Reflections on Lost, Part 2: An End

by zunguzungu

Since I’ve completely ignored the entire Lost franchise, Seafan has kindly agreed to make sense of this show whose conclusion is apparently not much more incomprehensible to those who haven’t been following it from the beginning than those who have (if the number of people coming to his first post via search strings like “I don’t understand the ending of lost” is any indication). Take it away, sir:

One of ABC’s more ridiculous promos for the Lost series finale dubbed the show “The Greatest Story of Our Generation.” Ridiculous, yes, but not entirely off the mark when corrected for the fever-pitch hyperbole we’ve been enduring for an entire spring. It just needs some cutting down to size. If I had a word-axe, I’d decapitate the leading article, prune the caps, then take some hefty swings at the word “greatest.” This would allow me to pick up where I left off in the first part of this two-part post, which is to say I really do buy the claim that there’s a special relationship between our generation’s episteme and how the story of Lost has been told. Because, at the very least, when one tries to give coherence to an encyclopedic compendium of a culture’s popular imagination, it’s a pretty sure bet there’s going to be some meaty mimesis going on.

But before I get on that topic, there’s an important point I have to make. That point is that Lost has not ended. No, I’m not in denial about the ending of a show that I’ve devoted an unjustifiable amount of mental energy to, and spent many wonderful hours watching with friends, family and dogz. And, no, I’m not saying that the show’s still going on in an alternate universe (I mean, come on). I’m saying that the series we all know as Lost was murdered when Ben killed Jacob at the end of Season Five. Sunday’s finale helped me to realize definitively that, for this entire spring, I’ve been watching a very different show — and it was that show that ended. There’s Lost, and then there’s Faux Lost. Flost, if you will: a parasite show that has been slowly asphyxiating its host. And as parasites have the ability to reproduce, even the finale split off into a parasitic relationship with itself, with its final ten minutes — its Purgatory Sequence — feeding off of and ultimately discarding its previous two-and-a-half hours.

For the entire past season, The Producers have been very loudly proclaiming that the show’s resolution will be far less interested in answering mythological questions[1] than putting its character storylines to rest. I knew this going into the finale, but I still expected the questions relevant to the character-arcs to be resolved. Just to name a few:

  • Why do Jacob and his successors believe that it’s important to protect the Island?
  • Why does Widmore care about the Island?
  • Why can’t the Man in Black leave the island, why isn’t he allowed to, and why does he even want to?
  • How does Desmond know that everyone will be together in the end?
  • What’s the Island’s relationship to the alt reality?

These are the kinds of character questions that demand mythological answers. I won’t go into detail about what the finale didn’t answer, but want to point out that the finale made the ugly mistake of prompting many new, enormous questions. If we’re to take seriously Christian Shepherd’s claim that the Losties created the alt universe “together,” how exactly did this take place? No precedent had been established in the show for anything like this.[2] Instead, as Mike Hale of the Times very rightly points out, Christian’s claim had the effect of rendering every moment that preceded it in the series absolutely irrelevant. “[T]he entire island story line we had been following for six seasons,” he writes, “turned out not to matter very much within the internal organization of the [finale’s] narrative.” For a show so intricate that it was known mainly for being completely unintelligible to the uninitiated, its final ten minutes were intelligible to anyone.

So in hindsight, we’ve been the dupes of a long con that’s lasted the entire spring. Up until the end of Season Five, when the full breadth of the show’s mythology began to come into focus, The Producers have done what I considered an excellent job tracing capillary character conflicts (e.g., Ben vs. Widmore, John vs. Locke, etc.) back to this elemental (for lack of a better word) conflict between Jacob and his brother. So for them to claim that the only stories that really matter are the characters’, and then to so flagrantly abandon all attempts at mythological explanation,[3] was really to throw the baby out with the bath water.

If we’re being generous, the one coherent pleasure of this final season has been watching what seemed like the producers playing chicken with this problem. Indeed, the looming question became, “How are they going to end this?” The urgency of this question intensified less because of any expectation of answers to past questions than because the season pressed on with bold impunity. It made messes it had no intention of cleaning up, and wasted valuable airtime on things that didn’t matter. We were presented with a succession of narratively static episodes that couldn’t decide between mythology or character. At least one character, Zoe, had no discernible purpose. Others, like Dogen, seem in hindsight to have served no greater function than filler. Moreover, this season spent an inordinate amount of time amping up a “war” between Flocke and Widmore that was never clearly motivated, and that never seemed to happen anyway. For each fruitless episode at the temple, or on Hydra Island, we were given a promising but inconclusive mythological episode like “Lighthouse” or “Ab Aeterno.”[4] And running alongside all this was the awkward and ambivalently sentimentalized alternate reality: a reality that, taken as a whole, bore no resemblance whatever to the “place you created together” that Christian Shepherd described. Said’s alt story in particular gives the lie, not to mention Sun’s and Jin’s. Finally, the paratactical narrative of the second-to-last episode, “Across the Sea,” which was to be the ultimate mythological episode, established in no uncertain terms that the producers were going to make a mad dash for a cop-out ending. It became clear, in other words, that we were going to be given a non-ending that had the overwhelming form of an ending. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, according to my first post. In that respect, the finale was at least formally consistent with the rest of the series.

So this season of Flost gave us a show that was born to die, a show quite different from the Lost of past seasons, whose success and narrative pleasure hinged entirely upon the inextricability of mythology from character. Or, if you will, the inextricability of characters (including the Island) from the space-time distortions of history. The blogosphere seems somewhat split on the question of whether the mythology matters, but the defenses I’ve read of the finale have all been precisely that: defenses. Awkward defenses, in fact, of why each author chose to quiet his or her “logical brain” and resign him or herself to the finale’s “emotional satisfaction.” In fact, each defense has adopted the strategy of the ABC promo’s hyperbole, throwing around words like “masterpiece,” “beautiful,” “emotionally powerful,” even “catharsis-ed.” I’ll now turn off the bile and focus on some more general obsevations about the series, but before I exit this mode let me just say that these defenses made me reach for my copy of Theodor Adorno’s 1947 critique of willful irrationality, Stars Down to Earth.

A 21st Century Show
I’ve already explained how I see the show performing a contemporary version of uncertainty. But narratively, the show has been equally of its time. A friend of mine once observed[5] that the show unfolded like a video game. What I took this to mean was that the narrative resembles that genre of action role-playing games that begin from the immersive first-person perspective of a single character suddenly thrown into an emergency at a severe epistemological deficit. As these narratives progress, the world’s geography is gradually mapped out, and as this knowledge expands and the immediate crises subside, our attention focuses on finding the answers to questions like who we are and why we’re here. Along the way, we come across various tools, power-ups, and other resources. We encounter characters who either help us, dissimulate, or whom we must eventually confront. All well and good, but what I find most interesting about this claim is that, while the video game narrative seemed to exhausts itself almost immediately after the pilot episode — because Jack’s perspective becomes one among many — the show in fact transferred that first-person perspective to its audience. We became the perspective that held the story together. And if you’ll allow me to indulge myself for just a moment, it became incumbent upon us to protect the essence of the show with a belief in its ultimate coherence.

Lost is also significant in its handling of temporality. It’s one of the first television shows to incorporate the formal opportunities offered by frame-by-frame-capable formats, social media, and viral assets, and its multimedia dispersion produced an interesting network of durées that had a dynamic effect on the action in main trunk of the story, the television show. Long-time fans will remember, for instance, The Lost Experience alternate reality game that took place between Seasons Two and Three, which introduced a real-time element to the storytelling. The show quickly became amoeba-like in its dialogism, at its height becoming much more than an industry in itself. It became a total media entity. One might even say, in regard to temporality, that the narrative pacing of the television show was at times unnecessary, because the representations of time underwriting the show’s narrative effects were flattened by the sheer amount of data that preceded, accompanied, and bombarded us in each episode. On screen, the show played into the static time of TiVo, with critical clues often flashed on screen for a split-second, clearly intended for freeze-framing.

We all remember Kelvin’s blast door map.

Hoffs-Drawlar: an anagram for “Flash Forward,” the narrative key to Season Four.

That particular datums in the show’s onslaught of data were frequently elliptical, or at least the most condensed form of a possible clue (and subsequently elaborated by the producers in assets like the podcasts), further attenuated the show’s on-screen temporality. Along with its other ancillary assets and spin-offs (the faux websites, the podcasts, the staged ComiCon protests and controversies, the direct engagement with viewer discussion forums), everything conspired to perch the franchise on the cutting edge between information and story, reality and spectacle. There was a will to immersion under the hood that far exceeded in its operatic breadth anything belonging to the Gesamtkunstwerk.

As contemporary as Lost was, I don’t consider its aesthetic impulse new. It combined the episodic, serial form of the long Victorian novel with the narrative difficulty and encyclopedic breadth of high modernist works like Yeats’ late, mystical poetry, Ulysses, The Wasteland, and The Cantos — even Tender Buttons. That being said, I don’t think the impact of Lost‘s artistic achievement will resonate very far into our new decade. It was too much a creature of its time. Its psychology never plumbed deeply enough, its mythology was never sufficiently metabolized, and its archetypes were too confused for it to take root in our culture. The opportunities were there, however, and now that we’ve added the finale to our perspective, it’s clear they were squandered. No, the show’s legacy will be largely institutional.

For all its faults, Lost was perhaps the most narratively challenging and experimental series we have ever seen on American airwaves. In all its writerly glory, it encouraged its audience to react and decide; and it taught them to enjoy difficulty. This is why defenders of the finale have saddened me in how readily they’ve resigned themselves to formal illusions. To be sure, we don’t need to take Lost as seriously as I have to learn its aesthetic and historical lessons. My simple hope is that the show will have energized a new tradition of difficult, popular art. In fact, I would even argue that the show has done a degree of justice to a similar hope once expressed by Bertolt Brecht: “If we wish to have a living and combative literature, which is fully engaged with reality and fully grasps reality, a truly popular literature, we must keep step with the rapid development of reality.” It may have limped its way across the finish line — but no other popular work of art in the past ten years has so valiantly kept up with our rapidly changing relationship to reality.

[1] There’s the possibility that Hurley, as the new, benevolent Jack/Jacob, had something to do with this, but even that easy explanation isn’t offered. Some explanation connecting this reality to the Island is necessary.

[2] The term “mythological” in the discourse on Lost refers to the explanations surrounding the Island’s history, and its powers.

[3] The lamest defense they’ve given is what they call the “midi-chlorians” defense, referring to the material explanation of The Force that George Lucas provided in The Phantom Menace. Definitive answers, the Lost producers argued, would sap the story of its mystery and arrest the play of possible meanings. Certainly, but the Star Wars franchise wasn’t staked entirely on the truth of The Force. Its narrative engine was its characters and their conflicts. Lost‘s engine was, for five seasons, its mythology.

[4] “Ab Aeterno” was by far my favorite episode in the series. It had it all: a well-rounded story, outstanding acting, great production value, interesting answers.

[5] Thanks, Azusa!