james debate
james debate

Saturday 29 May 2010

On Sunday night, tv show Lost bid its final farewell, with a simultaneous showing in both USA/UK, which I was lucky/stupid enough to stay up for. It's been 6 long and wonderful years and I for one hate goodbyes. There will be massive spoilers from the outset so do not read this if you have yet to see the finale.

lost the end

Let's begin by taking a moment to reflect on the fact that this show is now over. This is actually a very strange feeling after so many years of getting to know these characters and the mythology of this show, trying to put all the pieces together and hypothesise about the mysteries. Now all that is over, we won't be getting any more answers and we won't see any more of these characters.

So to summarise, the central plot line of the show goes something like this:

There is a special island powered by an enigmatic underground electromagnetic energy, which appears to be connected to all the many weird and magical things we've seen happen on the island. Since the dawn of time curious and destructive human beings have sought to acquire and understand this energy and have come to the island for this purpose, the Egyptians, the Romans, the US Army, Dharma, and probably many more. It is the job of the Island's guardian to ensure that this energy remains safe and untarnished, or else all hell breaks loose.

Jacob is one in a long line of island guardians, having had a difficult childhood and growing up with massive insecurity and inferiority issues, particularly with regards to his brother who is "special", who gets to pick the rules when they play Senet, and is favoured to rule over the island. This nameless brother doesn't want the job and vows to destroy the island in order to get off of it, an act which will apparently destroy the world. This leaves Jacob as the only one left who can take the role. Now Jacob is the "special" one making the rules, and as his first act as guardian of the island, he foolishly lashes out at his brother in anger, and the smoke monster is born.

After trying for centuries in vain to prove to his brother than Humans aren't all bad and deserve to survive, summoning various groups of people, Jacob realises that it is only a matter of time before his determined brother finds a way to kill him and get off the island. So Jacob endeavours to find a successor, identifying a list of people who like him are alone, with their own issues and a need for meaning in life. He summons them to the island in Oceanic flight 815.

Through a long, complicated series of manipulations and misdirection, Jacob's brother manages to build Locke up as the saviour of the island, gets him killed, takes his form and uses that form to manipulate Ben into killing Jacob. After 6 seasons of Lost, smokey's plan to escape is finally coming to fruition. Long story short, these candidates manage to stop smokey by "switching off" the energy that gives him his power and save the island, Hurley becomes the new king of the island, and all but 6 main characters (three from the original flight 815) die or remain on the island.

The last thing we see is all our characters meeting up in the afterlife after each of them has died at some indeterminate point in time. There is plenty more story in the show, character backstories, conflict between the losties and "the others", but at the end of the day this is the central story of Lost. Philosophical questions have been raised and discussed, from the concept of "fate" to the redemptive capacity of man: we have seen the "man of science" Jack reform into the ultimate sacrificial "man of faith", we have seen no good conman Sawyer redeem himself by becoming a selfless hero, and many other stories of redemption.

Undoubtedly the thing that will divide fans and get everybody talking is the end of the final episode, the last 5 minutes which turned pretty much everything on its head by revealing the "flash-sideways", a narrative device introduced in the final season, to be some kind of purgatory in which all the central characters from Lost meet each other and cross over to the other side. This is apparently because there is some deep connection between all these characters; these are the people who matter most to each other in the entire world, and the time they knew each other on the island (about 3 years including the time they spent off the island) was apparently the most meaningful time in their lives.

Longtime fans bemoaned the lack of answers, and apologists pointed out that the intention was to focus on the characters rather than the mythology. Unfortunately I'm not sure the ending really works in either of these regards.

In terms of answers, well clearly there are a lot of classic Lost mysteries which have not been addressed at all, or chalked up to a special "magic" with, at best, roots in pseudo science based around some electro-magnetic energy. Worse still, the show had, up until the finale, been hinting at some kind of alternate timeline interaction which could potentially have offered answers for many of these mysteries, like how Locke was able to walk after crashing on the Island, and yet right at the last the writers chose to bring in this purgatory angle from right out of left-field.

Now I can live without answers to many of these questions, I'm happy to accept a little bit of sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, but to take a decent plot direction with the potential to wrap everything up nicely and ditch it just for the sake of one final big twist seems awfully arbitrary, and incredibly unsatisfying. It also makes much of what we've seen in the show, especially in the past season, completely pointless. Faraday's theories? pointless. The island underwater? pointless. The concept of bleeding between timelines that would have explained Locke, Sun losing her ability to speak English, and many other things? Fuck that. The hydrogen bomb going off? Turned out to be a complete red herring. In retrospect, however, it's a perfect microcosm of the show as a whole, which I'll explain in a minute.

Meanwhile, even in terms of an ending for these characters it leaves much to be desired. First of all I'm not a big fan of the whole "here's everyone after they've died" ending to begin with, after investing so much emotionally in these characters you hope for a bigger payoff at the end, but Locke (real Locke) came back to life with a whimper and barely a line or two of dialogue, Charlie had about 5 seconds with Claire and Aaron, and Penny didn't even get to speak a single line in this episode. Personally I would have loved to see a final epic philosophical scene between Locke and Jack, as we have so often seen throughout the show. That would have been the perfect ending for the show, but they just didn't have the time. I guess that's the problem with having so many characters in this show.

In terms of giving us closure, this ending is somewhat unsettling. For starters 6 of these characters get off the Island and live the rest of their lives, possibly decades, and yet they still come back to spend their afterlife with the losties. For example Kate might have lived another 50 years, and apparently never had a family, or friends, or any significant relationship, living the rest of her life without any apparent meaning. This to me is quite an upsetting ending. In addition, what of the children? Charlie, Aaron, Ji Yeon? We see Charlie and Claire enter the afterlife with Aaron as a baby... is this really Aaron, now spending his afterlife in limbo as a baby? Or, like Jack's "son" David, is this merely an artificial image of him derived from their minds, in which case these parents won't be spending the afterlife with their children. Either way this is a very sad ending, offering no closure for characters who died on the island and never got to know their kids.

Now I don't mind sad endings, per se, but this is being played as a big happy reunion type ending, when all I can see is a collection of shattered lives and relationships, torn apart by what happened on the island. There permeates an almost nihilistic sense that most of these people lost all these things for no reason, dying completely without purpose or redemption. Locke's backstory was that he was used and manipulated his entire life, and this is exactly how he died, being manipulated by smokey. He gets no redemption, and neither do many other characters like Faraday, who from what we can tell was a bit of an overblown buffoon with nonsense theories on timelines which never amounted to anything. The writers so meticulously wrote these fantastic character arcs, and then didn't bother to resolve most of them.

In fairness, I don't think this was a "bad" finale. On the contrary it was excellent television, an absolutely breathtaking 2 and a half hours with some truly epic moments. Jack's final confrontation with smokey was brilliant, as was the scene of his death. Charlie's reunion with Claire, more than any other scene, brought a tear to my eye, probably since it had been so many years since we've seen them two together. Up until the last 5 minutes I had considered this to be a triumph of a finale. But that ending, the final few minutes, seems to be a completely unnecessary twist, nonsensical and a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion for these characters we have known for so long. It was a big final twist for the sake of it, which as I noted earlier is entirely typical for this show.

Ultimately, Lost was a victim of its own success, and specifically its own notoriety for creating intriguing, engrossing mysteries. It wasn't just a matter of writing a show where the viewers never had any idea what was going on, the crucial element was the drip feed of subtle clues. The show was presented to us like a jigsaw puzzle, one which almost compulsively had viewers trying to piece it all together and figure it out... the revelation that none of these mysteries had actual answers, that the writers had only a vague idea of what was going on, was a bitter sting indeed. The writers recognised this fact too, and in order to keep ratings high, they piled on new characters and mysteries to endlessly keep us in the dark.

They worked themselves into a bit of a mess, where there was no way they would be able to tie the story together, and no way they could ever stop adding new mysteries, for fear of low ratings. The result is that the plot became a convoluted mishmash of different ideas and concepts, and anyone can see in the last few seasons that the writers really struggled to keep coming up with new twists and mysteries. Hence when it came to the big finale, they pretty much HAD to bring in a big final twist in order to live up to the precedent set in previous successful seasons.

Time constraint was also a major issue. Following criticism that that the show wasn't going anywhere and that they were "making it up as they went along" the network pressured them to set a deadline for their show after 6 years so that they could start writing towards an ending. But this didn't work out so well. The writers just kept piling more and more characters and mysteries and twists and it was only as they got towards the final seasons that they realised they would have to somehow tie it up, an impossible task by that point. As a result they simply didn't have the time to expand on the story as much as they could have. So many characters have incomplete backstories. Who was the young girl Ben knew as a child and why did he carry around her doll for the rest of his life? What was the deal with Faraday's random crying and the card game Charlotte played with him? What role did Eloise Hawking play and what was the deal with her "time cop" act? Libby in the insane asylum one minute, then working for Widmore and giving Desmond a free boat the next? These are all plot points that the writers at one point claimed were absolutely central for those characters, but due to time constraints, only 6 seasons and only a limited number of episodes in some of those seasons, they simply were never able to expand upon.

The writers say that they are grateful that they were able to make this show "the way they wanted", but that clearly is not the case. They were bullied into slapping a timeframe and rushing the ending, they were pressured by ratings and fan hype to keep the exciting mysteries and twists coming, and they were intimidated into not even trying to tie all the loose plot threads together. This isn't the show they envisioned, this is just a hole they dug themselves into, and then tried to take the safest route out.

Ultimately, as much as I adore Lost, I can't help but look at much of it as wasted potential. All the carefully placed easter eggs and details which at the time looked like hints, but never amounted to anything. All the character plots alluded to but never expanded upon. All the time wasted on frankly uninteresting, and as it turned out, relatively unimportant things. Back in season 2 or 3 it all hinted at some grand symphony of plot, something which promised an almighty payoff at the end. But really we didn't get any of that, we just got the very basic character narrative (vaguely, and not particularly neatly) resolved. Everything else that (we thought) we saw, turns out it was just smoke and mirrors.

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