Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Tale of Two Finales, Part I — Lost

It's not that the series finale of Lost was "bad," exactly, so much as that it was the worst imaginable finale for the show and perhaps one of the worst of all time, including shows that ended with unceremonious cliffhangers after sudden cancellation. It's one of the infinitesimally few examples since I started following popular fiction around 1989 that the theories and endings that random schmucks on the street came up with turned out to be vastly superior to the real thing. James "Sawyer" Ford himself would be proud of the con that Lost pulled off; a pulpy soap opera that successfully masqueraded for years among critics and awards shows as serious television.

The Lost faithful will continue to whine and wheeze and gnash their teeth at anyone who points this out, of course, but it's all good. It's hard to believe today, but some of you might remember that back in 1999 when The Phantom Menace came out anyone who set a critical foot into any Star Wars message board was chased out with pitchforks and death threats. Some fanboys literally took years to admit the truth. Lost fans are struggling with their disappointment the same way that Star Wars fans did a decade back, but it's cool, I'll wait for them. I have no problem being ahead of the curve.


(Advance warning — this entire entry is written for Lost veterans only and will be borderline-gibberish to the uninitiated.)

Lost has always been a nonlinear show (to a fault in season three when they ran out of new backstories for the characters and fell into a monotonous rut) — flashbacks, flashforwards, gratuitous time travel, and in the last season after Juliet set off the nuclear bomb in the fifth season finale, flash-sideways. An alternate reality exploring the lives of all the castaways in a world where the mysterious island was submerged and forgotten at the bottom of the sea. It was an ingenious gimmick, applying a classic science fiction trope to a beloved mythology, which became more fascinating still when the characters in the alternate universe began seeing flashes of the world of the Oceanic 815 crash and mysterious island that they came from. The show seemed to be building towards a truly epic climax.

Unfortunately, it was all a trick. And not a fun one either, but a really nasty and meanspirited one, like what the popular kids did to Sissy Spacek at the end of Carrie. The alternate reality that we spent probably a good five or six combined hours of Lost's final season languishing around in, complete with plot twists, action scenes, romance, and cliffhangers, was just fucking purgatory the entire time. All the main characters were just screwing around in the afterlife and the characters that only existed in purgatory, namely Jack and Juliet's son, were apparently just soulless, lifeless automatons, which is incredibly creepy and the furthest imaginable thing from the heartwarming revelation that showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse seemed to believe it to be.

The show ends with all the characters ascending to heaven, which is extremely literally one of the mock endings I would joke about with people throughout the show's run, as in "as long as Lost doesn't end with it all turning out to be Vincent the dog's dream or the cast ascending to heaven, I'll be okay with it; just kidding, they would never in a million years actually do something that stupid."

Now I'm not talking about religion here — you don't give a shit about my religious beliefs any more than I give a shit about yours, nor should you — but I'm just talking about the most basic component of telling a story. You know, storytelling. They tricked us into believing that the alternate universe and the hours upon hours we spent in flash-sideways were pertinent to the story being told on the main island and the primary mythology and that the two stories would tie together in some kind of satisfying way, which they weren't and they didn't. It was just time-wasting bullshit, some of the worst wheel-spinning filler this side of that episode where they revealed the origins of Jack's tattoos. If they really wanted to end Lost with the characters going to heaven then it could have just as easily been a five-minute epilogue at the end, instead of the terrible, terrible waste of time that the better part of season six ended up being.

I mean, sure, I was surprised by the revelation, which slavish Lost cultists will tell you is enough. But surprise is not by default good. You'd be pretty fucking surprised if a deranged crackhead came around the corner and stabbed you in the spleen with an AIDS-infected shiv. That doesn't make it a wonderful ending.

But the one silver lining to this agonizingly stupid twist is that in rendering the flash-sideways utterly meaningless, it also renders them utterly skippable. Fastforward through them on DVD and you absolutely will not miss anything whatsoever. They have no pertinence and no meaning — in fact, they actively gut the power of scenes like Jin, Sun, and Sayid's deaths by showing them happy as clams as soon as one scene later. A version of season six on DVD that simply edits them out entirely would be fantastic. I might even consider watching it again one day. I'm as likely to rewatch the purgatory subplot as I am to rewatch Disaster Movie.

But that's not to say that Lost's final season is immune to criticism beyond the purgatory subplot; ignoring it merely increases a C- season of television to something around a B-. And that's not comparing it to genuinely artistic shows like Mad Men or Friday Night Lights (which, by and large, drooling Lost fanboys will hilariously still tell you that Lost is better than); even concurrently airing pulpy genre shows like the third season of Chuck and the first season of Spartacus: Blood and Sand presented more coherent and satisfying narratives (although I will grant that season six of Lost is many times over preferable to season four of Heroes).

What the primary island storyline of the final season did is reveal that at no point during Lost's run was it ever a science fiction show. Thousands of websites and critics that had casually referred to it as sci-fi for years wound up with egg on their collective faces. Don't get too hung up on all the mysterious research teams and sonic barriers and time travel theory and alternate realities, because Lost was always fantasy all along. Not even pseudoscience like Back to the Future or The Matrix, but straight-up wizards-and-unicorns stuff, no different than Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

You wanna know the solution to Lost? Okay, buckle in. There's a pool of magic at the center of the island called the Heart of the Island. What is the smoke monster? A man who fell into the pool of magic hundreds of years ago and turned into a monster. Who is Jacob? A man who was made immortal hundreds of years ago to protect the pool of magic. Why did the plane crash? Because all the main characters are candidates to replace Jacob. What are the numbers (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42, which I am deeply ashamed to say I know by heart)? The numbers assigned to the candidates. What was the DHARMA Initiative? A team of scientists on the island to research the pool of magic. Who are the Others? A crew of island dwellers dedicated to protecting the pool of magic. What caused the island's healing powers, lethal pregnancies, time travel, electromagnetic bursts, visions of the future, and other inexplicable phenomena? The pool of magic did it. Why is Richard Alpert immortal? Jacob did it with his pool-granted magic powers. What are the whispers on the island? Ghosts. Why does Walt have magic powers and why do the Others want him so badly? Who the fuck knows, they never explain it! (Note to any Lost fanboys reading this: If I got any of that wrong, please, for the love of god, don't bother correcting me. I don't care. Seriously.)

Some Lost fans will argue that the pool of magic is highly concentrated electromagnetism and thus still falls into the soft sci-fi milieu, which I guess could explain the research teams and pool guardians and, if you use your imagination, even time travel, but ghosts and immortality-granting superpowers? Please. It's magic. And I don't like the revelation that what I happily believed to be a science fiction show for years was in fact fantasy any more than I liked the revelation that the Force in Star Wars, something I happily believed to be fantasy for years, was in fact sci-fi (inasmuch as a bunch of bugs in your bloodstream is science). I'm relieved that they did offer an answer to the nature of the smoke monster, but the answer left me wanting.

Holy shit, don't bring any of this up on any Lost forum or Lost thread on any TV message board, though! There's a minor war going on throughout the internet, you see, between people who were disappointed by the resolution of Lost and can easily and coherently explain in the context of the show how it failed as a piece of storytelling, and the people who claimed to love every second of it and respond to the first group exclusively with some mixture of insisting that anyone who didn't like it "didn't understand" the show's simplistic narrative, incoherent strings of ad hominem attacks, and, most laughably, parroting Lindelof and Cuse's explanation that it was "always about the characters."

Red lights should have gone off in everyone's heads when the showrunners began insisting between seasons five and six that Lost was "always about the characters," clearly covering their asses before the fact. Should have, but didn't, of course, because the mix of fanaticism, near-religious devotion, and rage at anyone who doesn't match them in these qualities among hardcore Losties puts the even the most insufferable Trekkies, Whedonites, and Harry Potheads to shame. Hell, even Twihards aren't as bad as Losties — they love horrible shit, sure, but by and large they've accepted the scorn of the world at large and are happy to love their horrible shit, while hardcore Lost fans continue to fly into a rage at the unthinkable notion that anyone doesn't love their fantasy teevee show. So they've predictably embraced the party line and are now full-throatedly crying out that it was "always about the characters" and that they never cared, at all, about coherent and satisfying solutions to the show's many mysteries, claiming that anyone who did is a nitpicky asshole who just didn't get Lost, man.

It is, of course, a lie. Pure and simple bullshit, down to the last man. I hate to make sweeping declarative statements, but yeah, they're all lying. I got into Lost during the summer between season one and season two and since then I cringe to admit that after every single episode I got online to read message board reactions and TV site reviews (although, to my credit, I was never one of those people who spent untold hours posting stupid theories that bordered on fanfiction), and people were never, ever talking Kate's love triangle or whether or not Jack would work out his daddy issues; they were talking about the hatch and DHARMA and the smoke monster and mysterious healing and electromagnetism, you know, the mythology. Always and without exception. It's really, really funny to watch so many fanboys stumbling all over each other to retcon the stuff they spent six years talking about in a mad scramble to get their lips around Damon Lindelof's cock and insist that it was "always about the characters" for them.

But let's give you, the hypothetical person who insists it was "always about the characters," the benefit of the doubt. Let's say you're telling the truth. Well, if you watched Lost exclusively for the character arcs and thought that they were rich and satisfying, try watching The Wire or The Sopranos or Mad Men or Friday Night Lights or The West Wing or Deadwood — go ahead, I'll wait! Your mind will be fucking blown at what serialized drama is actually capable of! (And although I've yet to see any of Breaking Bad, everyone tells me it's phenomenal and it's high up on my list of shows to watch.) But of course these series still explore concepts like crime, politics, and American life, which may be too much damn mythology. You just want pure character, no bullshit about islands and Others, as many Lost fans are now claiming they always did? No problem. Most major networks air new episodes of serialized character dramas every day. They're called soap operas.

Now there were a handful of things that I liked about Lost's final episode, "The End." I loved Hurley winding up as protector of the Heart of the Island, with Benjamin Linus as his sidekick. It was a great ending for the show's two best characters and Hurley's kindhearted nature gives you an idea that his reign over the island will be a peaceful and prosperous one. I liked Jack and the Man in Black's final fistfight, I liked Richard finally getting a grey hair, indicating that after everything he may go on to live a normal mortal life, and although I was cringing at it being intercut with the awful purgatory revelation, I really liked the final on-island scene with Jack, dying with Vincent the dog beside him and ending the series on a close-up of his closing eye, mirroring the pilot's first shot. Lindelof and Cuse inexplicably claimed that the final shot of the series would be a hotbed of controversy, but I've seen no such thing anywhere on the internet. It was a good, borderline-excellent final shot, soured only by the many other shots surrounding it.

Looking to the series as a whole, there's even more I liked, even if the finale makes it all akin to a thrilling sky dive ending in a crash landing after your parachute fails to deploy. The first season was a wonderful mix of character and mythology-building, loaded with exciting action and cliffhangers and gorgeous cinematography and art design (the latter of which strangely got worse and worse as the series went on, culminating in some sets in the final season that were seriously B-movie stuff whenever they went into the caverns or the temple). It did a great job building Locke, Hurley, Sawyer, and Sayid in particular into compelling characters and had an awesome culmination in the two-part "Exodus" finale.

The series proceeded to struggle by wasting much of its second season on tail section survivors who would all die and be rendered pointless and much of its third on flashbacks so redundant as to be agonizing, but redeemed itself somewhat with the introduction of Benjamin Linus in season two and Juliet Burke (the best female character the series would produce) in season three, and then really redeemed itself with Charlie's heartbreaking sacrifice and the introduction of the flashforwards in the third season finale, "Through the Looking Glass." The tight, fourteen-episode fourth season is the show's second best thanks to the freshness of the flashforwards and the introduction of the Kahana crew, particularly Martin Keamy, my favorite villain throughout the show's run, played by the awesome Kevin Durand. Things went a little haywire after that with baffling time travel in season five and then plunged into shit with purgatory, but even in the otherwise execrable season six I thought the Richard Alpert flashback episode, "Ab Aeterno," was outstanding.

But however delicious parts of the feast may have been, the final course was rotten. It don't matter if you've been eating the ambrosia of the gods, if your final course is rotten, you're pukin'. And Lost's finale made me puke (figuratively). I had some good times with the show and even, I confess, spent a few hours on Lostpedia in my day, but I no longer have any desire to watch it, think about it, or read message boards about it, and the thought of debating it is about as appealing to me as getting my teeth pulled one by one. I've washed my hands of it completely. If you liked it I'm happy for you and if you're one of the tiny fraction of Losties who can back up your love without incoherent insults or bleating about "the characters," then hell, I even respect you. But I'll never agree with you.

Chances of me ever rewatching Lost from beginning to end: 1%

Chances of me ever rewatching Lost while skipping season six flash-sideways: 10%

Chances of me ever rewatching Lost while skipping season six flash-sideways, all tail section survivor-centric scenes and episodes, and most of the first half of season three: 20%

Chances of any Lost fanboy refuting anything I've written here without insisting that it was "always about the characters" or resorting to a gibberish string of ad hominem attacks: 0.005%

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