May 29, 2010

We Lost

---here there be spoilers---

Summer of 2005, I was so sick I couldn't see straight, but one thing I did notice was comic books had come to television. Through a haze of sleep-deprived delirium, it seemed to me the season finales of two J.J. Abrams joints were sequential art turned to moving pictures, working their respective genre cliffhangers the way funny books had done so well for generations. Alias, I recalled from healthier times, was winding down, but this Lost thing was just getting started. And though I hadn't seen a single other episode, I decided I should get better and do just that, 'cause I really, really wanted to know why Walt was kidnapped, and what was at the bottom of the Hatch. As someone whose fail-safe life support has always been story, the question 'what happens next?' took on personal importance. I needed answers, first from myself, and then, after I'd found a way to heal, from this intriguing show. Cue credits.

For five seasons, Lost inspired and moved me. I enjoyed Season One's soapy setup, and unlike many, dug the heck outta Season Two's focus on Locke and the iconic fable of brothers Eko and Yemi. As Season Three's character backstories ran out of steam to power the show's engine and narrative shifted gears to uncover the island's secrets instead, I was on board for the ride, and rewarded, I believe, by Season Four's luminous "The Constant", and Season Five's admirable, internally consistent handling of time travel (so much smarter than the Star Trek reboot kludge). This was the closest we'd come so far, I cheered, to nerdvana breaching the mainstream without compromising its pocket-protector principles. But come Six, my Season of Discontent, as each week I traded tears and goosebumps for groans and winces, I wondered if my chosen Geek Emperors were naked all along, and half a decade of compelling mytho-mystery was mere misdirection to kill time.

I'll say this for the finale: it gave the actors some emotion to play in a season starved for it, where characters who once carried the show (Sayid, rendered expressionless by a poisoned fountain of eternal life; Sun, separated from her love/hate hubby for 30 episodes until a throwaway beach reunion and hasty kill-off; Big Bad Ben become bit player with only a smidge more dialogue than pilot Frank Lapidus) sat idly on their squares of the chessboard asking Smocke where to go and what to do next. Thank God for Terry O'Quinn's wonderful, nuanced line readings, saving even a 'flash-sideways' gimmick that unspooled like wish-fulfillment fanfic (and not from the internet this time, but the writers room)! Therein, perhaps, lies Lost's most interesting payoff: a role-reversal that revealed a viewership more willing and able to backfill story gaps than the show's creators. It was Hurley, audience surrogate, after all, who inherited the island, and Scott Brown in Wired had it right: this fiction was fulfilled by the cloud. Without fan theories, what was found in Lost besides:

I've made it so you can't hurt each other.

I see. (kills Titus Welliver) Now I'm all you've got.

Watch over this glowing log flume tunnel, okay?


Because. Life. Death. Everything. Drink this.


Lotsa other Losties have weighed in, definitively, about all the threads left dangling from Jacob's loom (here's a fine example, courtesy FFC Chief Chambers: College Humor). I share their frustration, but for me, whether 'Darlton' had the show mapped out from the beginning isn't the issue. Even obsessive long-form planners like Joe Straczynski understand an outline is just a guide; signposts are there to keep you on track, but without room to adapt and invent along the way, your story can't surprise or surpass its initial conditions. That is to say, making it up as you go along is part of the magic, and certainly a matter of course in serialized storytelling for TV, where actors can opt out, networks might decide not to renew, and writing duties change hands. To elegantly walk the tightrope, adjusting on the fly and honoring what's come before while retrofitting new elements onto existing mythology, is the job, and if I may come full-circle, comic book creators have done said job since the medium's inception. In funny books it's called retroactive continuity (retcon), and it's a skillset I wish the Lost team, avowed comics dorks, had brought to bear for their conclusion.

It's not outside their capability, see. They retconned beautifully, I feel, all the way from Seasons Two through Five, each year widening the perspective to show a bigger picture, a deeper drama, than the one we'd so far assumed was underway. Ben Linus and the Others and Dharma in Season Two. Jacob and the Smoke Monster in Seasons Three and Four. And Season Five's coup de grace, when our castaways were smoothly shoehorned into their own histories as catalysts of fate via an entertaining, emotionally satisfying, and airtight time-travel execution. Still, though I appreciate the thematic sense of 'turtles all the way down', discovering this year that twins Jacob and Nameless didn't know anything more about the island than anyone else we'd come to view as a secret-keeping authority, and neither did their crazy ma, became too painful a metaphor for the Lost team's own relationship with their audience: stop asking, we won't answer, every middleman's a fraud, and even the people at the top follow rules without question. I think we deserved better. Don't you?


Dan said...

I think I've debated Lost far too much this week (mainly defending the series finale), but I think my thoughts boil down to: I enjoyed the incredibly journey and, while the destination didn't live up to expectations, I was satisfied in terms of character.

It's still been a fantastic series of television, despite the unfortunate missteps along the way. I wish Season 6 had been better and tied-up everything perfectly, sure, but I don't regret eagerly watching it every week, getting a real kick from the many twists/surprises, watching these characters over 6 years, and I've enjoyed the discussion/theorizing possibly more than the show itself.

I understand the negative opinions people have (but I only listen to ones from people who didn't give up around season 2), but I'm so glad it existed. It was great fun and it entertained me enormously. I can't get upset about that.

Patrick said...

Dan: I gave up around Season 1. :)

But, really, as someone with whom Lost did *not* click, I just hope the fans got off not too disappointed in the end. Lost never struck me as one of those shows to categorically hate, I don't begrudge people their enjoyment.

Dan said...

@Patrick: I wasn't TOO disappointed. I think the people who were really bought into the heavy sci-fi and wanted *every* single mystery answered, or some unifying theory to arrive in the eleventh hour. And that didn't happen. But it was emotionally very strong and I'm just not the kind of person who will now nitpick all the ideas/subplots from S3-4 (in particular) that never *really* amounted to much.

Lost was actually several small mysteries, tackled in every season, rather than exclusively one BIG mystery with lots of tentacles. A lot of people don't seem to have caught that and, as such, seem confused that DHARMA, etc, didn't have some *direct* connection to anything in the finale (or season 6 in general).

Anyways - six years of wonderful entertainment for me.

Bill C said...

Stephen's the biggest--no, the smartest--"Lost" fan I know, and I'm thrilled he was willing to blog about the finale here. I want to add what complete and utter bollocks the resolution to the sideways flashbacks was.

Whatever you choose to call that magical waiting room they all convened at ("they" being the season-one cast, according to that "Lost" writer whose anonymous post recently made the rounds--except, of course, for Desmond. And Penny. And Libby. And Juliet. And Eko, if they'd have only sprung for the fucker), that spiritual gateway where Sayid gets to squeeze in a few last killshots and two babies have their new lives cut hilariously short, the fact is you could tag that coda onto virtually any show that ever existed--because it's so mindlessly irrelevant--and it would have the same basic impact. Lou Grant's dead! But he can't move on 'til Mary Richards touches him, and when she does they'll round up the rest of the WJM crew and shuffle off this mortal coil together like the Muppets.

I feel like "Lost" is a knock-knock joke with a "to get to the other side" punchline. The ending changed the conversation too much for me. It's not that they left too many loose ends, it's that they pulled a bait-and-switch that leaves you too listless to seek any more answers. The entire fucking show boils down to: And then they died... No shit, "Lost".

John said...

Saying it was all in limbo seems to be the new "it was just a dream!"
The finale didn't sting me too much as I'd given up midway through S1, but it was still pretty shocking.

James Allen said...

Speaking of lost:

RIP: Dennis Hopper

Everyone is now required to watch "The Sicilian" scene from True Romance.

James Allen said...

Here's a great video by Matt Zoller Seitz on Hopper.

Gabe Toro said...

I re-iterate that most of people's (legit) complaints about the terrible final season of Lost would have been solved have they cast more interesting actors for the roles of Jacob and the Man In Black. What a couple of namby pamby losers.


renfield said...

I mean, the show ends with the cast sitting in church pews, grinning dumbly, looking forward at nothing. I guess it's the writers' last laugh at the audience, as if they're saying, "This is you, Lost viewers." There's also that stained glass window with the symbols of six major religions, which seemed an painfully reductive distillation of the show's pan-philosophic pulp.

I thought the entire final season was crap, except for perhaps the Richard Alpert flashback episode (and even that was pretty painful in its revelation that the entire show is about stopping the bad guy). After that, you've got a whole lot of running back and forth across the island waiting for the bad guy to be stopped.

Leaving aside how ridiculous I found sideways-world's resolution, the main story's ending is painfully self-congratulatory. When Jack lies down to die in the spot where he woke up in the series' first scene, it's as if the show believes that reminiscing about its own mythology is enough to constitute closure.

I had been clinging on to this hope that Jacob and the Man in Black didn't fit into a simple good/evil dichotomy, or that if they did, who was which would be indeterminate in the final evaluation. Bear in mind that Jacob manipulated everybody's fate in fairly insidious ways to bring them to their rock-bottom status that made them island material. For example, he absolves a young Kate of the crime of theft, depriving her of the chance to learn from her mistake and probably dooming her to a life of crime. He gives young Sawyer the pen to write his vow of revenge. Etc.

Given that this sort of binary confusion (is it necessary to push the button, does Sawyer have a pacemaker in his chest or just a scar to manipulate him, did the temple dwellers drown Sayid or try to save his life, etc etc) seems to be THE central conflict of the show, I thought it was a terrible idea to not make the ending DIRECTLY about that conflict. As noted, the Jacob/Man in Black dilemma seemed a fairly opportune venue for it to reach some sort of climax.

Instead, it seems the writers thought our investment in the characters was strong enough that we would find a happy ending to the island's conflict combined with a saccharine gimmick about the fate of their immortal souls to be satisfying. Personally I found it unbelievably deflating and, call me overly invested, depressing as hell.

Alex Jackson said...

So, uh, anybody else add Vampyres to their Netflix queue.