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

May 24, 2010 | 12:22 am

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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