Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost: An Epitaph, or The Tyranny of “Why?”

(there's going to be spoilers in here; proceed at your own risk)

Not too long ago, I wrote a little about a novel by Hideki Murakami entitled The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle ( As a wannabe writer, I found that the more I thought about the novel, the more I appreciated the writerliness of it—the flexing of a writer's imagination and art. But it felt like it broke many of the tenets of what is an unspoken contract between writer and reader:

It's frustrating for the reader, because we have been trained to try to make connections between the events in a story, to unify them in some way that pushes the plot along. But not only does Okada [the narrator] resist any such impulse, so does the novel, actively forgoing any but the most ephemeral of relationships between events. And as a writing device, it's wildly successful: while I wanted to throw the book aside in frustration as more and more inexplicable things happened, I was determined to make it to the end of the novel to find out why they were happening.

Mrs. Speculator and I have watched every episode of Lost, culminating in the series finale last night. And then as we lay in bed, disquieted and discomforted, trying to figure out not only what we had just witnessed but what had happened over the last six seasons, I felt more and more like I had read another Murakami novel. The end of the story had been achieved; happy endings had been given to every character that we were allowed to care about and almost all of the agonizingly tragic moments of the past six years were reversed. Couples who belonged together and were torn apart were brought back together in, of all places, a sort of purgatory/limbo they all went to after they died, just before the door to heaven was opened and they all went on to whatever's next. And with the swell of tear-inducing music, the audience is supposed to walk away from the conclusion feeling good, because the suffering was all over and characters that we had grown to know all went away happier than they had been at the start of the series, even if that happiness was centered on dying and going to heaven together, to be with the people that mattered to them the most.

But it may not be enough. Six years of the cruel vicissitudes of one of the most labyrinthine plots ever on TV demanded something more than "they live happily ever after." What forces were fighting on the island? Who represented which sides of the battle? What was the power behind the island? We wanted answers to the big questions that Lost teased us with for nearly six years. And we wanted answers to smaller questions as well—why push a damn button every 108 minutes? Why did the Dharma Initiative keep making food drops? (I realize as I look back at these questions that the real geek state has been achieved; someone reading this without ever having seen an episode would shake their head in concern and amazement that such esoteric things could consume an imagination.) And like the other 119 episodes, the final episode provided no answers. Instead with a paradoxical ham-handed gentleness, we (and the characters) are told to move along. The story is done; that's all you get.

And while the characters are fulfilled by the nearness of the ones they love, most of the audience is not fulfilled at all. We've been trained to follow plot threads to a satisfying conclusion: things make sense at the end (unless we are being set up for a sequel, but even cliffhangers have rules). The audience always gets to find out why. Yet the writers of Lost refuse to give us resolution, some might say arrogantly so: the audience has given so much time to the mysteries of the island—how dare the writers hold off our reward?

I abhor the phrase "the journey is more important than the destination" especially as it applies to story-telling. Writers often say this as a final response to irate readers who are left unsatisfied by a story's ending. Usually, I find that such an excuse covers up what I feel to be shoddy writing, condescending and smarmy and sometimes not at all true. And yet I find myself circling back to this sentence over and over again as I think about Lost. It's clear to me that on one level, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof are not bad writers at all, so talking about the journey as a "get out of jail free" card against the angry masses is not really valid. Face it: millions of people watched Lost because they were made to care about the characters that inhabited the story. Viewers usually liked the interesting narrative tricks Cuse and Lindelof employed. Poor writers could not have made this happen.

At the same time, Cuse and Lindelof broke an important rule: they spoke outside their story to tell us that answers would be coming. They went to conventions and did interviews over the past few years, teasing and hinting, sometimes contradicting themselves, but always promising there would be explanations to come. Unfortunately, I don't see that as a failure in writing (except that these writers made the mistake of getting into PR), but as failures in marketing. But even that perspective is skewed by my role as a consumer of the story—this will be resoundingly cynical, but their marketing worked: audiences watched for six seasons. Advertisements were watched, products were sold. And at the end, the show had a fair-sized market that made money for six years. And now that the show is over, and they are no longer dependent on that audience, why should they care what we think of the show (except, I guess, for DVD sales; but people are stubborn and they'll buy DVDs to "figure it all out")?

Cynicism aside, I'm still left with what does it all mean? Why did the events we saw happen? I find that I can't get out of my straitjacket of desire for an explanation so easily, and the writer part of me wants to find the framework and make it all make sense. And a very visceral part of me is a bit disappointed: I deserve an explanation! For weeks, I've been planning this blog entry, where I would triumphantly point to the final episode as justification that my belief that Lost was not so much about good and evil as fate vs. free will. And as the episode concluded, I realize that really what it was "about" isn't so important. The allegory, the symbolism, the hidden meanings we want to call out just don't exist; they were teases or perhaps excited optimistic over-readings of what the show did actually supply: plot devices that grew the characters. Cynically, Lost could be seen as masturbatory writing, writing just to write, not really trying to connect pieces but playing a sort of roulette with a big "wheel o' plot devices."

But if there's a message to be had, and I really want there to be one, I think part of the point is that every character fought for what they believed in. What exactly did they believe in? Sometimes I don't think even they knew. I'm pretty certain Jack has no idea what the power behind the island is, even as he saves it and dies as a result. Is the island a cage for the world's evil, embodied by the smoke monster and Man in Black? Probably not, and the point is that it doesn't matter. The writers just set a stage and put interesting people on it. They pushed those characters around, much like game pieces, and wrote episodes about the results. It wasn't about why they did what they did, but what they did that made the show compelling. The writers spent time giving the characters interesting back stories as well, since they make good story-telling tools as well. And then the writers just set the characters in motion, pretty much without a goal. The result was just watching well-constructed characters interact. It's not about good and evil; it's about people and, from a critical point of view, story-telling.

It's just not what modern viewers are used to. It's not fulfilling and not satisfying. I freely admit to some resentment at being misled, at not being given answers. But, at the end, we're still left with characters we'll treasure, and stories that we'll remember. And while that's not something that our generation of entitled readers wants, it's still something valuable.

(hours after publishing this and looking around at some reviews, I foudn this blog, which says what I was attempting to say more clearly, and without thinking about the writers' issues:

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