Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My two cents on Lost

Whatever else the series finale of Lost accomplished, one thing is certain: no other television finale has ever excited so much delight, confusion, anger, annoyance, rapture, and of course argument and discussion (and as I write this, it is still only thirty-six hours since Jack's eye closed on Sunday night). For this reason it stands as a landmark television event. I can think of few television series that have excited such an intense emotional response. I remember when M*A*S*H ended (I was eleven, and my parents allowed me to stay up to watch the finale), there was an editorial cartoon in which a neighbourhood of houses collectively wailed "W*H*A*A*A*H!!" The days leading up to last Sunday evening featured a similar chorus of lamentation on Facebook and in the blogosphere as people girded themselves for the end.

Just as an aside, I've been trying to compile a list of the best series finales. Know what? There aren't many good ones. It would appear to be a difficult sub-genre to get right, especially for series that have been well-loved and that actually have the opportunity to wrap things up with a bow—as opposed to those which end abruptly, get cancelled, or just sort of spin down in their twilight days, having run for several seasons past their best-before date. The West Wing, which I'd had such hopes for, was limpid and disappointing—basically it was President Bartlett being harried by his secretary Debby to hurry up and leave the White House, when it could have done so much more. Seinfeld was just insipid, Buffy sort of meh, and I had long ceased caring with Friends. Angel at least went out with a bang. In the small category of good finales goes The Wire, whose closing montage pretty much wrecked me. I'm also one of the people who thinks that The Sopranos' controversial cut-to-black ending was brilliant.

But the hands-down winner, no question, is Six Feet Under. The final season of this show made up for some missteps and directionless story-arcs to absolutely eviscerate viewers with a season-long narrative that at times bordered on the nihilistic. But in the last few episodes it did something incredibly rare: it redeemed its characters and came to a hopeful end without being trite or saccharine or disingenuous. And the final sequence never fails to make me tear up. It lacks much of the emotional punch if you don't know the characters, but it is still a lovely bit of storytelling:

But, back to Lost. My considered opinion at this point is as follows: the way they ended the show, I think, definitively gives the lie to Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse's claim to have known how they were going to end it all along. Now, to be fair, I've cried bullshit on that claim before—I think it was plain pretty much from the beginning that much of the show was being made up as they went along. I'm not saying there wasn't an over-arching thematic shape to the show—the whole black/white, good/evil, self/other binary is pretty much embedded in the show's DNA—but I don't think that really coalesced into the Jacob vs. Man in Black mythology until much later in the series than the writers would have us believe.

My main reason for saying this is that Lost ultimately provided a collection of red herrings that seemed so incredibly significant for much of the series, only to be left by the wayside once Jacob's role as gatekeeper and his selection of Jack et al as "candidates" came into focus. Such elements as the persistent ancient Egyptian references become, in hindsight, more or less incidental to the story. Don't get me wrong—I don't want every last thing to be explained, and I am actually on board with stories and narratives that leave much to the imagination. My problem is not that such elements are not accounted for so much as that, in the end, they seem to have nothing to do with where the story ultimately goes. Lost has become equally notorious for dropping sly allusions and references and for the fans to discuss their significance endlessly—that has been, for many people, one of the central pleasures of the series. To a certain extent, Lindelof and Cuse kind of gave themselves an impossible task—there was no way everything was ever going to be accounted for, but in the end I find myself less impressed with the show's self-conscious intertextuality as I come to suspect that much of it was done simply to be clever and mysterious, as opposed to playing a significant narrative or thematic function.

All that being said, I must confess I loved the final episode. I completely understand many viewers' ire, and indeed agree with much of it. But what the final episode struck me as being, more than anything else, was a love letter to the show's characters and the fans who have followed them for six years. Like all great television, it was the characters that made the show, and the finale was an incredibly over-the-top but deeply gratifying exercise in emphasizing the web of connections between people through the simple expedient of having them remember. Each flash of memory, and the characters' recognition of that memory, played directly on the heartstrings of the viewers. (The Juliet/Sawyer moment of recognition seems to be the favourite, but mine was Sun and Jin in the hospital).

If I were to be uncharitable, I would call this a cop-out on Lindelof and Cuse's part, fudging the show's complexity to give us instead a gratuitous love-in at the end with Christian Shephard (finally someone calls that name out for its heavy-handedness) playing the symbolic role of redeemed patriarch for a cast of characters plagued by daddy issues for six years. And yes, I did find the final fifteen minutes in the church a little hard to stomach, but that was nicely balanced by Jack's last moments on the island, collapsing in the bamboo patch where it all started, with Vincent the dog stretched sympathetically out beside him, seeing the airplane with the others escaping.

It was no Six Feet Under ... but it will serve.


Lesley said...

Immediately after the show ended I was mad. It was like "this is it?" and then I started to question. Thank goodness for Kimmel, he kind of explained it. But really, you're absolutely right that it was about the characters. Love them or hate them, their stories were what made this show. Jin/Sun for me brought tears but by far, the greatest one that I loved was the Charlie/Claire moment. Especially since Charlie was the one in the sideways reality who told Desmond about the reason for living and love. To see his face when he saw Claire was just brilliant. And of course Sayid/Shannon. (Although, the Boone/Hurley moment will live in infamy for me!)

Really, this show was about the actors who played the roles. I am sure it would make me sound stupid to say that they put forward the best effort of any actors I've seen on television but for me, the finale was about them. When Matthew Fox came out teary on Kimmel it made me feel like I hadn't wasted six years on this show.

Just brilliant. I loved it and will probably watch it again this week for the elements I seemed to have missed but others picked up on.

Question Mark said...

I can totally believe that Lindelof/Cuse had the ending planned out for years....just as long as you literally interpret 'the ending' as just the scene of Jack lying down in the bamboo field next to Vincent and his eye closing. The sideways-universe purgatory thing, I'm not so sure.

Joanne said...

Yes, they finally called out "Christian Shepherd" but did they ever acknowledge "Desmond David Hume" and "John Locke"?

Fred said...

I believe they had some idea of Jack closing his eye, some idea of showing the crisis in the cave, but had Lindelhof and Cuse really known where they were ultimately going they would have filmed this sequence in the church in the first season (then they could have included Walt and Michael, who now where excluded due to the actor having grown significantly, and contracting problems). So they kinds knew where they were going, much as if I designed my house on the back of a napkin--what I get in the end is pretty much what I want, but the details are different, and I might have added a solarium in the meantime.

Unlike novels, television has two distinct frames. I joke with my wife when she asks why a show is going in a certain way, by saying it allows the show runners to provide great acting parts for certain actors. From an actor's point of view, the written part is a moment to excell in their craft. From the audience's point of view, the actor is the character (it's not just a job from where we sit). So in the finale, we can see it from 2 distinct points of view:(1) the story of Jack et al. facing eternity with love in their lives; (2) the television version of a curtain call.