LOST arrived with the thunderous roar of exploding fuselage. It cut wildly through pop-culture stereotypes, and then left its fans lost and bewildered amidst the wreckage.
1. The End Is the Beginning Is the End
Recently, the producers, writers, and some of the principle actors of the television program LOST reunited at the Paley Centre to celebrate the series with fans, and to reflect upon the show’s legacy after ten years. At first, I was rather shocked to hear that it had been ten years since the show had ended. I felt my bones turning to brittle chalk. Ten years?! Had I really been hearing people seethe and writhe incessantly about how disappointing that finalé had been for a decade?
Thankfully, it turned out that I was right to be surprised. The conveners of the panel were in fact counting from the premiere date of the show, not the date it ended, so really it has only been off the air for approximately four years… Still, four years is a long time in the world of television entertainment – whole series have been birthed and died and faded into obscurity in that time (hey guys, remember Smash? ...no?) – and yet somehow LOST remains at the forefront of many people’s minds whenever the words ‘television’, ‘hype’, and ‘failed to live up to’ are mentioned in the vicinity of one another.
Only a few months ago the continued bad will toward the finalé of LOST seemingly chased one of the show’s creator, Damon Lindelof, off Twitter. Lindelof had just published a peculiarly confessional statement in The Hollywood Reporter, a piece originally intended to be a review of Breaking Bad’s celebrated finalé that instead morphed into a despairing but still defiant discussion of himself and his experiencewith the conclusion of LOST. Within his essay he cited the vitriol still being directed his way from Twitter followers as being too insufferable to endure any more, and declared that he was now going to go silent about all things related to the LOST finalé (or rather go silent again, since he had already declared himself to be under a self-imposed media blackout for the entire year immediately after the finalé aired). Also, appearances at the Paley Centre doesn’t count, apparently.
I don’t meant to make light of Lindelof’s threat. No doubt it has been a nightmare to see torrents of scathing disapproval from fans and critics lumped upon a work that – despite what any individual may think of it – he clearly poured years of his life and heart into producing. And while I will have to show my hand a little and say that I was one of the viewers who felt disappointed by the conclusion he finally offered (something I have spoken of at greater length elsewhere), it is still absolutely absurd to me that anyone would berate an artist because they did not satisfy their personal expectations, or declare that they ‘owe’ them something simply because they were willing to watch their show (for free!).
Aside from being petulantly asinine, such vitriol halts any possibility of actually discussing what it was that the artist had intended in the first place. Fed up with the hatred, they shut down defensively rather than respond, and the result – as appears to be the case now with LOST – is a mystified portion of the fan base that has no context for their disillusionment, and who therefore have little empathy to spare, and a creator who is under the misapprehension that his audience merely wanted their fan-fiction transcribed as canon.
Indeed, this disconnect is so apparent that, according to his discussion at the Paley Centre, Lindelof still believes the primary frustration fans had with the finalé is a misinterpretation that the island was purgatory all along. And while I don’t doubt that he has heard far more complaints about his show than I, the question of whether or not they were ‘dead the whole time’ was never one of my principle concerns, and not one that I have often heard cited by others (however, I freely admit that I might be mistaken about this).
So although it will never be possible to bridge the divide between these disparate camps – the conclusion of LOST remains one of those divisive texts that inspires irreconcilable absolutes: beloved my some, despised by others, but shrugged off as an irrelevance by few – I thought it was worth exploring why in particular this finalé seemed to rankle people like few others. After all, plenty of other television shows have gone out on a whimper rather than a bang.
The X-Files, a show similarly obsessed with puzzles and mysteries and clandestine schemes, ended with a two-hour PowerPoint presentation that appeared to have been cobbled together by someone suffering a paranoid hallucinogenic reaction to their medication. Rosanne went egomaniacally meta, informing its viewers that the entire reality of the show was merely a self-indulgent fantasy created by its star – a creative writing project to deal with her husband’s death (the one character and actor everyone unconditionally loved). And ALF, cheery, snarky ALF, that playful, family-friendly romp, concluded with its titular alien scamp about to be shot in the head, transported to an undisclosed location, and dissected by government agents.
So why, in this long tradition of small screen disappointment and woe, where satisfying conclusions are the exception not the rule, did LOST become such an iconic flashpoint?
2. The Chosen One
The first, most complimentary possibility, is that it is a testament to just how promising the idea of LOST originally was. Here, suddenly, with the thunderous roar of an exploding fuselage, was a show that cut through the traditional pop-cultural stereotypes and strict genres lines that risked stifling television entertainment. Sure, countless shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Prisoner had already proved those divisions arbitrary, but many of these were still considered niche programs, beloved by small, but steadily growing communities of fans. They were often shows that needed to be treasured, sheltered – occasionally rescued from cancellation. Some, like Twin Peaks, had captured the public’s attention, but few seemed as immediate or undeniably a ratings sensation, acting as a lightning rod for cultural debate right from the off.
Part action flick, part sci-fi think-piece, part sombre character drama, it had time travel, ghosts, miracles, monsters, psychic powers, people with dark pasts. Like the random assortment of characters that boarded the flight that would dump them in this bewildering nether space – each bringing with them their own individual history and perspective – here was a plastic text that could theoretically go anywhere, do anything.
It was structurally audacious, with the (admittedly occasionally tiresome) conceit of juxtaposing personal, character-study flashbacks against the present day of the island allowing each story’s individual themes to shine brighter with their reflected glow. The writers were afforded the freedom of scope in a rich tradition of anthology programs like Amazing Stories or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, while simultaneously benefitting from the enthralling through-line of the island that linked all these disparate strands together.
And it was gorgeous. Filmed in Hawaii, overstocked with photogenic faces that had real acting chops, with a budget for special effects and set design that seemed to dwarf the output of most networks, let alone singular series. Not to mention a wellspring of captivating characters, unique to mainstream television. Where else would a principle character on an American series be incapable of speaking English? Where else would you see a drug addled British rock star mime eating peanut butter to cheer up a pregnant Australian? Where else would the most beloved character be an overweight, cheerful audience-cipher – not a leader, not a lover, but a background player whose warmth and generosity of spirit led him to be steadily pushed to the front of the fiction, and who would eventually inherit the narrative’s most important role of all?
Here at last was a landmark moment in which a program that would have traditionally been dismissed as ‘cult’ viewing was rewarded with mainstream recognition, able to break through the stuffy misconceptions that audiences often bring to genre fiction, and prove its medium’s worth. Thus, when the show’s popularity collapsed in upon itself, when it became, at least in the eyes of those not charmed by its resolution, ‘just another show’, the disappointment some fans felt was not merely the by-product of a story that had petered out, but shocking proof that this was not the televisual promised one, after all.
Some might argue that it was instead a product of the arguably disingenuous way in which the show was sold to its viewers outside of the narrative. They might cite the frequent interviews with the show’s creators and show runners, Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse, throughout its production, where they went out of their way to assure fans that a master plan had all been mapped out, and the truth would eventually be known. The pair even appeared in several recap specials sprinkled throughout the seasons (actually just glorified clip shows with titles like ‘LOST: The Answers’ and ‘LOST: Destiny Calls’, but called ‘recaps’ to avoid the stigma), always playfully raising their eyebrows at the mention of revelations soon to come; and they were so confident in their storytelling that they tweaked the nose of The Sopranos for its controversial ending – promising more than once that ‘We will not be ending with a blackout’ and ‘We will not be cutting to black’ (despite eventually concluding with a character dying and fading to the ultimate blackout, both he and the audience still having learned little of their circumstance).
But it’s hard to blame them entirely for what are, for the most part, just misleading exaggerations. That was marketing hype. Showmanship. And while it’s certainly disconcerting to look back and see Cuse and Lindelof themselves promising truths that they later admitted never came (in an interview with The Verge in 2012 Lindelof stated that he regrets ever promising answers), these examples are just another unfortunate product of the uncomfortable blur between art and commerce. These men were writers, but throughout the series were tasked with acting as salesmen with a product to spruik. That probably doesn’t assuage that feeling of fraud those who felt duped still feel, but it is important to keep the context within which those statements were originally made in mind.
In any case, by the final season both men had backed away from these promises in their interviews, instead offering more generic truisms about the narrative being the journey, not the destination, and that because of the necessities of the story, some things would always remain unknown.
3. The Truth Isn’t Out There
Perhaps the most damning criticism is that the show itself had been obsessed – both in its text and subtext – with searching for answers that never arrive. Every character, across the span of the series, is depicted as being, on some level, fixated upon the same inquiries that the show’s viewers repeatedly were: ‘What is the island?’; ‘Why were these specific people all repeatedly drawn together?’; ‘What does any of this weird crap mean?’ Few, if any, of the primary conversations set in the present tense of the island – all punctuated with conveniently unfinished sentences and unanswered questions – were about anything except the giant mystery within which they were trapped; and yet after six years of struggle, many of those principle questions go completely unaddressed.
The nature of the moving, shape-shifting, possibly sentient island upon which they are trapped is never resolved. It just is. Its innumerable magic powers simply hand-waved away. The psychic, spiritual and prophetic gifts of several of the ‘special’ characters within the show likewise go unexplained. They too just are. For a show that paid considerable lip-service throughout its run to scientific techno-babble and time-travel causality, it eventually reaches a point at which all questions can be answered only with a mysticism that wilfully transcends comprehension. The island has and always will be. Some people are ‘chosen’ just because. Stuff happens for reasons that will never make sense. Rather than provide answers that would please some and annoy others, the show just abandoned the notion of answers altogether.
Indeed, rather than resolving these questions, the show systematically went about proving the pursuit of truth a dead end, revealing itself to be designed around obfuscating or actively hindering any notion of ‘truth’ at every possible moment. None of the events detailed actually function as genuine ‘clues’ to anything. Mysterious numbers lead nowhere. Spatial distortions go unaddressed. Powers are arbitrary. Sure, you find out why a van is parked in the middle of a field, or why there’s a polar bear wandering free in a forest, but these are all ultimately just tangential diversions. The whole plot is a series of signifiers without anything to signify.
In many ways it seems to actively mock believing in anything, even going so far as to prove everyone’s personal faiths to be suspect. Every character – from Jack, to Locke, to Ben, to the Dharma scientist guys, all the way back to Jacob himself – is shown to be misguided for seeking a knowledge that will never come, for believing that they could understand anything about their circumstance, or have any mastery over their own fate.
Sure, you can believe that pumping numbers into an old Macintosh, or worshiping a spooky guy in an omnipresent cabin, or scribbling string theory equations into a notebook is achieving something – but those who try to find out what that ‘something’ is will only be frustrated, denied, and then slaughtered for their impertinence. If you want to be the master of your own fate, you meet unknowable forces that grind you up for your arrogance. If you want to give over in abject devotion to the omnipresent unknown, those inconceivable powers merely possess and destroy you. Love capitalism? It becomes your undoing. Love knowledge for knowledge’s sake? You get a heaping lump of death and despair for your trouble, too.
In a particularly dark twist, characters cannot even just agree to remain ignorant and leave the island, refusing to play along, because they will still be haunted endlessly and driven mad. Lindelof and Cuse created a universe in which it seemingly doesn’t matter what you believe in – you can’t even refuse to believe in anything – and you’ll always be doomed. For an audience that was fuelled by the same quest for revelation that had motivated the characters of the show, who had mourned when some of their beloved heroes had given their lives in direct pursuit of these truths, it risked being an anticlimax that rendered the entire narrative an exercise in futility. Not only were you, the viewer, not going to get answers, but you were a fool for thinking that you ever would in the first place.
In place of these quests for knowledge or personal enlightenment, the conclusion of the series instead chose to answer an entirely different mystery, only introduced in the first episode of its final season – and it is this misdirect that has arguably provoked the most criticism from those unsatisfied with the show. The ‘flash-sideways’ world, a seeming alternate universe version of the character’s lives, has been accused of being deliberate, overt distraction from the main plot; a tangential puzzle that ran for a full season just so it could be ‘explained’ in the final episode and thus give the momentary illusion of revelation, while actually elucidating nothing about the island and it’s central mysteries.
The final episode, critics argue, is designed to actively bewilder rational thought with melodramatic gush: Jack realises that this ‘sideways’ world is the threshold of death. He is dead, all his friends and family too, are dead , and in their act of letting go into whatever afterlife awaits they have all been drawn back to each other, reunited one last time by their eternal bonds of friendship and love to draw strength from each other as they leave the mortal world, and all its myriad mysteries behind.
It’s a truly beautiful image. But as critics of the ending have noted, when you think about it for even a second after the credits roll, all that pathos dissipates into another flurry of irreconcilable questions.
After all, if this is the afterlife, then why is it just these guys? Some of these people only spent a couple of days of their entire lives together on some weird island they didn’t understand. Some of them barely even knew each other. Meanwhile their parents, husbands, wives, sisters and brothers go to a separate heaven. It would be like only reuniting with those friends you loved, and were totally going to keep in contact with, that you met back in college that one semester. Why do romances that developed in a couple of intense weeks trump the true loves that these people supposedly left behind before their plane crash? Why do some people get to bring their children with them into the afterlife while others don’t? And why are they all living out mutated fantasies of their own lives anyway? Why does Jack having a dream about finally being a father resolve his own daddy issues? Why would being duped in a fantasy be preferable to gaining perspective on one’s own lived life?
Most problematically of all, and at the risk of sounding somewhat callous: So what if they’re all dead?