As Raj mentioned in his post yesterday, we’ve decided to abandon the round table format and give our individual takes on the season finale of Lost. I’d like to begin by noting that I haven’t read any responses, criticism or summaries of the show this week, since I wanted to get my own thoughts in order before jumping into the backlash/lovefest/stony silence/whathaveyou currently flooding the Internets; so please bear with me if I’m out of the loop of conventional wisdom, but here are my thoughts:
Last week, in the course of our usual post-Lost discussion, we included a link to a letter written by George Lucas and addressed to Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, in which Lucas wrote:
Congratulations on pulling off an amazing show. Don’t tell anyone but when Star Wars first came out, I didn’t know where it was going either. The trick is to pretend you’ve planned the whole thing out in advance. Throw in some father issues and references to other stories—let’s call them homages—and you’ve got a series.
To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure if Lucas was joking or not (let’s face it—after the prequels, what can you trust anymore?), but after watching Sunday night’s series finale, I’ve been finding it difficult to think about the end of Lost without considering his formula. I’m starting to think George Lucas actually nailed the essence of Lost, or at the very least cannily predicted the way it would play out.
Whether you loved the finale or lamented it, whether you embraced the end as emotionally satisfying or considered it an intellectual cop-out, whether you were seduced by the show’s quasi-heavenly warm glowing warming glow or brazenly choose to reject its reality and substitute your own, I’d like to take a step back and examine the final hours of the series in terms of The Lucas Formula detailed above. In doing so, I think that the greatest success of Lost can perhaps be seen in terms of being a show about how stories work, about the elements of storytelling and the interplay of myths both ancient and modern.
Lost has always been an intriguing mix of fancy-pants postmodern slippage and utterly conventional network television drama (and more-than-occasional melodrama), but the finale took things to another level, crammed as it was with references to books, movies, television, religion, pop culture, etc, etc, etc. These elements have always played a major part in the show, but for the final two and a half hours, the action and dialogue seemed to swing from homage to homage, allusion to allusion—all in the interest of a kind of wish-fulfillment on a mass scale, as it the writers were purposefully cobbling together an ending out of fragments of a myriad of other, older, already familiar narratives.
For example, take the very first scene on the Island: Sawyer greets Jack-as-the-New-Jacob with an Old Testament-inspired crack about a mountaintop and a burning bush. The Biblical reference is then followed by not one but two references to the original Star Wars trilogy before the first commercial break, including Hurley’s final word on Jacob: “He’s worse than Yoda.” Moses to Yoda in about ten seconds: fun, but nothing out of the ordinary for Lost until it became clear that this scene set a precedent for the rest of the finale, as the seemingly random references kept piling up. Within minutes, Sawyer managed to bring up a “magic leprechaun” as well as Bigfoot, and then quoted Patrick McGoohan’s signature line in The Prisoner (a show which not only focused on a nameless man’s attempts to escape from a sinister island, but also constantly undermined the protagonist’s perception of reality).
After a point, it seemed that the writers were undercutting their own efforts at establishing a coherent mythos in a self-deprecating manner by drawing heavily upon fictional, or at least highly ambiguous, even laughable clichés—the greatest hits of paranoid fantasy, as it were then things got complicated. On the Island, the high drama and obvious pop cultural allusions kept piling up, with scenes cribbed directly from Casablanca (allowing Jack to play Bogey to Kate’s Ingrid Bergman: “You have to get on that plane.”) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (pairing Kate and Sawyer, Lost‘s feistiest, most adorable outlaws, virtually reenacting the famous cliff-jumping scene), and whatever the hell was happening when Jack flying-punched Smocke to kick off a crazy epic cliff fight (a zillion great kung-fu and action movies could apply here…but I’d go with Star Trek. That punch was seriously awesome).
Clearly, though, between all the slightly-less-gratuitous (but still potent) homages to Lost Horizon, the Indiana Jones series (and possibly even The Goonies), as well as the buddy comedy routine played out entertainingly by Miles, Richard “Ricky-boy” Alpert and ol’ Chesty Lapidus, the action on the Island was basically a collection of familiar echoes cherry-picked directly from the classic Hollywood playbook. On the other hand, Earth-2 is not so much clichéd as surreal and unbelievable, in a completely literal sense
Earth-2 breaks down into caricatures: medical melodrama, cop show, rock and roll fantasy, family drama, soap opera. Jack and Juliet are like something out of an Aaron Spelling series, complete with a teenager whose existential angst can be wrapped up, neutralized and hugged away in a single episode (try finding that scenario in real life. You’d be better off hunting Bigfoot, or a magic leprechaun). Locke and Ben are starring in the LA road show version of Boston Public (admittedly, I never watched BP, but my mom did. Don’t push me, or so help me I’ll go with DeGrassi. Let’s not go there, guys. Please? Thanks).
Moving on: Miles and Sawyer are playing at being the hot version of Nash Bridges. Whenever Jack and John are together, we’ve got some sort of St. Elsewhere/ER/Douglas Sirk hyper-blend happening and then there’s Charlie, the self-destructive rough trade hobbit that Tolkien never wanted you to meet, lurking about in the dark alleys of the Shire. He thinks he’s Jim Morrison, with a twist of Sid Vicious; we know he’s just a lame Behind the Music episode waiting to happen. I could go on, but I think you probably get my drift by now…and if not, here it is:
Between the opening, slow-mo musical montage and all the suddenly-enlightened Earth-2 characters flashing back to the Island (thereby unleashing the cue-the-strings-and-grab-for-your-tissues material), the audience was able/forced to experience their favorite dramatic moments all over again: the great romances, the births, the sacrifices and martyrdoms. Had the actual jumping of a Dharma shark occurred at any point in the last six seasons, we certainly would have relived it in slow motion on Sunday. (Thankfully, it seems that Bai Ling was mercifully unavailable to ruin another episode, even in flashback form). Earth-2 was Lost‘s last, best opportunity to indulge in every television convention available to a long-running series—it was, in essence, a clip show. Listen, I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy it—I’m just calling it what it was.
I think the key to understanding Lost may ultimately rest in the show’s insistence on constantly questioning itself, and incessantly drawing attention to its intentional deviations from plausible reality. To be perfectly honest, there’s a good chance that I need to believe this—otherwise I’ve spent the last six years staring devoutly at an unholy mishmash of pop philosophy, Judeo-Christian belief and retro-hipster t-shirt fodder. For what it’s worth, though, I truly believe that moments like Kate’s scoffing at the name “Christian Shephard,” or Smocke commenting snarkily that Jack is “sort of the obvious choice” to be the new Jacob, or even Jack responding to Desmond’s surprise that he was actually right about the nature of the Island with a wry “first time for everything” serve a serious purpose.
I don’t know whether the writers of Lost had a plan all along, or how that plan came together. All I know is that the Christian Shephard, inhabitant of the wiliest corpse in the history of the undead, showed up at the very end of the series to dutifully fulfill George Lucas’s master plan: daddy issues and Judeo-Christian religion masquerading as non-denominational “spirituality.” (Nice try, Lost, but a hippie church filled with heavenly white light and mostly white people is still pretty white bread, no matter how many funky interfaith stained glassed windows you want to focus on for far too long).
Unlike Lucas’s films, however, Lost‘s insistence on a questioning, sarcastic, hyper-critical meta-consciousness belies the earnestness of such a straightforward approach to narrative. In this case, we are forced to ask, what does it mean that we open and close on Jack’s consciousness? What does it mean that the white, square-jawed, educated, upper-class hero is ultimately the focus of the series? That his daddy issues fuel even the the final revelation of the series? In a show filled with characters whose names represent many of the premier thinkers of the Enlightenment and its aftermath—philosophers, scholars, scientists, theologians, I wonder if the lack of a really strong female protagonist, and the much-noted lack of surviving minority characters on the show may actually be intended as a kind of criticism of the typical white alpha-male’s ruling consciousness in a historical sense?
Admittedly, that may be reading far too much into it, but the essence of what I took away from Lost is rooted in the same lesson that I’ve gleaned from so many of my favorite novels, films, TV series, comics, and other works of art: that storytelling is a way of imposing order on chaos, and without such stories we are adrift, without meaning: lost. Lost has always had a habit of answering a question with another question (a scenario we were able to revisit one last time in the climactic “How are you here?” exchange between Jack and Christian), but in the end, the show’s relentlessly provocative hyper-allusiveness poses its own questions: why do we rely on these stories—why do we need them? What do we want from them? Do we really desire answers to unanswerable questions, as so many people insist, or is it the promise of intriguing ambiguities that draws people? Whatever your opinion of the way Lost ended, I think that it’s important to appreciate how the story was told as much as what happened in the narrative itself; ultimately, its meaning is inextricable from its form, which is a rare and wonderful thing in a television series. It will be missed.
Bridget McGovern is a lit nerd, a film geek, and a complete pop culture junkie. At some point on Sunday night, she giddily compared the experience of watching the Lost finale to the way Scrooge McDuck must feel when he swims through his money pit. Good times.