I’m not sure I can really be counted as a fan of the show Lost… I watched it somewhat obsessively into Season 3, and then during Seasons 4, 5, 6 waited till I could watch everything in one fell swoop or, um, gulp, perhaps. My ex and I used to watch it together, and when I last saw her, she asked me if I’d watched the finale of Season 6; that was when I realized I hadn’t even noticed it starting up again, and the show had finished, and maybe I’d like to check it out.
Yet whenever I watched a season, especially those last three, I watched it rabidly, unable to stop watching episode after episode. So that does say something, after six years, no doesn’t it? I think it says something, also, about the specific enchantments and disenchantments that the show visited upon me — which, regardless of the negatives, got me watching it right to the end, even though I kinda-sorta knew we’d get jerked around along the way and suspected that the ending wouldn’t really satisfy me.
But to speak further without a spoiler alert, of course, would be unkind. So: there are spoilers throughout the rest of this post.
You have been warned.
In an email to a friend, I wrote this about the series, somewhere in the point in time when I was watching the beginning of Season 4:
Short answer? It’s probably, in the long run, a waste of time to try talk about Lost in purely SFnal terms because it’s science-fantasy. There are elements in Season 3 which are non-SFnal (and there are a number of them)…
I went on to complain about the misleading admixture of SFnal and fantasy elements, with an analogy I think deserves reproduction here:
(Sort of like if Gollum had turned out to be an alien who was trying to get the One Ring to empower the takeover of the galaxy by the Priory of Sion. That’s huge exaggeration, but you see how making funny with the rules of the universe is just annoying.)
… and then I explained that basically I thought the show was a fantasy drama in SFnal camouflage, and listed off a bunch of elements that could not be explained without recourse to magic.
This is something that, in the afterglow of having finished the finale to Season 6 a few hours week or two ago, I feel vindicated in having said. Once you’ve seen Season 6 in its entirety, you know that it was never “about” Time Travel, or about Alternate Universes or Rebooting a Worldline or the Experiments of the Dharma Initiative, even though those things were all there. The Polar Bear? What polar bear?
Lost was never actually an SF TV program, though the authors threw in some SF tropes and winked and nudged at others. It was a fantasy, all the way. We might have thought it was a Bangsian fantasy — and, it turned out, one thread of the story was, but not the way we thought; we might have thought it was fantasy-in-the-mode-of-SF, but really, no.
It was about other stuff, fundamentally, and it was, incontrovertibly, fantasy.
This is, interestingly, pretty much what Adam Roberts recently had to say about the series, though he does it much more interestingly, and goes one step further than I did — he asked, if it was a fantasy, then what is it a fantasy about?
In a word? Bereavement.
When you go and check out his essay on the series, be sure to read the comments: his response to a rant by one Lost fan on details he got wrong is quite interesting, as is his wife’s observation (mentioned among the comments) that the show was as much about tragic (or non-tragic) maternity as it was about what Roberts argues — which is that was about the death of the father figure and his replacement. For my money, I think probably it’s a synthesis of the two perspectives that probably makes the most sense.
Lost is, then, a fable of the tragedies of parenthood, the tragedy of paternal and maternal mortality and sacrifice… but, I think, Roberts and his wife missed an important thread, and yep, I’m here to offer it up.
Lost is also a fable about love. This is important, because the analogy to soap-opera drama Roberts mentions is pivotal: in the last few hours of the series, essentially every character rediscovers his or her “past life” (that is, his or her mortal experience of the Island) in terms of romantic love — specifically, “true love.” Locke is one of the few characters who seems not to be in a couple at the end, and curiously, the woman he loved is nowhere to be seen in that scene at the Church. Was she not the love of his life?
The question is not an idle one.
Almost every other character has partnered up with someone: Hurley and Libby, Sayeed and Shannon, Jack and Kate, Sawyer and Juliette, Sun and Jin, and Bernard and Rose are in the church, and partnered up — Rose being the only black character to get to go to heaven in the whole bunch, apparently — and there’s something about the scenes where we see Bernard and Rose living in happy, self-imposed exile that seems to suggest that of all the characters, they’re the ones who’ve figured things out most clearly. For them, it’s not about the adventure, or saving this, or stopping that: it’s just about being together, all the way to the end.
Ben Linus, who is alone, refuses to go into the Church, as he is not ready to move on. (Well, and he was, as Roberts points out, one of the biggest mass murderers around. But also, his paternity is among the most spectacularly failed examples we see directly, and his bereavement, unlike most, is inverted: he mourns a child, not the parent he killed. Yet I suspect the biggest reason he doesn’t move on is because if he did, it would refute the logic of ending: that all you need to move on is love, and poor Ben Linus, having failed to transfer his love for the lost, abusive father he killed to an appopriate recipieant — presumably a woman — is left sitting at the gate to the Afterlife Proper, with “things to work out.” Yet somehow, after mass murder, he isn’t stuck as whispering ghost on the island, where Michael is for killing two just other characters.)
One wonders, though, if Linus’ real problem is that he doesn’t have a girlfriend. Sure, he’s hooking up with Rousseau in Purgatory, but I mean, other than the surrogate potential family in his constructed afterlife, made up of people he screwed over in his real life on the Island. Rather just about love, in fact, but about True Love.
It’s not about dating. It’s not about sex. No, no, it’s about True Love. Fathers die, mothers give birth, but what seems to matter most is True Love.
No, but wait, Shannon? How can it be the utterly annoying Shannon, and not Nadia, who goes into the great beyond at Sayee’s side? Shannon is the love of Sayeed’s life, and not Nadia? Nadia, whom the series suggested time and time again was really the love of his life? No, not Nadia.
Well, but this is a Prime-Time TV show, and Shannon’s role was bigger than Nadia’s. So there.
But did Locke’s love for, was her name Helen, not count as True Love? Why is that? Because it was off-island? Maybe… or perhaps one can assume Helen perhaps moved on, and thus met up with others on her way out. One can understand other characters also moving on in this way: Eko with Yemi, Ana Lucia with whoever mattered most to her before the crash, and so on. Walt. we can guess, grew up to fall in love with someone, and goes to heaven with her (or him).
The other character who problematizes this somewhat is Boone, who is in a sense present with the Love of His Life (Shannon) but she’s also his (adoptive, non?) sister so that’s icky and weird. But he died on the island — pretty early on — and was single then. So technically Boone is there with the woman he loved… but they’re seated far apart, at the same time, and he’s obviously single.
Boone’s one real crack in the facade. The love that counts is conventional romantic love. But, then… why doesn’t Juliet trigger Jack’s memories, since they were briefly involved? Why doesn’t Kate trigger Sawyer’s, since they were involved as well, and even through Season 6 it’s relatively unclear whether Kate really wants to be with Jack or Sawyer?
For that matter, what if Locke had, during his island experience, realized that he was not only a closet hunter, a closet wilderness scout, but also a closeted homosexual? What if he’d felt unrequited love for, say, Jack or Sawyer? I know, we’re into slash-fanfic territory here, but bear with me: my point is that this kind of love — because we cannot expect it to be depicted on prime-time American TV — probably would not even function as a possibility in the Lost universe… even though Jack is the one who triggers Locke’s memories (and even though Charlie helps trigger Desmond’s memories… significantly, in a reference to Penny). No, nearly all characters who can be bound into a heterosexual relationship are, at the end.
Of course, in a narrative that privileges and celebrates — indeed, exults in — the tragedy of mortal paternity, and the beautiful, even sacrificial, pain of maternity, one cannot expect non-reproductive sexuality to have any place. (And the few cases of reproduction we see are in what we must presume to be racially homogenous couples: I don’t remember seeing Aaron’s father but I’d bet he’s a white Australian.)
For all the exoticism, for all the magic and wonder, this is on the level of the basic pillars of its structure, a very conventionally middle-class love story stretched out across a big cast, through a kind of magical fantasy odyssey of ridiculous proportions. (See Roberts on how one can call it ridiculous and not necessarily mean it in a pejorative sense.)
I was explaining to a theist I know that, as far as I was concerned, the show had descended into full-on fantasy by Season 6 and I was only watching it for the character arcs… and that the ending, I thought, would appeal more to someone who believed in an afterlife than in someone who felt such stories are, well, fairytales. It’s not because fiction should never delve into what isn’t real in our world: au contraire, there are some Bangsian fantasies — tales set in the afterlife — which I have loved, such as the offbeat Dead Like Me, and for all its religious tenor I found Carnivale quite compelling, and Being Human is a show I love to pieces — the BBC version, anyway, I’ll clarify, as I’ve heard an American version is in the works.
But these particular shows are compelling because they’re unabashedly fantasy: the magical elements (including the afterlife) in each of these is something that the show makes no bones about. There’s no pretending to be SF, there’s no bait and switch. In Dead Like Me, the characters really are grim reapers; in Being Human, the central characters are not human; and so on.
In Lost, this magical afterlife alternate meeting place is a lovely fantasy, of course. If I could buy into any supernatural theory about what happens when we die, I’d buy into one where I could meet up with a group of people who I cared about most, who would go across into the light with me, regardless of the painful interpersonal struggles we underwent in life. (Well, though, of course, the same cosmology imprisoned Michael forever for far less than Linus did, and Linus seems like he would be free to move on, had he felt ready to do so. I’d be pretty careful espousing the cosmology before learning more about exactly how someone could end up screwed over in that way.)
Jacob says to Jack that all the characters who ended up on the island were as alone as he himself was; well, though I don’t know the minds of all viewers, but it seems to me that most viewers would be able to report this kind of feeling from their own experiences, too. That’s the kind of species we are, such that we literally perceive ourselves as different and special compared to other people: oh, we are all misunderstood, and oh, but nobody truly understands us the way we understand ourselves. In this sense, the group-gathering in the afterlife is supposed to be a kind of large surrogate family for the characters who, alone in the real world, found a way to live together instead of dying alone — an important mantra from the first few seasons.
But what mechanism determined who ended up in that group? This is the signal question, and of course it’s an easy one to answer when it comes to, say, the central characters, like Bernard and Rose. But what about Kate? Does she really have no love after Jack that is as significant to her? Does Hurley’s almost-date with Libby really count as true love? Why does the strange tension between Juliette and Jack not count? Sawyer and Kate did, in fact, get pretty involved a few seasons back, a fact to which a large number of fan videos on Youtube seems to attest: does that “not count,” and if so, why not? What if Juliette had died in Season 3, or had shacked up with Jack instead of Sawyer — then would the couple in the church be Sawyer and Kate, Jack and Juliette?
The logic of this “True Love” notion seems to work out to, “The romantic relationship that was stable, or most potentially stable, or most emotionally significant, at time of death.” Which of course raises the question of whether relationships that become unstable still count. That which transpired between Jack and Juliette doesn’t count, nor does what happened between Sawyer and Kate. When the plane flies overhead, a set of possibilities is cut off: had they realized that the island wasn’t about to sink, they could have waited for Jack. And then Jack and Kate could have returned to the States and tested Kate’s (and Jack’s) theory that nothing is irreversible. Raising Aaron, dealing with the vagaries of daily life, who’s to say they wouldn’t have eventually split up, with Kate marrying some, say, accountant with a great sense of humor and Jack going back to Thailand to look for that Thai woman from whatever season it was?
The truest of loves is, as we know from the tale that Juliette’s name comes, is the love that is never tested by grown-up life. True Love, in other words, is a narrative trope, just like “moving on” and just like one more trope (the most Shakespearean of all) I’ll get to in a moment.
But before I move on to that, I want to ask the reader to meditate for a moment longer on this notion of True Love. It will, I hope, look just as baffling or even appalling when applied to the real lives of viewers, or at least some of my readers. Lucky are the few who have not loved someone they could not be with — is that “True Love”? What about relationships that could not be worked out, that destabilized, not because of any lack of love, but because of other problems? People have a number of interesting beliefs about their own relationships, but I imagine that for many readers, for many viewers, if you were asked to make a list of the people who would appear in your ecumenical meeting place on the doorstep of whatever the afterlife offers, you would be at a loss to fill up that church.
The problem would, I think, not be so much about the inclusions — how easy it is to list off the people we are allowed to mention as those we want to see smilingly leading us off this mortal coil. No, the problem is with the question of exclusions, the negations inherent in saying that this or that person would not be in one’s Afterlife Ecumenical Church; how forceful, how… difficult.
A friend once told me of a story about a man she loved, and who loved her, but with whom she somehow could not make it work. Talking with friends, I know that’s not a rare story. It’s not about “The One That Got Away” so much as it is “The One That Was and Remains Important But We Couldn’t Work It Out.” Try telling your current husband that you suspect your ex-husband will be sitting in that Church, smiling at the both of you as you wait to get into Heaven.
For such a happy ending, for such a welcoming place, the shock, dismay, and disappointment that so many felt about Michael’s exclusion is really, I think, a kind of mirror-pool reflection of the anxiety and difficulty that most people would feel if asked to make the list for those who’d be invited to their church. Because, really? For most people, that church scene would likely be a little more transgressive, would involve some surprising exclusions. Sayeed might not even be able to see Boone; one wonders whether, if Ben Linus had come in, would Locke have hugged him too, all’s forgiven and so on?
And I’m not even sure puzzling out the logistics of this True-Love focused cosmology is worth the effort or time, really: as some have complained, the ending looks as much as a post-shooting cast party as it does a scene in the series proper. Well, and of course it does: this is what the form demands, an ensemble cast finale for an emsemble cast show, regardless of the fact that more than half the cast’s characters have died before the end of the series — and in far greater numbers than your average TV show. This is why Libby is with Hurley: for balance — Libby’s close enough to a Love-of-His-Life, one supposes, but really she’s there mostly because everyone love Hurley and most who truly loved Lost wanted Hurley to have a girlfriend, a happy ending. The nonsensicalness of Libby’s death, narrative-wise, could not be resolved but it could at least be emotionally tamped down by her finally shacking up with Hurley in heaven. (And significantly, like Kate, Libby’s importance seems to have been to give one of the guys someone to love and be loved by.) So I’m not sure working out an Aesthetics of Love from the way the story worked out is a worthwhile enterprise, given the theatrical pressures on the narrative conclusion.
But, nonetheless, it’s worth noting that in the image above, the scene looks as much like the gathering of people at a church to witness the exchanging of vows; in some sense, Lost seems to end with the Shakespearean comedic ending — a wedding. Actually, not just one wedding, but a mass wedding of a number of different couples. The True Love here is taken from something that happened spontaneously, as a matter of circumstances, to something that is publicly acknowledged, anointed publicly in the church and given a social meaning or reality. True Love, here, ends in marriage.
I could go on here, about how Christian Shephard is Prospero, and Locke is Caliban inverse — or is he Ariel? — but that all misses the point. Lost’s happy wedding ending is, after all, braided into the irrefutable tragedy that all the characters involved are dead.
And while in a puzzle-box sort of way, this is an interesting move, I personally find it interesting in the way that, say, some of Arnold Schoenberg’s music is interesting (like this): in the abstract, it’s interesting, but it’s hard to summon up an emotional reaction.
In fact, I suspect for most character-arc fans of Lost, it’s the reverse, actually. For those who were watching to see what happened to each beloved character, it was easy to have an emotional reaction to the series conclusion. We all know that many fans were watching the show primarily for its character narrative, and for those people, all of the resolutions may have been emotionally satisfying. (Actually, I’d say this was primarily my viewer-motivation too; my own annoyance at the end twist was rooted in the idiosyncratic, the fact that I consider using the afterlife in narratives in this deceptive way is a cheap trick.)
But once you move to the intellectual side — which for many other fans sustained their interest in the series — it automatically becomes harder to find anything satisfying there. Those who watched the show for characters are likely to feel at least somewhat satisfied by the apparent happy ending, even if they find it sad (perhaps in a beautiful way) to know that all the happiness of the “flash-sideways” world was really just an illusion built up on the doorstep of, er, heaven.
This is where the economics of entertainment, of course, comes into play. Not just because the final scene was the easy-out, the ostensible crowd-pleaser, the wrap-up that shoehorned as many as possible of the “main characters” into Shakespearean weddings — Shannon and Sayeed, Hurley and Libby, ‘cuz, hey, why not? — but also because, really, if you’re looking for intellectual satisfaction, well, that’s on offer too: just buy the Blu-Ray complete series boxed set, and all will be explained. So does the promise.
One doubts, though, that the explanations will be all that satisfying, given how slapdash the reveals of the last season were. For those who thought that Walt’s abduction mattered? You were fooled: ultimately, it was, as Roberts notes in the comments, insigificant. Michael’s trapped on the island, because, well, he can’t move on. And why Michael, who gave his life so that Jin and Sun could be reunited, but not Ben Linus?
But I can’t bring myself to say that I feel the viewers were screwed. There are a few reasons for that: for one, we bought into the show. What did we expect? Things would come coherent in a single season? Did we expect an intelligent, rigorously-worked-out exploration of the ideas that were brought into play?
There are two ways I could reply to those questions: I could say, “Come on. That’s what books are for, people.” After all, I think we could all count off on our digits (yes, toes too if we’re generous) just how many times we’ve seen something that intelligent explored in media SF. No, I don’t count Star Trek, even if I have a friend who wrote for one of the series. Trek didn’t explore SFnal ideas rigorously, it used SFnal tropes as a backdrop for exploring social issues, culture, history, and notions of the future. Which is fine, and I’m not slagging Star Trek. It is what it is. But it’s not what everyone was hoping Lost would be.
It was a bit like The X-Files was years ago: we all piled on when we noticed this show looked different, and then, well, we hoped it would be different too. And it was, sorta, but not in the way we’d hoped. It’s devolved into films that have nothing to do with what made The X-Files interesting and exciting.
But that’s the kicker, and the point that makes me stop and take back the above. No, no, I’m not completely convinced books are the only medium where it could be done, something intelligent and rigorous. Lost showed us not only that it could be done — because armies of fans expected and wanted that — but also that it should be done. And for that, as much as for the wonderful creations that are characters like Hurley and Ben Linus, the show seems something of a success. If its conclusion is remembered as a failure — which is how I remember it, and as I think people ought to (and will) remember it, if they do for very long — then it’s a the failure of biting off more than one can chew, of the grandiose promise of having it all planned out, but then having had to scramble to tie up loose ends and give a crowd-pleasing ending.
It’s a glimpse of things to come in media SF, and as such, it’s full of heart and full of promise. The fact it can be done better makes me smile.
And that’s what I thought of the Lost finale.