Thursday, 27 May 2010

Getting Lost

I finished watching the Lost finale this morning, and unsurprisingly, I have some thoughts on it. Equally unsurprisingly, those thoughts are fairly spectacularly spoilerific, so avoid the paragraphs below like the plague if you haven't seen the final episode yet. Also, a lot of what I want to say involves comparison with the conclusion to Battlestar Galactica, so there's another reason the spoilerphobic might want to steer clear.




Before we start discussing Lost, let's remind ourselves of exactly why the BSG finale was so thoroughly objectionable. I mean, it was imperfect and disappointing in a number of ways, and there's still no getting around the fact that it turned out we'd waited four and a half years to watch Ronald D. Moore present us with a recycled Douglas Adams idea absent its sense of sad, fuzzy humour. But what rankled most was watching a show that had spent so much time presenting the struggle between religion and atheism as being something that couldn't be answered - Hell, maybe even shouldn't be answered - and simply told us "One-nil to the theists". It was atrocious story telling on its own terms, no doubt, as surely as if Starbuck had turned out to be an alien or Deckhand #2 the Number 7 Cylon, but it also managed to take every one of the comments made on the subject of religion over eighty-odd episodes and make them either right or wrong. In other words, "Daybreak" didn't just fail as an ending, it came close to breaking BSG as a series.

Whatever my problems with "The End", which we shall most certainly get to, it didn't break the series, and here's why. Despite there being complaints across the intertubes right now regarding the sudden explicit arrival of the concept of an afterlife, the question of religion was never a major part of the show. Or at least, not in the way it was for BSG. Lost did indeed spend a lot of time considering the question of science vs faith (not exactly the same thing as theism vs atheism, but the Venn diagram of the two arguments has an intersection big enough to fly the Pegasus through), but the closest genre comparison isn't with BSG, it's with the X-Files. Jack and Locke weren't Adama and Roslin, they were Scully and Mulder.

One of the most common complaints about the X-Files as a series was that there really should have come a point at which Scully just started shutting the fuck up. Mulder himself made the point in Season 6's "Field Trip":
No, seriously, I mean, every time I bring you a new case, we go through this perfunctory dance. You tell me I'm not being scientifically rigorous and that I'm off my nut, and in the end, who turns out to be right like 98.9 percent of the time?
It's by no means an unreasonable point, of course, but it's not entirely fair, either, for two reasons. Firstly, as Scully herself argued more than once, if she just immediately defers to Mulder's hunches every time he has one, then she's no longer any good to him. Secondly, and this is critical, Mulder is wrong almost as often as Scully is. Sure, he (almost) always gets it right in the end, but it was pretty common for him to work his way through a few hypotheses before he hit pay-dirt, it was simply that all of them were crazy.

Jack and Locke have a similar dynamic. We know Jack is being stubborn and irritating each time he insists that there's no bigger picture to the island. That isn't the point. The point is that whilst Locke is right that the picture exists, he constantly misunderstands what it actually is, and causes an awful lot of collateral damage as he thrashes around for the answer (see "Boone, death of"). Both of them are zeroing in on the answer and, just as it was with Scully, Jack only really makes headway once his sparring partner is taken away. Jack finally admits Locke was right all along, only for the creature that's wearing Locke's face to immediately disagree. It's just not that clear-cut.

Simply put, BSG had its principal characters stake out a position that, almost without exception, they never changed, and ultimately revealed which ones were right. Lost had its principal characters embark on a journey, both rational and spiritual, and ultimately revealed where their destination actually was. This, needless to say, makes all the difference in the world.

This means that the spiritual aspect to "The End" couldn't do anything like the same level of damage as did the (vaguely) similar concepts in "Daybreak". At worst, I concede that they might have caused some problems for a re-watch of Season 6. I can't be sure yet, but I'd be surprised if the side-flashes aren't of far less interest once you know everyone involved is actually already dead and in the afterlife. On the other hand, it seems fairly clear that they took place in something equivalent to purgatory (I don't agree with those people who found it all explicitly Christian, the stain-glass windows in the "church" alone disprove that theory), and so I'm darkly amused by the fact that after six years of everyone assuming the Island itself was purgatory, it turns out the writers' had included it somewhere else.

So whilst I can agree with everyone who felt the sideways flashes turned out to be disappointingly uninspired, it's hard to view them as anything even approaching calamitous. Of course, that's only one of what seems to be the three main objections to the Lost finale. The second is that the MIB/Losties showdown was a pretty poor return for the last six years, that a show so endlessly - some would say ridiculously - convoluted should have done better than to ditch the vast majority of its swirling mass of story threads in order to reduce the entirety of the show to Protect the Magic Plug Hole. That makes a lot of sense to me, in fact it's the main source of what disappointment I had in the finale.

Actually, though, the finale was never the problem. I remember loudly condemning "Daybreak" in a Cornish pub last year, which led to Tomsk asking me what I would do to fix it. But that's not the right question. Conditional on every episode up to "Daybreak", there's very little that can be done. The rot had already set in; the point at which one could introduce a new alien race/branch of humanity/robot army/Act of God long since passed (I reckon it might just have been possible to do something along those lines immediately after finding the first Earth).

If anything, this is even more true of Lost, which seemed to have an almost ADHD-like approach to what counted as important. Remember when the whispers in the jungle were a big deal? Or when the show was fixated on the Others' obsession with kidnapping children? The constant questions over why the island could travel through time? Where Desmond's time-travelling fit in? The endless, endless shit with the numbers? It's by no means unusual for a show to shift its focus as time passes - BSG itself is a good example of that fact - but generally speaking such shows at least make an effort to wrap something up before heading on [1]. Lost never seemed to bother. It was frustrating at the time, but more than that, it became clear that the show was accumulating questions to the extent where nothing short of episode-long info-dumps was possibly going to sort everything out. The lack of such major-league exposithons by, ooh, halfway through the last season at the absolute latest pretty much confirmed truth seekers were in for something of a heart breaking, even had the writers themselves not already partially confessed to not wanting to hand out too many details. Those of us with sense spent the remaining time coming to peace with that fact, or at least trying to.

This, though, is where I hold my hands up and confess that I am biased by my lack of bias. Part of the reason the BSG finale made me so willing to kill all humans in manners that would make the most ardent meat-hating Centurion feel a wave of robo-nausea and have to lie down was because I had become so invested in the series that to watch it collapse in on itself in its final minutes was a tremendously harrowing experience. Lost, on the other hand, I have enjoyed watching since the start, but at no point could I be considered especially invested. Ironically, it is perhaps that same comparative dearth of interest which has saved the show in my mind. I'm pretty angry that Sayed, Jin and Sun all died within metres of the finish line, for instance [2], but if they'd pissed away, say, Helo and Lee just before "Daybreak" I'd have been close to inconsolable. People across the world are currently posting up lists of questions Lost failed to answer (and in fairness to the show, I'd say only around one in four of them is simultaneously particularly important and not easy to extrapolate answers to from what Season 6 gave us) - this is of course the third reason people are up in arms right now - and a lot of them of them are about scenes I had completely forgotten about. About the only mystery I felt genuinely aggrieved about not being resolved was over actually did happen when Juliet set off the nuke at the end of last season, partly because it was a season finale cliffhanger and you don't get to ignore those, and partly because it wasn't until a few minutes before "The End", er, ended that I realised the question was as unanswered as it was. Everything I said in January about the Lost writers themselves implying these questions could and would be answered remains true, I've just come to realise that the point at which I personally cared came and went some time ago.

Is that what I'm saying? Bad writing on Lost got me to the point where I stopped caring about bad writing on Lost? Maybe. Certainly, even more so than BSG, Lost has made me leery of TV shows that rely on overarching mysteries (the lack of any real characterisation was not the only reason I gave up on Flash Forward). In the end, though, I cannot deny that the writers took what they always said they were focusing on to its logical conclusion. "Across The Sea" proved that. You can't couch your explanation of the origins of the island's guardian/nemesis pairing as being about familial betrayal without it being a conscious stylistic choice to release exposition only through the mirror of characterisation (I'm not saying Lost has always succeeded in that, but it's clear it was trying). The significant mis-step of killing Sayed and the Kwons aside, the show managed pretty well at bringing conclusions and purpose to each of the characters, and that's worthy of praise. The show was never just about the island, so much as it was about what the island gave to the people on it, and how they dealt with that (oftentimes brutal gift). It wasn't just Jack and Locke who had a destination just over the horizon, it was all of them. Why do you think they all chose the church (save Michael, still too bitter and angry and alone to realise that the island was the only reason he had a son and not a stranger he was responsible for clothing)? A church like the one they actually started literally building on the island, before the show had to say goodbye to Mr Eko.

They all started the journey together, and because time doesn't matter (just ask Desmond, or Jacob, or the island itself), not really, they finished it together as well. And so did we. If one side of the coin is that that truth can't necessarily make the show complete without all those answers, the other must be that those lack of answers can't really make the show absent of all conclusion, either.

Or, just to leave behind rationality for a moment and indulge a flight of right-brain fancy, don't think of it as a coin. Think of it as two pebbles; one white, one black. Adam and Eve. Science and faith. Chaos and order. Bitterness and acceptance. Whether or not you are moving on.

So, y'know, maybe there's only really one question we haven't gotten an answer to yet: what you gonna do?

[1] Though that has its own risks, one of the few things I dislike about The West Wing under Sorkin was how long-running plot lines would be wrapped up within a few minutes of comparatively banal political wrangling. The risk of Leo being forced from his position over allegations of drug abuse hung over a third or more of the first season, only to be resolved by the President agreeing not to release a report on the value of teaching abstinence only in schools. High drama, that ain't.

[2] Seriously, what the fuck was that about? What possible purpose was served by three characters we've been watching for the last six years to die like that? One more "tortured Sawyer" scene? A few less character's lines to write for the finale? Or did they hope that the viewer would find their deaths affecting rather than unforgivably, appallingly cheap? This is basic story line mathematics, people; Jack's final sight in this world of the plane passing overhead would have been exponentially more powerful if it had contained six of our original heroes instead of three. If Jack had saved seven, rather than four. If Kate and Sun had gotten what they returned to the island for and left intact.


Jamie said...

That sums up how I feel as well pretty accurately. I am nowhere near as incandescent with 'The End' as I was with 'Daybreak', mainly because you're right, it didn't break the show in fundamental ways. It was unbearably twee in some aspects, and yes, plenty of questions remain unanswered, but both of these things were inevitable.

Of course, the reason I feel that inevitability exists is probably bitter experience with BSG, teaching me to lower my expectations dramatically for the summing up of epic shows like these. I don't know if that lowering of expectations is necessarily desirable, but it's probably a healthy reaction in order to protect my sanity.

Probably the only really affecting character conclusion for me was Hurley and Ben as the island's new protectors. That made far more sense than Jack eternally moping around, and I'm glad the writing acknowledged that explicitly. It also gave a sense of continuity extending far beyond the scope of our little band of characters (which was one of the few good things about 'Across the Sea' too, stretching further back in time), which I think is probably preferable to having everything about the island resolved by them; they are brief players on the stage of its long history, and cannot hope to understand everything about it.

I agree totally about the showdown elements, and I hope to God that the Magic Plughole was actually an implicit (but only just) acknowledgement of the most ridiculous elements of the show's mythology and the unique qualities displayed by the island. A statement of 'yeah, okay, we know it's utterly daft, but look on the bright side, it's almost over'.

What is perhaps clear by way of contrast with BSG is that at least this show had shown a higher degree of planning; they've been working towards this conclusion quite clearly for at least three years, and I respect that level of commitment to the piece even if I don't agree entirely with the direction.

At any rate, I'm glad I took the journey, on the whole it's been worth it, and I'm sure I will end up rewatching it. But then, I'm invested enough in BSG that I'll still end up rewatching it despite the fact that I will once again end up wanting to crush Ron Moore' windpipe with my bare hands, so I may just be a hopeless case.

Gooder said...

If it means anything I was far more invested in Lost than I ever was with BSG and vastly prefered Lost's finale.

But then I've always been much more interested in the characters in Lost then I get feeling a lot of other people are. I think a lot of others took more to the 'plot' elements rather than the characters and I guess from that perspective I can seee why you might be dissappointed.

By personally I thought it was a fitting end to the series.

SpaceSquid said...

Yeah, Gooder, I suspected that would be your take. Generally speaking, I find it impossible not to view this kind of show as a puzzle box that needs to be cracked. And, as I've mentioned, this is how it was repeatedly billed to us, from the "Answers are coming" adverts to the way that so many of the cliffhangers episodes ended on a new revelation.

Whilst I can see why someone would get invested in the characters, and I agree that from that perspective the finale worked out, I'm not sure I would have had the ability to block out problem-solving half of my brain if I'd genuinely been as invested in Lost as I had been in BSG. As it was, I think it was only a lack of memory that saved me, rather than anything particularly laudable on the part of the show runners.

Gooder said...

I know what you mean and can certainly understand that standpoint but I am glad the finale wasn't just a two hour exposition dump.

Lost always got labelled as mainstream drama that was undercover sci-fi, however I think it eventually ended up the other round, a sci-fi series that was undercover mainstream drama.

That it is to say for all the 'answers are coming' and sci-fi/fantasy elements I think the show and it's runners were always far more interested in their characters than anything else.

Tho' I did get more of a sense of a planned out story being completed from Lost than BSG's pull it all out of nowhere approach.

Gooder said...

Something emphasised by the last shot repeating the very first which is something both the main writers and the actor who plays Jack (whose name I currently forget) have all said they knew they would use for at least four years.

SpaceSquid said...

I agree that the finale itself couldn't have just been a big "Ta-da!" reveal; that's why I made the point about "Daybreak" being too late to fix BSG. Whilst I wasn't too disheartened by the Lost finale on its own, I think the last season overall was somewhat sub-par from that perspective. Especially now we know that a great deal of the side-flashes weren't particularly relevant. Did we really need to see Sawyer and Charlotte fail to get it together in the afterlife? More than, say, an explanation as to why babies couldn't be born on the island?

I wouldn't deny that the show runners were more interested in their characters than the mysteries (they, after all, were the ones who created said mysteries in the first place), but what the writers wanted to focus on and the method by which they kept people watching are two different things. They don't get a free pass for false advertising just because they didn't really care about what they were pretending to sell.

It's also worth noting that the two considerations, character and answers, are not wholly separate. To take the example above, the search for the reason behind the death of every mother who attempted to conceive and give birth on the island was what had Juliet working for Ben in the first place. She sacrificed her life to detonate a bomb, and we still have no idea what that bomb actually did. We have no idea what her sacrifice resulted in, just as we have no idea as to whether her choice to throw her lot in with Ben was justified. Those are fairly fundamental questions from a character development perspective, which means that failing to answer them isn't just a problem for those like me who were mainly interested in trying to discern the pattern.

Having said all that, I'm entirely in agreement that Lost finished far more coherently than BSG. And yes, the last shot was brilliant. Still say Sayed and the Kwons should have been on that plane, though.

Tomsk said...

I don't think it's true that the writers were more interested in the characters than the plot. It's just that it's much easier to give a grand send-off to characters than it is to write a satisfying conclusion to the story. Hence why the ending to Ashes to Ashes was far more accomplished than either Lost or BSG. By that yardstick I'd say Lost and BSG's endings were of a similar standard, though admittedly Lost both had the edge on character resolutions and wasn't nearly so negligent about its plot.

I'm disappointed about how the flash-sideways timeline turned out and that has put a downer on the whole season. I didn't mind in principle that it was an afterlife, but the fact that they went out of their way all season long to make it look like it was a real, simultaneous world (for example by having Jack bleed at the same time in both worlds), thereby conjuring all sorts of cool possibilities for how it could have interacted with the island timeline, then pulled the rug out at the last minute was a big let down. Not only that but it undermined many of the major emotional moments on the island: I wasn't particularly upset about Jin and Sun dying because it seemed like they were alive elsewhere. Turns out they weren't, but by then it was too late to be properly emotionally engaged with their death. For that reason perhaps Season 6 might actually be better when re-watched with the knowledge of what's really going on.

Regarding unanswered questions I think there is a good case that some should remain unanswered. I was quite happy for things like the Taweret statue and the magic plug hole to remain a mystery because they give a richer background to the story, making it extend backwards in the same way Hurley & Ben extended it forwards. There's no need to do anything more than hint at its past before Jacob.

But it's poor that they didn't explain the many plot points which happen entirely in the present and were flagged up at the time as being important questions that would presumably be answered in due course. The baby question being only the most obvious one. Having said that mostly these questions date from the first half of the show when they were dragging it out with no end in sight. Once they knew season 6 would be the last it became a lot more streamlined and a lot of extraneous material had to go.

PS: It seems clear to me in retrospect what the bomb did - it interacted with the magnetic anomaly thing to blow them all back to the present day. I don't see the need for further explanation there, though I wish it had resulted in the splitting of the timelines as originally advertised.