Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reflections on The End of Lost

Finally finished watching Lost.

(+++ Spoilers below +++ obviously)

The whole six series turned out to be slightly less of a shaggy dog story than I'd always suspected.

I cried, for instance, at the revelation that the ecstatic flashsideways events were simply Jack's limbo (or Heaven's Waiting Room, or however you want to interpret it); and then felt slightly ashamed at having done so, given the blatant contrivance. Rather than series-long teasing, hinting at deep parallels and ironies, much more satisfying, I think, would have been a 10 minute Last Temptation of Christ style interlude, as Jack lay dying in the Cave of Light, in which we're not sure whether the characters' lives were rebooting.

Nonetheless, by the end, we actually got some answers: e.g. the identities of "Adam and Eve", the cause of the whispering, the source of the island's power, Richard Alpert's agelessness, the purpose of the Swan station, the appearance of dead people, the nature of the smoke monster. But even these answers are ultimately unsatisfactory. What powers does the island's Protector actually have? Why did Mother behave the way she did? How was the cave constructed? Why should the donkey wheel, healing and time dilation work like that? Why are dead people appearing? Etc., etc., etc...

And many central mysteries - the "numbers", the "rules", the origins of the island's powers, the motivations of "The Others", the "infection", to name just a few - are deliberately left as mysterious.

Some people have decried the writers for making it up as they go along. To some extent that's fair. What might have worked neatly in two series was padded out to six; some characters and storylines struck a chord, others didn't, or didn't work out; and keeping the audience guessing led to several over-elaborate detours. But one has to admire the ambition of incorporating so many potentially profound themes within a mainstream show, whilst continuing to rack up the tension.

Part of the writers' skill in sustaining audience interest lay in selectively dripping answers while also striking out in new directions, without appearing to do so. The writers were somewhat protected from egregious narrative incoherence by their creation itself: a world in which all certainties are constantly undermined by the characters' propensities for deception and shifting motivations, and by hallucinations, ghosts and bodily impersonation. They were also aided in no small part by what ranks among the most effective use of music I've ever come across.

It's an incredible skill to keep the audience teetering on the edge, trying to avoid burning curiosity spill over into frustration. And leaving loose ends is not in itself a bad thing. Part of the fun of this show has been the wild speculation it permits. Moreover there's a justification for not explaining too much, in that one of the key themes of Lost was the tension between faith and science in grappling with a world full of events that might or might not be explicable by as-yet-unknown forces. It's not the forces themselves that were the point, but the characters' struggles to make sense of these events.

But, ultimately, stories don't add up to much more than something told in a beautiful way unless most mysteries and motivations are seen to resolve to a very small number of irreducible givens that one has to accept for the sake of the narrative.

The writers of Lost chose not to take that path. And that's why I say it was a shaggy dog story.

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