'Lost': 'Up in the Air' with Desmond Hume [Updated]
If you did not like "Happily Ever After," then I'm pretty sure we can't be Internet friends anymore. Don't get me wrong. I respect your point of view. I'm sure you're a great person. You're just wrong about this and probably everything else. I mean, I try not to be a hard-liner. I try not to let my passions overwhelm me. And, obviously, you all know how I feel about Desmond. (The words "man crush" do not even begin to explain it.) But "Happily Ever After" is just a sublime episode of television. If you watch the medium for great characters or great moments or the construction of great worlds, I'd wager you felt roughly similar to me. If you're just in this for answers to every little question you have, well, it's probably time to get off the boat, I'd wager.
I mean, sure, "Happily Ever After" has its answers (or, more accurately, its suggestions about what's going on), but it's also something of a line in the sand, asking if you care more about figuring out just what the ins and outs of the Island are about or if you care more about seeing how the characters the Island drew to it try to deal with its impact on their lives. I certainly don't begrudge the people who feel the show owes them answers their feelings. I just don't, ultimately, understand that point of view. I like the mysteries, sure, and if the show somehow wraps everything up in a way that explains away absolutely every little bit of information, all the better. But what I most want is to see the ultimate fates of these characters, to see them have endings that fit who they've become (or been revealed to be) over the course of six seasons.
To some degree, television is about instant gratification, about giving us what we want every week so we keep coming back for more. We're not addicts, exactly, but we need what only that show can provide. The most daring gambit of the final season of "Lost," then, has been to suggest that what we don't want isn't answers, even if we say we do. What we want is more mystery, more strange noises in the jungle, more misdirection that seems to be pointing one way and then merrily heads off in another direction entirely. It's not a bad guess, really. "Lost" has made its living off of mystery all this time, just as surely as "C.S.I." makes its living off of letting us watch cops catch bad guys or as surely as "The Office" makes its living off of showing us workplace life in all its squeamish details.
The great Time TV critic James Poniewozik has argued in the past that people approach the end of a series like "Lost" not as a conclusion to the story, but as an answer, a solution, a series of pieces that fill in the last gaps in the puzzle. In regards to fan reaction, I don't disagree with his thesis. A lot of people are looking to this last season of "Lost" to explain everything, to justify the fact that they've watched the whole thing or spent time online puzzling out what it all means or bought all of the DVDs and taken screen grabs or ... insert your favorite bit of "Lost" nerdery here. And, yeah, I'm not innocent of all of these things. I've messed around on Lostpedia at work. I've gotten into heated forum arguments about the meaning of everything and defended the show in blog post comment sections. I'm definitely interested in what, if anything, it all means.
But I take another view of all of this too. Imagine that you actually are doing a puzzle. Imagine that you're coming up on the end of your last session with some 5,000-piece behemoth. Maybe you don't have a box to compare to, so you're not entirely sure what the picture's supposed to be. You've just had your wits and a sense that if you started with the corners and then the edges and worked your way inward, you'd be fine. Now, you're coming up on the end. You've got just a few more sessions of working on this puzzle left, and you can pretty much tell what the picture is going to be. Fewer than 100 pieces remain, and you're working them in as you can, but you're starting to realize there are more holes than there are pieces. You've got 100 holes, but you only have 80 pieces. The puzzle is going to have some holes, is going to be incomplete. And no matter how much you search your house for those last few pieces, you're not going to find them, not in a way that makes you feel the rush of finishing that puzzle.
But step back a little bit, and you can still see what was supposed to go in those 20 blank spaces. You can tell that that was supposed to be a bit of cloud and that a deer's hoof. Over there was a piece of that snow-capped peak, and over there was to be a hawk's wingtip. Your mind can fill in the blanks, and you're left with an appreciation both of the picture as a whole and of all the work you put into it, all of the time you spent enjoying it and figuring out where you were, of orienting yourself. I view "Lost" similarly. Heck, I view television itself similarly.
There's something to be said for a story where absolutely everything adds up and there are no loose ends. But that's hard to do in TV, where the nature of collaboration means that not everything can gel with everything else. What's important is that you capture the sweep, that you create a world and characters people want to get lost in and then do the best possible job of keeping that world and those characters true to what you've done before. We can watch "Happily Ever After" and wonder just what Widmore's game is or we can watch it and wonder just what Desmond's going to have to sacrifice (and, oh please, don't make him sacrifice his life, "Lost"). But I prefer to watch it and be amazed by just how swooningly romantic the whole thing is, how it takes the basic premise of the movie "Family Man" (only in reverse) and makes something genius out of it.
Put another way, if that moment when Desmond suddenly flashed on a vision of his life with Penny didn't make your heartstrings sing just a little bit, you're probably not the kind of "Lost" fan I am, and, sad to say, these last episodes are probably going to disappoint you, were probably ALWAYS going to disappoint you.
"Happily Ever After" is a bunch of things, I guess. It's a way to interpret the events of the final season and the flash sideways universe. It's a deeply felt story of a man who regains a love he didn't know he'd lost. It's something of a solution to the puzzle of whether the flash-sideways universe is an epilogue to the series proper or not. It's a fun thriller about a man who finds himself in over his head in two realities and isn't sure what, if anything, is even "real." And, on top of everything else, it's got the usual sense of "Lost" religiosity, the sense that everything is moving toward a grander purpose. When Desmond gets in his car at the end with an almost evangelical zeal and says he has to show the other "Lost" castaways something, well, that's a moment that pushes us forward in a new direction and gives the show a new sense of purpose.
One of the things I liked most about "Happily Ever After" is just how much time it gave us in the flash-sideways world. I think we needed that time, even if many of us would have rather been back on the Island. We needed some time to see how the whole place is constructed, how there are some flaws around the edges, holes that can be poked through by moments of strong emotion. (The show makes the most use out of "love" as a way to do this, but notice that it also happens when Desmond is trying to save Charlie in a situation remarkably similar to the end of Season Three.) The flash-sideways world has been a place that we've only gotten a few glancing glimpses of in between all of the Island action, a place that has seemed a little underdeveloped at times. Now, I think, we're getting a better sense of it as a place that exists only because everyone has been given what they think they want but at some sort of price. It's not quite a shared hallucination like "The Matrix," I don't think, but it is a place where everyone has given something up to get something else. In Desmond's case, that means he's never met his beloved Penny, but he has gained the acceptance of her father, Charles Widmore.
The Desmond and Penny relationship has always been the romantic bedrock of the series. For all of the other doomed-and-otherwise couplings the show has served up, the Desmond and Penny relationship -- which involved, at one point, both having to move space and time to be together -- has seemed like the show's mission statement for what matters, love-wise. Love is hard, "Lost" seems to say, but if you find it, you have to cling to it. It's the only thing that will rescue you from a dark and mysterious Island. It's the only thing that will right you in time so you don't die from having your brain scrambled. And it's the only thing that can pull you out of an alternate timeline stupor. "Lost" works not because it's a show about lots of interesting mysteries. It works because it's a show about characters who all want something and dream of something concrete. In Desmond's case, that's always been Penny, and when he doesn't seem terribly concerned that he doesn't have love in the flash-sideways, he seems ... emptier somehow.
But then, oh then, things start to break through. The flash-sideways ends up being like a remix of every episode Desmond has featured prominently in since the show began. (In particular, we hit one of my favorite, very underrated episodes, Season Three's "Flashes Before Your Eyes," another episode that completely took place in a place other than the main timeline.) Charlie is there to describe a woman who is obviously Claire and bring about the flash Desmond sees of the other world. Both Eloise and Daniel are there to tell Desmond to follow his heart, one urging him to run away from it and the other urging him to run toward it. (And, as my friend Zack Handlen points out, both Charlie and Daniel died in the other timeline after following their hearts.) [For the record: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Eloise and Daniel, not Charlie and Daniel, died in the other timeline.] Even the smallest of details -- a glass of fine Scotch, a hand pressed against a window -- hearkens back to an earlier episode but in a way designed to provoke a kind of sadness at what has been lost, an apprehension of what might be to come.
I certainly don't want to tell any of you who are watching this final season and demanding more answers that you're wrong to watch the show that way. Everyone watches TV for their own reasons. All I can do is tell you why I watch it, and I watch it because I want to see worlds I believe in, no matter how ridiculous, characters I care about, no matter how they end up mired in metaphysical conflicts from beyond our reality. I want to see a man realize that the only thing worth fighting for is the love of a woman he's never met. I want to see another man who keeps chasing death because he thinks it's the only way to find purpose. I want to see a doctor slowly realizing that there's more to the strange events swirling around him in two worlds, a sad musician pull scientific genius out of thin air. The people on "Lost" aren't real, obviously, but I want to believe they could be, that they're living in a universe just around the corner. I want to see that smooth cut from Desmond grasping Penny's hand to his eyes opening back on the Island, the look of joy on his face when it happens, a realization that some things matter more than others. Does it matter to me if the puzzle has its holes? No. Because what's there is something I desperately want to see.
Some other thoughts:
- * Man, I do love me some Daniel "Faraday" Widmore. The sad genius is such a type, but Jeremy Davies plays it so well, and his scene this episode, where he said that he thought that he HAD blown up a nuclear bomb, was just terrific.
- * Oh, and Eloise, too! This episode was crammed full of great "Lost" players we haven't seen in a while, and it's a good reminder of just how many fun characters who never got developed lurked around the edges of the show. For example, George Minkowski, who I hope sticks around.
- * For those of you playing along at home, this is the first episode of Season Six that Terry O'Quinn does not appear in at all. That's kind of notable for an episode where I'm assuming that much of what happens is happening because of his character.
- * I liked Eloise saying, "What happened, happened," but I did so want to hear her say that the universe has a way of "course correcting."
- * So are we to believe Penny's alternate timeline last name is Milton? Or is that just some other Penny? I took it to be the latter, but it seems most others are taking it to be the former.
- * Some great direction by Jack Bender in this one. I love that shot of Desmond slowly striding toward Penny as she runs up and down the stairs at the stadium and the shot of Daniel watching Desmond and his mother talk from the piano.
- * Man, that is way, way too much about this episode and my feelings on the season in general. I'm sure many of you will have way better theories than I do, so let's hear 'em. And if you still think the show is headed down a path toward being an utter waste of time, I promise I'll try to stay Internet friends with you, no matter how hard it is. And don't forget that you can e-mail or Tweet me too!
--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photos: Above: Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) and Penny (Sonya Walger) 4-ever! Below: Meanwhile, in another universe entirely, Desmond actually works for Penny's dad, Charles Widmore (Alan Dale). (Credit: ABC)