My main reaction to the ending of Lost was, “Wow! What a great ending!” This is pretty high praise considering I avoided the series for so long because I was in no way convinced the writers were building to anything worthwhile. Some fans of the show have tried to sell me on the idea that it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination, but that always sounded like apologetics to me. A story as big as this is — and should be — measured as a journey and a destination. By which I mean, A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t going to end with Jon Snow and Jaime Lannister jumping into a wardrobe and partnering up as Narnia’s first gay rodeo clowns. And if it does, anyone who says, “Well, the first 7,000 pages were great!” deserves a punch in the junk.
The ending of Lost, though — and be aware I’m talking about most of the back half of season six — was exactly the right mix of building tension, character development, sudden surprises and expectations paying off. Those last two things are actually quite tough to reconcile, if you think about it; there are certain things the viewer wants to see happen in a story of this nature (i.e.: the bad guys lose, the main character gets to be the hero, the dog survives, etc.), but you can’t just line those things up as a checklist without making your plot predictable and boring. What the writers of Lost did was meet those baseline expectations while subverting or twisting them slightly. That way the viewer gets what he wants, but still gets the tense, satisfying conclusion. Tidy, no?
A great example of Lost pulling this off is the “island protector” subplot that gets introduced towards the end of the season. We find out that the island is looking for a new guardian and has narrowed its pool down to about five of the remaining main characters. We, as viewers, already know the answer to this riddle, of course; it’s going to be Jack. It can’t not be Jack, because that means Jack’s role as the main character has been a red herring for over a hundred episodes, which is just nonsensical. But it also can’t simply be Jack, because that’s boring and predictable, and a bad way to end the story. So Jacob’s ghost lines up the last four dudes and is like “who’s it gonna be?”, and of course Jack steps up and takes the job — for one episode. He gets his crowning glorious moment as island protector, but also fulfills his role in the climactic end battle scene, and with his dying breath passes the mantle onto Hurley.
And of course, the viewer is sitting there with six seasons of Hurley circling around inside his brain, and he’s like, gosh. Of course that’s what was going to happen. It’s the perfect fit, and if I hadn’t been so focused on Jack I probably would have seen that coming!
I did have two small complaints about season six’s plot, and one large one. Small complaint the first is: I feel they killed off Sayid, Sun and Jin a bit too quickly. It felt like, uh-oh, one more finale episode to go, time to get rid of these extraneous characters! Except, none of those characters were extraneous. These were major characters around which huge, critical plot elements had emerged. Being written off as though there wasn’t room for them in the climax of the story felt to me like a cop out. I’m not saying they should have had plot immunity, nor am I saying their deaths were handled poorly. Sudden, abrupt deaths like Sayid’s are a perfectly valid way to send a clear, particular message. (Remember Wash?) And gutwrenching, all-too-brief reunions like Jin and Sun’s are the foundations of Emmy nominations. But one immediately following the other came off as very forced.
(Ilana’s sudden, abrupt death was more hilarious than anything. But then, I hadn’t spent five-and-a-half seasons caring about Ilana. She was Arzt with tits.)
Small complaint the second: I don’t feel like the story did enough to sell me on the villain. Or, rather, perhaps the story did too much to make me sympathize with him. When it comes right down to brass tacks, Not-Locke only wanted the same thing every other character on the show had ever wanted: to leave the island. And let’s be honest, a lot of his methods for reaching that goal were not as extreme as the so-called “heroes”. Considering he had been trapped there for, what? A thousand years? It seemed Not-Locke handled most of his dealings with far more tact and civility than was probably warranted. Remember when Sun stone-cold shot that Other? Or when Jack tried to blow Locke’s brains out? Or when Ben by-gods blew up an entire ship full of people because, well, shrug? Who’s the extremist here again?
There was a moment at the very end, the very very end, after Not-Locke realized he was again mortal, when I thought the plot was going to twist again and he’d be able to convince the rest of the cast to let him leave. I thought he was going to make the impassioned case that Jacob had trapped him on the island unjustly. And make no mistake, Jacob had trapped him unjustly! But nope — he was a monster and I’m therefore supposed to cheer when he got thrown off a cliff. Feh.
My large complaint is really where I felt the series was at its weakest: season six didn’t need flashes… and it was not at all improved by having them shoehorned in. There was so much going on in the primary island plotline that the flashes accomplished nothing but robbing screentime from it. That screentime could have been used to, oh, say, space out the inevitable character deaths a bit. Or to better develop the rationale behind why, yes, Not-Locke really is a world-devouring supervillain who has got to die.
Let’s be clear about something: the flashes in Lost were one of the most iconic and effective methods of storytelling I’ve ever seen in a television series. The first three seasons used flashbacks to help develop the characters and help us relate to their current situation. Once that was done and the characters had been properly established the series switched suddenly to flash-forwards, developing the story rather than the characters. These out-of-timeline snippets were important all the way up through the end of season five, because so much of what was affecting the plot was coming from outside the characters’ direct actions.
At the start of season six, though, that situation changed. At that point, every major character was on the island, situated in his or her position for the endgame. Everything had come to a head. There were no more shadowy factions to be eerily revealed, no more boogeymen skulking around in the jungle. There were no more illusions that this-or-that character had all the answers. The moves were now in the hands of the characters themselves. The gears were turning. It was “all island, all the time”, and as I said at the beginning of this post, it was great.
Unfortunately, the writers weren’t quite gutsy enough to do away with the convention of flashes. We don’t flash back anymore, though, because every relevant past event had already been detailed. And we don’t flash forward, because there’s no more future to show. Instead we flash “sideways” into an alternate dimension where nobody ever crashes on the island. We get to see what the characters’ lives would have been like if they’d never joined Dharma, or if their plane had never gone down, or what-have-you. It’s boring, it’s irrelevant, and it’s distracting. I couldn’t get into it.
Oh, some of the little subplots the alternate universe cooked up were entertaining. Jin’s being hunted by assassins! Sayid kills a guy in a restaurant! Hurley and Rose help Locke get a job! Jack has a kid now! This is fun stuff, but there was never a time where I wasn’t sufficiently engrossed in the primary island plot. I was never like, “This thing with Widmore sure is intense, but I’m just dying to know whether Desmond ever gets Charlie to that concert!”
A solid payoff can make up for any amount of questionable plot (there’s that “journey vs. destination” thing again), but the payoff for the sideways flashes was pretty limp. Over the course of the season the viewer discovers he’s not watching an alternate universe at all, but rather some kind of bizarre afterlife where every character gets to live out their ideal, sugar-sweet life with their love interest from previous seasons. Everyone goes to Heaven, and everyone lives happily ever after, the end. (Well, everyone they could sign back on for a guest appearance, anyway. Eko isn’t worthy of eternal happiness, I suppose. I mean, the dude only built a church.)
I can’t say it detracted anything from the rest of the plot, because it didn’t. The whole alternate/heaven/sideways thing was so utterly disconnected from the rest of Lost that it can just be safely ignored. It doesn’t even really work as a resolution, because the story already had a resolution — and a quite good one at that. It’s just there to make grandmas, soccer moms and fanfic authors happy. A little too focus-tested, if that makes sense. Not my thing.
Interestingly, one complaint I didn’t have about the series is the one most hardcore Lost fans seem to share: it didn’t bother me that there were mysteries that went unexplained. I think I can sum this up pretty succinctly: the island is not the kind of place where mysteries get solved, and I’m okay with that. I think I’d like to explore this concept in a little more depth, though, so: tangent ahoy!
Every few weeks in my office you can, for some reason, smell a faint, foul odor just outside our mailroom. It only occurs very early in the morning, and it’s only noticable for a short window of time. It doesn’t smell like anything in particular, and there are so few people in the office at that time of day that most employees are blissfully unaware of it. We haven’t been able to convince building management that it’s real at all. It’s not a problem with the pipes, or the ventilation, or any sort of mechanical or environmental issue — it’s just a weird smell. And nobody knows where it comes from.
My point is this: you can probably think of some similar, minor issue that mystifies people at your office, or your school, or maybe even in your own house. A weird warble in a hallway, or a lightbulb that maintenance never replaces for some reason, or an intersection in the middle of town that always makes your radio go fuzzy. There are almost certainly reasons for these things, but they aren’t important enough to us that we seek those answers out. We just live with them. And while they are not important to us, they are nonetheless a part of our lives.
That’s how I feel with the unsolved mysteries in Lost. The island is a place where Weird Stuff Happens. Some of that Weird Stuff turned out to be important to the resolution of the primary smoke monster plot. Some of it didn’t. What I liked about season six is that it established this island as a place with an incredibly rich and vibrant history dating back perhaps thousands of years. I enjoyed the slow, creeping realization that our short time here was only a very tiny slice of that history. If that slice — the smoke monster slice — only incorporates 60% of the Weird Stuff the island is capable of, I don’t think that’s a good reason to completely ignore the other 40%.
No, we never learn why Walt is special or what the Others were planning to do with him. And, apparently, the fact that he was special had no bearing on how the smoke monster plot played out. But doesn’t it make sense that the Others had agendas outside of the smoke monster? Couldn’t it be that they were incorporating his gifts into some project they were forced to abandon when more pressing issues (read: dudes with guns) came up? We get a little tease in the short post-series episode that Walt’s specialness is instrumental in helping the various dead people who are still trapped on the island. But that’s not the story our little slice was telling; this was the story of the Age of Jacob, not the Age of Hurley. That the two overlap slightly is perfectly natural, and so it’s perfectly okay to leave a loose end or two dangling.
In fact, I think this was intentional on the part of the writers. For most of the show’s run there was a very strong sense that the island was governed by a set of Rules, that only a few people knew what the Rules were, and that for some reason these people had to prevent anyone else from learning them. One by one, though, they are revealed to be as clueless as the rest of us: first Danielle, then Tom, then Ben, then Daniel and his team, then Widmore, then Richard, and then, right at the eleventh hour, Jacob. There’s a scene where Jacob is explaining his role as guardian to the four remaining candidates. One of those candidates had had her name crossed out, which we of course took as a sign that some magical cosmic force had decreed she was no longer in the running. But Jacob dismisses that idea. “That’s a line of chalk,” he explains. “The job’s yours if you want it.”
Even Jacob and Not-Locke, the larger-than-life god-beings who epitomized light and darkness on the island, and who had in many cases been treated as personifications of the island itself — well, they were really just winging it.
I can see why it didn’t work for a lot of people, but it worked for me. Tolkien didn’t need to explain where the Entwives went in order to tell his story about a magic ring. This was kind of like that.
Hmm… it occurs to me that there might be a large crossover between people who didn’t like the unsolved mysteries and people who did like the “and they all went to Heaven” ending. I wonder if they focus-tested it.
The big, giant wrap-up: Lost was exquisitely satisfying to watch, and I’m very glad I went back and experienced it. I think, in the grand scheme of television history, it really was something special. I doubt I will ever watch a show like it in real time, though, because the ratio of “shows that work” to “shows that don’t” is not in my favor. Getting emotionally invested in a show which fizzles out and gets canceled, or just flies too far off the rails, is a waste of my time. Lost didn’t get canceled, and it always kept itself in check, and that’s precisely why it was so special. I’m glad I live in a time of DVDs and digital distribution, so I can binge-watch the great shows even long after they air. I’m told The Wire is quite good…
And to answer the $50,000 question, my favorite character was Ben, all the way to the end, right up to “You were a great number one!”. It wasn’t even a contest. I’m just a sucker for a sympathetic sociopath. Just thinking of all the viewers who were disappointed that he didn’t get any karmic retribution in the finale makes me grin. And as much as I disliked the whole Heaven thing, I felt the way he dealt with the afterlife was very in-character. (A breath of fresh air, considering how few of the afterlife plotlines were in-character.)