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'Lost': If you come with me, I'll show you what I mean

Church
 One of my favorite books of all time is "Watership Down." In that story, the main action of the book ends with around 20 pages left. (It's here that I'll warn you there are spoilers for "Watership Down" ahead, but the book is almost 40 years old. C'mon.) The rabbits who have come to Watership Down to make their home have survived an incursion by the borderline fascist General Woundwort, and everyone is safe for a little while. It's a lovely scene, but it's made even more moving by the short epilogue, set in an undetermined future. The book's hero, leader Hazel, has grown old and is enjoying one last summer among all of those for whom he built a world worth living in. Which is when El-Ahrairah, something like the rabbits' folk hero and/or god, arrives to take Hazel away to what's after, not a rabbit Heaven, not exactly, but definitely a place where there will be less pain and less worry. The final sentences are elliptical, suggesting more than showing, creating something that is and always will be while staying just ahead of us. We are not yet ready to see what is next. We can only catch pieces. Hazel worries about those who will go after him, but El-Ahrairah insists he needn't worry. "They'll be all right," he says, "and thousands like them. If you come with me, I'll show you what I mean."

So when Sawyer was reading "Watership Down" back in season one of "Lost," I thought it was just a tip of the hat from the producers to a book I loved. I didn't know it was the answer to the whole series.

On Tuesday, I talked a lot about the letting go, about the process of readying yourself to let someone or something slip away from you and become a part of something else. It can be as simple as letting a friend move cross country, or it can be as profound as putting a family member in the ground and hoping you might see them again someday. The final season of "Lost" has been about having the kind of faith needed to accept that things will make a kind of sense, even when they don't, about realizing the world is sometimes a tragic one where bad things happen and sometimes a beautiful one where people can create things larger than themselves by the mere process of coming together and building something. I've talked here about how I love things that are about community, about the ways that people can work together toward something else. And in the end, that was what "Lost" was about as well. It just showed its cards awfully late.

I can already see on the various Internet haunts I frequent that the episode didn't work for everyone. It continued the series' hard left turn into outright mysticism, and some are frightened that the end of the show suggests that everyone has been dead all this time. While I can see where some are coming up with that theory from (or its far more cynical variant that this is a hallucination that Jack is having on his way to his final resting place), I don't think that is what we're seeing here. This flash-sideways universe is one final gift from the last protector of the Island that we see -- Hurley -- to everyone he ever knew or loved. It is a chance for him to do what he does best, as Ben says. He is taking care of people, giving them both what they wanted and what they needed. The structure here is meant to be elusive, to always run just ahead of us while we chase along behind. At some point in the "Lost" world, all of these people die. And then they end up in the sideways world, where they're able to have what they wanted (perhaps thanks to Hurley). And then Desmond becomes their spiritual counselor, in a way, helping them to let go.

So much of the finale of "Lost" is about bringing things to a sort of holistic closure, about tying things together. Much of the series has been about duality, about things that are split between two halves or two forces that act in opposition, but the finale is largely about solving dualities. I mean, on one (really obvious and kinda Freudian) level, it's about putting a big rock back in a magic hole. But it's also about the character who's probably been responsible for the most good in the world of "Lost" and a character who has been responsible for a lot of bad looking to find another way to do business than the way that the Monster and Jacob did it. There doesn't need to be judgment followed by execution. There doesn't need to be a moratorium on people leaving the Island. And there doesn't need to be the constant struggle between light and dark. Rose and Bernard had it right after all. The best way forward is to opt out, is to just do the right thing by those you love. In this way, Jacob was "right" or at least on the side of what the series thinks is "good." He was more about sacrifice than selfishness, and the finale's latter passages are about what it means to embrace that ethos, about what it means that Desmond probably could put the stone back in the hole, but Jack is the one to do it because Desmond still has someone back home to live for.

"The End" chose not to tie up loose ends or make the mythology entirely make sense. It decided not to make more specific just why the Monster couldn't leave the Island or why the Island had to exist for the rest of the world to go on as it is (at least, that's how I'm interpreting the idea that the Island's heart going out would mean the end of everything). It probably figured that vague notions in these regards were all we needed.  The plot of the episode, as it were, is pretty much about people running between various points in an attempt to get certain tasks accomplished. Richard and Miles need to get the plane in the sky (with some help from -- hooray! -- Lapidus). Jack needs to kill the Monster. The Monster needs to destroy the Island. Very little of the actual plot is, really, all that thrilling. But it works and it becomes thrilling because it provides character payoffs we've been waiting for. Locke and Jack finally have a titanic battle in the rain. Kate and Jack finally come together. Sawyer finally gets to leave the Island. The flash-sideways world is one, long series of buttons on character storylines that allows the episode to be the classic series finale clip show without ever making it one, not quite. (Though I don't know that I was so invested in the Shannon and Sayid story as to think it was the best way to wake Sayid up.)

Door  Was this the right call? For me, absolutely. Big, giant answers about what the Island was or its place in the world's cosmology or why it had Egyptian stuff all over it or anything like that were probably bound to be disappointing, as most of the answers dispensed this season were, only even more so. Saying what the Island is is like saying what the meaning of life is; it's a question you can ask but never receive a really satisfying answer to. Really, what would you have liked? It was a crashed spaceship that somehow ended up in the ocean and had life grow upon it? It was a long-lost, fabled isle like Avalon or the Garden of Eden? It was Purgatory? The answer, here, I suppose was that some just wanted the show to say that the Island was SOMEthing, to put a definitive button on the show's biggest questions. But, for me, buttons are always less interesting than the things they're meant to plug. Put another way, were you more interested in the rock plugging the hole, or the hole itself, with all that glowy light inside of it?

One of the reasons I think "Lost" worked was that it was always more interested in the box and the person holding the box than what was in the box. A closed box is almost always a mystery, really, until you open it and see what's inside (which is how so many parents misdirect their kids on Christmas morning). All of the imitators of the show that have come along have focused far, far more on the contents of that box. They wanna shake it and hear if it rattles. They wanna pull back the wrapping paper and take a peek. "Lost" has always been satisfied to dump a package in your lap and think that's enough. Is it? Again, for me, absolutely. But if not for you, does the fact that you opened the box and didn't find what you wanted ruin the whole experience of the show, all of the fun you had along the way? It's not wrong to feel that way, not at all. But it probably does speak to the different kinds of people we are, and the different ways we react to art.

Me, I prize ambition above absolute coherence. The producers of "Lost" have talked about just how much they love the work of Stephen King, and King's novels tend to get less interesting the more he expresses just what's going on. What I think makes "The End" work on a plot level, ultimately, is the fact that the characters are only doing what they need to do to come to the end they want to come to. Jack pushes Kate away so she can live the life he knows he won't. Sawyer finally gets to leave. Ben joins the side of good in the end. The characters pass by some of the biggest mysteries on the show, but they only give them glances. The ultimate meanings and associations are there for us to draw conclusions about and argue about for years to come, and I'm sure we will. The important thing, as my wife put it after the episode ended, is not answers. It's resolution. And "Lost" provided that in spades. It was an attempt to put us in a place where we were ready to let the show and the characters go, to release them to whatever was waiting for them beyond those church doors, in that blinding white light (perhaps the light that Juliet released when she blew up the bomb at the end of last season -- it worked, indeed).

One of the things that's made the last six seasons of this show so fun is the way that it's kind of a Rorschach test for who you are. Your answers to the questions the show presented were as important to the experience of watching the show as anything else. I might fixate on the way the show suggests the destruction of the Island means the end of the world (since I do love my post-apocalyptic fiction so). You might fixate on the meaning of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Someone else might be very interested in the way the show expresses the philosophies of Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. What matters to me doesn't matter to you. "Lost's" genius is that it stirs up a whole bunch of what matters to a lot of people, then never takes sides on what's most important. Like science fiction? Here's a full season of time travel. Like philosophy? Here are a bunch of characters named after philosophers and an occasional episode that expresses their precepts. It's a big, pulp stew of everything the producers think matters, a stew where you pick out what's important to you and maybe don't have quite as much of that little piece over there.

What makes "The End" disorienting for many of us, I think, is the fact that it's ever so gently letting us know what the producers think is most important here, which pieces of the stew they've been most interested from the start. What I'm intrigued by is how the episode works with "Across the Sea" and "What They Died For." The first is a suggestion of how this entire bloody mess got started, of how this place tends to take men and turn them into monsters (sometimes literally). The second episode (and this one) are suggestions of new ways to go forward, of a way to give people a choice in their own destinies and, finally, a way to create a kind of peace for all of the people who died needlessly because of the events of "Across the Sea." These episodes matter even more than they did in the initial telling now, because we've seen there's a better way, a new way.

But at the same time, "The End" doesn't take the show away from us entirely. The producers are skillful enough to leave us more room for debate, a place left for us to interpret, questions left to answer on our own. I saw this episode in a room full of other "Lost" fans, critics and aficionados. And as my colleague Dan Fienberg wrote on Twitter afterward, what was most important wasn't necessarily the ending of the episode, but the fact that the episode made us talk. We all could agree that the episode's opening acts were skillfully done (as "Lost" always does these big, exciting action payoffs well) and that the emotional payoffs in the flash-sideways universe were mostly well-handled. But it was that last act and the meaning of everything that happens -- is Ben still in Purgatory? where were Michael and Walt? and even if the stained glass windows in the "Lost" church were so multicultural, what about the atheists? -- that really set us to talking. And by leaving us with that (as well as some of the bigger questions of the show's mythology), Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse may have completed their greatest act yet.

I don't know where I'd rank "The End" against all other "Lost" episodes. There were some jokes that fell flat, and an overreliance on sentimentality that could be a little grating at times. I thought the ending was lovely, while still finding myself jarred out of it by Christian telling Jack that he was dead. (Indeed, I suspect this moment will have more resonance for me a second time through, when I'm able to accept that this doesn't mean everyone on the Island has been dead the whole time. I was really worried there for a while!) I liked the way it reinforced the final season's decision to reorient all of this in characters, to, say, tell us the story of Richard's great romance instead of the story of his whole life on the Island or to turn Smokey and Jacob from enigmatic figures into eminently human ones locked in a kind of twisted sibling rivalry. It's a fantastic piece of television; I'm just not sure if it's a fantastic ending to "Lost." Not just yet.

But I loved it all the same. After it was over, I had occasion to stand outside and gaze up at what stars can be seen in the Los Angeles night sky, to smell the flowers all around me, to feel the cool of the night breeze on my skin. What I most love about "The End," what I suspect will bring me around to loving it completely in due time and in the end, is the fact that it suggests that all of this is part of a continuum, that we will live again, not in a place where all is transformed by deeply felt religious faith or by being a better person than someone else, but in a place very much like this one, surrounded by people we loved and cherished. There will be stars in the sky and people we love and things still to see and learn and become. No matter if you believe in an afterlife or not, if you believe in a God or not, that, I think, suggests that the producers want us, at least, to believe in some capacity for people to do good, to come together and build a better world that lies just beyond those open church doors. There are two things that are important, "The End" says: that we care for each other, and that we keep the conversation going. 

Some other thoughts:

  • * This is not the end of "Lost" talk here at Show Tracker. Not even close. Don't forget that there's a live chat with Nestor Carbonell tomorrow, and I'll be back Tuesday, in place of my usual episode review, with thoughts on the discussion surrounding the finale and further thoughts on what I thought after a second time through the episode. Then, we'll have one last "Lost" 10, and that will be it for the show ... forever. Sniff.
  • Hey ... where WAS Walt? We were promised Walt! I'm going to start a protest.
  • * A number of you have asked where I'd rank this show against every other episode. Probably in the top 30. But I could see it eventually landing in my top 10 given enough time to settle. It's an unusually ambitious piece of television, and I tend to really enjoy those in the end. 
  • * As far as final images go, the lyrical visual poetry of Jack stumbling to his death in that bamboo forest, Vincent lying down beside him to help usher him into the next life, his eye finally closing, even if that last shot was predicted by a good many people, it was really quite something, no?
  • * Another question I've been getting a lot: Where would you rank this against all other TV finales? I'd put it just a notch below what I consider the best two dramatic finales ever, those of "The Sopranos" and "The Shield." It wasn't as daring, nor as tough on its characters as those shows were, but it wasn't that kind of show at the same time. It's definitely on the same level as the finale of "Battlestar Galactica" (which, and don't stone me, I loved) for me.
  • * There was a lot of funny stuff here, but Sawyer saying that he'd put his last dollar in the vending machine when he and Juliet were going to go get coffee made me laugh the most.
  • * I also like the idea that the afterlife isn't some sort of linear progression, that people just pop up there at the same time, regardless of when they died, and that Juliet perhaps saw what was happening there when she died back in "LA X." There is no "now," no flashbacks, no flash-forwards, no flash-sideways. Only a place that is everything and nothing all at once.
  • * I will hopefully have a lot more to say about this episode when I write about it on Tuesday (still downloading), and that piece may well end up being far longer than this one -- which is already over 3,000 words! -- but I want to say that it has been an absolute honor to write about this for you guys. It's a show I've really loved, and getting to talk to all of you as we move through this final season has forced me to sharpen my arguments in its defense (and against it when I wasn't feeling it). You're some of the best "Lost"-heads around, and I hope we all meet again, on some other blog for some other show. As always (and one last time), my e-mail and Twitter are open for business.

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photos: Above: The cast of "Lost," both living and dead, gets together one last time to move on to other things. Below: Christian (John Terry) opens the door to another life, brotha. (Credit: ABC)

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Comments () | Archives (84)

Frankly, I thought my original guess about the purpose of the "flash-sideways" world is better: That everyone in the sideways world, once they regained their memories, would somehow jump into the original world to save the island, and become its new community. At least that would have related it to the original plot.  

Instead it turns out this was really a "flash-forward", in the afterlife no less, that had no relation to the main plot. And some parts just don't even make sense. So Jack just imagined he had a son in purgatory? The same with Rose having cancer? For what purpose? And why did they show the sunken island at the beginning of "LA X"? That strongly implied an alternative timeline. I sense the writers changed their minds in mid-stream, giving us the bait-and-switch.

I understand the point of the afterlife: To let go of what happened in your life before you move into the Great Beyond. It was supposed to be a catharsis. I understand the main focus of Lost has always been the characters, who were selected by Jacob because they had something missing in their lives, that they were "Lost" in a way already. And the purpose of the purgatory was so they could find themselves.  

But because whatever the characters did had no bearing on the real world, because they were now dead, their decisions bore no real weight. It had nothing to do with the underlying mythology of the Island and how the choices they made had real consequences. And that's supposed to be what Lost is all about.  

So yes I understand from a character perspective the point of the purgatory scenes, but from a plot perspective (and the greater themes that arise from the plot) they were a letdown to me.

It was a sort of purgatory.

How did the LA TIMES allow that MARY chick to review LOST and get the finale incorrectly? THE TIMES should be ashames of the article "OF LOVE LOST".....

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/tv/la-et-lost-review-20100524,0,289843.story

thank you for writing this wonderful post; you managed to sum up the episode ACCURATELY unlike the article written by your colleague, Mary McNamara. Though I was not a fan of the episode, at all, at least you were able to write about it correctly and like you possessed some intelligence.

Ugh - you speak of duality, nut miss the true good and bad duality of season six. The duality is the terrific action and story that took place in the 2007 timeline, and the total waste of time that season six spent in the 2004 alt timeline. To end the alt with the contrived, utterly disappointing made-up reality sucked... I think I half expected Pam to wake up and find Bobby in the shower. Cliche...

Bottom line, if people didn't love - or at least appreciate - this episode, than they didn't really understand the show at all. Absolutely brilliant, daring, and brave. I think that many people will hate it, but that's just because they don't love the show on a higher level. That last image was devastatingly sad, and incredibly beautiful, and I'm not likely to forget it.

I like your analysis, and like that you remembered that Hugo is good at helping people so had a key role in constructing Sideways-Time, but the one flaw I see is that he too had to be released in Sideways-Time, remembering the past only after kissing Libby. Libby, nominally a crazy person, seems to be the first one to have understood the nature of Sideways-Time, so it doesn't seem to entirely be a gift from Hugo.

Seriously?

I find it strange that so many can just write off that none of the underlying mysteries were ever really answered, in fact they were in conflict with the ending, as none of it mattered. So that's what my viewing experience feels like after 6 years, my paying attention never really mattered. Seems the writers were just throwing crap at the wall and hoping that some of it stuck. I feel cheated of the effort I put into this show, will definitely inhibit me from investing that time in another such series.

Limbo. That's all we got at the end -- longing, knowing glances and limbo. Bah.

this was a very well-written review. i'm glad to say now that it's over, and i know the end of the story, that i truly love this show and its characters. the finale incited some interesting emotions that grow in me the more and more i think about it. they found meaning in all the chaos. they lived and died and fought and loved. if you can't suspend your disbelief, if you can't accept what won't be explained, you missed the point entirely. thanks for being one of the ones who appreciates this show for what it is.

It's the morning after The End and now i'm crying all over again. When Vincent laid down with Jack in the bamboo field? Omigod....
Thank you LOST for six wonderful years. I'm a little bothered by the people freaking out that no one explained who built the statue or those out there who didn't pay attention and are now stomping around going "They were all dead? It didn't happen?"...cause yeah, Christian clarified that it did....but that's their problem, I'm happy with the ending. And I always knew it was supposed to be Hurley.

Not that I would quibble with your excellent explanation, but if everything on the island is real, then where would you place the explosion of an H-bomb and the scenes of the island on the bottom of the Pacific?


Overall, a well spent six years.

Remind me not to book my next vacation on that island on Priceline It looks like the place where only Shatner would have a good time.

I said it before and I'll say it again; Buddhism played a big role in this odyssey.
These people were all in the Bardo together (kind of a Buddhist purgatory, only scarier), where you're forced to reconcile your karma and wrestle with your inner demons- (a vast simplification). When the spirit has gone through this ordeal one can either MOVE ON or stay behind, as Ben chose, to further perfect his higher self. These folks were chosen not to "save the island", but to achieve enlightenment. The end was beautiful.

My big question now is why did this season start off with the scene of the island underwater? When did it get destroyed/sunk and how does that synch up with what we saw in the finale?

My beloved big-brother Greg (May God rest his soul) were major fans of
"Lost" for about the first 11 or so episodes. When, the whole "others" story-lines
started developing (and underground bunkers?), the entire premise of the
show was regrettably compromised. It's appeal? A serious and mysterious,
"Gilligan's Island". So, did the people from "Lost" ever get-off the island?
Ah, those T.V., uh, uh, "geniuses".

Nice write up. The part that caught me was "It's not answers. It's resolution." That's huge.

I find it strange that the people who complain about not having their questions answered. Aren't the questions the very reason why Lost had an audience at all? Would it really have been satisfying if they had gone through and answered everything? No, not at all. Mystery is essential, and there is plenty of that left around.

I agree that the scene with Jack & Christian was a bit jarring. It made the episode seem to skip a beat. At first I was taken back with the notion of "But they said it wasn't purgatory!" and I was bitter (bait & switch!). Then I considered it awhile. I'm not sure if there was any other good way for them to end the show. Our story gets closed, and we know everyone ends up alright.

Though I am interested in why many people were not there if this point was outside of time & space (Michael, Walt, Faraday, Eko!!!)

Oh, and why do you have to stop writing about Lost? Do you have to write about current shows only? I think it would be nice to have a retrospective series of posts over the characters, themes, events, etc in the show.

Thanks for yet another great column. You are my favorite Lost critic for sure.

I'm a little curious about the whole issue of everyone having been dead the entire time, or not, when you say "While I can see where some are coming up with that theory from (or its far more cynical variant that this is a hallucination that Jack is having on his way to his final resting place), I don't think that is what we're seeing here. "

Everyone I've spoke to that's seen it has taken the stance that the island was a purgatory, and that the characters have been in limbo since the crash. The wreckage on the beach in the final end credits sequence seemed to suggest that there were no survivors.

I'd love to hear your explanation as to why the characters are not literally dead for the entirety of the series.

Fantastic. This morning, I am satisfied. Some of my favorite moments:

*Hurley's smile when Charlie opens the door. I could not stop laughing through my tears.
*LAPIDUS! The gift that keeps on giving. When he ripped out a sheet from a manual, grabbed a roll of duct tape & threw it at Miles... too good to be true. I'm holding out hope for a spin-off with the Losties that made it off the island on that plane.
*Ben had tons of cute, funny lines. I laughed more than I thought I would.
*Sigh, Sawyer & Juliet.

I think the finale, and the series, are really going to hold up over time.

The ending of "Lost" reminded me of the ending of the Narnia series (in addition to "Watership Down"). The human characters in Narnia realized that they had all died in the "real" world. And Christian Shepherd (to quote Kate, "Seriously?") is the Aslan figure.

I was hoping to see Vincent in the church at the end. Was he there, and did I miss him, or do dogs not have a hereafter in the show's mythology?

Great that Lapidus was back--part of the show's sense of humor, along with Sawyer getting to say "Son of a bitch!" one last time.

Since both Sawyer and Miles got off the Island, can they still end up as cops? (Wishful thinking. . . .)

I shall miss your blog as much as the show. Great insight, great writing. Thank you.

 
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