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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lost Opportunity: How the Finale Could Have Been Redeemed

WARNING: SPOILERS for the season finale of LOST

On Sunday night, cult TV series Lost ended with dozens of mysteries unanswered and a happily-ever-afterlife that felt arbitrary and tacked-on for the sake of giving beloved characters some measure of reward for their sacrifices.

Like many other viewers who have followed the show with devotion since 2004, I was disappointed with "The End" (the finale's title). The conflict between the smoke monster and the castaways was resolved clumsily, with character motivations unclear and a plot full of holes - why, for example, did the smoke monster and Jack have any reason to believe that lowering Desmond into the source would benefit either of them and not the other? I guess Jack just got lucky that Desmond's act of pulling the island's plug robbed the smoke monster of his otherworldly powers, allowing the climactic...fist fight. Hooray. Jack gets stabbed during the fight, kills the depowered smoke monster, plugs the hole Desmond made and wanders, mortally wounded, back into the jungle, dying in the very spot the crash flung him in 2004. Poetic, yes - but unsatisfying on many levels.

The revelation that the season six flash-sideways plotline was nothing more than God's waiting room is, quite simply, a cheat. All season long, viewers were led to believe that what happened in this alternate timeline (or at least, we thought it was an alternate timeline) mattered; that the gradual awakening of the characters would have some impact on the prime storyline on the island. But no. In the final minutes of the finale, we discover that perhaps thousands of years have passed, and Jack is in purgatory, waiting for all his friends to be together so that they can move on to heaven.

I should make it clear that the scene itself was moving and well-written. My only problem is that it makes the entire island storyline, the one we've followed for the last six years, meaningless; everyone winds up in heaven (or near enough), so what were the stakes? Why was it so important that the island be protected?

Here's how the finale could have been saved. When Christian reveals the truth to Jack, he tells him that his time on the island was the most important time in his life. But he doesn't say why. It's just a given, and it's why he needed all his friends together in purgatory to achieve closure and "move on."

Christian needed to say one more thing. He needed to say,

"Jack, your time on the island was the most important time in your life...and in the lives of all these other people. Because the sacrifices you made on that island made all this [gesturing to the afterlife] possible...not just for you and your friends - but for everyone, everywhere, for all time. Without you, after death there would be only darkness."

If it had turned out that Jack and company were fighting for an afterlife for all humanity...wouldn't those stakes have been worth all they endured? Wouldn't that have made the unresolved mysteries at least a little more bearable? I would have been quite content never to learn who made the drain and the plug at the heart of the island if I had reason to believe that they had a very good reason - the best possible existential reason - for doing so.


Andrea said...

So Jack as the new Christ? Because that's how I would have interpreted your version Earl. Give your life to save humanity from eternal damnation. Not sure that's how they would have wanted to end the show.

I only ever saw the first season of Lost and the second season is still sitting unwrapped on the shelves. I really liked the first season, but somehow didn't continue, having heard varying degrees of good about the show. I've now read your spoiler, but I don't think that will stop me from watching the rest of the series if I decide to give it another go. Still leaning towards just leaving it, despite how good some it must be.

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

I agree with Andrea, Jack is more than Christly enough by the end, he doesn't need to 'open the kingdom.' I can certainly understand your disappointment with the resolution of the mystery that viewers had been told was so important over six seasons.

In the end, I felt intellectually unfulfilled, but emotionally satisfied, which I think is just about right for this show. In the end, Lost, like life, is less about the 'why', and more (much more) about the 'who'.

"The Alternative Jefftor" said...

Holy Hell, Earl! I haven't watched minute one of Lost, but you want network TV to provide you with a personal saviour? Not to mention one that would piss off every Christian on the planet at the same time?!

I would think your idea might have actually been considered, but you could never ever get away with that on TV. Not that TV is believeable enough to provide eternal salvation in the first place.

Without involving religious rhetoric, I seriously believe you should add the Holy Bible to your reading list. Even if you only take it as a piece of literature, you will see how the process of personal salvation and redemption has been turned into one of the most engrossing story arcs ever created.

You've got massive prologue and backstory, mysterious legend and strange portents. Then the whole thing shifts gears when the main protagonist shows up. But it's not a direct narrative, it's told "sideways" from four differnt points of view, written many years after the fact. Then, there's the epilogue, lots of special effects and serious unanswered questions. Lastly, the whole thing has been written and re-written over thousands of years: to be a true biblical scholar, you not only have to understand ancient language and culture, but also the process of the growth of Western Civilization. It's easily the toughest book I've ever tried to read.

Anyways, I suggest you read that and then come back to Lost, and see what you think.

Earl J. Woods said...

I've read the bible and I appreciate its impact on popular culture, but perhaps my initial quote from Christian Shepherd was unclear: when he says that what "you" did made an afterlife possible, I meant the collective "you," i.e. not only Jack, but all the castaways and the other folks who helped protect the island. I was trying for a more science-fictional scenario that turns the Christian myth on its head; instead of an individual saviour, collective action - both in the past (the aliens/humans from the future/otherdimensional beings/friendly artificial intelligences created the island) and the present (the show's lead characters) - is what gives humanity functional immortality.

During the first season, the producers of the show promised that the island had a natural, not a supernatural, explanation; they said that this was a science fiction show, not fantasy. I took them at their word, and my alternate ending attempts to keep that promise by turning religious myth on its ear. In my alternate reading of the show, perhaps the early Christians and other religious believers were correct about the existence of an afterlife; they merely got the details wrong.

Personally, I find the idea that human beings, acting collectively, could create their own afterlife a compelling SF idea, with apologies to Spider Robinson, which is where I first encountered the general notion.

What I'm really looking for is something to give the castaways' actions on the island meaning and a way to make the season six flash-sideways stories relevant to the overall arc of the show. The ending crafted by the producers fails on both counts.

Naturally it's quite possible that my ending would have annoyed people of faith as much as the producers' ending annoyed people of a rational/materialist bent, but that's how drama's hard to create the good stuff without offending someone, somewhere.

"Tomorrow Is Jefferday" said...

I would suggest that afterlife mythologies would fall under tha category of sociological fiction rather than sci-fi. A sci-fi story might have the characters hallucinate that they are dead and in an afterlife after they were injected with a longevity serum that caused them to live for thousands of years. Or a fleet of flying saucers might appear in low Earth orbit and obliterate everything with antimatter rays.

I would also suggest that for an afterlife myth to work, it should be clear up front that the story takes place in the afterlife, like in Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld stories. Otherwise, you are just manipulating the audience for the sake of ratings/keeping the show going, which I found to be a big turn-off for Lost. Not that I totally mind being manipulated by the TV: I loved Twin Peaks, but fortunately that show went spectacularly off the rails before it could be syndicated.

Today we have a very troubling and very real-world inversion of the Christian ethic going on right now in Jamaica. The business of extraditing Christopher "Dudus" Coke is far more complicated and tragic than our local media is letting on. People in Coke's Tivoli Gardens garrison say, "Jesus died for us, and we will die for Dudus". Please read this essay which explains Jamaica's garrisons, where some people seem willing to die to absolve the sins of their saviour:

(You have to re-assemble the link into one line, since I don't know how to make proper clickable links in the Blogger replies).

I would finally suggest that the Jamaican news is way beyond Jack's power to resolve. It's one thing to exploit Christian images to tell a story, it's another to actually go out and exploit Christian people for personal and political gain. Once again, the real world has become stranger than fiction.

Maurice said...

All I can say, Earl, is that you've given WAAAAY more thought to Lost than I did. I do agree, however, that the whole island thing now seems pointless. It reminds me a bit of the infamous 'dream season' of Dallas, where they obliterated an entire season when Patrick Duffy decided to return to the series after his character, Bobby Ewing, had been killed off. I was so insulted by that episode, that was the last time I watched Dallas.