Lost in The West Wing

Lost. The West Wing. We were treated to 13 seasons of great television between The West Wing’s debut in 1999 and Lost’s finale in 2010. Two shows with fabulous brilliance that can’t be truly compared, but can’t be separated either. 

The West Wing was an artful show. The dialogue with perfect timing and delivery gave it a rhythmic feel as if the characters were dancing their lines instead of speaking them. A lesser show could tip easily into ridicule. But The West Wing was so brilliant we accepted it, it actually made the show better. 

Its art played into our romantic notions of what the White House might be like; what a president might be like if he eschewed the fears that hem in our real life leaders. Jed Bartlet led from his heart in the way we hope all presidents do.  

These two things are what reached out from the rest of the show to bind it to viewers. There will always be movies and television shows set to the White House, but never one so endearing. 

The West Wing had a clear lead character in Jed Bartlet, which is what you would expect from a show about the presidency. Every other character’s actions were influenced by their proximity to him whether they intended them to or not. People in politics like to joke about how it is really nothing like The West Wing made it out to be, but in this one regard I think it did it right. You can’t escape from under the way working in politics will frame your life.  

They couldn’t escape it because of where the show put them: The White House. They did White House things and we saw how their personalities influenced their handling of those things and their decisions. The decision-making process is what revealed the characters. There is the source of drama — how are those decisions made? How does making them affect the people who do? How do their unique experiences influence their contributions? That was West Wing.

Lost was raw, a plane crash cutting a vein in its character’s lives that they had no choice but to stem. This was its White House. How they reacted, interacted and then reacted to their interactions. Who are these people? What life stories do they bring to this island? How will those stories affect the choices they make on this island? Their character was revealed through these interactions.

There was no balance or art to the dialogue between characters. It was drawn from within the characters in a way that The West Wing’s really wasn’t. You could take a lot of scenes from West Wing, shift the lines among characters and come out with the same scene, the same story and the characters would not be terribly disrupted. You could not switch Sawyer’s lines with John Locke’s. Sawyer didn’t seek destiny. He mocked destiny, denied it outright. Lost’s dialogue came from some place much deeper than The West Wing’s. 

We knew West Wing was going to be a show about the presidency and the people supporting it. Lost took our assumptions that it would be a show about escaping a deserted island and threw ’em away. It was not about that at all.

Lost was about characters. Deep, complex characters. Characters that change as they take a journey. None of them ended the show the same as they began it. They traveled toward something. Each had to come to a realization or find redemption, and they all did. No major character died or left the island without doing so. 

There was no dominant Jed Bartlet. Different characters rose and fell to drive the story from episode to episode. Using that structure allowed the writers to build each character such a deep background. If you try to think about Lost written in the format The West Wing was, you can’t see a way that it works. Lost needed four separate timelines to hold up its story. It becomes a pretty remarkable body of work when you think about it that way.  

There was no natural ending like what The West Wing ran into, not once Lost established that it was not a show about leaving an island. The drama came from what the characters did in this trying situation and the journey they took within it. The journey happened without the characters even realizing it as they faced one situation after another. Isn’t that what life is? We navigate thru the things that occupy our days and only when the journey is over do we have the wisdom to look back at where we were and know the end is where we belong. That is Lost. That is life. “This is the place you made together.” 

It’s no secret which show I like better but this isn’t about deciding between two shows. On the surface you would never think a show about politics and a show about castaways would be at all similar. Each’s greatness can be found there at the intersection of similar and different. 

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Top 11 Lost Scenes

2. Desmond and Penny’s phone call (The Constant)

“Penny, you answered.” This scene will never lose its resonance. It is a triumvrate of acting, dialogue and editing perfection. By the end of the phone call it’s not even a conversation anymore, they are each completing the same sentence. Phenomenal. Desmond and Penny’s expression of their devotion to each other across life and time is the essence of Lost.

3. The open (The Pilot, Part 1)

Where Desmond and Penny’s phone call represents the emotion of Lost, the opening scene represents the action. Jack waking up in the jungle, sprinting across strewn wreckage and directing total strangers in the midst of the chaos of a plane crash established his character and the foundation for the next six seasons, all in one scene.

4. Keamy shoots Alex (The Shape of Things to Come)

“She means nothing to me.” All of these scenes are marked by great acting, but none more so than Michael Emerson’s cold renouncement of Alex as his daughter followed by his utter shock at watching Keamy murder her right in front of him. In four minutes it sums up Ben’s entire character, good, bad and evil.

5. Jack’s “live together, die alone” speech (White Rabbit)

“It’s been six days, we’re all still waiting.” This scene represents Jack becoming the official leader of the survivors, but it also marks their transition from plane crash survivors to island inhabitants. It was a major turning point in the show. And it’s just a good speech.

6. Kate wakes up Jack. (The End)

“No, that’s not how you know me.” This scene fell right as you started to realize what was happening in the finale. Kate and Jack are the central love story, waking up to the fact that Kate lived the entire rest of her life knowing she left Jack to die on the island packed a heart-wrenching punch and starts Jack’s path to the church.

7. Locke’s reveal (Walkabout)

“This is my destiny!” It’s hard to tell what made John Locke more beloved: His character or Terry O’Quinn being fricking amazing. Learning that Locke couldn’t walk when he boarded Flight 815 and seeing O’Quinn’s stunning performance as Locke saw his toes move and stood on his legs for the first time in four years on the beach after the crash has to be on every all-time Lost highlight reel.

8. Not Penny’s boat (Thru the Looking Glass)

The only scene on the list without dialogue. It didn’t need it. Not Penny’s boat came to signify Charlie’s death – self sacrifice – so his friends could have a chance to leave the island. The still shot of Charlie’s hand against the window is one of the – I hate this term – iconic shots from the series. Charlie blessing himself beautifully reveals his character.

9. Sawyer kills Sawyer (The Brig) NSFW – Language

“You ever been to Jasper, Alabama?” This scene makes the list because of its relevance to Sawyer’s character and its sheer intensity. Sawyer funneled his entire life’s anger and frustration into one violent strangulation of the man who killed his parents. The other Sawyer’s realization of who was confronting him, why and what was about to happen to him was wonderfully arrogant, revealing the darkness that marked both Sawyers. Locke’s manipulation permeating the entire set up made this a great and important moment.

10. Ben confronts Charles Widmore (The Shape of Things to Come)

“Wake up, Charles.” This was the first real look at the rivalry and hatred between Ben Linus and Charles Widmore. The scene was brilliantly constructed: Ben, wearing a dark suit, confronts Widmore in the middle of the night. Each of their faces only half visible because of the darkness, Ben laid bare his intention to exact revenge by murdering Widmore’s daughter while Widmore promised to reclaim the island Ben took from him. It’s one of those scenes you watch and when it’s over you think, “These two just made shit real.”

11. Sun and Jin (The Candidate)

“I won’t leave you.” Where the phone call in The Constant made viewers happy, Sun and Jin’s final living scene is unfathomably sad. They were a couple whose lives and everyone in them tried to keep apart. Jin let himself be separated from Sun once and he simply would not do it again, even if it meant dying together in the submarine. Even if it meant orphaning the daughter he only saw in photos on Sun’s camera. The underwater shot of their hands slipping apart and drifting away from each other is heartbreaking.

And finally, number one…

1. Sawyer tries to save Juliet, and fails (The Incident)

“I got you.” This is one of those scenes that draws you to the edge of your chair and, without realizing it, makes you so tense that you simply stop breathing. When Juliet finally detonated Jughead it actually felt like being physically kicked in the chest. I have no idea how they did that. This scene ranks first because it had everything: It was Josh Holloway’s best scene, the determination to not let go of Juliet’s arm, the pain on his face knowing that he would have to and the insistence he put in his voice that he wouldn’t let it happen embodied every part of the good in Sawyer. It carried and emotional intensity like no other scene, and it came at a critical point in a critical episode for the entire story. The agony of this scene absolutely bought their reunion at the candy machine in the finale, which I remember as simply “You got it, blondie.” This scene was as good as television and gets.

To have loved and Lost

Was it better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all?

I should have seen it coming.

One of the first big mythological reveals Lost doled out on its path back to the bamboo field came from Eloise Hawking in season five’s 316.  Having gathered Jack, Ben, Desmond and Sun around a giant Foucault pendulum in the basement of the church, she explained how the island disappeared at the end of There’s No Place Like Home and how the Oceanic 6 could get back to the island to rescue the ones they left behind.  At the time I felt the scene was forced, hasty and artificial.  But, because there were still so many answers to come, I figured they would get better at dishing them out.  I was wrong.

With a final season that featured remarkable acting and a musical score that should be a shoe-in for an Emmy, Lost still limped to its conclusion because what had been its strength for five years broke down and became its weakness.  The superior story weaving that the writers unwound since day one collapsed under its own tremendous weight. The writers found themselves having to close five year’s worth of lose ends and revealed themselves as better at posing questions than answering them.

This played itself out in a repeat of the pendulum room often during the final season, especially the reveal of the whispers heard in the jungle since season one.  Six years of mystery explained away in one brief exchange between Hurley and a dead guy, then on to the next thing.  Six years littered with 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 explained with an almost dismissive “Jacob had a thing for numbers.”  With it, one of Lost’s earliest and eeriest mysteries is shown to be as important as the numbers on the bibs handed out to track runners before a race, which is to say they weren’t important at all.

I suppose this should have come as a surprise.  Writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse warned us in the run up to the final season that they would not answer every question, pledging to tie up only those they deemed important to what they felt the show was about: the characters’ respective journeys.  My views of season six and the finale are and will continue to be enormously critical, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for demeaning the writers’ enormous skill.  I fully understand what they did with the end of the show and why they did it.  Judged in only the light of what they wanted, the show’s end was brilliant.  I’m not knowledgeable enough about television history to judge The End against finales past, but I find it hard to believe that any of them could have been more complete and beautiful.

Watterson, you’re being bipolar.  No, I’m not.  (Okay, that part was probably bipolar.) I’m explaining that I understand Lost and its finale and I appreciate it for what it is, but that I don’t like what it is.  I’m comfortable holding those seemingly opposite beliefs at the same time because I know there is a difference between what I ultimately wanted the show to be and the story the writers wanted to tell.  The part of me that understands the writers’ intent is okay with the inadequate answers and unsolved mysteries and I love the ultimate resolution to the characters’ lives in that light.  But the part of me that wanted the end of the series to be so much more is bubbling with discontent, which it is time to investigate more deeply.

First, to make it understandable, I need to explain the Lost I came to love.  My Lost was a Lost built with layer upon layer of mystery, mythology and missing pieces.  Some layers stood on their own, others built a symbiotic relationship with each other so deep that it led to the breakdown I wrote about above.  In the Lost I loved, a deeply flawed and miraculously healed character named John Locke literally dug up a sci-fi treasure that would shape the show for five seasons.  Those two elements – character and mystery – depended on each other for their own advancement, and the show was at its best when they developed together.  By the same token, the ultimate ending I was looking for was one in which they ended together – character and mystery.  We know now that didn’t happen. The writers went characters first and now fans like me are left with our discontent.

Going character first meant no epic, mind-blowing revelations or plot twists that Lost pulled off so well so many times.  I remember drawing forward in my seat watching Ben turn the frozen donkey wheel at the end of season four, the pain of willingly leaving the island he so obsessed over clearly evident on his face.  Character; mystery. Perhaps there is no better example than my favourite scene of the series: Sawyer gripping Juliet’s hand as she dangled in the hole dug at the Swan station.  Heart wrenching character-driven emotion layered on top of the sci-fi elements sewn with the Dharma Initiative’s quest to reach the pocket of electromagnetic energy.

Without tying the end of the characters’ journey to the remaining mysteries of the island, the finale lacked previous seasons’ ability to grab us by the heart and the mind.  The end went almost exclusively for our hearts, and though it succeeded in that regard, it failed to fully tap into everything that made Lost so great.

That leads into my biggest disappointment, which is that the final season was poorly executed.  I justify my assertion with one word: Dogan.  Remember Dogan?  Instead of wasting our time with him and the temple (which itself was never a great Lost mystery) they could have gone deeper into the history of the island and fleshed out Jacob and MiB to make Across the Sea more meaningful.

Measure it this way: how much of what happened at the temple was relevant to the finale? None of it.  At its core, all the main characters did was go to the temple and runaway before Smokey wiped everyone out. It was a setting for no significant storyline progression that couldn’t have been done otherwise.  After five years of accepting the island’s magical healing powers (also never explained) fans would have accepted Sayid surviving and falling into MiB’s camp for what would have been obvious reasons.  Instead we got week after week of muddy water, clamps to the nipple and a Japanese guy with a thing for his baseball.  Precious time wasted.

Applying the same standard to the season’s major narrative device yields a different result but brings the same disappointment.  The purpose for the flash sideways is obvious now, as is the reason it had to figure so prominently in the season.  The revelation that all the characters were dead was huge, and it had to be earned.  Fans would never have bought into it if the flash sideways wasn’t given the attention it received before the finale.  But we were left to linger for too long with no sense at all of its purpose.  Had the diversionary storyline of Desmond trying to connect all the passengers for Oceanic 815 been introduced earlier than the eleventh episode of the season, the pace and path of the season would have been less frustrating, especially early on while the island timeline was bogged down with the temple.  Again, very heavy on character, very light on mystery.

I am also disappointed that the construction of the season and the finale put the flash sideways revelation as the last big element of the characters’ journey to fall into place.  The specific information that the sideways represented a sort of heavenly waiting room was wholly confined to the developments of season six.  The writers tried to tie it to the rest of the series with the conversation between Christian and Jack, but it didn’t work for me, again because it was too character centric.  Look at all the questions left unanswered: Why can’t women carry a baby to term; Why 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42; Why all the hieroglyphics; Who built the plug; Who found the island in the first place; and so many more.  None of those questions are relevant to the way the writers chose to end the show, but they are why I and so many other fans obsessed over it.  To not build them into the ending does indeed leave us feeling like we got the middle finger from a creative team willing to give it high and hard.  As I said above, I respect them for having the guts to do it, I just wish they hadn’t.

I wish they had given a better payoff to the fans who picked the show apart frame by frame.  The fans who poured over every detail of the blast door map, researched every name and anagram and found every Easter egg deserved a better end than they were given.   There turned out to be no magic bullet that they all missed, no clue that turned out to be bigger than all the rest.  As far as these fans are concerned, the series may as well have ended after Juliet smashed the hydrogen bomb because very little of what they loved about Lost – what I loved about Lost – made it through to the end.  Their fanatical loyalty was not given due reward, and that is too bad.

ABC’s marketing and promotions department deserves some of the fault here.  “The time for questions has passed. The time for answers has arrived.” went the pre-season tease.  The writers play no role in those promotions.  Those who do are either willful liars or completely detached from the show they promoted.  Their material helped build expectations that those involved with crafting the show knew would never be met.

Yet there are things I think fans can assume even though they weren’t ever addressed.  I’m comfortable saying the plan to reset the timeline by blowing up the hydrogen bomb didn’t work.  The flash sideways turned out not to be the reset timeline, and on the island all it did was flash the characters forward to 2007.  (Though one would think this would have been significant enough to the surviving members of the Dharma Initiative to earn further exploration in the storyline.)

So it ends with the same question we ask ourselves after any long relationship runs dry: Was it better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all?  Did thick heartstrings keep me from fully foreseeing this disappointing end as it began to unfold last season?  It’s a question we can only answer for ourselves, and my answer is yes.