Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Problem with the L O S T finale

Here's the problem with the last 30 minutes (and by extension the entire 6th season):

L O S T as a whole appealed to 3 audiences: those who like mystery/fantasy/science fiction, those who like interpersonal, nightime soap drama (e.g. "Grey's Anatomy"), and those who were intrigued by the melding of these two genres. But because the ending was pretty much solely written to satisfy the interpersonal drama fans, the other two groups were left out in the cold and it is these two groups that have been cheated.

A huge section of the L O S T audience followed the show for the mystery/SF elements. Most fan blogs were awash in debates about the nature of the Smoke Monster and how it came to be, what was the "Lamp Post", what was Dharma up to, what was Widmore's plan, what were the numbers, and, in season six, what was Desmond's plan (i.e. was he going to somehow reconnect the two realities?) The soap opera fans must admit that the L O S T blogs were not ultra concerned about the melodramatic flash forward/backward stories of the characters. For the most part, the interactions and backstories of the characters were self-explanatory (and compelling) but no more so than any other quality drama on television. No, what caught everyone's fancy was the crazy world of The Island and the conflicts over its mysterious power. The flashbacks and forwards added life to the characters but that was just frosting on the cake. The main event was the intrigue and suspense of the happenings swirling around The Island.

So, here comes the last 30 minutes of the series and we find out that the show was really more St. Elsewhere than Twilight Zone. Those wanting a pay-off for the many questions presented, were told to take a hike. The show was about people not about mystery or science after all.

So to those who say it was a great ending and the rest of us mystery/SF fans should get over it, to you I say gain some understanding. This was obviously a serialized science fiction drama from the get go, what with the killing of the pilot of 815 by the Smoke Monster right off the bat. But gradually (and then at the end, frenetically) the narrative moved deep into the realm of the soap, leaving all hope of a mystery/SF payoff out of reach. Interestingly enough, this makes the ending of Battlestar Galactica more satisfying to me because at least writer, Ron Moore, had the honesty to try to answer the big questions of the series, even if in a highly rushed and contrived manner.

For 5 seasons, L O S T was about The Island, its mysteries and the conflicts between the visitors to the island. Without The Island the series would have just been another well produced, but pedestrian show about screwed up people. In those five seasons we did see people grow, learn, and solve (some) mysterious issues but that is why it was good drama, not why it was a good mystery.

The LOSTies were surogates for the viewer. Most of us can identify with some aspects of the various foibles of The characters but even more than that, we wanted the characters to figure out what was up with The Island and then come out the other end being both emotionally AND intellectually wiser. Ironically, several characters didn't leave The Island any more emotionally mature than when they arrived (think Boone and Shannon). Furthermore, we should remember that, aside from Jack, Ben, Desmond, and Hurley, no one else left The Island really intellectually perceiving much more than when they arrived. And really, for all we know, even these guys were in the dark until they died.

The writers lie.

1. In season 6 a wholly new storyline was dropped on the viewership, a story that began with a blatent lie, that being that The Island was at the bottom of the ocean (presumably put there as a result of "The Incident"). But at the end of the series we learn that The Island NEVER DID SINK! It is still there (we assume), just like it always has been only now with Hurley and Ben watching over it. Narratively, there is no valid rationale for the writers to show The Island at the bottom of the ocean since, in the way-station purgatory reality, there is no Island AT ALL, (at least not one that our LOSTies would have collectively created as part of their purgatory/shared-consciousness-thing). It is clear now, that the scene of the sunken Island was actually a ruse by the writers to lead the viewer to think that this was an alternate timeline and that whatever Jack and Juliet did at the end of season 5 "worked". Season 6 ostensibly opens with how it worked as we fly out the window of 815, down through the clouds and then to the sea floor where The Island now sits. We're clearly led to believe that the incident caused The Island to sink and time/space was somehow "shattered" by this incident. Even on ABC's L O S T web site we see official network verbiage saying:
"A flash sideways is not a flashback, flash-forward or an alternate timeline. It posits what would have happened if Oceanic flight 815 didn't crash on the island but instead landed in Los Angeles."

So this is a "what if" scenario that ABC carefully avoids calling "alternate"? Surely , it MUST be an alternate timeline rather than just a "what if Oceanic 815 didn't crash" scenario since the first episode of the 6th season shows The Island at the bottom of the ocean rather than at sea level where it should have been had 815 simply flown over the island rather than crashing on it.

2. So did Jack's nuke plan "work"? According to Miles, apparently it did but according to the last 15 minutes of the series, it didn't. So was Miles wrong? He supposedly gets the last vibe of dead people he runs across and in this case, Miles tells us that Juliet says "it worked". Apologists now lead us to believe that Juliet's words refer to the vending machine and not to the use of the bomb. So, let me get this straight; Juliet's last thoughts of her life were about a vending machine in PURGATORY??!! A vending machine that our LOSTies collectively "created" in their way-station reality? What might be so important about this vending machine that Juliet's thoughts about it from the Other Side would leave such a strong impression with Miles? So the writers ended season 5 with a clue for us to follow that leads to a candy bar dropping out of a machine in purgatory?


The writers NEVER led us to believe anything other than Miles was able to glean actual real facts from the last moments of the life of the dead person in question. He wasn't reading their after-life experiences about candy bars in purgatory.

3. Desmond flashes between one reality and the other and this leads him on the quest to "awaken" his friends in purgatory.


We know that Desmond didn't die in the electromagnetic field so what is he doing experiencing the afterlife with his fellow LOSTies BEFORE he actually dies? Furthermore, not only does he experience the purgatory reality while he is still alive but that experience gives him a sense of peace that he should follow Widmore's direction (and we do ultimately learn that Widmore was visited by Jacob in order to vanquish the MIB). But now we know that Desmond COULDN'T have visited this other reality since that reality doesn't exist except as some existential way-station created by dead people. AND HE'S NOT EVEN DEAD YET!

So what do these three points tell us? I think it tells us that the writers, for all their advanced warning that they had only 6 seasons to tell the story, didn't have a way to finish the story. They THOUGHT they did and they put clues into the last moments of season 5 and the early part of season 6 about there being some kind of fracture in time and space but then, for some reason, abandoned that notion and decided that the characters were all dead, that there was no alternate timeline, and that whatever Juliet was talking about as far as "it worked" didn't happen and The Island never sank.


The last season would have, in retrospect, been better if the writers had not lied to the viewer by including things in the way-station story line that would otherwise make sense if it were an alternate timeline but make ZERO sense if it is purgatory. I doubt I will go back and review season 6 knowing what I know now (that that the flash-sideways was a lie), but others will probably find that there were dozens of plot holes created once the writers decided that the flash-sideways was not an alternate timeline but rather a nonsensical "they're all dead" communal illusion. Shared hallucination or "it was all a dream" narratives are interesting if they last a few minutes of a show but for a whole season? Pointless, and in this case, deceptive. They strung us along but in the end, had no way of giving us a narrative payoff. Ending with "they're all dead" plus lots of unanswered questions, is a cop out. Yes, I know it is hard to tie up loose ends in a mystery but then, these are professional writers and they were the ones who CREATED those loose ends in the first place! Watch any high quality mystery and you will often see dozens and dozens of clues dropped and then addressed in just a 50 minute show (c.f. any Granada Television Sherlock Holmes mystery). Don't pose a conundrum in a show like L O S T if you don't plan to address it, if only obliquely. Any hack can write a mystery if he doesn't have to resolve the mystery. It's like telling someone you have come up with the funniest joke ever and then never tell the whole joke. Instead you stop short and just say "at this point imagine a really hilarious punchline". Sorry that's not good writing.

This is the ultimate problem with endings like this. We are already being asked to suspend our disbelief to follow a story that is obviously fictional. To learn at the end that not only was the story fictional but the writers are intent on TELLING us it is fictional, breaks the 4th wall. This is why stories like Man of La Mancha are only watchable once, at least for the plot, because once you find out that the main character is telling a fable (a play within a play), we no longer can suspend our disbelief on the second viewing.

Such is the case for me with L O S T. The alternate storyline of season six will now have zero impact with me because I know that it never happened within the construct of the primary narrative. Viewers or readers of fiction have to be able to identify the story as POSSIBLY having happened at some point or in some place. But if the story itself TELLS you it never happened then what's the point of suspending disbelief?

So ultimately, my problem with the series is not that there were questions left unanswered or that the writers spent time on unimportant points leaving important ones forgotten, but rather, that a whole season was wasted in a dreamland Los Angles following events that mean nothing to the larger narrative. That is a tease with no pay-off and for that, I loath the ending.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dan, Well this is a well-thought out analysis, but I have to disagree with you. The sideways purgatory was real, a communal spiritual meeting place, that our losties did experience (their spirits/souls were there.) It wasn't a dream. It allowed them a place to meet each other after they had all physically died (so, when Des was in Sideways, he had already died on earth). Now they are ready to move on to what's next. And, if you are a spiritual person, that "next" is also real. Just not physical.

5/29/10, 7:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Real or not, Anonymous missed the entire point of the post. Must be a people person.

6/1/10, 5:52 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Narratively, the "sideways" was in no way "real". It was a "created reality". From the perspective of the viewer, nothing that happened in the "sideways" had ANY bearing on the story that was being told in the first 5 seasons. So, for purposes of explaining what happened, the "sideways" reality might as well be a dream. This is purely semantics. Call it what you will; "shared hallucination", "shared purgatory", "all in Jack's/Vincent's mind", whatever.

The proof will be in the rewatching. Now that everyone knows that the "sideways" was not an actual storyline, it will just be fodder for viewers to question why X or Y happened given that it was all an afterlife.

Of course, it does explain how Desmond could run John down and not kill him. HE WAS ALREADY DEAD!

6/1/10, 4:17 PM  
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