Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lost Speculations and Observations: It Only Ends Once, Part One

As a television producer, it is virtually impossible to make a final episode of your series that appeals to all of your fans. Some finales, like Seinfeld's, are largely disliked by the fan base, mostly because the show was so immensely liked over its nine-year run that it would have been impossible to give the show what its fans deemed a "proper" sendoff. Some, like The Sopranos', are polarizing and divisive. Others, like Fawlty Towers' and Black Books' (the trend seems to be prevalent in Britcoms), end with a mildly climactic episode that is good and serves as a fine season finale but lacks the resonance and heft that fans might prefer from the series finale.

Ken Jennings argues that the Lost finale is the third sort--he says it wraps up this season's arc involving Jacob and the Man in Black, and the flash-sideways, in a "pretty competent fashion". But, he's not convinced that it addresses important points from the entirety of the show. At least he's not the sort of fan who's disappointed that the release of the polar bear into the jungle and the construction of the four-toed statue don't show up on screen. But plenty of fans apparently did want that. That's why I think this finale will go down in history as the second sort, one that a large fraction of the fan base detests for one reason or another (with some even saying, ridiculously enough, that it "retroactively ruined the series"), and an opposing and equally large fraction adores and thinks it's the perfect finale to the series.

Why would some people dislike the finale? I don't think it's because of the resolution of the on-Island plot. Sure, it's nothing that we haven't seen before or couldn't see coming: Desmond uses his unique immunity to electromagnetic energy to do something special; Ben flops allegiances about a dozen times before he finally settles down on the side of "decent dude after all"; Jack has his fight scene with the Man in Black then makes a heroic sacrifice to save the Island. In fact, the final image of the series, Jack's eye closing as he lay in the bamboo field with Vincent, was so predictable and so symmetric with the beginning of the series that I don't know why I didn't think of it. But here's the thing: none of this predictability was bad. In fact, most of it was fitting and enjoyable.

Even so, I won't claim to have predicted everything that happened on the Island in the finale. Frank Lapidus back in action was a huge surprise, and definitely a pleasant one. Another surprise that I probably should have seen coming was the volcano finally making its appearance. We've known that there was a volcano on the Island ever since Olivia Goodspeed taught it to Ben's class back in "The Man Behind the Curtain". It looks like in addition to the metaphorical cork holding the Man in Black on the Island, there's a literal cork that keeps the volcano at bay. And I really didn't see Jack's tenure as protector of the Island ending so early, nor did I ever predict Hurley succeeding him.

Before moving on from the Island plot, I'd like to speculate on the Source a bit. As Desmond treks through the Source, we see several skeletons. Obviously people have been down here before--and not just the Man in Black, because his body is accounted for. I think this lends credence to "mother" and others having been the smoke monster before the Man in Black was. And I think if Desmond weren't uniquely resistant to electromagnetism, he would have become Smokey as well when he made his way to Shiny Golden Light Pool. Instead, he withstood the intense energy long enough to "decork" the Island.

It's important to note that neither Jack (Jacob's successor by this point) nor the Man in Black was correct about what would happen when Desmond reached the Source. This lends further credence to their equivalence--and it turns out that it was essential for Jack to interact with both of them to fulfill his ultimate destiny. No, the Man in Black is not a good man. Yes, he did some terrible things, and yes, he was the season's (and in some ways the entire series') primary antagonist.

But that doesn't make him the "embodiment of evil" like Jacob's man Dogen suggests--nor does it make Jacob anything close to "good". My final take on Jacob is much the same as it's always been. He's not special or mystical--just an average guy who became superhuman through the power of the Source and used his new-found immortality to conduct millennia of philosophical and psychological experiments to grasp at some truth about human nature.

In that case, did the Island and the Source actually need protection? Maybe. The Source does confer some unique powers and abilities--immortality, polymorphing, healing, and clairvoyance, to name a few--and in the wrong hands, that could be disastrous. Call me crazy, but I still don't know that the Man in Black's are the worst hands they could have been in. I legitimately believe that all the Man in Black was ever trying to do was make it off the Island--a goal that he'd had two thousand years to become obsessed with.

And it's fantastic that even with the body of the show over, and with as much predictability and finality as the Island plot line had, we can still have that debate. It's like I said at the beginning of the season--both the "Jacob is the good guy" and the "neither Jacob nor the Man in Black is really that good" sides have more ammunition for our arguments, but neither is really more compelling. That's yet another reason that I have to think most fans of the show were satisfied with the outcome of the Island story.

If not the Island plot, then, why would fans be disappointed? One reason would be that "not enough mysteries were answered." I agree--there were some big questions that were left unanswered. I disagree that many of them mattered. One of the other posts I'll make in the finale suite of posts will be about those mysteries--which of them were answered, but people don't seem to think so; which of them were left unanswered but don't actually matter; and which of them were legitimately important but unresolved.

Another reason might be that the finale wasn't "mythological" enough for some people. But like Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse have said over and over again, Lost is not really about the mythology. It's about the characters, and while the mythology is certainly intriguing, its function is as a vehicle to develop the characters and a motivation for us wanting to watch the characters and their interaction. Some fans have never understood that, so they balk when the last episode of a show about characters is about... the characters.

The more important reason that people would be disappointed is the resolution of the flash-sideways timeline and its impact on the entirety of season 6. First of all, let's make sure we're all on the same page: yes, the Island is real. Yes, everything that we saw over the past six seasons actually happened. No, the Island was not purgatory the whole time. No, everyone did not die in the crash. The "epilogue" scene that played over the end credits and showed the wreckage of Oceanic 815 alone on the beach was meant as reflection: we've come a long way from the pilot episode, and the crash of that plane had indelible impacts on both the plane and the Island... and everyone dies.

By the same token, the flash-sideways also matters and is very much real. When they had their chat in the Universalist Back Room of the church, Christian tells Jack that he sure hopes he's real, even though he was dead. The "afterlife" we see in the flash-sideways is not a series of throwaway scenes or a superfluous epilogue; it is actually the denouement of the entire story and the graceful resolution of the arcs of virtually every main character. In that way, the flash-sideways and the Island timelines were both necessary to define each other and give them both meaning: the Island without the flash-sideways is unfulfilling, and the flash-sideways without the Island just doesn't happen at all.

What, then, was the flash-sideways? "The afterlife" seems too simplistic; Christian's suggestion of "the place you all made to be with each other" is just a bit trite. My answer is that it's Jack's reward for having done what he was "meant" to do. It's like the "good ending" of a video game: had Jack pursued his destiny less thoroughly, or had he given up on the Island and just remained in Los Angeles after he was rescued, his afterlife would have been less positive.

That raises one last question: what is it that was Jack meant to do? Conventional wisdom might suggest that he was meant to defeat the Man in Black and save the Island from destruction. However, I'm going to take the existential route and argue that Jack was meant to come to the Island and discover some sense of purpose for his life. It's not an answer that appeals to the sci-fi/mystery elements of the story and the fan base, but it is a deeply fulfilling answer to the philosophical side of things. If everything until "The End" was "just progress", then Jack's time on the Island wasn't about what happened at the very end or his role in resolving the Jacob/Man in Black conflict. It was about the personal transformation he made in getting there, becoming a man of faith, being an agent for love, learning to believe in his friends.

When Jack finally gets there, we see the most emotional scene in Jack's entire story: his reconciliation with his father Christian. Probably the central theme of Jack's entire arc was him seeking acceptance, especially from his father. By fulfilling his destiny of finding a purpose in his life, Jack finally does something worthy of his father's acceptance, and Christian finally accepts something that Jack has done. That, and not necessarily saving the Island from its destruction, is what lets Jack "move on".

Jack's is not the only character arc that wraps up nicely in the flash-sideways. Cameos from just about every main character and a good many of the supporting characters from the rest of the story helped the core cast of characters each reach a reasonable and satisfying end. It was a real shame not to see Mr. Eko again, and I might have liked to see Frank and possibly Richard in the flash-sideways, but seeing Boone again and finally letting Francois Chau get some credit for his iconic portrayal of Dr. Chang almost make up for it.

The only character whose story retains a little shred of ambiguity is Ben's, fittingly enough. But it's not his usual good guy/bad guy moral ambiguity--the big push in "Dr. Linus" nudged him forever in the direction of decency. Instead, Ben's decision not to enter the church was him realizing that there's some responsibility that comes along with this whole "good" thing, and that he has some amends to make before he can "move on" as well.

It wasn't just Ben's story. The finale as a whole was a little ambiguous, and it required a lot of processing even for the most dedicated fans. But I wouldn't have had it any other way. For a show as deeply complex and multifaceted as Lost, the only fitting ending is one that doesn't just allow some contemplation even after the show ends, but practically requires it. An ending that tightly sealed the canon, allowing only one interpretation, would be deeply unfulfilling. As it stands, a final episode that stands up to as much discussion as the fans can throw at it is the greatest lasting tribute to the show's brilliance.

Finally, I have a few one-off observations, mostly humorous, about the finale:
  • I would totally watch the Detectives James Ford and Miles Straume spinoff starring Josh Holloway and Ken Leung. Turns out they're pretty excellent together--Miles as a straight man sounds odd at first, but we've seen that it works unexpectedly well.
  • The internet seems to be more in favor of a "Hurley and Ben as the new Jacob and Richard" spinoff. I don't know that I need any more canonical Lost (which is why I like the idea of the cop show better), but Hurley's presence in the church at the end does suggest that he either didn't accept the immortality part of the Jacob package, or that he relinquished his protectorship of the Island at some point.
  • For at least several years now, the producers have promised that Vincent wouldn't die--and he was the only character they were willing to say would live through the end of the series. Guess who didn't show up in the church? Hmm...
  • Absolutely loved the Target commercials that aired during the finale. In case you missed them, they were a shot of the smoke monster followed by an advertisement for a smoke detector, a shot of the Swan station computer followed by an advertisement for a keyboard, and a shot of the boar running through the jungle followed by an advertisement for barbecue sauce.

Next up: a retrospective on the series' many mysteries, taking about which (if any) of my theories were any good, and going through some of the most satisfying answers and biggest omissions.

Currently listening: "Into the Dark", the Juliana Theory

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