Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Looking Back at Lost

(The Season 6 cast photo. Go here for a larger view. I'll be discussing more general issues first before I get into spoilers, but this post probably won't be that interesting for people who haven't see the show, anyway.)

Every question I answer will only lead to another question.
– Mother, "Across the Sea"

Going into the 6th and final season of Lost, my biggest concern was: Please don't pull a Matrix 3. The second Matrix film was uneven but had some fascinating and very promising elements. But then the third film - rather than delivering an epistemological mindfuck or existential depth or the emotional heft to elicit a full Keanu "whoa dude" - just trotted out the same ol' tired Christ imagery. I think the filmmakers just reached the limits of their intelligence or creativity or what-have-you. They wanted something cool, but just couldn't deliver.

After seeing the Lost finale (which re-aired the following Saturday), I think the showrunners avoided Matrix 3 territory. I still have some major questions about the series (more on that later), but the showrunners made the wise choice of aiming for emotional closure rather than solving all the puzzles. For the majority of devoted fans, this seems to have worked – even if they, too, have many questions remaining.

Whatever its flaws as a series, it's hard not to appreciate the ambition of Lost. It sought to be event television, and often succeeded at that. While the seasons and episodes were uneven in quality, the floor was pretty solid, and at its best Lost delivered some real gems of the medium. The Desmond-centered episode 4.5, "The Constant," is truly remarkable – a tight script, expert editing, a great key performance, the use of sci-fi to explore the human condition, and a strong, moving love story to bind it all together. Several other episodes have been tiny masterpieces of character study and clever plotting as well, including the Sawyer-focused episode 2.13 "The Long Con," and really most of season 1. Nearly every episode that featured Ben Linus heavily was great. And Hurley may be the best audience surrogate evah.

When the show started, I was wondering how long they could keep it going, since being stuck on an island is a pretty closed (if challenging) situation. However, the flashback format allowed the show to break things up and return to the mainland world, and the flashbacks were skillfully woven into current life on the island. Most season 1 episodes, whatever their immediate plot demands or suspenseful elements, also became fascinating character studies, as, say, trust issues or stubbornness or a drive for vengeance from the past also played out in front of us in the present. No one had escaped his or her demons, and the island forced characters to face those once again. The flashback episodes were pretty complicated structurally, but generally smoothly executed. With subsequent seasons, the writers became more daring (probably too daring at times) with structure and time. Lost also was that rare show that tried to be smart, pitching itself to a narrative-savvy audience who generally saw twists coming on more conventional shows. Yet the writers still managed to outwit, surprise and delight viewers. (There was plenty of frustration at times, too, especially during the weaker episodes, and the endless runarounds by the head writers about giving at least partial answers to key mysteries.) Plot-wise and timeline wise, I liked that there were/had been multiple groups on the island, often at cross-purposes, versus the straight good guys-bad guys dichotomy of many a series. Most of the key characters were multifaceted, flawed and intriguing. Lost at its best centered on strong characters, good performances and an emotional core, it featured complicated but skilled storytelling, and on top of all that it piled on a plethora of mythological, sci-fi, narrative and science geek references. When it was really rolling, it was hardcore geek bait, but accessible to a wider audience as well.

That level of quality and artistry simply isn't easy to achieve, especially in a commercial medium with the demands of commercial breaks and fairly strict running times. Show co-creator J.J. Abrams, notorious for losing interest in projects after he's started them, left near the end of season 1 with some general ideas discussed but many mysteries unsolved even by the head writers. There were times, especially during seasons 2 and 3, when they were pulling stuff out of their asses by necessity. And to a degree, this was always the case. As head writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse said, they didn't know from one season to the next if the show would get renewed. Luckily for the show, ABC announced an end date with a commitment to three shortened seasons, which was the right move for material like this. But look at the Pilot, all of season 1, and many elements of the subsequent seasons. Serial television, especially of the mystery-puzzle genre, depends on creating cool, intriguing, suspenseful elements early on, and then playing with them. The writers won't necessarily know which ones they're going to exploit the most at first, and other strains may become more promising. Polar bears that let the castaways know the island is unusual might fade into the background, while the mysterious monster and its nature might change and grow. An actor slotted to be a regular might want off the show and have to be written out, and another actor scheduled for a few episodes might become a major character (both these actually happened). Television works on an extremely demanding, challenging schedule. As much as the writers might try to give an overall arc to a series, the reality is they have to deliver a new, good, self-sufficient show each week – and those shows are based on scripts and principal photography completed months before, with a mad post-production race at the end. (Composer Michael Giacchino's scrambles alone were extraordinary.) It's a bit like performing long form improv and spontaneous rants, albeit with much more discussion and planning beforehand. "Please be brilliant on cue, on demand! And do it every week!" Lindelof is rightly a huge fan of Alan Moore's Watchmen, but Alan Moore had the benefit of being able to plot out his entire 12-issue series with artist Dave Gibbons before it was published. In Watchmen, everything is intentional and meticulously crafted to a stunning level of detail. A few perfectionist directors, such as Kubrick and Hitchcock, have achieved the same or close to it in film. It's much harder in TV, except as a miniseries (Dennis Potter's best work qualifies). For the most part, Lost excelled at delivering suspense within a given episode, and ending each episode – and certainly each season - with a cliffhanger. But it's not surprising that some things were lost along the way. Whether one thinks the series pulled it all off in the end or not, at its worst, Lost delivered some phenomenal episodes.

Okay, now let's go into spoiler territory. A couple of years back, after the end date had been announced, I heard head writers/showrunners Lindelof and Cuse speak. After that there was a screening of the (very good) Charlie-centered episode, 3.21 "Greatest Hits." After that, episode writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz discussed it, as well as a few other episodes they had written. It amounted to 4+ hours of Lost discussion. (Honestly, it made me much intrigued in the show than I had been, since I had lost interest and confidence in the show at points, and had missed episodes due to that and because of some other projects. I also thought it was a bad sign that they kept on airing recap and "explanation" episodes – although their short recap videos were hilarious.)

It was really interesting to hear how their writing room worked, and how they "broke" a season and script. (Tim Kring, who also spoke that weekend, ran Heroes very differently, and I don't think as well.) The Lost writers also discussed specific challenges for particular scripts, and their solutions (which I'd say were generally good, and certainly better than the alternatives). At the time, Cuse and Lindelof claimed they knew what the last shot/image would be (which was/is entirely plausible). In their account, Abrams had left near the end of season 1 saying, 'There's a mysterious hatch, and there's something really cool in it, but I don't know what it is. Have fun! Goodbye!' Cuse had just come on to help run the show and help out the overwhelmed Lindelof, and it was up to them to work everything else out.

On the actor front, it's fairly well known that Mr. Eko was slotted for a larger ongoing role, but actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was homesick for London, so they killed Mr. Eko off (although they did it in a good episode). According to their accounts, they offered him a hefty sum to appear in the finale, but he wanted double or triple the amount, so they passed. Michael Emerson, who played Ben Linus and Henry Gale, was originally signed for a few episodes. The writers weren't sure yet whether Henry Gale would also be the leader of the Others, which was an option they were considering, but they wanted to see how Emerson did first. Emerson was phenomenal, of course, and so he got the gig, becoming one of the screen's great Machiavellian characters.

In general, I'd rate the acting as strong, occasionally exceptional. I'd peg Michael Emerson (Ben Linus) as the best actor overall, and I think he inspired the writers to new heights. That was probably true of much of the cast. Terry O'Quinn (Locke) was awfully fine too, doing some very subtle stuff that one might miss the first time around. Matthew Fox and Josh Holloway had some superb moments, as did most everyone in the cast. I was happy to see Ana Lucia and Michael exit, but more for their characters than their performances. Fionnula Flanagan (Eloise Hawking, older) was criticized by some for overacting, and I have to agree. She's superb in some other films, and her arch, stern tone was right for the character, but it needed to be dialed down a few notches in some scenes. Still, she was quite touching and sympathetic in the finale. One of the best things about Lost was that despite its huge cast, even the secondary characters often had good moments, or were even the focus of a whole episode. "Ab Aeterno" and the Faraday-centered episode "The Variable" (reminiscent of 12 Monkeys) were self-contained mini-epics or tragedies.

Now back to season 6, the finale, and the series as a whole. One of my questions during season 6 was how they were going to square the mythic tone of the Richard-centered episode "Ab Aeterno" with the more sci-fi world of the Desmond-centered episode "Happily Ever After." It's not that hard to give a sci-fi explanation for what seems to be magic, but artistically, the challenge is more one of tone. More importantly, how would both of those strains interact with the main characters from season 1, who at times felt lost and forgotten by the writers?

The writers threw in so many elements from mythology, sci-fi, and advanced physics that they really had the range of play to end the series however they wanted. (Maybe not coherently or completely regarding all their "mysteries," but...) They also had the unenviable task of living up to huge expectations, and essentially having to violate a central appeal of the show – mystery and suspense – while delivering a finale and "answers." On one level, it was a no-win situation. Still, I was concerned that the writers piled on more and more stuff on every season, with flash-backs, then flash-forwards, and finally "flash-sideways" in season 6. How much did we really need the Temple stuff and all those new characters at the beginning of the season? Has any character in power with secrets ever considered just telling the damn truth versus playing all these games? (Looking at you, Dogen. At least one episode was treading water, and if there's some big cosmic battle coming, it's pretty idiotic not to tell your allies critical information.) At its best, season 6 once again provided some stellar character moments. But the Jacob-Man in Black storyline in season 6 significantly upended the power dynamics for the series. Jack and Ben squaring off, or Jack and Dogen, didn't matter much when the smoke monster could easily kill almost everyone.

The final episode was somewhat emotionally satisfying, but left – and raised – many questions. Dramatically, the one scene I felt was really lacking was the faceoff between Jack and the Man in Black (as Locke). The fight was pretty good, but there should have been some line, some exchange, some recognition from the Man in Black about him waiting 2000-some years for this moment, to get free of the island. If the entire series (plot-wise, anyway) was really about this battle being waged in the background, and often through proxies, he should have had some recognition of that and acknowledged the stakes. He told Jack that Jack will have died for nothing – well, that was really Smokey's own fate.

I wouldn't have been surprised to see Ben Linus bite it, perhaps nobly, but it was sorta cool to see him paired with Hurley at the end – the most innocent, good character with the most Machiavellian. Ben often reminded me of one of my other favorite villains, Edmund in King Lear, who, sensing his own imminent demise, has a revelation and says, "Some good I mean to do / Despite of mine own nature." (5.3, 248-249) Michael Emerson has wonderful command of vocal inflection (his joke spots reading nursery rhymes as Ben are hilarious), and his performances were often brilliant and riveting. As dastardly as Ben often was, it was hard not to admire his style and skill. And just when we thought Ben might be good, he zig-zagged back. Despite his villainy, he becomes quite sympathetic in a couple of episodes, notably 5.12 "Dead is Dead" where he faces (what he believes to be) his dead adoptive daughter, Alex, and 6.7 "Dr. Linus." That's quite the feat. I could definitely imagine him dying, but as Samuel L. Jackson told George Lucas about Mace Windu, "Don't let him go out like a punk."

The "Source" of the island was a bit weird. I liked the idea of it being turned off or interfered with, and that making the MiB mortal, to his own surprise. But apparently, the island was a source of unusual energy because there was a plug in the drain, and this collected energy on the island? But the Swan station of season 2 released dangerous build-up of this energy? (Human personnel monitoring the Swan made sense, but there was never a good reason not to automate the damn valve instead of necessitating that a person press a button every 108 minutes. That pointed to psych experiment, as posited by some of the characters.) And would the entire world end, or just the island, by removing the plug? The plug seemed to be foreshadowed in "Ab Aeterno" with Jacob's metaphor of the cork in the wine jug holding in the evil. But that would make the "Source" the, uh, source of evil as well. If we're going with a Christian cosmology, that makes sense, and the Smoke Monster was born – or unleashed – when the Man in Black was tossed into the Source by his brother, Jacob. Did the Smoke Monster exist before? Or did the Source unleash the Man in Black's essence? (I'd go with the latter.) Mother never gave a good reason for the Man in Black not leaving the island, and I have to wonder if there was any harm in it – before he was transformed, that is. (MIB clearly believed, in the show finale, that messing with the Source would destroy the Island, but not the world, else he wouldn't have tried to escape.) And could Mother go all smokey herself before her death? She did murder and destroy an entire village.

The "heaven"-ish ending was somewhat earned by the existential theme of the entire series. In one of the final scenes, Christian Shepherd stands before a stained-glass window which shows the symbols of six major world religions, which was a conscious attempt to broaden the ending from a solely Christian cosmology. Matthew Fox gave an interesting, clear take here:

(The entire Kimmel special was quite good, and I hope it's thrown on as an extra for the season 6 discs. It also had three fake "alternative" endings, and a great montage of kisses and fights.)

Going by the lines in the actual show ("There is no now here," "Everything that's ever happened to you is real") everyone in the Sideways World was dead, but everything that occurred beforehand was real. That's further confirmed by Hurley and Ben in Sideways World talking about their island life ("You were a great number one, Hugo") and the now-aged sneaker hanging in the tree near where Jack dies.

I can't fully reconcile Sideways-World with the nuclear explosion, though. There are two major theories on time travel (at least in sci-fi lit), and they can be complimentary. Lost used, or flirted with, both of them. The first theory is that time is fixed, and cannot be changed (I was glad that Miles raised the obvious time travel point - maybe detonating the bomb caused "the incident"). The most common metaphor for time travel is a stream of water. Go back in time, change something tiny, and it's like dropping a small stone in the time stream – it's a ripple, some details might change, but the timeline remains the same. Go back in time and change something major, and it's like dropping a boulder in the time stream, which will then split into two. The future still exists as it did – but now the time travelers have created a new time stream, an alternative reality, and they're living in it. They haven't really changed "the" future, because that still exists, but they've changed "their" future. Some sci-fi further posits that changing the past too drastically or too often can lead to havoc and/or threaten existence itself, or that the two divergent streams will eventually merge and thus create chaos, and so on. Lost played with the havoc idea throughout the early part of season 5, when the island was skipping through time. (But it never made much sense that certain people had to "return" for it to settle, and I thought the "skipping" went on for too many episodes. Oh well.)

In any case, the start of season 6 showed us the Sideways World, and Dharmaville and Jacob's Egyptian Foot House under water. It was set up as an alternative reality, a change in the timeline – specifically, a diversion, since we now had the island characters in the island reality, and the sideways characters in the sideways reality (some of whom were dead in the island reality). Furthermore, characters from the island reality appeared in different roles in the Sideways World. The differences started out tiny, but multiplied. Jack had no children that we knew of, but in Sideways World, he had a son. Sideways World allowed Jack, Locke and Ben to come to important realizations and decisions – but for others, like Jin and Sun, there wasn't much there. If Sideways World, this afterlife, this purgatory was someplace they "all created together," then why would it necessarily start at the point of the now non-occurring plane crash? It makes some sense, I suppose, in that wondering "What If" for all the castaways and other characters would be strongest in terms of them never going to the island. For all of them, Sideways World would address some inevitable doubts and regrets. Still, the Sideways World, and presenting it as the writers did, seems mainly to have been a fake-out to the audience. Okay, it's sorta clever that it was purgatory of sorts, after all those theories and earlier denials, but... on one level, it still feels like a cheat. Maybe I'll feel differently watching it again. (I'll have to see how it plays, but I'm thinking that when Desmond bounced through time and met Eloise Hawking, he actually went into Sideways World, which is why she was fully aware of who he was and what would happen – and to her mind, what should happen.)

During season 1, I was guessing the island was purgatory or limbo, mostly because I've seen that's what hack writers generally fall back on, but the series turned in some stellar episodes. I was also musing about the "Shore Leave" angle, even if the Island wasn't as beneficent. Hell was also a possibility, but a bit less interesting since Hell tends to be more final than purgatory - not that one cosmology's specific afterlife had to be correct, let alone the answer. Plus, as the writers pointed out, they showed the outside world, including the Red Sox winning the World Series. The characters themselves often brought up viewer theories, including Hell and being dead (and the writers played "meta" games throughout). Late in season 5, especially during Ben's "judging" by Smokey, I found myself thinking of somewhat obscure Egyptian mythology (Ammit the Devourer). With the end of season 5 and Jacob's Obi-Wan death, and the beginning of season 6, I began thinking more of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman regarding the "candidates" and immortals seeking replacements. Most of all, for the series as a whole, I started thinking of Sartre's No Exit, not solely because of hell, but more because of the centrality of choice. In No Exit, the three main characters find themselves in an existential hell. It's intriguing if nothing else because, well, should Existentialism even have a Hell? In any case, the three characters first give each other a false story for why they're there. Later they give the real reasons – and those reasons are more shameful. But it's an existential hell, so the final question is – at the end of the play, why are they still there? In No Exit, it's because they haven't truly changed or repented, and they even forsake a chance to leave to stay and argue.

If one believed that the Lost castaways were always in purgatory, the series revolved on a similar big question. Why were they there - or still there? And in Sideways World in season 6, those actually became the key question and answer. Characters being "tested" is sorta the theme of every narrative. With Lost, that testing was perhaps more literal. The further question with Lost was whether greater powers were intentionally doing the testing. The answer seems to be, yes, but not as much as one might have guessed.

I don't blame anyone for feeling cheated by the finale of Lost. Nor do I fault anyone for feeling satisfied. Personally, I tend to like "interesting failures," because I find them more thought-provoking and captivating than more conventional fare. Sometimes even a crappy work can spur a great discussion. I wouldn’t put Lost in that category, and don't think it's fair to call it a failure, even though the latticework did have holes. Overall, I found the ride pretty entertaining, intriguing and thought-provoking. It tested the limits of the medium and made some original and daring choices. I'd like to further study the best episodes in terms of their construction, both as scripts and in editing. (I'd like to learn from what I consider to be the series' mistakes, too.) Lost also spurred some awfully fun conversations. So thanks to everyone involved in the show for all of that. I'll probably watch the whole thing again (re-runs air out here in L.A.), and maybe my assessment will change.

I missed some episodes along the way, and didn't hit up all the hardcore fan sites and discussion boards as the show aired. However, I did start checking out The Washington Post's dueling analyses and post-episode discussions, which were quite good. They started during season 3, and Jen Chaney and Liz Kelly also have some interesting interviews and other features posted, all collected at Lost Central. The site Lostpedia lists all the episodes, compiles details and outlines several competing theories about aspects of the show (it's the only reason I was able to name some of the older episodes in this post). For unanswered mysteries, I thought these posts - one, two and three - listed most of mine. Some of the DCeiver's (Jason Linkins) old episode recaps are damn funny. I'm wary of giving ABC too much money, but some of their Lost merchandise is sorta cool. (Proceed with caution.) Finally, here's a cute comic on life with Hurley and Ben on the island.

Until the next hardcore geek-bait - Namaste, dude.

Update: I'm sure I could perpetually update this piece, but Jill has posted video comparing the first and final scenes of the series. Meanwhile, sci-fi/fantasy site Tor has a few noteworthy posts on Lost. The funniest is The Gashlycrumb Losties. There are also three takes on the final episode - one, two and three. All are interesting, but I found Bridget McGovern's take (#2) best at capturing the meta-narrative games of the ending and the show overall.


Marc McDonald said...

I have yet to see an episode of "Lost." But after reading this intriguing post, I will check out the series. It does sound interesting.
I haven't really been a fan of much TV sci-fi over the years. I did like the original "Outer Limits," at least the first season.
About the only TV I watch these days is Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher. Oh, and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which has got to be the best TV comedy ever, this side of "Fawlty Towers."

Juanita's Journal said...

". Several other episodes have been tiny masterpieces of character study and clever plotting as well, including the Sawyer-focused episode 2.13 "The Long Con," and really most of season 1."

I don't agree with your opinion on "The Long Con". In the end, the storyline concerning Sawyer's con job didn't go very far. And his rant against the castaways about them taking his stuff after he left on Michael's raft has always struck me as infantile.

The Rush Blog said...

On the actor front, it's fairly well known that Mr. Eko was slotted for a larger ongoing role, but actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was homesick for London, so they killed Mr. Eko off (although they did it in a good episode).

Akinnuoye-Agbaje's parents had died. Both of them. That's why he was "homesick" for London.

I was happy to see Ana Lucia and Michael exit, but more for their characters than their performances.

What was wrong with Ana-Lucia and Michael? As far as I was concerned, they were no better than the other major characters.