Tuesday, June 01, 2010

6/1/10 - LOST and the perils of endings

I've had time to sit with it, and I've gorged myself on all the analysis, and I wanted to weigh in with my own thoughts on the finale of Lost in particular, and my thoughts on the series in general now that it's over and the whole work is out there.

First, though, the reading that I would say I align with the most is Noel Murray's analysis on The Onion's AV Club site:

The most resonant point that Murray makes is the following one:

"Does it work as a finale? Yes and no. As noted above, it was definitely emotional, and allowed fans to say goodbye to the characters. But Lost wasn’t just about the characters; it was about the place where the characters met and lived together and died alone and had that shared adventure that Christian Shephard insisted represented all of them at their best. Understand this: I don’t need to know any more about The Island than we already do. It’s a source of great power that can be exploited for ill and thus must be protected—I get that. But in focusing so much on the Sideways resolution, I’m afraid that “The End” doesn’t give The Island itself a proper sendoff. This is a magical place, right? I needed to feel that magic a little more in the closing moments."

I'm going to bullet-point this out, because like Lost itself my reactions are a little all over the place:
  • I felt emotionally satisfied by the ending. From a storytelling perspective, Lost really threw in with the inner journeys of its core characters over an exploration of the island itself. There is a strength in that: when science fiction doesn't invest in characters, it can get either really dry, or really hard to care about. Without believable people anchoring crazy events (and Lost had plenty of those), there's just no way in as an audience member. In fact, one of the most satisfactory elements of Lost as a show is the way that Jack's character arc is elegantly completed - his evolution from disbelieving man of science to uber-believing man of faith happened completely organically, with all of his messiah issues and daddy issues and all other issues laid bare and fairly explored over the six seasons of the show. The same is true for Ben and Sawyer, and to a lesser extent Jin, Sun, and Sayid. Because the characters were so strong, Lost was able to really try on some ambitious things narratively.
  • Unfortunately, narratively the ending did what many Lost naysayers claimed the show would do: it petered out to a whimper that suggested that a lot of the intrigue and mystery of the island itself and the overarching narrative were just thrown in without a lot of careful narrative underpinning. The more you look at the show as a whole, the more unsatisfactory it becomes from a narrative perspective. It seems that fundamentally it has to do with the fact that the writers never really resolved the questions of the Island into any sort of elegant structure - rather, some questions were answered, some hinted at, and some left outside the scope of the show, while the overall question of the island, Charlie's bemused "Guys, where are we?" never really got a definitive answer. I.e. the Rules between Jacob and the Man in Black, the Rules between Ben and Widmore, and a lot of the initially intriguing mysteries got half-resolved, and never seemed to add up to a cohesive whole. For example, in the Shining a lot of crazy stuff happens, but it all comes back to the fact that the hotel is haunted. There's no such elegance of underpinning structure to the island of Lost.
  • A cardinal rule of sci-fi and fantasy is that the rules of the world have to be consistent. Otherwise events just seem arbitrary and the stakes disappear. This became a major problem for Lost. Characters couldn't come back from the dead, until they could. Some people got "infected" for some arbitrary reason never understood. Eloise needed everyone on the plane to get back to the island, until she didn't. Christian was a nasty alcoholic, until he was a shining dead figure of forgiveness. The various websites devoted to unpacking Lost exhibited a much stronger adherence to the rules of world-building than the actual writers of Lost did.
  • It was a major mistake to let characters get off of the island. In retrospect, there was no reason to have them get off, come back, and then get off again (at least the ones that lived). And it put the emotional escape from the island not at the end of the show, but right in the middle. That meant a lot of the fourth and fifth seasons, in retrospect, were wheel-spinning. And it meant that the Man in Black's attempted escape from the island never acquired the mythological weight that it seemed like the writers were going for in the finale.
  • The buildup/reveal of Jacob and the Man in Black happened too late. The creepy scene of the Man in Black in the cabin in the woods was enormously effective, but then we wasted a whole lot of time with Keamy's mercenaries, who served Widmore, who ultimately was less than irrelvant.
  • The glowing cave was a total cop out. The island is "death, rebirth, everything." Sorry, but that's bullshit. If the Man in Black gets out, "everything ends". That means that the meaning of the island and the stakes for the story are both exceedingly vague. This may work for a loose allegory, but the island portion of Lost is structured as a mystery show, almost like a supernatural Agatha Christie novel. That's why so many people fixated so much on "the answers", which the writers/creators seemed to chafe against at a certain point. People wanted answers because the structure followed the structure of a mystery - several strange occurrences were presented with the suggestion that these occurrences were all stemming from some central organizing fact or truth about the island itself. That this central truth was that there was a mysterious glowing light in the middle of the island was incredibly deflating; akin to finding the wizard of Oz was the small man behind the curtain. The narrative expectation that the shows own writers set up was that the show would follow the course of something like Murder on the Orient Express, where a series of details became stranger and stranger, and more mysterious and more dislocating for the central characters (in this case Poirot), until the solution of the mystery resolves those mysterious happenings like a set of dominoes falling over. On Lost, instead of having that first domino fall to trigger the logical falling into place of all of the narrative questions, the creators just kept stacking dominoes and then ultimately said "you know what, they're just dominoes, forget about them, we're not knocking them over, you should pay attention to the people stacking the dominoes." Which would all be very convenient if they hadn't been telling us along (through the cliffhangers and story structure) that the dominos would fall. Nobody cares if things are left unresolved in something like 28 Days Later. There are zombies, they want brains, OK fine. But narratively you get in a lot of trouble if you say something is important and interesting and organized around a central truth and then wind up having to insist that that central truth is vague and ineffable (glowing cave).
  • The show really benefited from its two villain characters being such strong actors. Even when Lost treaded water, watching Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn act was always a pleasure. It really goes to show how a strong story needs strong antagonists, and for all of its faults Lost really brought it on that front.
  • Jin and Sun's story really suffered from them being kept apart for so long. When the show explored their marriage it was really interesting. When it reduced them to just asking "Where's Sun/Where's Jin," they kind of collapsed as characters. So their deaths didn't carry as much weight as it might have. That said, it still carried a lot of weight, even if it's ridiculous that Sun never insisted Jin leave to take care of their child (!)
  • Lost was terrible with children. The writers loved the drama of pregnancy, but had no idea what do with actual motherhood. So as soon as Aaron and Ji Yeon were born they were whisked away to the mainland so they could be separated from Kate/Claire and Jin/Sun. It really highlighted how the writers just liked to go for the dramatic pregrancy/childbirth scenes without considering how infants might fit into the overall story.
  • I agree with some other comments made by critics: at some point, Lost fell too much in love with its remaining characters. It was a much more interesting show when you never knew when a character might get shot by surprise (Shannon, Libby), or fall off a cliff to their death (Boone) or just have the Smoke get medieval on them (Eko). But that taut sense of danger disappeared right around the fifth season or so, and we were left with characters that repeatedly came back from the dead. Lost was always stronger when it was able to let the dead rest, i.e. John Locke.
  • The story of John Locke was an uncompromising tragedy handled really well. He remained one of the most fascinating characters in the show until the very end.
  • I respect the towering ambition of the show. It strove to be about more than just good vs. evil, up until the very end, touching on reincarnation, free will, fate, and the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. For that I'm willing to overlook a lot of the narrative flaws. It also had some amazing individual episodes, as well as one of the most mind-bending and intelligent time travel story arcs in mainstream media.
  • My favorite episode from the show - definitely "The Constant".
  • My favorite moment: early in Season One, when Sayid is walking along the beach and discovers the huge cable in the sand. He lifts it up, and just looks incredibly confused. The intrigue of that cable, and the suggestion of all that was beneath the surface (of the island, of the story, of the characters), was, for me, the moment that really hooked me, and remains a moment that encapsulates that rush of not knowing and needing to know (plus we eventually learned where that cable went, so it wasn't one of Lost's dead ends, so bonus points).

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