Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The LOST finale: Waiting for the karma bus

My first reaction was denial. What? Purgatory? Limbo? Wishful thinking? "It was all just a dream" combined with a chintzy-looking portal to an afterlife that was nothing more than a 10K light in a door? You have got to be kidding me. Sitting in a room with a brace of like-minded fans amid the empty Dharma beers, there was stunned silence as the credits rolled. And not in a good way.

Up until those last few scenes, I was loving the finale, totally on board with each character’s choices and able to overlook the fact that okay, maybe they weren’t going to explain every mystery. I loved that Jack rightfully assumed his role as the island’s protector and the show’s main character, fought bravely, and died a hero. Hurley’s reluctant takeover as guardian with Ben as his lieutenant? Awesome. Kate declaring her love and then leaping into an unknown future? Gutsy and true. Maybe it’s because I’m a mom, but Aaron's backstage birth had me reaching for the Kleenex, as did the moment where Jin and Sun saw their baby’s heartbeat and remembered everything that had gone before. Even smaller moments, like Lapidus’s inevitable rescue and Ana Lucia’s surprise reappearance as a cop on the take packed a satisfying punch.

Best of all was Sawyer and Juliet's rapturously romantic candy-machine reunion - which, in my view, will go down as one of the great love scenes of all time. The spark that passed between them as they touched, rekindling a lifetime of bitter heartbreak into the flame of eternal love, was right up there with Bogie and Bacall saying goodbye on a windswept airfield in Morocco. The fact that it took place in the most mundane, unromantic setting possible underscored just how damn good the writing, acting, and directing of this show can be. No sunset or wedding dress or confetti cannon was necessary to convince us that these two were meant to be together – just a man, a woman, and a camera. (And a script). And maybe the candy machine was even a wink towards the machinations required to get us to this moment of sweetness.

But as much as I loved what had gone before, the last few minutes of the finale felt like a betrayal. All this incredible stuff we saw in the Sideways world never really happened? In any reality? Everybody’s dead? Nothing really mattered? WTF!? The last few scenes completely undermined not just the last season, but everything that had gone before! It reduced the Sideways world to typo-ridden fan fiction wallpapered over the Best TV Show Ever – or worse, an existential cop-out that was ultimately even bleaker than the Sopranos finale.

But when I checked in with the Internet the next morning, expecting to find fans bemoaning "The End" and massing for some Darlton revenge with pitchforks and torches, I was in for a shock. Most people, it seemed, loved the ending, though there were plenty of grumbling dissenters. The same words kept popping up in the comments – “emotional,” “cathartic,” “rewarding.” And that’s when I realized what Lindelof and Cuse had been onto all along.

These guys didn’t become super-successful showrunners and celebrities in their own right by accident. All that jib-jab they had been spouting over the years about faith versus reason had nothing to do with the show or the characters – it was about us. The secret of LOST’s success had nothing to do with smoke monsters or love triangles or time travel – it was about human nature. Like the archetypes advanced in Star Trek, you’ve got your rational Spocks and emotional Kirks, and you know who you are. You either want explanation or exaltation, and that’s the way it is.

The genius of the show is how it managed to captivate both camps and keep them relatively happy. Lindelof and Cuse used emotional storytelling to reference and explore intellectual and philosophical intellectual issues, toggling back and forth between the two modes with varying degrees of success. Though most people were watching because they cared deeply about the characters – their fates, their issues, their beliefs, and above all, their love lives – there was also a huge contingent of others who were feasting weekly on obscure literary references, sly allusions, overt allegories, snarky dialogue and trippy plot twists. Count me among them.

The use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and alternate realities was a clever framework to keep both types of fans happy for five seasons. But, in the end, there could be only one. The show’s creators were going to have to come down on one side or another – myth versus saga, fantasy versus reality, fanboys versus haters. I doubt there was too much debate about which one it was gonna be.

Because America is nothing if not fan-friendly. Whether it’s politics, economics, or entertainment, if it’s too good to be true, we’ll blow right past our credit limit and take as much as we can carry. Find a way to combine feelgood nostrums, unearned trust, and blinkered reality over rational thought and we are so there. We’re all about heart, not the head, and though it can be mightily exasperating, living in a nation of delusional optimists does have an upside. Each of us secretly believes we are the hero or heroine of our own show, and if the zombies or aliens or black helicopters ever come looking for us, we’ll be able to summon our inner Jack and get ‘er done.

As the wacky skits on the post-finale Jimmy Kimmel show suggested, Lindelof and Cuse aren’t leaders of a cult or keepers of the flame. They’re just two guys working on a TV show, and in the end, they did the job they were hired to do – keeping the most amount of people happy while not blowing too much of ABC’s money on special effects. As a fellow TV writer, I salute them. As a fan, they owe me a drink.

Because let’s face it, I was kinda hoping that LOST was going to break the mold on this one. After six seasons of genre-busting storylines and giddily inventive character development, I really thought that somehow Lindelof and Cuse were going to find a way to pull it off. Somehow they were gonna unite both of the narratives we saw in season six and create some kind of jeopardy, some irreducible logic, some hard choices. Somehow the Sideways characters were going to have to sacrifice their lotus-eating ways in the alternate dreamworld to save the Island. They’d have to commit to reality over fantasy in order to save the world. Maybe some would survive and earn a future happiness, but only after others fell tragically by the wayside. Somehow.

But no. Lindelof and Cuse could have gone that way – and they clearly thought about it – but with some clever sleight-of-hand (“The Island is definitely not Purgatory!”) they punted. They made a choice to close out one of the most original shows ever with the schmaltziest ending of all time. “This is a place we all created so we could find each other”? Gag me with a fish biscuit!

Still, the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit – it was true. The show was a place where a lot of people found each other. From watching with friends to following the passionate analysis online, it was a new kind of entertainment experience, a fireside tale that embraced the brave new world of instant connection. There was always someone you just had to call every Tuesday night at 10 or check in with first thing Wednesday morning to go over what you had just seen. And browsing the fan forums post-show always amazed me – some of the comments and discussions it provoked were often as intelligent, insightful and entertaining as the show itself - though you might have to machete your way  through a jungle of petulant trivia and pointless dreck to find it.

So, in the end, was the LOST finale the biggest cop-out in TV history? Yes. But it as also a fitting end to the show that had us all gathered with friends over those Dharma beers on Sunday night. Whatever you thought of those final scenes, this was the show that got us talking philosophy with total strangers in grocery stores, at cocktail parties and in chat rooms. It was the show that got people to think about big stuff and examine the smallest details. No other show came close to inspiring the level of excitement, devotion, and camaraderie that LOST did. So, if in the end, they went with the Unitarian cast party while Ben sat outside waiting for the karma bus,  I guess I can accept that.


  1. Also, a friend of mine just pointed out that the Apollo bar dropping out of the machine could also be a reference to "deux ex machina," where an actor playing Apollo or another god would be lowered onto the stage to set everything right. Good one!

  2. Umm... I'm sure by now you've realized they WEREN'T all dead all along. All six seasons and everything on the island? It all really happened. The island (and the show as a whole)... NOT purgatory or limbo. Only the sideways timeline in this season was "purgatory." And all the characters that came together IN that finale "purgatory" (not really an appropriate name btw) all died at different times; as Christian says, some before Jack, some many years after. There is no time, no "now" in the sideways storyline.

  3. Yeah, I'm not sure where everyone's coming up with this island = purgatory bit while believing they all died on the plane. They didn't. Paul's explanation is correct. Christian even spelled it out. The confusion reminds me of the end of season 3 when some still didn't grasp that the flashbacks were now flashforwards. Ir requires a little attention-paying, but it's not that complicated.

  4. Great thoughts on the finale, @mmesand, but you misunderstood a part of it. Paul said it before me but yes, the Island life and its events actually all took place in reality. It was only the sixth season's flashsideways that were in fact visions of an afterlife. It was that afterlife, not the Island life, which the survivors of 815 created together in order to find each other, understand the events of the life that preceded them and move on into what came after. Keep in mind though that your thoughts are still mostly credible and apply to the true ending of LOST. LOST was truly a place for people to come together and discuss grander issues of life. Again, thanks for your thoughts.

  5. I'm in agreement that the island DID happen and that the flash sideways was the "purgatory" pre-awakening. I'm fine with the emotional resolution, but still bugged by some of the unanswered questions!

  6. Actually, I emphatically agree that everything BUT the Sideways world actually took place, sorry if that wasn't clear. Thanks for all your thoughts and comments. It's been a great ride.