Monday, May 24, 2010

Quick thoughts on the Lost finale, "The End"

After sleeping on it, and thinking about it all day on and off, I think I'm finally "at peace" with the Lost finale. My initial reaction was kind of mezzo-mezzo; that they got a lot of things right yet still didn't stick the landing, and made it even worse by slathering it with a frosting of eye-rolling religiosity. Because of my personal beliefs (or lack thereof), I'll always sharpen the critical knives and push back against stories and programs that take all the "spiritual" and "faith" hokum too seriously. I'm down with fictional worlds inhabited by vampires and wizards and cyborgs and other fantastical elements, and I've never had problems accepting the show reality of an island with a sentient smoke monster and characters who can travel through time. But you don't find people in real life - that make laws that affect your freedoms and educate your children and have access to weapons of mass destruction -- who run on a "vampire platform" or make your affiliation with Gryffindor House a litmus test for political office (or societal acceptance). Mystical, implausible, fanciful worlds are just that, and there to entertain and to fire our imagination, and perhaps even to educate and elucidate through parable (but certainly not though any proven science, history, facts or concrete evidence). So naturally my kneejerk reaction was to hold back a gag reflex during those last thirty minutes, no matter how lovingly and movingly they were crafted.

And then I thought about it some more, and realized the ending wasn't necessarily a flat out endorsement of an all-knowing, holy creator who shackled his minions with immutable laws and outmoded and illogical hoops to jump through in order to enter his glistening kingdom. In fact, the show took a much more humanistic approach. Yes, there were still religious trappings, but they were non-denominational, and in the end, what mattered most to the story and its resolution was the characters belief in themselves and each other. In the real life of the island, no one was "saved" purely because of their faith or their conversion to an illogical belief system. They were saved, and escaped from the island, because Frank "Chesty" Lapidus can fly a motherfucking plane. Because Jack laid a beat down on a now humanized enemy. Because Kate saved a bullet and is a good shot. Because Miles, like all of us, believes in the power of duct tape. The story of these characters on this island, as mystical and magical as it was at its core, was brought to a close by human actions and character agency, even as supernatural things were happening all around them.

Even the final scenes with Jack in the church could be read through a humanistic filter. If it's your wont, you could take that to be a literal purgatory, or afterlife, where souls and spirits meet up before passing on to whatever reward fits neatly into your belief system. Or, you could think of it as a dramatic representation of Jack Sheppard's mind finally making peace with his human foibles and real-life struggles on the island, and coming to terms with the decisions he made and the actions he took to ensure that his friends, with whom he formed tangible, meaningful earthly bonds, lived on to see another day. So was there a true spiritual waystation where the survivors of Oceanic 815 (and their friends) actually met up, outside the bonds of time and space, to wait for Jack and help him off into a real afterlife? Or was this yet another story within the story, meant to bring life and images to a decision-making process that goes on inside all of us, yet doesn't truly exist in form and function within the fabric of the world we know? Like just about everything with Lost, they don't tell us, and leave it up to us to interpret, and for that, I'm glad.

There's no denying that "The End" was a monumental television achievement. The acting, directing, cinematography and particularly the masterful score by Michael Giacchino were all brilliant. While a few lines, and plot points, weren't quite as sharp as they could be, the two and a half hours were extraordinarily moving. If you didn't tear up when Sawyer and Juliet regained their memories of each other by the candy machine, or when Vincent came to lie down beside Jack, then you have no heart. Each and every performance was perfectly calibrated, and we got the stellar work we usually do from Emerson, O'Quinn, Holloway, Mitchell and Fox. Special kudos, though, should go to Evangeline Lilly and Jorge Garcia. Kate was always a target of fan scorn, usually because the scripts made her impossible to like at times, but Lilly really nailed all of her scenes last night, and got quite a few colors to play. And everybody loves Hugo, and Garcia has always excelled a providing a comical, heartfelt voice of the fan. But he was required to do some more emotional heavy lifting in "The End," and he delivered in spades.

So, thought-provoking and action packed story, masterfully executed on a technical level, why does this finale still leave me wanting? I guess, in a way, it's much like the equally divisive finale of Battlestar Galactica, "Daybreak." (which I wrote about here). That epic conclusion was also packed with beautiful imagery, lofty ideas, remarkable acting, a superlative score and mythic ambitions. But "The End," like "Daybreak," was less than the sum of its parts because as the wrap up to a show built on mysteries, the "answers," where we got them, didn't hold together in a way corresponding to the weight and importance the shows themselves placed on those questions over the years of their unfolding. I'm fine, of course, not knowing what the hell was up with the "Hurley Bird" or where the island came from originally or who built the Giant Cosmic Sink of Godly Gold Light and Water. And I understand the real-life issues surrounding the return of the actors who played Eko and Walt. But too many issues - issues that formed the narrative drive and backbone of much of Lost's storytelling (and character motivations) - were never adequately touched on. Desmond's "specialness." Eloise's off island knowledge. The island fertility problems. Widmore's motivations. The oft-referenced "rules." These aren't arcane things on the fringe of the plot you can just ignore, like the outrigger shooting. These are things that actively drove characters and entire storylines of the show, and to ignore them (while spending time in the temple, or so much time in the sideways world) and leave them unresolved or unexplained is a major failing of plotting and execution. I don't need a "midichlorians" resolution to the ability of a millennia-dead man to turn into malevolent smoke, but I do need to know what forces were giving our characters agency, informing their decisions and propelling the narrative.

So while my response, and I believe the response of a lot of Lost fans is "the story didn't quite come together, but damn, the character work was outstanding and it was emotionally fulfilling," why do we have to leave it at that? Yes, the show was groundbreaking and ambitious as all get out. And yes, the finale was triumphantly rewarding emotionally, but why should we -- and Damon and Carlton -- settle for just that? Wouldn't it have been even better to have all those wonderful, rich character moments AND have the entire story fit together logically?

Still, I don't regret any of the time I've invested in Lost, and I would be happy if most of the shows I watch reached this high, only to come up a bit short.

I'll see ya in the next life, brutha. Namaste.


  1. I agree with you, I was both pleased and let down with the end of Lost. I understood all questions could not be answered but some should have been. Were the writers telling us we were concentrating on the mystries so much we missed what should have been right in front of us? That while it is human to hunger for all the answers that it the end it doesn't matter all that much?
    As you said the finale was so well down these are quibbles, not complaints. Everything about is was so well down. All my emotional levers were pressed to the fully engaged position. I don't cry much but I felt tears on my check several times. Thank you Lost for showing that TV, when it is done right, is the most engaging medium aroung.

  2. A comment from the finale thread: "You know what I love most about Lost? The fact that it has such a visceral effect on everyone who watches it, and that effect is different for everyone. What one person loves, another hates or dislikes, and that's okay. Maybe that sounds too Zen, but so be it. We get out of Lost what we want or need to get out of it. Namaste!"

    And sums up my time with Lost perfectly.

  3. Cool, I actually don't think the writers were making a point about the utter "unknowability" of life and its mysteries. Yes, there is a subcurrent of that, which is addressed by some of the larger mysteries that I really didn't need answers or explanations for (like the big stone cork, or how the island got there in the first place, or how MIB turned into Smokey, etc.). But it's the plot machinations that directly affected characters and their motivations that I wanted more on (Widmore, Eloise, problems with fertility, the cabin, the "rules," etc.), and that I think the writers were sloppy for not shedding light on. Ron Moore did the same damned thing on BSG - giving us spectacle, heart, character, resolutions and such -- but not explaining how some of the things worked that should have been mapped out as narrative plot threads. Do those things make me eternally embittered and less appreciative of the shows? Not at all. Lost and BSG would both be in my Top 10 shows ever.

    My point is, that WHY do we have to settle? Why can't we have BOTH emotion and logic? The Wire was complex as hell, yet holds together. Buffy and Angel both dealt with mystical mumbo jumbo, yet structurally, made more sense with some of their key plot machinations. I just wish for a show with such epic ambitions, that they would have tried a little hard to put it all together, and not be as coy about parceling out the logic behind the fantastic world they created.

    Anon, that's a great quote. Just like I was saying previously about BSG, no matter what the fuck was up with Starbuck down the stretch, I'll always love that character, that performance and that show. (While still being able to bitch about it years later).

  4. You've articulated what I could not. I cried every time someone "reconnected" in the flash sideways, and I bawled like a bitty baby from the moment Christian spoke until the end of the episode. But I'm still super pissed that I don't know what the numbers were all about--not enough that I didn't love the finale, but enough that I was disappointed and felt like the writers didn't try hard enough. Your comparison to Buffy and Angel illuminates this perfectly. Dawn started stealing 20 episodes (at least; I can't remember for sure when the first time was) before they revealed why. Those damn numbers were important from the first episode of Lost, and they could have (and should have) addressed them in some way since they knew two seasons ahead that the end was coming.

  5. I don't think the writers could have provided these answers without sacrificing the story. They could have given more answers as the season unfolded, knowing the end was coming, but I think they made the right choice.
    I've watched the finale once drunk and twice sober now - I think they hit all the right emotional notes. I welled up every time Jack gives Island stewardship to Hurley.
    As for the sideways-flashes ...

    We all know there is no (for lack of a better word) purgatory.
    We all know vampires don't exist.
    We all know there is no town named Melonville.

    I'd rather a purgatory than a Melonville or a Hellmouth.
    and I'd rather Hurley lived happy and that Jack died happy.
    I've grown to love many of these characters so I'll take a happy (albeit improbable) ending for them all.

  6. Hipster, I kinda agree with you. I don't think they could have done a massive "answer dump" in the FINALE without sacrificing an exquisitely crafted and moving emotional story. I DO think they could have parceled out a few more "answers" (and I'm beginning to hate that word - maybe "plot resolutions?") in season 6, and given us smaller, more tantalizing sideways scenes.

    It certainly wasn't a master plot cluster fuck like The X-Files, and I would put it just a step above BSG, if only because the Starbuck thing was handled so poorly.

    Later this weekend, I'll offer up some thoughts on how the Lost finale (and lead up to it) could have worked better for me.

    Still, all things considered, it's been almost a week, and I've watched it twice now, and I'm still moved by it and thinking about it, so it did it's damned job, and did it well.