Monthly Archives: May 2010

Lost: The Final(e) Analysis: Unanswered Questions and the Flash Sideways

Over a year ago I posted a blog in which I argued that Lost was the finest show ever produced for television.  This past week, that show completed its run, and I wanted to revisit the question of Lost, its success, its value, and evaluate everything in terms of how it ended.  Needless to say, if you haven’t yet seen how it ended, go watch it and stop reading this.

Was Lost perfect? Ha.  Not by a long shot.

Was the 6th Season everything it needed to be?  Again, not by a long shot.  In some ways, it is the rockiest season, with really high highs and a few too many placeholder episodes or frustrating moments.

I still, however, maintain that Lost was television at its best.  It was a bold show, unlike anything that had come before it, with a vast cast of fascinating characters put in a bizarre and mysterious situation.  It used that plot to launch into deep (and at times only apparently deep) discussions on a myriad of themes: faith vs. science, grace vs. law, philosophy, redemption, leadership, the nature of Truth.  I have never seen a show quite so ambitious in its scope.

It walked a very, very thin line between character-driven story and plot-driven story.  Many people got hooked on that first season because of the mystery–or should I say mysteries–and when the answers to those mysteries didn’t come quick enough, they bailed on the show.  Others got too confused by all the mysteries and held on because of the characters.  And where you fall in this camp, I suspect, will determine how satisfied you were with the 6th season.

Ah, the 6th season.  This season had a lot riding on it.  The seemingly omni-present producers made comments about “finally letting you unwrap the present we’ve been holding onto for these six years.”  Everything seemed to indicate that the 6th season would be full of resolution to the mysteries.  The 5th season finale introduced us to Jacob and his brother, and a lot of the plot suddenly became clear.

The introduction of Jacob and his brother (in scripts referred to as Samuel, but never on the show) was a smart move.  This is what it felt like to me: we were putting together an 1000 piece puzzle.  Season 1 was the border.  Season 2 filled in bits in one corner, primarily about the Dharma Initiative.  Season 3 filled in another corner, about the Others.  Seasons 4 and 5 filled in all sorts of random bits, but there was still a huge chunk of the middle missing, keeping us from telling what were looking at.  Jacob and Samuel turned out to be that middle piece.

But as the season progressed, they actually introduced new mysteries, answered a few, and kept many things in the dark.  And in interviews they started talking about how many questions would remain unanswered, that they would only address things pertinent to the situations of the characters.  That kind of made me mad for awhile, but after seeing the finale, it makes sense to me.

So count the rest of this as a defense of Season 6 and a final analysis of the legacy of this amazing show.  It’s not a blind defense–there are things I want to openly complain about, honestly–but a defense nonetheless.  Let’s start with:

QUESTIONS: ANSWERED AND UNANSWERED

You can’t approach Lost like a traditional mystery.  If you do, you’ll be disappointed by its conclusion.  A traditional mystery centers around one or two questions, and the main characters are trying to solve those puzzles, or keep them from being solved.  Think “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Or think “Who among us is the murderer?”

Lost was not this kind of mystery.  The characters were in a situation where mysterious things were happening, but the clarifying of those things was never, for the most part, their main objective.  It was never, for the characters, about finding out, “Why is there a monster here?”  For Jack, Kate, and most of the rest of the survivors, the question was one of, “How will we survive?  How will we get off this island?  How will we be at peace with each other?”  And perhaps the most important question for them was this: How will the issues of our broken pasts help us or hinder us from surviving and getting along with everyone else here?  That was really the theme.

So when questions were answered, they usually led to more questions.  Because the nature of the answers wasn’t a solution to something.  Think about it–most of the questions of Lost turned out to be answered by history.  The island had a long and vast history, of which we only ever saw pieces.  We saw a couple of thousand years ago, when a woman raised two sons and caused great damage to the spiritual dynamic of the island.  We saw much of the history of the Dharma Initiative, and of the Black Rock, and the drug smugglers, and the Others that Jacob brought to the island.  It was all island history, but much of the time the actual history was not important to the characters we were linking to.  Or rather, that history only became important as its ramifications impacted our survivors.

But an answer dealing with history always has more information behind it.  If you watch any other mystery, or any piece of fiction dealing with anything, really, there will be loads of information you don’t know.  And you don’t know because it’s not relevant to the story at hand.  It just feels more relevant in Lost because we’re in a foreign and exotic and weird world.  So we want more explanation.  But more explanation may not be necessary.

Lest you think I am using that reasoning as an excuse for some of the sloppy writing, read on.

In the days following the finale, loads of websites released funny or thorough or bitter lists of unanswered questions.  I looked at some of these lists, and then I started to get mad.  So I’d like to address the issue of unanswered questions just a bit more.  It seems that the questions from these lists can be divided into three categories.  Now these do have some overlap, but I think they are helpful anyway.

1) Questions That Were Actually Answered: You Just Didn’t Get It

One of Lost’s most risky techniques, especially in our day and age, was telling a story in which a lot of important information was given in subtle ways.  In the background.  Between the lines.  Through logical inference.  There are many questions I’ve heard people say, “But what about that?” and I’ve thought “Actually, that was answered.  But not through someone saying, “Oh, this is blah blah blah because blah blah blah.”  They answered through showing us.”

An example I’ve seen on multiple lists: Why were there polar bears on the island?  The answer: The Dharma Initiative did experiments on all sorts of animals, but when they were killed off, many of the animals escaped.  If you dig a little further into some of the online content, you’d even discover that they were experimenting on animals to see if they could cause them to live in environments other than the ones they were normally suitable for.

Others in this category to me include questions that you could make inferences about based on the Jacob situation.  One thing that bothered me was that the Dharma Initiative sometimes used Jacob/Others-influenced terms or iconography–the presence of Jacob’s name in their brainwashing video, the Egyptian symbols inside the Hatch.  But based on Jacob’s far-reaching influence, I could make an inference that the whole reason Dharma even discovered the island in the first place was because Jacob had influenced at least some of the leaders.  He allowed it.

2) Questions That Are, in Fact, Irrelevant: One of the lists contained this question: “Who wrote Kate to tell her that her mother was sick in the hospital?”  I think this falls into the Jack’s Tattoo’s category of questions that never occurred to me.  The producers insist that another common one fits this category: “What happened to Ben’s friend/childhood love Annie?”

And I’d like to address one that fits as a combination of these first two categories: Why was Walt special?  This question seems to me to be irrelevant.  Do you wonder, “Why can Hurley and Miles see the dead?”  An explanation of how or why Walt was able to do the things he could to with his emotions gets us dangerously close to “midichlorian territory” (more on that below.)

However, much about Walt was answered.  Walt was special, as were Locke, Miles, Hurley, and others.  It seemed like he could influence things, animals especially, and did so when he was emotional.  And maybe his whole character was there just to introduce to us the concept that there are people in this Lost universe that are “special”, that have unusual abilities.  Why did there need to be anything more?

The Others were taking children–any they could get.  We’d later find out that this was because they were unable to have children of their own, and they wanted to keep them safe, protect them from harm, and continue their society somehow.  So they came for Walt.  But they weren’t aware of his powers, and they couldn’t handle them, so they gave him back to Michael and sent him away.

So I feel like many of the questions fall into one of these two categories.

BUT…3) Questions that Should Have Been Answered

And this is my one major criticism of Lost.  When a story presents a lot of mysterious things, and continues to introduce them as things of importance to understanding the situation, it is as if that story is making you a promise: “we’re intentionally not explaining this now, but it will be explained later.  It seems weird, but there is an explanation.”  And there were a handful of things that Lost seemed to promise to explain to me that it never got around to.  Here are some of my big ones:

1. What is the deal with Horace Goodspeed’s cabin, that seemingly housed the Man in Black for awhile, as if he was trapped?

2. What was Ben’s “magic box”?

3. Eloise Hawking–why was she able to sort of stand outside of time and see the truth of things so often?  Or better put: what was up with her?

4. A minor one that’s always bothered me: Why would Charles Widmore want to have Nadia killed?

And this is where I feel Season Six stumbles.  Because in the beginning, it introduces us to The Temple, a place we’ve heard about since Season 3.  And there’s that whole thing with Sayid–he’s dunked in the cloudy water, he’s tested for being evil, he resurrects from the dead, he supposedly has no soul, etc etc.  There is supposedly a sickness that Claire also has…And then none of it is ever clarified or explained, and suddenly Sayid and Claire can both choose good again.

That kind of thing makes me mad, because it is just sloppy and mean to introduce something in your last year that makes no sense and then not clarify it.  The producers often defend this move by saying, “No one likes the midichlorian explanation of the Force in the Star Wars prequels.  If we explained everything, it would get dull and lose the mystery.  You wouldn’t like it.”  I think this is a stupid defense, for two reasons:

1. No one was ever asking, “What makes up the Force?”  So it was answering a question no one asked.

2. There’s a logical fallacy called “Either-Or”, in which something is framed in terms of only two choices–either this, or that–when really there might be more.  I have heard TV writers use this defense before (Amy S-P from Gilmore Girls used it to defend the storyline about Luke having a daughter), and it is stupid.  What they are saying is, “Either we don’t give you answers, or we give you answers that are lame and that you won’t like.”  I think that’s ridiculous.  Some answers are satisfying.  You could give us more of those.  Or maybe the truth is that you don’t know the answer yourself to all these questions.

But as I evaluate the show, I find there are less of these kinds of questions than I might expect.

Now, on to the other controversial thing about the last year: The Flash Sideways.

Season 5 ended with the attempt to change the future with an atomic bomb.  Did it succeed?  We’ll never know.  What we do know is that much of the 6th season was filled with what was called the Flash Sideways, in which we see our beloved characters living in LA right after Oceanic Flight 815, as if they had never crashed.  But enough details about their lives were different to indicate that this wasn’t the same universe.

The finale revealed that this Flash Sideways actually takes place long after all the characters are dead.  It is a sort of Purgatory world, in which the characters don’t remember their island pasts but, in my interpretation at least, continue to work on their redemption, the character issues that have plagued them for so long.  And at the right time, Desmond comes along and helps trigger them all waking up, remembering who they are and their island past, and then all stepping together from Purgatory into a beautiful heavenly light, a real afterlife.

Was this triggered by Jughead?  I don’t think it was, but I don’t know.  How did they get there?  How did they create the place?  What happens to the people killed there?  Was this afterlife given to them as a gift from the powerful Light Under the Island?  I don’t know, and honestly, the more you try to suss that out, the less sense it makes.  So don’t.

But this finale, with them all going into the light together, divided people.  It made some people angry, and some found it beautiful.  I found it absolutely beautiful.  It was, honestly, a stunning and bold way to wrap up the show, and a work of art.

My favourite moment of the finale right here.  Makes me cry nearly every time:

Man, just as an aside, can I say that these two actors act the heck out of this scene?  Their faces…seriously, Michael Emerson’s reaction to Locke’s forgiveness, and the shifts his face goes through before he even speaks…blow me away.

Was this a satisfying way to go?  For me, it was.  It completes the redemption of all these characters.  It brings them to a place of reward once they have completed it, and that reward includes each other.  It includes the community they built.  I suspect Ben is now going to go off and complete his own (I wonder what woke him up?), maybe even gathering his own group to go to that church, including Widmore, Rousseau, Alex…Karl?  Maybe.

But some people hated it.  They felt it too hokey and sentimental, and felt the finale did not answer enough questions.

Perhaps, for those people, the season would have been more satisfying had the Flash Sideways been entirely removed.  There would be no flashes; the entire season would focus on the battle between Jacob’s people and Fake Locke.  I’d say this would give more time to answer questions, but I feel the sixth season dragged a bit as it was–they were stalling a lot of the time, spending too much time in the temple, or moving characters around without anything happening.  The fact is, they didn’t want to or maybe know how to answer everything.

But anyway, remove the Flash Sideways and you’re left with the island battle story.  Would the finale have been satisfying?  With Jack dead, Hurley and Ben left to rule, everyone else escaped?  (Incidentally, the world knows that Ajira plain went missing, with the Oceanic Six on it.  What are they going to think when it reappears, after being gone a week or so, with Kate and then some people that weren’t even on the plane to begin with?  With Widmore dead, who’s going to cover that one up?)

No, such a finaly would have still been exciting, but I think it would have lacked closure.  That would have just been the end.  So I am glad the producers decided to give us the gift of Sun and Jin reawakening, of Jack embracing his father and embracing Locke in the church, of Charlie’s return.  Jack’s entrance to the church cut with Jack’s death walk.  That’s what it was: closure.

I think some people were waiting for everything, every plot strand, to magically click together.  And it didn’t, not in the way expected, but I think that what they gave us was just as bold and rewarding. So thanks, cast, crew, producers.  I don’t fully trust you, but you still made a work of genius, a work of art.

Anyone want to join me as we start over?

THE FINAL WORD:

Favourite Season: 4

Least Favourite Season: blaspheme I know, but 1.  Too slow for me, too vague and not sure where it’s going.  Runner’s up: First half of Season 3, selected episodes from Season 6.

Best Episodes From Each Season:

1: Walkabout, Exodus Pt 1 & 2

2: Man of Science/Man of Faith, The 23rd Psalm

3: Flashes Before Your Eyes, Through the Looking Glass

4: Wow, so many…um, Confirmed Dead, The Constant, The Shape of Things to Come

5: Because You Left, The Incident, The Life & Death of Jeremy Bentham

6: LA X, Dr. Linus, Happily Ever After, The Candidate, The End (to be fair, I remember more of these vividly because they are so fresh.  But I really dig Ben’s redemption arc.)

And, now that Lost is gone, what is the best show currently on TV?

Hmmm…Start at about minute 3 of this clip for the answer:

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