his demise alone (remember, each of his friends off-island rejected him before his death) and confused.  Every taunting comment that the Man in Black made about him, even as he stole his body, was left unchanged by the finale.  Even for those that believed that the journey of LOST was about the characters would have a tough time explaining how anyone who felt an association with Locke could feel content about his character arc.

In my mind, the one logical response is that in the flash-sideways, Locke got to move on to the next realm.  He got his apology from Ben, and he clearly forgave him.  But that doesn’t equate to redemption.  The only way that moment is meaningful, is if you take it at its face.  As in, “Locke found enlightenment and went to some version of heaven.”  But is that enough?  Sure, I suppose…if you concede the fact that nothing on the island was relevant.  Or at least, that the happenings on-island were less relevant than what happened afterwards.  But if you do that, doesn’t it make the first 5 seasons mostly meaningless?  Now, suddenly “the journey” doesn’t matter: only the end result.  Let me put it to you another way.  According to the nature of the afterlife we saw on the show, the only thing required for this arrangement to happen was that all of these people had to meet and become meaningful in each others’ lives.  It wouldn’t have mattered if it happened on an island, on a mountain, out at sea, or in Los Angeles.  If that’s the case…if that’s the message that LOST wants to tell us…then why should we have cared about the island in the first place?  The writers have stated on numerous occasions that the island is the character the fans forget about the most…it seems as though they took a page out of that book in the finale.

Finale in and of itself versus the series as a whole: a tale of two dichotomies

It’s those two dichotomies that make the finale such a difficult thing to digest.  First, it makes it seem as though the writers didn’t even try to answer some mysteries that they could have nailed to the satisfaction of the hard-core viewers with simply a single episode addressing them.  Why choose to end the series in a timeframe that wouldn’t allow you to answer the questions you presented to the viewers?  Second, while the finale was brilliant when taken in and of itself, it ultimately lessens the time of the survivors on the island.  This point is driven home by the character of John Locke, who ultimately found heaven, but whose life on earth was just as flawed as MIB/Smoke Monster claimed it was.

Ultimately, your perception of the finale, and the series in general, is going to be determined by how forgiving you are of these two dichotomies.  If you realy didn’t care about getting answers, or had resolved yourself to the idea that you wouldn’t get any, then you probably mostly enjoyed the finale.  And, if you didn’t put too much thought into what the trip to the afterlife meant, or didn’t care because you got to see your favorite characters together again one last time, then you probably thought that the finale was the best one created in the history of television.

Final thoughts

As for me, I’m still mixed (which is better than where I was immediately after the finale aired).  I’ve enjoyed the finale more each time I’ve watched it, and I’ve come to truly appreciate what the writers were trying to achieve, and the fact that I think they pulled it off.  However, I’m still disappointed in the long-term strategy of Team Darlton, and their propensity to insert situations or mysteries into the show without a real plan of resolving them.  In some cases they were able to go back and make it work, in others they didn’t, and in others, they inexplicably didn’t even try.  But I suppose that at the end of the day, I look back on my time with LOST, and don’t feel cheated.  I feel as though the show pushed me into writing a blog, helped me build friendships that will go beyond the show’s run, and gave me a sense of accomplishment and comaradarie that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Overall, my experience with LOST was alternatingly incredible and challenging.  And ultimately, I will look back on it fondly, with a twinge of bittersweetness for what it might have been if just a piece or two more had been put in the right place.  And with that, I officially end my time with this blog.  Thanks again to all of you that joined me on this journey.  I hope you all find that it was worth the effort.  I’ll see you all in another life (or another blog), brotha!

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