Last year, I wrote about Seasons 1-4 of Lost (When Lost Got Lost) and Season 5 (When Lost Went SF) for Strange Horizons. Now, the exciting conclusion! Season 6 has just finished and that's the official end of the show.
A brief summary of how we got here. Lost debuted in 2004 to stellar numbers, spawned a whole subgenre of heavily serialized shows, outlasted most of them, and now has concluded. Along the way, I watched the first four seasons in one gulp, watched Season 5 as it aired, and wrote about both experiences, which possibly raised my expectations higher for the final season than they should have been! As for those first five seasons . . . what to say, what to say. Now that we know the resolution of it all, I'm regarding all the twists and turns in the first five seasons as a somewhat cynical exercise in constructing a Dickian plot, but for different reasons. Philip K. Dick could throw a bizarre amount of not fully explainable material into the storyline of one of his books, then save it all, either at the end or along the way, by pointing in the direction of some underlying instability in the true nature of reality or our understanding of it. I'm thinking of Ubik in particular, which I recently re-read. A large dose of "Isn't the future wacky?" (the characters all wear ridiculous outfits, one of the funny and endearing bits in the book) matched with "Reality is not what you think it is, and you are gradually being destroyed spiritually, physically, and mentally." That the details don't match up too carefully is altogether the point.
More precisely, Dick was fine with the book's premise (or sought it out deliberately) for the simple reason that it could absorb whatever wacky tidbits popped into his head. In the case of Ubik, I liked the experience despite my suspicions about the choice of premise, whereas with Lost the experience was tinged with a bit of despair. Baby Aaron is important! Walt has powers! Babies don't come to full term on the island! There's a magic box that will give you anything you wish for! See some links at the end for a much longer list of abandoned plot points. Cynically: the producers of the show waved big florid story developments that made us think something interesting was happening in front of our eyes solely to keep us coming back, never with the expectation that it would all be reformatted into a smooth, solid hunk o' story by the time the ending rolled around. Season 6, on its own, is a beautiful piece of storytelling, but that's only if you discard, say, 75% of what came before. I'll return to this point.
The anticipation of the ending, the thing that would apparently stitch it all together, has been . . . interesting. I wrote about this exact experience over at The Cultural Gutter recently (Home Stretch) with regard to two shows, Lost and Supernatural. I was trying to figure out how these two shows would conclude (or in the case of Supernatural, conclude the main storyline at the end of Season 5), and I based my guesses on their similarities to other genre shows. In this framework, Lost resembled Battlestar Galactica in the heavy use of puzzles, plans, plot twists, and the implicit and/or explicit promise that all would make sense at the end. I have to say that this was not a flattering comparison for Lost, since BSG not only went off the rails, it also flubbed every aspect of its ending. Perhaps this was inevitable? Too much weight was piled on the ending for it to ever be successful, and I'm not talking about emotional heft, more the promise implied in the narrative that the climactic revelations would retroactively fix previous problems, or at least provide some cover for gaps in the narrative.
(That said, Lost was in a bit of a different situation than BSG: while it also went through a rough patch that corresponds to BSG Season 3, it came back with a vengeance in later seasons, and was generally entertaining and suspenseful on a week-to-week basis in a way that BSG was not, at least in its concluding episodes.)
For Supernatural, I guessed things would come together a little more satisfyingly, since the basic structure of its long-form storyline resembled the one used in Avatar: The Last Airbender: an impending showdown with an antagonist who has enormous powers. In this structure, the protagonists have to travel the world, having adventures along the way, but always aiming towards gaining powers of their own and making friends with those who might be crucial to the requisite happy ending. Avatar created one of the best TV show finales based on this template—it's simple, it's relatable, and the ending doesn't require a great deal of explanation. Or any explanation at all! It's a pleasure to watch because all the earlier effort is paid off—our heroes have won, they accomplished the necessary feats—but very little about that earlier narrative is recast or refigured. In terms of the evolution of storytelling on TV, this is a little dull. All the same, it's extremely reliable as a way to deliver thrills, spills, and chills on a weekly schedule and provide a satisfying conclusion.
So how did things match up? I'll get to Lost in a moment (soon, I promise!), but for Supernatural, I would call it a mixed bag but mostly successful. Apparently, the show struggled with budget constraints for its entire fifth season, the very season that was supposed to depict the Apocalypse! The creative team behind the show actually used that to their advantage, as much as they could, by keeping the focus on our heroes, and letting them show, somewhat schematically, somewhat emotionally, that it was the same bond between the protagonists that provided them with the edge over their enemy. Avatar had the advantage of three tightly constructed seasons and a definitive ending point, while the worst moments of the finale for Supernatural Season 5 were due to the fact that the show was renewed for a sixth season! Yup, the Apocalypse has been prevented, but somehow they had to reset the show for another set of weekly adventures. Didn't work out so well. (Then there's the matter of the resolution of what was some amusing meta-narrative that turned into something odd and/or slightly off.)
I've finally gotten to the conclusion of Lost, and I'll try to avoid spoilers. (One of the pettier of my reasons to watch Lost was to avoid spoilers by watching the show myself!)
An amusing aspect of the expectation phase has been the nature of the flash sideways in Season 6 of Lost. (the producers promised that they would ditch the time travel of Season 5 in favor of something easier to follow.) The flash sideways was the major structural change to the show for this season, being an alternate timeline where the characters ostensibly never crashed on the island. Seasons 1-3 had the famous flashback structure, a setup that let the show delve deeply into the nature of the characters. Season 4 switched to flash forwards, which seemed to split the difference between an emphasis on character and on plot. As memory serves, the time travel was more of a plot device than an exploration of character. The sideways flashes have been almost exclusively character-focused—or at least as was apparent at the time. Interesting stuff. But lots of fans were upset that there was no explanation, on the plot side, of what the sideways flashes meant.
Now that the nature of the flash sideways has been revealed, and everything officially wrapped up, what does the ending do for us? I'm sad to say that I have to come down on the side of the disappointed. One of my hopes for the show: an ending that would make me watch it all again, that would make it worth my time to watch it all again. I definitely enjoyed my time with the show, but, sorry, the ending doesn't motivate me to pick it up again, and I haven't been recommending the show to friends who had previously been unsure about it or who had given up after the first season or two.
As a way of exploring why I might be disappointed, allow me to take a look at the critical response to the conclusion. (I've included some links at the end.) The response seems to have solidified around the following notion: the producers of the show had to make a choice between character resolution or plot resolution, and they made the right choice by going with character resolution.
Let's unpack. First of all, that's a crummy choice! Why not both? The unspoken assumption is that plot resolution would have been impossible, which I find unspeakably irritating. To the extent that if I give any thought to the more oddball story items, I feel burned by the discarding of said items. At least in the Ubik version of "wacky things happen, followed by more wacky things," Dick was busy destroying your sense of reality. Here, all that earlier stuff had no payoff, served no purpose (in terms of story at least—in terms of an unprecedented amount of water-cooler chat, maybe yes). I suppose a valid reading of the show could be "this is the playground of a mad god," but again, I would argue that this wraps up Season 6 with a bow and only Season 6, leaving the earlier material almost completely orphaned. A subset of this assumption is that we should be happy with the choice to focus on character resolution, but I find this bizarre, to put it mildly. Was I watching the same show as anyone else? I saw the character moments balanced almost 50-50 with plot moments, and the show went into a noticeable slump when the plot suffered its worst problems in the middle seasons.
Secondly, did we really get a satisfying resolution for the characters? Again, I'm reminded strongly of Ubik. Spoiler alert! The sideways flashes are not an alternate timeline at all, but a limbo/bardo situation, where all the characters, now dead, have been accumulating, long after all the other events of the show. In Ubik, most of the events take place in a post-death shared state, in this case a state produced through scientific developments. The distinction is this: Dick wasn't particularly interested in providing a satisfying denouement for the characters, and didn't pretend that this was a mechanism to do so. Apart from the flash sideways, I was 100% behind the notion that Hurley would become the next guardian of the island and do a far better job of it. Again, this gets undercut by the flash sideways, because as is stated rather baldly, the most important part of these people's lives were the times of suffering under the mad god's rule. I like the idea of the evolution in the guardianship of the island, but it's treated glancingly.
I think the show might have gone astray in holding back the reason why the people were on the island, and then making it all rather nebulous once the answers were given. Give us some answers along the way, rather than stringing us along! I'm now convinced that this is barely possible in the current structures of TV production (see the anti-Watts link below). An interesting counterexample is Fringe, which has answered most of the questions it raised in Season 1, and anchored those developments rather firmly in the development of the main characters. This approach seems more promising. Hope springs eternal I guess! At least for the long-suffering genre-TV-fan. Maybe the example of Lost will bring us to a possible state where Fringe won't screw this up.
Lost definitely provided some entertaining material over the years. As I said, Season 6 holds together pretty well: the fight between supernatural entities, passing along the guardianship, and maybe ditch the flash sideways? Also, I was forming my opinion of the show's conclusion having just re-read Ubik, which seems to have notably soured my opinion.
My final take on Lost: lots of iconic moments and great character details. I guess I just wish they added up to something at the end. I dunno, the ending that we got feels like a real retrenchment, a bold turning away from the potential of the show. I'm a classic armchair general, so I don't have any solutions to offer, only criticisms; all the same, I was hoping for "That was awesome!!" and not so much the "What just happened??" that was on offer. Had Lost put all its puzzle pieces into a coherent picture, rather than ignoring half of its own material, it would have been a finale for the ages.
Lost was always one of those shows that engendered opinion. Here are a few of the interesting links that I found in the aftermath of the show's conclusion.
A round-up of critical opinion, with most pieces written immediately after the finale.
A few paired links:
56 articles about Season 6 of Lost at Slate (the reviewers were generally disappointed with the developments in the show) Over at Critical Myth, one of the longest-running TV reviewers online (I remember reading his pieces back in the X-Files days), the conclusion got 10/10.
Peter Watts suggests that a novelist could have fixed the show. Someone working in the TV industry tries to take down Peter Watts (while ignoring the point that doing the story right would have taken a different approach).
Two other SF authors chime in. Orson Scott Card liked the ending. David Brin was a little nervous before the finale (read down in the comments for some of Brin's comments on the finale itself). Have to agree with Brin about Hurley!