Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Defense of the Finale of Lost

During the last season of Lost, I've enjoyed reading the conversation between Chadwick Matlin, Jack Shafer, and Seth Stevenson after each episode on Slate. However, all three (including the show's biggest defender) have been bashing on the finale. Personally, I was satisfied. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but after reading some of the brutal commentary I think the episode needs some defending. And, unlike these three, the more I think about it, the more I like it.

Warning: Spoilers (at least one big un').

Seth Stevenson sums his dismissal up this way: "I've seen the idea posited that there are two kinds of Lost fans: 1) those who watch for the sci-fi twists and surprises, and 2) those who watch for the characters and relationships. If you watch for the mysteries, this theory holds, you were disappointed by the finale. If you watch for the characters and relationships, you were thrilled to wallow in those happy reunion hugs in that nondenominational spiritual venue."

This depends on a false distinction. It was the sci-fi twists that illuminated the characters and their relationships, and in the end, it was possibly the biggest twist of all which brought those relationships to some (schmaltzy, warm and fuzzy) closure. It fit the show perfectly.

I think a lot of folks are missing the element of the finale that was most successful: The show has always been about discovering that our assumptions about characters are wrong because we make those assumptions at a given point in time. Hence the flashbacks that opened our eyes to characters' choices in Season 1 hooked many of us in the first place. That's what sold me on the show at first; discovering that I was understanding what a character did in a previous episode only after learning about their life from a flashback. Then the flashes-forward served this function in a new and really cool way. Then the characters themselves were lost in time, so they were experiencing the same thing we had already grown accustomed to as viewers. The last season seemed to be plodding along, revealing all this information about the island in a more traditional, expositional way while doing the same in an alternate time-line caused by the A-bomb, but both time-lines, on their own, seemed straightforward. Admit it: How many times did you have that "Ah-ha" moment when some event in the parallel world told you something revelatory about the people (seemingly) still on the island? Never. We reveled in the cleverness of the parallel world, noticing the connections to the world we'd come to know, but we didn't gain new insight into the people on the island, as we had before. Only the flashbacks about Jacob/Smokey/Alpert seemed to have that "Oh, now that makes sense" phenomenon. By the end we were all hoping to see how the two stories would intersect because we'd all assumed they were parallel and had begun at the moment of the A-bomb.

And then, in the finale, we're given one of the biggest Ah-ha's yet. The parallel world didn't begin at the A-bomb explosion! It began where the island story ended! It wasn't a flash sideways at all! It was a flash forward that we all assumed was a flash sideways!

Just like in the first season, our assumptions were being exploited. Only this time our assumptions weren't small and limited to specific character's behaviors. Our Season 1 assumptions were small: We assumed "Kim is a jerk because of the way he treats his wife," only to discover that he really loved her and had essentially sold his soul to her father, only to have that blow up in his face and push her to cheat on him. Now his behavior made more sense (and made him more likable). But in the final season our assumption was huge: We'd assumed the A-bomb caused the rift, and someone (Desmond? Jack? Ben? Hurley?) would bring it all back together at the end. When the assumption was revealed to be false, instead of saying, "Oh, I was wrong about that particular guy", we had to reconcile the fact that we were wrong about half the season, and all the moments throughout which had seemed to be straightforward might have been revelatory about the characters on the island after all.

Admittedly, I didn't like the purgatory angle particularly (and I had a real moment of panic where I thought Christian Shepard was going to say it had ALL been purgatory and I would start to froth at the mouth and throw things at the TV) but I realize that my personal agnosticism shouldn't be any more piqued by a reference to purgatory than to ghosts or smoke monsters or magical islands. I'll bet lots of "haters" are frustrated because of the seeming religious (though insultingly vaguely religious) overtones of the finale. But let's face it: If we could accept the elements of the island as fiction, why can't we accept purgatory as part of that fictional universe? Once I can do that, then I see that the great twist of the flash-sideways becoming a flash-forward is not lazy or merely clever, but genuinely earned. This wasn't a deus ex machina ending, but a thematically consistent ending, since the show has always been about betraying our assumptions about its characters. Moreover, it's been about betraying our assumptions about characters to make us like them, or at least sympathize with them enough to care about them, despite our first impressions. So if the ending was schmaltzy (and, hoo boy was it) that fits, too.

If someone doesn't like that the show cleverly played with our assumptions, or that it did so to appeal to our sympathies, then I wonder why they have been watching it for the last six years.

4 comments:

'abdul muHib said...

Hear, Hear! I *loved* the finale. I stayed up till 3 in the morning on a school night so I could watch it. It was awesome! I loved how it answered major questions, but more than that, I loved how there were still so many questions left unanswered. This is fantasy (not SciFi). Good fantasy, like good theology, doesn't give us all the answers. That's what makes it fantasy.

Troy Miller said...

Ok, I at least know one thing.....I cannot articulate my thoughts nearly as well through words as Ben can. I think the finale of Lost neatly tied everything up together. I agree with Ben that the writers "played" with our assumptions all along, but not just in the last season....but rather the entire series.
We were made to believe that the fact that the island was special was the most important thing. That all the little idiosyncrisies of the characters were going to play out into some sort of Shakespearian ending that would leave us all saying WOW, that was awesome.
I simply look at the finale as an simple answer to a complex question, which is...."Why are we here?".
This is exactly the question that each character that was on Oceanic 815 asked themselves when they hit the island. Why are we here.
Maybe this could be me reading way too much into this but that was the answer that Christian Shepherd gave to Jack....."you all needed each other."
You may not believe it to be true, you may not care, but the show played the island as the focal point to the story where we realize that the people are.

This was an island that was balancing good vs. evil, reality vs. dream, sadness vs. happiness;
isn't that life?
Realistically couldn't that be the answer to why WE are all here?
I was extremely sceptical gearing up for this last episode, rightly so, but it answered the only question it had to when it started 6 years ago.......these characters were not lost on an island...they were lost in life. That is why they were all there and that is why they all needed each other and that is exactly why this ending (sappy as it was) was the perfect ending.

All religious overtones and undertones included. Read into it what you want based on your world view, your religious beliefs, your philosophy....but mine tells me that we are all here for each other.....otherwise it wouldn't be called "Lost"....it would be called "Alone".

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