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One 'Lost' Tuesday: 'All of this matters'

May 25, 2010 | 11:50 pm

Julietsaw
 Honestly, I didn't think I'd get depressed.

It was just a TV show, when it came down to it. Just a TV show like any dozens of others I review and watch and enjoy. I still had "Breaking Bad." "Mad Men" was just around the corner. And even without those two, there are many other series out there that I watch for whatever reason. I've lived through the endings of almost all of my favorite shows over the years, some finishing up at just the right time, some dragging on so long that even I eventually lost interest (I'm looking at you, "X-Files"!). But it's rare that a TV show's exit leaves me in a funk, the way "Lost" just did. The last one was probably "Cheers" oh so many years ago, and that was more or less because it was the first big finale I was really aware of, not necessarily because I had such a strong relationship with the show.

"Cheers" and "Lost" have something in common, as well -- they were both set in a world full of characters you wanted to hang out with, and the end made you realize those people wouldn't be dropping by on a weekly basis anymore.

It's been two days since "Lost" ended with Jack Shephard's eye flickering closed in death, Vincent lying peacefully beside him, and I'm impressed with how the finale has hung with me, to the point where I kind of wonder if I wasn't underrating it a bit after seeing it (check out this week's "Instant DHARMA," also featuring The Times' own Maria Elena Fernandez, to see me talking about how it was PROBABLY, MAYBE in the top 30, to see just how unsure of myself I was). My wife, who tends to be a better instant judge of these sorts of things anyway, had been rapturous. She thought it was one of the best episodes ever, one of the most daring finales ever. All that good stuff.

I'm not quite there yet, honestly, but I'm closer to it than I was a few days ago. "The End" is one big, ambitious piece of television, and it's the kind of finale that makes you think about the show in a whole new light (something like "The Sopranos' " finale, to me). It doesn't attempt to close everything off in a neat little loop, even if its final moments involve all of the characters heading off into the great beyond. It's rich and elusive and open to interpretation. I got a terrific e-mail from a reader who compared it with John Crowley's novel "Little, Big," something I did in my review of "The Variable" last year, and I'd like to quote that reader, Eric DeNatale, here. (Briefly summarizing for those of you who've never read it -- which you should -- "Little, Big" is about a family of people who live in a magical house out in the middle of nowhere and try to figure out their place within what amounts to a giant blend of every fairy tale ever written. Eric spoils the ending, but, well, it's not a book that's about a highly focused plot anyway.)

Eric writes:

"The mystery of the Tale in 'Little, Big' was eerily similar to the island in 'Lost.'  We always assumed that the insiders had some special knowledge of what was really going on, but in the end the truth was that no one really knew anything - some just had Faith.

"What really got me during last night's finale however, was the final scene in the church and how alike it was to the 'Little, Big's' final scene as the characters gather at the faeries' parliament.  Even stranger that our protagonists in both stories had to die for the stories to reach their inevitable conclusions.  The similarity to how the characters find their way to the final setting is also quite similar as the Losties' recollection of their other lives, instantly reminded me of Auberon (one of the book's main characters -- TV) in the woods trying to find his way to his final destination.

"Finally, both seem to hold the view that we are all just pawns in a larger game that we can't control and that all we can do is love those we care for and take pleasure in life's simpler moments.  In the end, people who are dissatisfied with the endings of both 'Lost' and 'Little, Big' seem to be people who were in it for the wrong reasons; they wanted answers when the stories were never about that in the first place."

Eric provides a nice way for me to transition to what I'm going to do in the rest of this piece. Frankly, I received more than 60 comments on the review of the finale. Almost all of them were compelling (even the person who asked if the characters ever got off the Island), and if you want a more basic rundown of what was said, you can find it here. But I got almost as many e-mails and almost as many tweets. Obviously, I'd love to highlight each and every one of them (since some of them are so cool or so moving or so well thought out), but I can't. There's just not enough time. Instead, as a die-hard defender of this finale, let me try to respond to some of the most common complaints about the episode (and the season as a whole) before presenting you with my grand theory of the show, its fan relations and its finale, titled the "We're Watching It Wrong Hypothesis." (Yes, this is going to be another long one. Sorry, copy desk.)

In which I argue with people:

I'd say the complaints about the finale boil down to about five main things. I'll deal with them from the ones I'm able to respond to least to the ones I'm able to respond to best, in my opinion.

1) It was too sentimental. This is probably best spelled out by Jace Lacob in his review of the episode for his blog, Televisionary. And it's something I'm hard-pressed to argue with. You either went with that big shot of all of the characters in the church and got the sniffles, or you didn't. I did (well, I didn't cry, but I was deeply moved), so it worked for me. If it didn't work for you, I don't know of a way I could convince you it wasn't tacky.

Hawking  2) I don't like stories where it turns out that everyone was dead all along. Lots of people interpreted the ending to mean that the characters had been dead the WHOLE TIME -- and this has gotten rather mixed in with some things that are, I think, just categorically false (and ABC has stepped in to back me up on this). I don't want to shoot the "Everybody's dead!" folks down too much, but at least the "Tony Soprano's dead!" crowd at the end of "The Sopranos" had some really cool theories. The "Everybody's dead!" theorists just seem not to have been paying attention to what Christian was saying.

That said, we like what we like, and if you don't like a story that ends in a metaphysical otherworldly afterlife, well, you're not going to like the last half hour of this series. And, honestly, I was almost in your camp. When Christian said he was dead and then asked Jack how he could be there as well, I was inwardly groaning, horrified that the show was going to play the "They were all dead, all along!" card. This took me out of the moment enough that I never fully got back INTO the moment, until I rewatched the final hour of the episode to see how it played, knowing the revelation. It played much, much better. 

I get if you just don't dig this kind of resolution, but the afterlife of "Lost," which we've gotten a whole season to know, is much more interesting and nuanced than a lot of other afterlives. I've seen so many interpretations of how it's like the original biblical conception of heaven or how it's Jack's dream of a world without an Island as he stumbles to his death or how it's Hurley's gift to his friends (an idea I like but one I'm losing confidence in rapidly) or how "the flash-sideways universe is a metaphorical and entirely immaterial representation of the value that these characters asserted during their lives" (and, yes, my friend and "Lost" blogger Luke de Smet actually tried to sell me on that, claiming it was "more Nietzsche than Christian"). 

There's been a lot of complaining that the afterlife here specifically orients the show in a faith-based realm, in something very like, well, Christianity, but I think the show is careful to be as ecumenical as possible, even being careful to make this afterlife concept essentially divorced from religion. It suggests that, after you die, you build the life you want or think you deserve for yourself (working with your friends, somehow), existing in an eternal now that you enter and exit at the same moment. It's hard to do an afterlife entirely devoid of religious meaning, but "The End" definitely makes a case for something like a unitarian/secular-humanist other side. I also like that the episodes suggest there's so much more to this world, that it's almost another Island we've only begun to plumb the mysteries of, like when Desmond tells Ms. Hawking that Daniel won't be coming with HIM. It's a moving moment, one that suggests whole episodes of stories about all of the other people we met in Sideways land.

3) "Lost" didn't answer ANYTHING! I actually think this is categorically false, but I was relieved not to have to prove it. This video, which purports to list 100 unsolved "Lost" mysteries, has been floating around, and I was originally going to refute many of its points, before Movieline did the job much better than I could. Furthermore, if you go to this list of the main mysteries on "Lost" fan-edited encyclopedia Lostpedia, you can see that a surprisingly large number of the mysteries either have concrete answers or answers that fans have worked out on their own. There are very few mysteries listed on that page that the show hasn't given us at least something to go off of. In many cases, those complaining that the show didn't answer anything are actually complaining that the show didn't give answers that satisfied them (which we'll get into in a moment) or that the show didn't answer "What makes the Island the Island?" which is something I think is probably unanswerable, as I argued in my review.

4) The flash-sideways plot line is now completely invalidated because none of it happened. Well, yes and no. This is the criticism of the five I'm listing here that I actually most agree with. I can see going back to rewatch this series when the complete set comes out in August and finding most of the flash-sideways stories tedious. The show played so coyly with what this universe WAS -- for reasons that it mostly had to deploy, I think -- that many of these are nothing more than character vignettes stuck into the main narrative. In particular, I'm not sure that Desmond's storyline, as much as I enjoyed it, makes any sense whatsoever now. The rules of the sideways world are consistent in how the show presents them. But the attempts to keep everything obtuse probably hurts the storyline just a little bit, and I won't be surprised if on the rewatch, I discover that it's hard to have any investment in them, since I know the ultimate mystery behind the stories, and that seems to be the main reason they exist. 

But.

I can also see a scenario where these sideways storylines become more compelling knowing that they're an after-death invention of the characters. How much more interesting is it to know that Sayid didn't find himself worthy of the love of Nadia, instead letting his brother have her? How much more interesting is it that Locke wanted a good relationship with his dad but also apparently wanted him in a wheelchair at the local nursing home, unable to walk or talk because of something LOCKE did (not the reverse)? Even if you think this is a construction created by Hurley and Ben or one hallucinated by Jack, it becomes just as interesting, because you get a read on how those characters see all of the other characters. Potentially, and I won't know until August, mind, this could be the most psychologically rich season of the series.

That said, I may be reading too much into this. One of my biggest complaints with the series -- and the reason I'm not as high on Season 1 of the show as most people are -- has been the way its flashbacks tended to boil the characters down into a series of cause-and-effect moments. I think the series beautifully argued that the flashbacks were vitally important in the final season (as Jacob revealed they were the moments he was checking in on our castaways, in my interpretation), but they also tended to be a little too cut-and-dried at points. "Jack is this way because of THIS event in his past, while Kate is this way because of THIS," the show often seemed to be saying, and I think that hurt the show's read on its characters. It was only in the later seasons, when the show let go of the flashback structure and simply let the characters be, that the combination of tighter writing and very good acting gave everyone room to breathe. So consider this a provisional argument, and one I'll wrestle with for a while. (Honestly, though, I'm setting the show aside for a while after this week. I'll rewatch the finale, then find something else to take up my time. Maybe they'll let me come back in August to share further thoughts.)

5) Hey, you got your fantasy/religious parable/metaphysical mind trip in my science fiction! I got an e-mail from a reader who felt cheated by how "Lost" set up an alternate universe and then tried to get out of it by saying Jack was hallucinating or it was the afterlife. But if you look back at the season, the show never SAYS that the flash-sideways world is an alternate universe. It just leaves us to guess that it is, knowing that the series has used popular science fiction tropes -- like time travel or electromagnetism that operates much like magic -- in the past, and often to great effect. Similarly, the show never says that Desmond goes to the sideways world when he's in the electromagnetic chamber. Instead, it just cuts to there after he passes out, letting us draw our own conclusions.

(Though, sidebar, IF Desmond goes to the sideways world when he passes out, it makes a lot of his actions make sense. He tells Jack that he wants to take the two of them to a place where everyone is happy and there is no Island before he goes down into the cave in this episode, and when he dislodges the stone, he effectively IS taking everyone there, because he's going to suck them all down into the ocean along with the Island. Sure, dislodging the stone serves Jacob's purposes as well, since it makes the Monster briefly mortal, but it's mostly a Monster kind of thing to do. It's going to kill everyone and take the Island down with them. Desmond just doesn't quite understand what he's doing, and we're led to believe he knows what he's doing. Heck, he believes he knows what he's doing, simply because he so often has. I've also heard the theory that Hurley and Desmond cook up the whole thing before Hurley returns Desmond to Penny and Charlie, and while I have no idea how that would work, I like that idea too.)

Anyway, this is the argument I have the least patience for. It's not as though "Lost" hasn't been filled with metaphysical and essentially religious arguments throughout its run. I can perhaps see the argument that "Lost" has come down a bit too firmly on the side of "faith," but even if it had explained everything away by saying, "electromagnetism and nanobots," it would have involved a KIND of faith, the faith that everything can be waved away by saying, "Scientific progress goes boink." I'd argue that science fiction and fantasy are just our modern variants on the old religious fiction tales, only instead of God swooping in to save the day, you often will have new technology or magic accounting for miracles. Don't get me wrong. I'd rather read "Childhood's End" than "Pilgrim's Progress," but the furor raised by genre fans every time a series gets within striking distance of God (as "Lost" did, without ever once mentioning the Big Guy's name) strikes me as a little odd. Just because God exists in one cosmology doesn't mean He needs to exist in all of them, y'know? It IS fiction, right?

But this is all part of a greater symptom of the final season: All of us secretly hoped that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were making one kind of show, but in the final episodes, they've stepped in to remind us that, no, they're making the show they want to make, and we're not invited to help them plot it out. For a show that so many of us (myself included) have felt such ownership in, that's as big a loss as the loss of the show itself. A lot of people thought the two were making a show where everything was going to be explained with science, and the second a glowing cave turned up, they abruptly realized most of the stuff on the show always made more sense if you introduced magic into the mix. And they got dismayed. And wanted to know what was up with the cave. I don't think the cave is the show's greatest metaphor ever, but I bought it as a McGuffin, the thing that needs to be there to make the plot of the final episodes drive forward. And as an attempt to explain the existence of the soul (which is what I think it's trying to do), it's not half bad, though the more all involved tried to explain it, the less believable it became.

Look, I get that me saying that the time travel of Season Five -- my favorite season -- is not substantively different from the religious overtones of Jacob offering communion to Jack and then Jack offering the same to Hurley in terms of how they make the story work isn't going to fly with a lot of people. And I'm OK with that. Did the show come down too hard on the side of faith in the science vs. faith debate? Maybe. But it's not as though science was completely written out. Jack uses science -- even in the afterlife! -- to make Locke walk again. The Man in Black is so fascinated with the gadgets of man that he builds a giant wheel in the ground. And how do those who survive escape the Island? An airplane. Takes a lot more to get that off the ground than simply believing it will make it.

A grand hypothesis and closing remarks:

Shannon  I mentioned earlier that I have a new theory of "Lost." Unfortunately, it's going to disappoint a lot of you. It's not a grand theory of what everything in the show means or how all of the unexplained bits tie together with the things we actually know. Nor is it a theory that explains what made the show work where so many imitators failed or anything like that. It's a theory about what the show was trying to do and how we failed in some ways, myself included, in watching it and talking about it.

Now, obviously, we didn't fail. Part of the fun of "Lost" was that everyone took something different away from it from everyone else. And there's no one "right" way to read the text. But I'm convinced we ALL missed something that would have made the show's finale feel less out of the blue had we been paying attention from the first.

Way, way back in the show's second season in a column that has sadly been lost to the mists of time, Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for the New Jersey Star-Ledger at the time, was talking (in a piece on a different show) about how television rarely treats death with the respect it deserves. He was talking about how "Deadwood" did treat death with respect, but he mentioned "Lost" as another series that pulled off the difficult feat of making the death of a fictional character feel emotionally stinging and raw to the audience. This was interesting, because Seitz was never a huge fan of "Lost," a show he enjoyed but never really loved.

To be honest, Seitz was on to something at the time, and I'm sad I didn't pay it more attention (though I obviously remembered it). Think of how "Lost" handled the death of Shannon. That event took up three whole episodes of mourning. First, she was shot in a shocking moment (in "Abandoned"). Then, the survivors reeled from her death (in "Collision"). And then, she was buried and mourned in a moving funeral (in "What Kate Did"). She was a minor supporting character at best, a person who was always on the edges of the show's big mysteries and someone who didn't really get involved in the stuff most fans were really interested in. Yet the show treated her death as though it was something meaningful, as though her life had value beyond the story function she played, which was simply to cause strife between the reunion of the Losties and the Tailies.

Most other TV shows would have handled Shannon's death like this: She would have been shot suddenly. Someone would have looked sad. The end. The death would have been treated like a shock moment at the end of the episode (as it was in "Abandoned") and then completely forgotten about as the show moved on to something else entirely. Character deaths are merely another sweeps-month tool for too many shows, something to go to when you need to keep the audience on their toes. Rarely do they have the emotional effect they need. We are losing these people too, since we're out in the audience and have built relationships with them. "Lost" got that, on some level. And, furthermore, nearly every one of these deaths, except arguably Jack's and Charlie's, was meaningless. Lives were thrown away because of constant strife that simply didn't need to exist. (And you call "Lost" a post-Sept. 11 show!)

Looked at in this light, the finale is the ultimate expression of this idea. Every life matters. Any one life thrown away because two demigods are playing a game with castaways' lives or because someone absolutely and simply MUST protect their magical Island from ... whatever is one life too many. Shannon may not have mattered as much to you as Sun and Jin did, but her death should matter just as much because it was ultimately meaningless, something that happened because people are never able to put aside their anger and suspicion long enough to be good to one another, and the Island and Monster played off of this. The entire final season, then, is an attempt to give a bunch of dead people, many of whom died for nothing, a kind of peace with what happened, a way finally to let go and head off toward something else, even as the show itself was trying to do the same. "All of this matters," Christian says, and it's the show's mantra. The world is a place where meaningless death shouldn't happen, but it's also a place where it happens every day. The best you can do is try to hold on and savor it.

But we weren't paying enough attention. We were trying too hard to build giant theories of what it all meant or what the Island was or why there was time travel. To be sure, the producers aided and abetted us in this misconception. They don't get out of this with their hands clean. The fourth and fifth seasons, with their crazy science fiction plot momentum, suggested this was a very different show from the one it ultimately became, and it's easy to feel a bit betrayed when you realize that (I certainly did at times). Nor were the producers above playing up the mysteries of the show, which they knew kept fans coming back. Had they said back in season four, "And now we'll show you how it's all a show about death!" people would have left in droves. Instead, we stuck around and looked for answers that the show mostly slipped into the background.

Watching a TV show is like being in a relationship. Sometimes, you immediately know the other person isn't for you, just as you can tell a show won't be for you. Sometimes, you can date a person for a long time, but never really warm up to them. And sometimes, you fall hard and fast and stay in love for a long time. But the flip side of love is that it's very easy to end up feeling like you were jilted. Even keeping a critical distance from TV is different from keeping a critical distance from a film or book. We really get involved in these things. They become parts of our lives, places we visit every week and hope to live in on some level. For a lot of us, "Lost" was like that hard and fast love, so to see the show go over into the corner and do its own thing at the end was infuriating. I get that. I do.

But the more I think about what kind of show "Lost" ultimately was, the more I think it expressed the idea that life is precious in a way that was, ultimately, not trite. We live in a good and beautiful world, a place full of things we can't fully explain and things we're only beginning to learn about. But it's also a dark and horrible world, where people die for little to no reason, and you have to stand back and watch them be mourned and wonder just what meaning any of it has. And yet, after a death, there will be another morning and another and another. You'll keep waking up. You'll keep living your life, and going about your business, and knowing that your most important task is to remember who they were, what they brought to the world. You'll keep waking up until you don't, and then ...

And then you hope that you, too, are remembered.

-- Todd VanDerWerff

twitter.com/tvoti

Photos, from top: Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) bond in the glow of a vending machine. Awwww. Eloise Hawking (Fionnula Flanagan)? Not so down with this whole "ushering everyone into the next life" plan Desmond has. Shannon (Maggie Grace, pictured with Naveen Andrews) is the key to understanding "Lost." Bet you never thought you'd hear that, huh? Jack (Matthew Fox) gets to live out his last moments with a faithful pooch. Would that we all were so lucky.  Credit: ABC

Related:

'Lost' exclusive: ABC sets the record straight about the series finale's plane crash images

'Lost' superfan Jimmy Kimmel offers up alternate endings to the series

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

Vincent


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