In my earlier Strange Horizons column about Lost, "When Lost Got Lost," I talked about what it was like to consume four seasons of Lost in one giant gulp, as I did recently. Basically: it let me ignore some of the flaws, like slow pacing, that afflicted the show, especially before the creators got their show firing on all cylinders (which is definitely happening now—see my comments about season 5 a little further down).
Four seasons of a show like Lost was a great deal of material to talk about in one column, so I didn't dig too deeply into portentous things like "the meaning of the show" and such. I won't be able exhaust a topic like Lost, but I'll see if I can make a few points this time around. Speculation about season 6, in lieu of my solving the mysteries of the show single-handedly, is at the end.
First of all, let me talk about reconceiving a show. I'd like to draw a counter-example with Heroes. That show, in its original conception, would have featured a completely fresh slate of characters every season. Due to the popularity of the first batch of characters, that idea had to be scrapped. The writers have struggled with this ever since, and the worst has been how Sylar, one of the most over-exposed villains in pop culture, has to keep coming back. He loses his powers, he gets a vulnerability, but it's always him, and he's always back. (As a complete digression, linked only by J. J. Abrams's connection to Lost and the reimagined Star Trek, Zachary Quinto, the interminably annoying Sylar of Heroes, does a passable Spock, so a lot is forgiven.)
Now, Lost was not always in its current form, as discussed last time around. It started off as a potentially limited run (like a miniseries), moved to "an infinitely long series" when it became popular, then got capped, as of the end of season three, for a total of six seasons. It was the middle readjustment that caused so many problems—I would argue that the show's writers seem to have reconceived the show with some success after that.
Let me be clear, however: the writing staff threw a lot of mud at the wall in seasons 2 and 3, some of which they really like to pretend never happened. They've gathered some smart people on their side—Brian K. Vaughan, for example—and even if the writers' room is filled with hasty and frantic revision, pretzeling the story this way and that, they seem to have arrived at a decent place. Again, I'm somewhat forgiving of seasons 2 and 3 because I watched them so rapidly. I never experienced the pain of waiting week to week to week, and then year to year, only to have some random new garbage shoveled onto my plate.
Has the show actually changed since the bad old days, a.k.a. the middle period? A point in the show's favor now is that it's possible to have decent theories about the background material. Consider the case if you read speculation about a show—like I used to do with The X-Files, as I mentioned last time—and it's weird and useless to any normal viewer. This is a giant blinking sign that spells danger. Strangely enough, I would classify Richard Kelly's theories about Donnie Darko, his own movie, in this category, since the movie made sense, from a kind of persecuted-loner angle, until he started talking about superheroes in the DVD commentary. Lately, the things I've read about Lost have enhanced the show in my mind, not detracted from it. As an example, I'll point to Chris Roberson's piece, appropriately titled "My New Theory about Lost." I read what Roberson had to say, and I thought to myself: I'm not sure if the show will go that way, but the pieces definitely fit together if you shuffle them in that configuration.
Another point in the show's favor: though some of the characters seem to grate on the nerves of the fans, the show has done remarkably well at keeping all of the events at a human scale. It's not even a case of the hero who takes over the plot, since the show has always had a huge cast, and they're still adding significant new characters. So, a few words about season 5, recently completed, then I'll talk a bit about my own theories of Lost and how I think a To Say Nothing of the Dog approach to the plot could save the show at the end. It's all about keeping the human scale while telling crazy stories.
A Wrap-up of Season 5
Allow me to direct anyone interested in a summary of seasons 1 through 4 to my earlier column. When season 5 picks up, we have two things happening: a group of people on an island that is unstuck in time, and a group of people off the island, trying to get back. (If none of this makes sense, please watch the DVDs; or, in a much less rewarding move, read my summary of seasons 1 through 4.)
As all SF fans might suspect, getting unstuck in time is pretty harsh. At the end of season 4, the erstwhile villain, Ben, takes an action that "moves" the entire island. This movement, not always clear in its rationale, sends some of our favorite characters through time while leaving others in their proper chronological location. Even if the premise is not explained fully, the time travel movement has a clear function in the storyline: the audience gets to go on a tour of the island's history, like a greatest hits version, touching on highlights from decades of turmoil and conflict. These bits and pieces are fascinating, serving up red meat for the fanatics who love this kind of stuff, little clues, little glimpses of a larger tapestry. The show has always made an inherent claim for the existence of this larger tapestry, some kind of ur-story that would explain all of the seemingly random fragments. To switch metaphors, audience members are like the blind men and the elephant, except in this version, instead of thinking the elephant is actually a collection of different beasts, they make the opposite mistake. The bits and pieces of Lost sure look like different animals; how can they ever be reconciled into one sensible thing? This sounds like an acceptable argument in the abstract, except that the experience of watching season 5 leaves me with the opposite sense entirely. Revelation follows revelation, and, most improbable of all improbabilities, the pieces hang together! For me personally, I think this is because I've read more than my share of time travel stories and seen probably dozens of time travel movies (it's a popular subgenre!), and I know immediately when the writers of a time-bending tale don't have a sure grasp of their material. Sure, Lost has flaws, but those flaws aren't present in the time travel aspect. I won't give away anything more, except to say that the show holds up well with my imminent comparison to Connie Willis's big time travel masterpiece. More on that in a minute.
Despite all of the headspinning SF elements, it's still the fate of the characters that keeps us watching. And in a surprising move, the show keeps adding major new characters, as I've mentioned. I don't mind, since some of the original characters, in particular the two most well-known, Jack and Kate, have not done well in terms of my sympathy over the seasons. Sawyer, the roguish ex-con, is exceptional in season 5, and there are a fair share of moments that will excite the Sawyer fans to no end. At least he has some charisma to back it up (I'm thinking disparagingly here of the "Legolas moments" in Return of the King—sliding down the trunk of an oliphaunt indeed!).
There are major developments for the other three best characters on the show, Juliet, Ben, and Locke. Juliet came in at the beginning of season 3 as a key member of the Others, the nemeses of our survivors from season 1. She somehow got caught in a triangle between Kate and Sawyer, but in her favor, she comes away with her dignity intact. Her fate, while still essentially undecided depending on which way the producers of the show decide to jump at the beginning of the next season, unfortunately reinforces the notion that women don't come off well on the show.
That said, while Ben might be alive at the end of season 5, he gets it worse than Juliet, I think. He has proven to be a villain of notorious utility, and I must say that my comparisons to Spike last time—i.e., the role a charismatic villain can play in the leaching of bold choices out of a show—was drastically unfair considering what happens to Ben here. It's an ingeniously constructed reversal, and when Ben's nature is revealed as one of weakness rather than strength, I believed it entirely. He's been manipulated more thoroughly than I could have guessed; a nasty piece of work, a toxic stew of human frailties, aimed in an unexpected direction. A remarkable performance. There's a big revelation concerning Locke, which I won't give away either. Locke was the character whose backstory first made me sit up and pay real attention to the show, way back in the fourth episode of the first season. I'm not sure where this big twist leaves Locke, character-wise. If his fate is what I think it is, it might be even more cruel than what happens to Ben. Somehow I think it's not the last word for Locke, mainly because the writers of the show have a fondness for undercutting expectations in this way. If Locke is out of the picture in the implied way, that makes his case the most tragic, leaving Juliet a little short on the tragedy sweepstakes and Ben somewhere in the middle.
In the absence of spoiler-style details, I hope I've managed to convey at least a sense of how the characters function vividly, holding their own against a massive amount of background detail and a crazy quilt of storylines. And as I've been writing this section, I've realized just how much of a cliffhanger the season finale really was, on the level of what happens to the characters emotionally and philosophically—never mind the nuclear bomb (!), the show's real kick is on the people level. I'll return to this point after some speculation about the next season finale, a.k.a. the grand finale of the show itself.
One last note on season 5: a few characters end up in the 1970s for a long while, and the show milks this era for a lot, with some humorous moments, like clothing choice and a potential message to George Lucas, and also for an extended riff on the notorious Dharma Initiative. Once again, something remote and mysterious, like Dharma, breaks down into a collection of individuals, each with their own agenda, and with their own logical reasons for being where they are.
Speculation, Looking Forward
I wrote the following three paragraphs before I saw the finale of season 5:
Strangely enough, I'm not terribly concerned about the nature of the island, which is, as far as I can tell, the central mystery of the series. Almost anything that happens is ascribed to the island, so it's kind of an all-purpose MacGuffin. I think where the show succeeds on a week-by-week level is that the island has been revealed as something valuable, whatever the island is and whatever that value is, so it's something to fight over. Any oddball event or powerful thing just raises the stakes for the people fighting over it. And I like the way the show has developed this angle. It makes sense for the kind of people who are in this conflict to be in it.
As to the nature of the MacGuffin, we already know a lot about the island. I think there's a possibility that there will not be a big reveal at the end. The other possibility is that the reveal will suck. And suck in a way that reverberates through pop culture for decades! Hopefully I exaggerate; I'm glad that some of the worst options—it's limbo, it's all a dream—have already been eliminated.
The show has been trending towards a mythological explanation of some sort, so my guess is that it's the home of a god or minor deity. Or maybe a science fiction alternative, where the island itself is a lifeform that we don't understand and that we puny humans have created the equivalent of a cargo cult for. Any of these, or one that I can't think of . . . so be it. The show's writers have done such a good job of portraying the struggle for control of the island, that I'm already more satisfied than I thought I would ever be with the show. Granted, I have only a few months' distance from the first season, so my sense of—wow, they've resolved a lot since those poor saps blew open the hatch in the first season finale—might fade and I will probably grow more demanding. That said, let me repeat my basic point about the show: they've already come much further than I expected. A clever ending that resonates through the ages would be a nice capper, of course!
After the very interesting events of the finale, I'm not sure how much I would change about that. Again, staying light on the spoilers, I'll say that we learn a great deal about Jacob, the mysterious "person" who spent decades giving orders to any and all humans on the island.
Now I have to give some spoiler warnings for Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog—one of the very best time travel books, a comedy and a historical romp all at once, and possessed of the ending that I see as a gold standard for this kind of thing. At the end of that rather lengthy volume, we learn that all of the events of the story, as crazy and involved as they were, formed only one small piece of an enormous task that came from further up the timeline. What was that bigger storyline? If my memory serves, we are not told; the point to me is that we wouldn't even be able to understand it. The main characters have a ton of hair-raising/hilarious adventures, all of which are told at an immediately relatable level. It's the human scale that makes the book so effective, and it's the implications of more-than-human scale at the end that wrap up the speculative plot in a satisfying way. The best of both worlds, in other words.
In that sense (and I'm repeating myself here, I think), it doesn't matter what the big revelation at the end of Lost will be. Those events happening at the aforementioned more-than-human scale have already ground three of the show's strongest characters—Juliet, Ben, and Locke—into dust under the inexorable wheels of . . . fate, dueling gods, a living island, what have you. The unbearable pathos on Ben's face, the unimaginably cruel fate of Locke, Juliet's exit on her own terms; these have already shown us the cost, in a way we can easily sympathize with, of an encounter with whatever powerful notion or deity is behind the island's true nature.
I should amend my earlier statement: more properly, it matters less what that big revelation will be. In her book, Willis was careful to set up parallels between the human-scale events and the larger ones that send out the story on a perfectly balanced note. I'm more willing to believe that the creative team for Lost can do the same thing after watching their work on season 5.
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