LOST Faith

Note: LOST series and finale spoilers, as well as opinions (but no details) regarding the Battlestar Galactica finale.

Longtime visitors know that I was a huge fan of LOST, so much so that I have written several essays of the subject: The Perverse Appeal of Lost, The LOST Script Style, and a long discussion in the TMN 2008 Annual about the symbiotic relationship between LOST and spoilers.

I have often gone so far as to call LOST my favorite television show, ever. Not the best show, mind you–not in a world with The Wire and Six Feet Under and Arrested Development–but the show which has given me the most hours of enjoyment. I am predisposed to LOSTian fiction to begin with, and the exceptional quality of the writing and direction (although intermittent) put me solidly in the TV show’s camp. Watching season 1-3, I was literally unable to wait between episodes (nor did I need to, thanks to the miracle of TV-on-DVD). Watching 22 hours of the program in the space of a month, sans commercial breaks or weeklong pauses, was like going on a drug binge of the pull-down-the-window-shades-and-unplug-the-telephone variety. In the off-months, between season releases, I would occasionally devour huge swaths of Lostapedia in a single sitting.

Around the time my LOST zeal was at its zenith, I was watching another dramatic serial: Battlestar Galactic. The two shows had a lot of similarities: a mix of sci-fi and politics, large ensemble casts, perpetual questions about where loyalties lie, and so forth. Although there were some great episodes of BSG at the time, and some pisspoor episodes of LOST, I routinely declared the former to be inferior to the latter. The primary distinction between the two was clear in my mind: the writers of LOST had a plan, and the writers of BSG did not. (Nor did the Cylons, it turned out, despite weekly assurances to the contrary.)

I, like John Locke, had faith that things on the island happened for a reason. The stories on LOST (thought I) were primarily to advance the narrative toward a predestine conclusion; the stories on BSG, on the other hand, were primarily to fill an hour of airtime, with little thought toward how the events would fit into the greater arc. I enjoyed BSG, but viewed it as more an episodic show than a series. I never for a moment thought they’d be able to wrap it up satisfactorily and, after my lack of confidence proved prescient, chided those friends of mine who had believed otherwise.

Well, after last night it looks like I deserve a heaping helping of chide myself.

Even as late as yesterday afternoon I thought the writers could (but had long since given up on “would”) give us an intellectually satisfying resolution to the series, even while necessarily leaving many many many many questions unanswered. To my mind, that only required one thing: providing an explanation for the island that could have been hypothetically deduced early in the series.

Lord knows that there has been no shortage of hypothesizin’ in the six years since LOST premiered. People thought the island was purgatory, or a Matrix-style virtual reality, or the world’s biggest Skinner Box. Some thought that the unseen creature in the jungle was a dinosaur time-shunted to the present, or that the smoke monster was a collection of nanobots powered by the island’s electromagnetism. Some thought the Man in Black was a djinn, let loose from his bottle by a shipwrecked Jacob and hellbent on destroying the world. Some thought that everything took place exclusively in Hugo’s head. It would be impossible to quantify the number of words written and volume of carbon-dioxide expelled by people explaining their elaborate theories, online and over beers and to glazed-eyed acquaintances in elevators.

And it was all for naught. Because the show pulled the most grievous of mystery genre crimes: it introduced new clues at the end of the story. The Jacob/MiB relationship was explained at the end of season 5; the “light at the heart of the island” was introduced two episodes before the finale(!). This is the cinematic equivalent of whodunit in which the murderer turns out to be some hithertofore unmentioned character who appears in the last chapter only. Agatha Christie would have been de-damed if she had pulled this shit.

Now, to be fair, if the secret of the island had been any of the things mentioned above, most (i.e., non-me) fans of the show would have been enormously disappointed. The problem with a show like LOST, especially in the age of the Internet, is that every reasonable explanation for the mysteries had been formulated and disseminated far and wide, and settling on any of them would have resulted in the writers getting eviscerated for “obviousness”. In fact, the more fitting a solution, the more likely it would be the “leading theory” among fans, the more the finale would be denounced as “lame” for failing to deliver a surprise. The writers were practically forced to conjure up a brand new mystery in the last season (“hey look over here, what’s the deal with these two guys?”), provide answers to that alone, and largely ignore the five seasons of enigmas that preceded it.

I totally understand that. But it leaves me no less annoyed that the show that spoke so often of “rules” decided to flaunt the gentlemen agreements that govern the mystery genre. I wouldn’t have cared if the island turned out to be the Garden of Eden, or a big reality show, or one of Charlie’s heroine-fueled fever dreams. Anything, as long as it was figure-out-able.

I honestly liked the finale, in isolation, as a solid few hours of television. And we got emotionally satisfying resolution in spades. Heck, if I’d only seen the pilot and the recap show and the finale, I might have called the series an unmitigated success.

Instead, I invested a lot of time into a show that for years masqueraded as a “mystery”, only to reveal itself, in the final act, as a run-of-the-mill “thriller”. A twist ending to be sure, but not the one for which I had hoped.

* * *

29 comments.

  1. What’s interesting to me in your write-up is this:

    “a mix of sci-fi and politics”

    I think that because Lost was set in a present day and had elements of science (radios! electromagnets!), people mistook it for sci-fi. But this was clearly a fantasy show from the beginning. I mean, you didn’t think a fleet of nanobot-surgeons repaired Locke’s back, did you?

    And with fantasy, what explanation do you need? The island is a magical place, and the current “Jacob” gets certain powers which he can share with people on the island. Done. Locke’s healings? Jacob wanted it so. Ben’s tumor? Jacob wanted it so. It’s MAGIC!

    [Though to be absolutely fair, we do the same things with sci-fi – was anyone wondering about the mystery of FTL in BSG? Why not?]

    What I found unforgivable was that they didn’t explain any of the characters motivations in any real depth.

  2. I liked the finale, but I thought that was a very fair critical review.

  3. You gave me the word I was missing: the finale provided emotional, but not intellectual closure.

  4. […] I totally agree with Matthew Baldwin’s thoughts on the […]

  5. so i have never watched any LOST at all, and feel pretty good about it. but i’ve read a few blogs today about the finale, to see if I could find out what happened (trying to keep with the cultural times; I never watched the Sopranos, either, but I know how THAT ended).

    My question for you is: do you think the writers knew in, say, season three, that THIS was where they would ultimately end? was this the plan all along? you’re a writer and a pretty damn smart critic – as such (AND as a fan of the show), do you think this whole show was plotted from the get-go, or was it a patch-up job as they went?

  6. @kittens_not_kids: I’m fairly sure that by the end of Season 1 they finalized the overarching themes, and then by the middle of Season 3 (when ABC agreed upon the end date), they finalized what they’re going to be doing from then until the finale in Season 6. The one thing they’ve always said is that they’ve had the final images of the series finale in mind for a long time.

  7. Ah, this is how I felt until… midway through this season. I no longer cared or kept track of the sideways universe. Oh, flashbacks and alternate timelines? Yawn. By the day of the finale, I realized that there wouldn’t be a coherent explanation of every mystery I thought was important.

    And a couple hours after the finale, I came to the viewpoint that Lost is not really about the crazy island. It’s about the continuous stream of mysteries taunting you for an explanation. Lost was about the experience of following a bunch of people in a world of mystery after mystery.

    What did you feel when the whispering voices were explained? When the characters gave up all efforts to discriminate between Locke and the Black Smoke (I held out as long as possible, arguing the transformation wasn’t visible on-screen)? What was an episode of Lost without the new twist and a thud at the end?

    Turtles all the way down is tough to do forever.

  8. I’m with you. It’s now pretty clear that the show’s creators/producers didn’t have some sort of elaborate plan spanning all six seasons, as alleged. I had the same sense that the last several episodes were the Hail Mary play of the series: these two dudes? See, one’s good and one’s evil. Oh, and they’re battling over this giant sink stopper underground. Contrivance, all the way.

    And yet, during the last fifteen minutes of the finale, I realized that the contrivance just didn’t bother me. I definitely felt that at least on an emotional level, the last episode totally delivered.

  9. What about Claire’s baby? Why was he still a baby in the after life? I wouldn’t want to live eternity pooping my pants.

  10. The LOST producers say they had a plan since the beginning of season 2, and I take them at their word. It’s just that their plan had more to do with character arcs and theme than it did with any of the show’s sci-fi or fantasy elements. Which is too bad for sci-fi fans like us, but I didn’t feel totally cheated, because at least they delivered on something.

    As for Aaron: maybe a permanent infantile regression was his exact idea of heaven… that certainly describes some people I’ve known.

  11. It worked great for me because it was — and they really, really reinforced this in season 3, when I was temporary screaming “I don’t care about the love triangle, tell me what the hell is going on!” — all about the characters lives and not really at all about the island. Eventually I came to accept that. The last few episodes gave some broad answers about the island and some very solid resolutions for the characters.

    I absolutely believe that the writers knew early on — and certainly by the announcement of the planned end for the show — how it would end. They probably hadn’t decided how much island stuff would be resolved, but knew they had to keep things mysterious so the characters had continued reasons to fight for redemption/resolution.

    The whole island was the MacGuffin, and the story was about the people. The finale perfectly mirrored that and left me completely satisfied.

    I do understand why folks like yourself are dissatisfied about the lack of intellectual closure (great division there). Fortunately due to the great emotional closure, I no longer even slightly desired it.

  12. I disagree that they played fast and loose with the conventions of mystery storytelling in the last season, though I would agree that this applies to the giant piles of unexplained details in previous seasons. I eventually came around to the idea that it was a clever (though possibly unintended) way to explore the theme of faith: the characters don’t understand it either, and have to act on faith, intrinsic character motivations, and relationships, to act at all.

    One thing that strikes me about your review is that it’s similar to my thoughts about Abrams’ Star Trek movie. They broke the conventions of time travel stories in order to make large changes to the story universe and still try to exploit the franchise, and it made it unsatisfying intellectually but still a fun movie. (In what sense are these the same characters as those we know? How do we apply our franchise knowledge to this new story? I swear, it took me an unnaturally long time to figure out that it was Vulcan being destroyed.) It was interesting to hear the producers defend this violation as in line with some notion of “quantum physics,” because the conventions of the genre are still rooted in classical ideas of time travel.

    My favorite thing about Lost is its focus on character. Whatever truly needed to be explained was explained through character motivations, and not just a static and inevitably uninteresting backstory. Jacob and MiB were just enough to pull things together, and they were still fun to watch. There were many episodes that were crap, but some were master classes in screenwriting, and focus on character was a chief lesson.

  13. A few thoughts…

    1. The wife and I sat watching the finale waiting for the big reveal and finally having this conversation as we reached the church scene…

    “I don’t get it.”

    “I don’t either.”

    “Am I not smart enough?”

    “Seriously, explain this to me.”

    “I can’t. Goodnight.”

    Up until the credits rolled and even as they rolled I somewhat expected the big reveal and when it didn’t happen I felt I missed some clue…and now I’m realizing I’m not the only one out there going wtf.

    In comparison BSG seemed like a 5 course prix fix with desert, cheese, and aperitif…while Lost feels like I managed to eat two KFC Double Down’s and upon reflection wondered…why did I do that?

    ——

    2. On a good note…while I feel like I was completely cheated and that any room of monkeys could have provided me with a better ending…including:

    “Ooo ooo ahh ahhh ahhh.” (Hurls feces against wall)

    …the only way I can actually feel good about this is to put it in the perspective that this after all is simply a television show. When the show started I met my current wife…and now that it ended leaving me unsatisfied…my marriage goes on and daily satisfies me in ways that Lost never could…and there are many more mysteries in that and some great cliff hangers…and at least I’ll have my answers. There’s no smoke monster, but I do have an ex-wife (reminiscent of Ben Linus) and the drama and insanity there keeps me on my toes…what will happen next I wonder?

    ——-

    One parting thought for JJ Abrams and his mystery box.

    If you pull this shit with me on Fringe…there will be no safe place for you on earth.

  14. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the “light at the heart of the island” was completely new; I think it’s the same electro-magnetic anomaly thing that had been causing havoc throughout the show (e.g. Desmond turning the key, Juliet getting sucked down the well). The church gathering at the end really seemed to come out of left field, though. And this whole season was about introducing seemingly major new characters out of the blue who turned out to not particularly matter, like Ilana and Dogen and Zoe and David. The whole fifth/sixth season split thing made it sound like they just had so much story-wrap-up to do that they needed a bunch of extra episodes, then they wasted all that time on the Statue and the Temple, only to have Locke casually obliterate them both? Argh!

  15. […] Also, this: . . . the show pulled the most grievous of mystery genre crimes: it introduced new clues at the end of the story. The Jacob/MiB relationship was explained at the end of season 5; the “light at the heart of the island” was introduced two episodes before the finale(!). This is the cinematic equivalent of whodunit in which the murderer turns out to be some hithertofore unmentioned character who appears in the last chapter only. Agatha Christie would have been de-damed if she had pulled this shit. […]

  16. Midichlorians? Highlander II? The Matrix Architect?
    It’s hard to reveal the mechanics behind a fondly-held mystery without making it suck somewhat.

  17. Good review. I agree wholeheartly. I knew there would be loose ends left and things open for interpretation (what I like – or else I would never have watched Primer a 2nd and 3rd time). But I really hoped for a bit more, especially because it would have helped explain other things (give us the “magic Box” Ben talked about in the Man from Talahasse and you can explain quite a few phenomenen).
    The problem is now I dont have incentive to watch the show all over again – If I know nothing will be explained its all a bit pointless.

    After a bit of consideration I did come to terms with the Ending though. They didnt say they would go to Heaven now. For whats worth: I think they move on to live the Life they really want – including Aaron (Meaning: A life where he is raised by his real mother from the start). Just sad that Miles and Frank were not invited ;-)

    And was it really Widmore “Failsafe” to take care that the Losties finding each other in the afterlife? Strange plan…

  18. Oh and I just found out that FastForward also known as “The series that should have been my Lost-replacement” got cancelled after just one season. Bugger! Its Fireflies all over again…

  19. […] directed you to more eloquent words on the ‘Net than I typically provide. As it stands, both Matthew Baldwin and Ken Jennings seem to share my opinion (or some form of it) regarding the Lost finale. That […]

  20. I disagree with Matthew’s position that the writers introduced too much at the very end to explain what had been happening all along. For instance, the light in the cave was simply the source of the electromagnetism that has been in the show all along; I don’t feel it was a last-chapter killer added to wrap-up a murder mystery. Not all of my questions were answered, and I would like to know a little more about the source of the light (and who did all the hieroglyphics in the cave and temple?), but in some fiction (certainly the fantasy genre) you just don’t get explanations for everything.

    But I do absolutely agree that, even if we were left intellectually wanting a bit at the end, it was very emotionally satisfying. To me that was the most important part of it. I didn’t watch Lost because it was intellectually stimulating – it was a fantasy show! (Sci-fi, esp. Star Trek, typically does it much better for me in the intellectual sense.) But the depths and motivations of the characters in Lost had mostly been well-developed over the years, and I cared about what happened to them.

    Plus, for the most part not only was the writing and production of the show really good throughout its run (with some exceptions to the writing portion here and there), but from the first episode they managed to cast really talented actors in most of the roles. The cast was able to pull off the depth and complexity that the writers demanded, and the final episode was fantastic in that regard.

  21. I agree with Alan Graham’s comments. My wife and I had the same experience as did you and yours.

    Matt, I think one of your commentators hit the nail on the head in terms of your best point: the ending provided an emotional albeit not intellectual satisfaction…

  22. Personally, I feel the final episode closed off the main thread quite nicely. Not everything was answered, but did you *really* want that? Someone mentioned the Matrix, and that’s a good cautionary tale about getting what you want.

    The show was a set of character studies, not a mystery or an adventure show. The flashbacks, the “future”backs, the “side”backs, all showed the characters under a variety of different conditions. There were classic themes of relationships, good vs evil (or selflessness vs selfishness, which is the same thing), faith vs reason.

    The finale took the theme of relationships outside of the context of the show, and I believe it was as much about the viewer’s relationship with a series as much as about the cast/crew. Given how much people got worked up over BStarG and The Sopranos’ finales, JJ Abrams’ was more or less telling us that the series is over, and it’s time to let go. Given the hype, he managed to both give a satisfying conclusion to the “mundane” story that had built up over time, as well as tell us that they weren’t going to answer every little question, and that while we could spend as much time as we wished arguing about whether or not it was a good series and/or finale, that it was over and we were just going to have to get used to that idea.

    Also, I was thankful that JJ didn’t make a cameo (as Ron Moore so foolishly did in BStarG’s finale) in the last episodes.

    It was a television series. A very good but flawed long term story, as all television series are. Nature of the beast and all that. It was still a great ride, and certainly a better conclusion, intellectual or emotional, than most television series provide.

  23. So … the whole heaven/purgatory/afterlife bit actually had nothing to do with the story.

    It was just a “of course everyone meets up with all their friends again in heaven” – a blatant curtain call / soppy padding. To me they might as well have cut out all of the sideways scenes and just shown one scene after Jack died of him meeting them all in heaven (just like he did).

    I don’t know whether to consider the sideways sections of the episodes Red Herrings or mere padding.

  24. I’m wondering if you feel any differently about it after having a few days to live with it. My initial reaction was complete almost cathartic relief during parts of the finale (Juliet/James at the vending machine) followed by WTF? at the end. However, the more I thought about the ending, the more right it seemed despite the many inconsistencies. I don’t think you can fault the writers for not adhering to the rules of the mystery genre when the storytelling was so improvisatory in nature (despite a fixed end date and scenario). Clearly a lot happened that wasn’t expected — Mr Eko’s departure, chemistry between particular characters, Hugo’s emergence as the emotional center, etc. It was ALWAYS a mishmash and they never solved any mysteries or were consistent about anything.

  25. “Charlie’s heroine-fueled fever dreams”

    While I know you intended “heroin-fueled”, the “heroine-fueled” alternative is quite enticing!

  26. […] Baldwin expressed it nicely: it was emotionally satisfying, but not intellectually satisfying. The characters all had decent, […]

  27. “… to flaunt the gentlemen agreements that govern the mystery genre.”

    Don’t you mean “flout”?

  28. Some people crashed on an island.

    For seven years, we were given enigmatic mysteries to solve, great quests to undertake, and a grand sense of overarching purpose and importance to everything.

    Turns out none of it was ever explained or resolved at all.

    But hey — they all met up in the afterlife later!
    And that’s all that matters — emotional closure!

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