The journey and the destination of Lost

The first time I wrote about Lost, it was during the show’s darkest days: a lengthy hiatus following the first six (mostly) disappointing episodes of season three. Coming off a slightly-muddled second year where the storylines struggled with an influx of new faces, the initial enthusiasm of a fresh start wore off quickly as the show’s main characters were captured and spent most of the story arc locked in cages (an apt metaphor if there ever were one). Both fans and critics grew vocally impatient with the show’s progress or lack thereof, and new hits like Heroes were hogging all the media buzz. It looked like Lost’s best days were behind it.

And so it was with in this climate that I launched a spirited defence of the show, chalking up most of the criticism to our 21st century media expectations and railing against those who lacked confidence in the show’s direction. I concluded with the following:

“When all is said and done, the critics might turn out to be right. When the show comes to an end in a few years’ time, we may all be able to agree that the show’s creators dragged the mysteries on far too long, and that the answers we got were completely unsatisfying. But to make such broad declarations and criticisms at this point in Lost’s lifespan is to have no faith, no confidence, and no belief in the show. And I want to believe.”

Well, here we are.

On Sunday, Lost’s six-year adventure comes to an end with its final 2.5 hours of television. You’d think there wouldn’t be much at stake in the show’s legacy by this point – after all, we’re talking about a story over 121 hours long; 98 per cent of Lost is signed, sealed, delivered and debated at this point. And yet, you’d be wrong.

It’s not necessarily because season six has been a slight disappointment to many (myself probably included). No, Lost’s legacy is still up for debate because the show has stayed committed to mystery to the very end. Rather than build its final season around a series of tidy plot wrap-ups, the show’s writers have gone for the jugular. They’ve introduced an entirely new narrative structure, one that echoes the “filling in the blank pages” motifs of seasons 1-3 and which still, with only the finale left, remains somewhat unclear in its connection to our primary plot. They’ve eschewed the science fiction of season five for a mystical, spiritual contemplation on good and evil, fate and agency. Most divisively, they spent their last major “mythology” episode providing a storyline that played more like a child’s fable than a concrete, intelligible answer to the island’s purpose.

Is this frustrating? A little. Certainly, it seems that showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are committed to keeping Lost a show more about questions than answers to the very end. In doing so, they’ve regularly tested the patience of television’s most devoted and engaged fanbase (outside of a Joss Whedon show, perhaps). But through their creative process, they’ve also ended up with arguably the most definitive television series of its time.

* * * * *

I choose my words carefully here; Lost is probably not the best television show of its time, and, given the failure of its serialized successors, it’s probably not going to end up the most influential either. But has any series so thoroughly wrestled with – and, for the most part, navigated successfully through – the challenges of making television in the 21st century?

The rise of TV on DVD. The popularization of DVR recording. The showrunner as public figure. The breakdown of the “September-May” television season. The evolving role of Internet fan culture and its relationship to the creative process. Modern serialization and the need for narrative closure. These trends define the state of broadcast television over the past 10 years and Lost has been at the centre of every one of them.

What’s more, it’s arguably a stronger show for it. That narrative rut in season three that I mention above was the impetus behind the negotiation with ABC for setting a finale date for the series; that achieved, the show discovered new life as Lindelof and Cuse flipped their narrative on its head and started moving towards their end game. The duo found ways to share their process with fans – from their insightful podcasts to the between-season online challenges – without compromising their vision and in doing so ended up with a more vast, intriguing universe.

But that said, Lost’s greatest success is not owed to its 21st century gimmicks but to its steadfast commitment to character, storytelling and, above all else, mystery.

* * * * *

We live in un-mysterious times. We share copious amounts of information about ourselves on social networks. We collect the entirety of useful background on a topic and assemble them into online encyclopedia articles. We build websites that collect every photograph we can find of famous people. We publish our heartbreak, our joy, our anxieties, our victories for all to see.

It’s against this background that Lost debuted in 2004, closing its brilliant, exhilarating premiere with a single question: “Where are we?” Through six years of monsters, Others and donkey wheels, that question has been blown apart to include dozens, if not hundreds of new ones. The genius of the show is that by expanding its universe in teases, it used the same communication culture that destroys mystery to empower it. Its characters were interesting enough (for the most part), and its unknowns compelling enough that we couldn’t help but talk about them: in person, on the Internet and everywhere in between.

In a way, then, it’s fitting that a show with “testing” at its thematic centre – from the work of the Dharma Initiative to the role of mystifying island overlord Jacob – was something of a test conducted on us, the audience. The hypothesis: That we don’t always want to know what the puzzle looks like at the start. That we want to ask questions as much as we want them answered. And that even in the age of instant information gratification, the journey is as important as the destination.

By continuing to complicate their mythology until the (perhaps bitter) end, Lindelof and Cuse are not only pushing this test to the limit, but they remain committed to the vision of Lost creator J.J. Abrams, who laid out his ideology of mystery in Wired last year:

“People often ask me how Lost is going to end. I usually tell them to ask Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse, who run that series. But I always wonder, do they really want to know? And what if I did tell them? They might have an aha moment, but without context. Especially since the final episode is a year away. That is to say, the experience – the setup for a joke’s punch line, the buildup to a magic trick’s big flourish – is as much of a thrill as the result. There’s discovery to be made and wonder to be had on the journey that not only enrich the ending but in many ways define it.”

* * * * *

Sunday night, we find out if Lost’s creative team was right in their hypothesis. I remain anxious, if only because you can already see the seeds of discontent brewing amongst a fevered fanbase. Though they’ve done their best to manage expectations, Lindelof and Cuse have written themselves into a complicated spot: by encouraging so much debate and conversation around their show’s questions, the audience has a more active stake in the answers. The risk is that if fans reject the end game, they’ll retroactively reject the entire experience. They’ll fail the test.

But maybe there’s reason to be more optimistic. All across the Internet this weekend, critics and fans alike are taking this opportunity to look back at the series as a whole. They’re remembering the show’s spectacular highs (episodes like “Walkabout,” “The Constant,” and “Through the Looking Glass,” perhaps the greatest season finale of any show ever). They’re laughing at some of the missteps along the way and criticizing those tangents that never quite anywhere. They’re reflecting on the show’s vast array of characters and the iconic moments that defined them. And yes, they’re talking about mysteries.

No matter what happens on Sunday, my hope is that this is the way we’ll remember Lost – less a destination than a journey, less a compelling answer than a series of confounding, fascinating questions. For six years – a flash before our eyes – we asked those questions of one another, using the luxuries of the modern age to enhance rather than spoil the mysteries before us. The final episode of Lost may disappoint. It may frustrate. But it shouldn’t negate the messy, bewildering and often brilliant ride it took to get there.

For more on the end of Lost, I recommend checking out Cultural Learnings, the television blog of my more Internet-famous brother Myles (you know, the one who gets mentioned on Entertainment Weekly). He’s going to be doing Lost coverage all weekend and will probably have one of the best finale recaps on the Internet. At the very least, it will probably be online the quickest – the guy writes like it’s going out of style.

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8 responses to “The journey and the destination of Lost

  1. Thank u 4 this I appreciate ur point of view on the series as a whole! I definitely am probably 1 of the few fans that aren’t as worried about the “answers” & whether its come across well or not I think the show has answered the majority of the questions… When the show 1st debuted I had just lost my sister & I really hadn’t been interested in anything much less a tv show! But what this show did 4 me was sort of miraculous in its own right! I am grateful 4 the distraction & the entertainment that it offered me @ such a hurtful period in my life! I am very invested in the finale but no matter how it ends its served an awesome purpose 4 me!

  2. Very glad that I’m not the only one that considers Through The Looking Glass one of the top Lost episodes, I would have to place it first on my list.

  3. Whew! Take my breath away.

    I have taken myself off the Hawaiiup/Tranmission forum for the negative reaction, or indifference I incite when saying (perhaps not as eloquently) the precise same thing. I could not agree more that Lost on one level functions as an audience test, and the Answerites are failing the test. How one can celebrate Lost, yet clamor (and criticize) for answers, bedevils me. To me, that is missing the point of the exercise, the Show, and the experience.

    I have buried Lost with tombstone already. I do not need the finale to dictate its message, or the grandness of the memorial. This was a grand experience, unlikely to be repeated in these times.

    Not the greatest??? Wow, that DEPENDS!!!

  4. Yes! Lost is about mystery, not answers. I never understood people who would try to go over the plot and characters and say, “I’m so confused!” I never understood what there was to be confused about. Not knowing something does not indicate confusion.

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