Lost – The End
Apologies for the dearth and delay of blog posts – I’ve been driving across the country for the last several days. Wasn’t it smart to take that little hiatus while absolutely nothing was happening on TV?
We did set aside some time on the epic road trip to watch the Lost finale, which meant that we watched the show in a motel in Flagstaff, Arizona after spending the day hiking in the Grand Canyon. My goals at the time included 1) staying awake to watch the finale and 2) staying awake long enough to grapple with the ensuing onslaught of blog posts, alternate endings, and internet outrage. Success! Followed by failure.
For the most part, I think the finale was what we all expected it would be. The main focus was on the characters, on providing satisfying endings to the relationships we’ve watched all along, and on giving an arc to Jack Sheppard’s life in particular. When each new character experienced the memories of their past lives, those lovely little flashback bits were an excellent way to touch on all of the emotional highlights of the past several years. I thought the action sequences in the finale were right up there with the best the show has done, especially that amazing leap flying leap Jack made at Smokey. And then at the end, no matter how many questions were left unanswered or plot threads abandoned, there were all the happy people sitting together, helping Jack (and, of course, the audience) let go. Regardless of your hang-ups about the rest of the show, it’s hard to argue with that as an ideal moment of conclusion – you get to see everyone you love, including Vincent, and then it’s over.
There was so much left unexplained, which was just as everyone has trying to prepare themselves would be the case for many years now, but actually, my primary question from several weeks ago received an unbelievably definitive answer. Frustrated by the lighthouse and the lack of definition about Jacob’s role, I asked whether this show was science fiction or a Christian morality play. (In that instance, I asked, but also failed to define: a morality play is a medieval theatrical allegory in which a human protagonist encounters personifications of evil and is tempted by sin.) Clearly, and despite how much most people would prefer it to be otherwise, the morality play theory has won, although the finale was careful to underplay the “Christian” part of that equation. (Don’t believe me? Look more closely at the iconography going on inside that church.) The sci-fi tone and mysterious, experimental bric-a-brac were exactly what everyone had been hoping they were not – they were all Maguffins, built to let us watch characters cope with obstacles rather than figure out how the obstacles work. During the last half-hour, it was hard not to think back to the first few seasons, when fans kept suggesting that the Island was heaven, or hell, or purgatory. Cuse and Lindelof denied the truth of those theories, and although the instinct is to shout, “Not fair! We were right all along!” it’s not really true. The Island wasn’t a metaphor for purgatory or hell, it was just a metaphor for the far more mundane and perplexing metaphysical experience of life, and it wasn’t until the end that those impulses toward reading the show’s plot existentially gained fictional traction.
A few months ago, I stumbled on an article written by David Foster Wallace about David Lynch, in which he includes a fascinating bit on the mystery structure of Twin Peaks. “Like most storytellers who use mystery as a structural device and not a thematic device,” he says, “Lynch is way better at deepening and complicating mysteries than he is at wrapping them up.” This seems absolutely right, and is clearly a problem for many works that employ a mystery structure. But there’s another question underlying this statement: “What would a show look like if it used mystery as a thematic rather than structural device?” And the only answer I could find is that it would look a lot like Lost. The show is really only interested in the thematics of mystery – suspense, ambiguity, red herrings, a mismatch between the scale of an object (a button) and the scale of the questions it poses (are we just subjects in a giant human experiment?). The plot threads and tiny clues are only useful in two contexts, both of which make it so that they have relatively little impact on the final conclusions. They are useful as half-readable, perplexing, compelling, unsolvable puzzles, perpetually extending the audience’s sense of mysterious confusion. And from that perspective, they are also half-readable, perplexing, unsolvable puzzles that provide the week-to-week hook of a series television show. Walt, the numbers, the fertility problem, the donkey wheel, shots at the outrigger, Faraday’s theory of the constant: these things are a flood of embellishments meant to improve upon on the central experience of not knowing. No wonder this show has engendered so much anger.
While I think “morality play” has a lot to recommend itself as a name for the genre Lost has been exploring, I think there’s an even better one. The medieval morality play has its roots in an older, more biblically focused genre of theater: the mystery play. In the original context, “mystery” means something like “miracle,” and it’s meant to apply to all the impossible, astounding feats of God’s power that take place in the Bible stories these plays retold. This definition of mystery brings it closer to the place Lost has been occupying for the past several years – a mystery that is inherently supernatural, inexplicable, and ultimately unimportant except for the way it impacts our characters. Lost is the mystery play of the twenty-first century.
Yes, this is an extremely generous reading of what Lost has been doing for the last six years. I don’t mean to overwrite the show’s undoubted failings. For instance, a show focused on characters should make more consistent and meaningful use of those characters. A mystery play should probably be more apparently a mystery play from the get-go, or at least from around season two. Wasn’t it comforting to see all of those heterosexual couples cozying up to each other in the last scenes? How about the mind-numbingly predictable dialogue? But it’s so easy to denigrate this show, and much harder to try to take it at its word.
Last night, after running to Safeway in desperate search of post-road trip food, I overheard a guy complaining about the Lost finale on his cell phone. “What about that dude Faraday’s mother?” he asked. I don’t know, man. I really don’t. But it’s pretty awesome that you’re still wondering.