Sunday, May 30, 2010

How "The End" of Lost could have been more satisfying for me

First things first: I thoughts "The End" was a fitting wrap up to the Lost story. I was moved. I was thrilled. I was happy the characters I'd come to know over the past six years found some resolution. It was sweeping, cinematic and brilliantly crafted. I appreciated the "art" of it, and I'm glad that Damon and Carlton got to tell the story they wanted to tell, in the way they wanted to tell it.

Ending a show, particularly one as intricate and mythology-tangled as Lost, is hard. You're never going to please everyone, and it would have been impossible to wrap up every single mystery that the show put out there.

That said, there were things about the finale, and season six in particular, that just didn't work for me. I'll get into those in a moment, but first let's all agree on what actually happened. "The End" left some things open for interpretation, and ABC's decision to show some plane wreckage over the credits (NOT part of the story Damon and Carlton were telling) was confusing for some. Here's my take on what happened:
  • Everything that happened on the island was real. The Losties didn't die when Oceanic 815 crashed on the island. They were tormented by The Others and the Smoke Monster. They left the island, were rescued by Penny's boat, and returned to civilization, only to go back to the island later on Ajira 316.
  • The detonation of Jughead didn't sink the island. While it's possible that this detonation may have had other side effects (causing infertility?), the only thing we know for sure is that this "incident" transported the primary characters through time, from 1977 to the island present.
  • All the flashbacks and flashforwards from seasons 1 - 5 were real. They happened.
  • The defeat of the Smoke Monster was real. Jack and Kate killed him.
  • Lapidus, Miles, Richard (now aging normally), Kate, Sawyer and Claire left the island on the restarted (thanks, duct tape!) Ajira 316.
  • Hurley, now the island's protector (a job Jacob, and Jack briefly, had), stayed on the island, along with his "number two," Ben. Desmond also remained on the island, but it was strongly suggested that somehow Hurley and Ben would return him to Penny and his son Charlie, off the island.
  • Jack saw his friends leave on Ajira 316, and died in the bamboo grove, with Vincent by his side.
All those events are fairly indisputable and straightforward. Also:
  • All the events we saw in season six described as "flash-sideways" were NOT real - insofar as tangibly occurring in the world we live in, and the world where the events described above happened.
  • These events happened in an alternate reality. It's not, I don't believe, an alternate reality like on Fringe, that's always existed and run parallel to our own, in a very "real" and "tangible" way (with people able to "cross over" and physically exist in our world with their "duplicates"). It's a reality that could be described as a "limbo" - a place between real existence (which is brought to a close by death) and whatever exists beyond death (where souls eventually go, a place that some might call "heaven"). The flash-sideways world is like a waystation, or stopover existence, where the "souls" sort out the issues they faced in the real world, before moving on to the next plane of existence. Some souls in this limbo are "enlightened," meaning they are aware of what they are and where they are. Others are not, and think that this is their only reality -- that is, that this "sideways" world is the only world which exists.
  • The parts of this sideways world that we, as viewers, see, was "created" by the "souls," or "consciousnesses," of our primary characters. It was created as a place for these characters to get together one last time before moving on to the afterlife. Jack was the last of our castaways to become enlightened, and it's suggested that many of the actions depicted in the sideways timeline occurred to help him come to terms with this sideways world, and move on together with his island friends, into a more peaceful and aware afterlife.
  • This limbo occurs outside of time and space. Meaning, Jack died on the island in 2007. John Locke died before Jack (strangled to death by Ben in a motel room). Hurley died sometime long after Jack (presumably after protecting the island for some indeterminate time). Yet their "souls" met in this limbo as if they all existed in the same time frame.
I think that's what happened, right?

And it worked as a storytelling conceit, particularly when the finale of the show was as emotional and as professionally assembled as "The End" was. But after thinking about the finale, and season six as a whole, it just didn't hang together as well as it could for me personally. As I mentioned in my initial thoughts on the finale, the religious aspects of the story were a little too on the nose for me. For example, did the last 20 minutes really have to take place in a church? With pews and a pulpit and (multi-denominational) stained glass? I understand that Jack had to discover the empty coffin of his father as a final "triggering event" in the sideways reality, and that coffins usually wind up in a church for a funeral service. But it would have pleased me more to have Jack discover the empty coffin in the church, have his chat with dear old dead dad, and then walk into the The Lamp Post - the Dharma station built in Los Angeles (beneath the church) - to find his afterlife friends. It would have tied more directly to the mysteries of the island, where the bonds of these people were formed, and given the conclusion more of a sci-fi spin, rather than an ideological or religious one. But my issues with cults aside, there were more problems with the wrap up to one of TV's all-time great shows.

Too many plot threads were left dangling. No, we were never going to get the "answers" to every single mystery the show posed. And that's fine. Some were just part of the process of organically developing a story over six season of a TV show, and creating tension along the way. But some were too intrinsically tied to the core of the show's story engine to be completely ignored. Like the conflict between Charles Widmore, Eloise Hawking and Ben Linus. What were their oft-referenced "rules?" What were the goals of each character, and their organizations? What was going on with the "cabin" and the "ash?" What was up with ALL of Christian Sheppard's appearances (the explanation that it was the Smoke Monster every single time doesn't really hold up to scrutiny).

So how could Season Six have worked better for me? Here are a few ways:
  • Far less time spent in the sideways world. Even if you don't change the nature of the sideways world, we didn't need to spend that much time there over the course of the season. You could have cut down the overall time spent there by 50%, and gotten the exact same character beats and sense of mystery.
  • Or, if you tweak the trappings of the sideways world, and have it hang together with a more consistent internal logic. For example, knowing what we know now (that is was a "limbo" created by the main characters to reconnect one more time), why does the island have to be underwater? Isn't it enough that Oceanic 815 didn't crash on the island? And this image was shown only to us, as viewers, so its primary function was simply to mislead and provide red herrings about the nature of the sideways world, therefore it seems like a bit of a narrative cheat, in my opinion. Or, to be more clear and precise about what happens in the sideways. As in "yes, it was a place where the primary characters would reunite to "pass on" together, but only after they had worked through the significant issues that troubled them in real life." They kinda did this (Jack understanding fatherhood from both sides of the equation, Sawyer not letting vengeance lead him down the wrong paths, Sun & Jin not letting her father's controlling creepitude ruin their lives and relationship, Ben valuing integrity and honor over power and control, etc.) but not always (what exactly did Kate "work through?" Locke's and Sayid's stories were interesting, but their sideways scenarios didn't exactly connect the dots from A to Z as clearly as they could have, and as logically as did other sideways adventures).
  • Spend less time with the Temple folks, or make more of the time we spent there. Everyone talked in riddles, yet communicated virtually nothing. I think this was a big missed opportunity. Here in this setting, they had a great chance to lay out some of the show's mythology. I'm generally a fan of "show, don't tell," but did anyone truly understand what the hell was going on with Sayid's resurrection and infection? Claire's "infection?" How this tied specifically to the water/light/Source/"Heart of the Island"? The way that the temple people got instructions from Jacob, and their loyalty to him? The "rules" they operated under? The importance of the ash? How The Others were related to the Temple people? Dogen and Lennon could have been a tremendous source for dumping exposition in an interesting way (through conversations with Jack, or looking over wall hieroglyphics with Hurley and having him be, as always, the voice of the fans), and yet they eschewed this for a lot of mumbo jumbo and wheel (non-donkey variety) spinning, only made somewhat palatable by Smokey's harrowing and eerie final assault.
  • If we spend less time with the sideways world, and less time in the Temple, then what do we fill that with? Personally, I would have wanted more off-island time with Charles Widmore (and probably Eloise Hawking). Real time, flashbacks...whatever. They could have used a few scenes with them to better explain the motivations of both characters. We could have understood how "The Others" worked off island. How they were related to, and pitted against, Dharma. And what the "rules" were between Ben and Charles, and where they came from.
  • Wouldn't it have felt more tidy if we knew "how" the sideways world was created, and what Desmond's role in it was? For example, why not clearly state that this "reality" was indeed created by Hurley, using his new powers and gifts as the island's protector, as a way to help his friends move on and reconnect (and deal with their "real life" issues)? You would have an explanation for how it came to exist, and one that needn't be explained too deeply (Hurley had "magic powers," just like Jacob did). And, why not state that Desmond was the "failsafe" in this sideways reality? He was acting in such a fashion anyway. Hurley would create this world for his friends, but just in case they didn't find "enlightenment" on their own (Hurley could create the sideways world, but not necessarily move the players around like game pieces - they still had to have character agency, even here), Desmond would be there, using his "specialness" to act as a catalyst to keep things moving for them, helping all the Losties get to the spiritual place they needed to be. This would give Des a more logical reason for acting as he did, and it fits with what we know of the island aftermath (Des was on the island as Hurley, and Ben, began to figure out how to preside over the island in a more benevolent fashion than Jacob, so the plan could have easily been hatched then). It is consistent with Hurley's character, and also deepens Desmond's character, and in a way, even gives him some closure too, as it was his actions that brought down 815 in the first place. Plus, the descriptions of Desmond as a "failsafe" would have greater resonance in the mythology and for the characters we know and love.
Those are just a few ideas. In the end (and in "The End"), I'm still very, very satisfied with where the show wound up, and the journeys the characters took. I just like a little more logic and cohesion to my plot resolutions, to go along with the immense emotional gratification. Lost is a genre-hopping television achievement, the likes of which we may never see again, and I'm grateful for the chance to experience it.

So until we get a James Ford / Miles Straume detective show, namaste, y'all.


  1. This article is fantastic. I think you raise some really great points. I enjoyed the finale as well.

    In regards to your last bullet point, for me, the explanation of the sideways world doesn't need to exist. I interpreted it this way: everyone has a sideways world--not just the island's inhabitants. You, me, everyone. The island didn't create it, Hurley didn't create it, that's just the way it goes for everyone.

  2. Thanks for the kinds words, Jesse.

    I thought about your interpretation. And one of my earliest reactions was that what we were seeing on the screen might be JUST Jack's version of the his sideways, where he works though his issues. But then we, as viewers, saw too many things that Jack couldn't have knowledge of, or have constructed on his own, and it didn't hold together. Your theory could still work, however, and we could have been watching an amalgamation of each Lostie's sideways (or one where each individual's sideways intersected). I guess I just wanted a little more clarity, or narrative cohesion, on what it was. That's one of the beautiful things about the show, was how much they still left open to interpretation that could still work with a particular worldview. (Though I still wanted more about Widmore and some of the other finer plot mechanics, even if the metaphysical issues were largely left "open").

  3. I completely agree with the Widmore point. What really pains me is the people that have watched the show and still ask "What about the polar bear?" type questions. A lot of people I know are still concerned with the food drops. I would like to know where they come from to, but seriously, that's really not the point.

  4. I know. One of the things that bothered me about some initial reaction to the finale was the quick dichotomy drawn. You had to be 'all about the characters" or "all about the answers." But can't you be about BOTH? Like with Widmore (and Eloise), I wanted answers about what drove their characters, not necessarily about why there were Egyptian heiroglyphs on the wall. Anything that illuminated the motivations of the characters, and how that helped construct the plot mechanics, was welcome (and hell, expected on my part). But if you have trouble accepting the polar bear, six seasons later when you've seen time travel and smoke monsters and talking to the dead, well, that might have been the show for you to become obsessed with for 6 years, ya know?