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.