The Archival Failure of the Finale of Lost

With what was probably a fairly predictable final image—Jack closing his eyes and dying—so ended last night one of the most ambitious television shows ever to appear on a network.  I have been following Lost (Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof, 2004-10) fairly voraciously and adamantly for quite a while now, and have refrained up until this moment to comment upon it at all.  The major reason for this is that the extremely large majority of any writing or thinking done about Lost has been mostly in the realm of speculation, conjecture, and theory.  Though the show has wonderfully pointed toward, and at times even required these sorts of activities, I personally have never been very interested in predicting what would happen on the show.  Perhaps this is merely the narrative scholar in me who is able to begin and end most narratives in a fairly short amount of time (i.e. less than 6 years) and consequently feels no reason at all to speculate (i.e. it is a futile and worthless endeavor); or perhaps it was the very strident statement by the show’s creators that they knew how the arc would play out, how it would end, and that they were writing toward it.  Well, we now have that end, and I, for one, am quite disappointed.

What follows is in no way a referendum on the show.  If anything, despite Cuse and Lindelof’s admission that they ended the show how they wanted to, I think the pressures of writing in such a massively popular medium such as network television (and who knows, the pressures from ABC or Disney executives) dictated the easily accessible, touchy-feely, fairly non-complex, overly-emotional ending we received.[1] To have the entire “sideways” world of season 6 be purgatory, and not just any purgatory, but one where all the characters had to come together so that they could move on to “heaven,” well. . . what more could we expect?  This is television, after all, and not just any television, but network television.  The recent trend w/ such slapdash shows like Flash Forward, V, and others—shows attempting to achieve Lost’s complexity and SF aspects—clearly demonstrates that the formal dictates of network television simply aren’t kind to this type of narrative.  (In terms of SF, can anyone imagine Battlestar Galactica or the recent, and surprisingly good, Stargate Universe working on a network?)  Needless to say, the creators of Lost gave a heroic, epic effort to attempt to make good network tv, and despite my qualms w/ the ending, they should be commended for this.

That doesn’t let them off the hook for the finale though.  To paraphrase a contributor to one of the many comment-forums I was surfing through last night to see how people reacted,[2] the finale revealed that all the SF, physics, time-travel, weird twists and turns, etc. etc.—anyone who watches Lost knows what I’m talking about—all of that was a mere prop for what ultimately proved to be an emotional, character-driven soap opera.  I don’t think I’m alone in saying I didn’t watch the show for its character development, let alone its acting.  W/ the exception of Locke (Terry O’Quinn), Sayid (Naveen Andrews), and Ben (Michael Emerson), I think anyone would have to agree that the acting was pretty wretched on the show as a whole, at times bordering on the wholly melodramatic.[3] The characters were fairly “stock,” and were shallow enough, even w/ the massive effort put in to making them complex, that they felt like a prop to all the interesting mysterious stuff.  Well, we should’ve known better.  The whole format of the show—flashbacks, flashforwards, and flash-sideways—always privileged character development, so of course the show ends on this.  I’m not surprised per se, just disappointed to realize that I’ve been invested in what I thought was a fascinating show, w/ massive intellectual ambition, only to discover that all that intellectual ambition was a mere prop, mere window dressing to a fairly normative narrative—i.e. redemption (gag).

Furthermore, this is not a rant about the “questions” that may or may not have been “answered.”  No, what I am trying to suggest here, is that the appeal of Lost was always, I think for the majority of people—i.e. why people watched it rather than other dramas, be they doctor-related or not—an intellectual appeal.  The show didn’t dumb itself down, but did the opposite.  It asked its viewers to really strive at their mental limits in terms of narrative construction (see all the theorization and speculation).  Though I wasn’t expecting a James-Bond-villian-type-explanation for all the mysteries of the island, it perhaps would have been more satisfying intellectually.  They really could have used a page from detective fiction, noir, or even Sherlock Holmes on this one.  But what last night’s finale so clearly emphasized, was that the show was never really about its intellectual aspects, at least to its writers, but rather about these poorly written, poorly constructed characters, who I always gave the benefit of the doubt to b/c of the show’s intellectual ambition.  I, and most viewers—all the people who poured out complex theories, the cult of rabid fans, the Lostpedia, etc.—we were all duped.  And I’d like to briefly suggest why this may have been so, though I’ll leave a more fully fleshed-out commentary for elsewhere (or later).

Basically, the appeal of Lost for, I would like to suggest, most of its really hardcore and even casual fans was an archival appeal.  The show was probably the most reference-heavy popular artifact ever (?).  Characters were unapologetically named after philosophers, literary figures, and scientists.[4] References to literature, film, music, science, math, politics, and pretty much anything one could think of were more than liberally inserted into the narrative; the show was inundated w/ them[5]; the show required its own wiki.  And perhaps no other single popular document inspired as many searches through Wikipedia than Lost.  And all this intellectual allusiveness was fun.  If Lost was so popular, this was the reason.  The show was hyperarchival par excellence.

What got really completely abandoned in the finale and the last season as a whole was the archival nature of the show.  The plot boiled down to protecting some “light” (the source of life in the world) and a struggle b/t good and evil (sorta).  All the intellectual, archival, referential, postmodern work the show did ended up being completely empty.  I read recently somewhere that the relationship b/t Lost and its viewers was an unprecedented one, fostered by the internet like never before, and that this was adversely affecting the show.  This is perhaps true, but what we surely didn’t receive last night was a gesture toward the fans (though it unapologetically was trying to do that, to thank the fans for watching).  Rather, we got what should’ve been apparent the whole time.  None of the intellectual stuff mattered.  Cuse and Lindelof were interested in one thing, and one thing only.  Telling a story.  And this, if anything, is what should really be taken from the show.

Lost was a masterpiece in narrative form (even if it had horrible dialogue).  For any aspiring writer, Lost would be a good place to start w/ investigating all that is possible w/ narrative.  The show’s writers really pulled almost every narrative trick out of the hat—seriously, time travel, flashbacks and forward, fragmentary narrative, cliffhangers, near perfect narrative arcs, etc.—and they did so w/ a clear end in mind.  In terms of narrative, the show is incredible.  That is, except for the fact that the entirety of the show, and esp. season 5, was shown to be ultimately unimportant.  The show was always, and still was w/ last night’s finale, about its teleology.  The purposes of characters, their “destiny,” what the island in fact is (or was)—these were the things, intimately linked w/ the Lost’s hyperarchival nature, that drove the show.  To end in the afterlife on a gooey note of camaraderie and community simply departs from the show’s narrative thrust.  The ending was not faithful to what had been constructed.  And I mean this statement formally.

For example, all of season 5 boiled down to whether to detonate the nuke or not,[6] whether destiny, time, etc. could be changed, whether eschatology was written in stone.  And w/ the opening of season 6, we thought that it wasn’t: that we were given two worlds: one in which the bomb did its work, one in which it didn’t.  B/c of the need to end, however, the bomb had to not work (sorta).  So much effort was put into getting the characters where they were at the beginning of this season, but ultimately, so little of it was necessary.  Did the narrative really require going back in time?  No.  Did it require leaving the island?  Not really.  Lost perhaps went through more gymnastic narrative contortions than any other network television show ever, only to end in the most simple manner.  And I have to look at this as a failure.

Lost was an incredible opportunity to really do something quite amazing w/r/t narrative, archivization, and eschatology, and it totally balked at all three, taking the most normative, cliché, redemptive way out possible.  The show could have proven that not only are most viewers far more intelligent than the networks would have us believe (seriously, one more cop show and I’m going on a tv hiatus), but that most tv viewers are starved for intellectual stimulation, and thus perhaps a more rigorous ending could have shown a new path to tv execs for making shows.  In short, I don’t think we can lay the blame for the ending of Lost at the feet of the show’s creators, but rather the very popular culture it is so stridently situated in.  It was an impossible show to begin w/, and the ending only reveals the failure of its impossible ambition.  Given two options, between Entertainment that sublimates our own individual “emotions” and a rigorous, intellectually demanding, narrative experiment, network television will always choose option one.  It sells.  Consequently, Lost is entertainment plain and simple.  Extremely well-made and captivating, yes.  (I refuse to write off the whole show b/c of this end, btw.)  But it provides what we want: that there is “meaning” to life, that everything will turn out “okay” even though we all die, that our relationships w/ people matter in the grand cosmic picture, that our own individual struggles and qualms really are important.  Lost had a chance to take tv into the realm of art, and it failed, and this was ultimately an archival failure.  We should not bemoan this.  We should simply perhaps learn the lesson that ends are far more difficult to do well than virtually anything else in narrative, esp. when those ends are coming for so long and so ambitiously.  The one thing everyone wanted that watched the show, what drove the whole damn thing, was “how is it gonna end?”  Well, now we know, and perhaps if the show really achieved anything, it is the revelation that we should collectively stop caring about ends so much, any ends.   Whether it be the end of the world or the end of a beloved television show, we need to be more archival and become non-eschatological.  And if Lost is able to show this through its ultimate failure, then hats off.

[1] Let me also include the words sappy, cliché, heart-string-pulling, safe, easy, and perhaps even lazy.

[2] For the most part, even the people who appreciated the ending, don’t really have that much to say.  The people who were slamming it, mostly didn’t even really watch the show, or were hyperbolic like: “Lost has wasted the last 6 years of my life.”  Yikes.  Like all the other disappointing cultural crap they were imbibing wasn’t just as worthless?

[3] For instance, Harold Perrineau’s performance as Michael was particularly awful.  If I never hear “WALT!” again it will be too soon.  Perrineau is esp. interesting w/r/t acting b/c he was excellent on OZ (Tom Fontana, 1997-2003), as was Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje who played Mr. Eco on Lost.

[4] Though I did appreciate Kate’s “really!?” when learning Christian Shepherd’s name.

[5] Even if these references were most often of the “pop” variety.  For instance, the scene of Benjamin Linus reading Ulysses on the plane.  Of course Ben is reading Joyce. . . .

[6] Important for this here blog, but I will refrain. . . .

7 thoughts on “The Archival Failure of the Finale of Lost

  1. so then maybe it is not a failure at all. but that’s me talking as a fan of the melodrama, which Jane Feuer argues all television is melodrama. but the show was great because of its process, and it’s ability to create community both in geographic and digital space. i regret i never became part of that community, my own fault. i am just suggesting that to judge the show as a failure because it has a simple melodramatic ending puts too much value on the ending, perhaps. though i am writing as someone who has not seen the ending, of course. Have you watched Joss Whedon’s _Buffy the Vampire Slayer_ that was on the Fox network in the 90s? That final episode was fantastic, but it was created not as an ending but as a way to transition the story from television to comic book. (i appreciate your taking the time to write your thoughts about the show, and i am looking forward to reading through the archives of this site. xos)

  2. Sorry, I stopped after you said “purgatory.”

    Why would they go through all that trouble of transcending dimension if they just wanted purgatory? Okay, admittedly, I have only a few shaky explanations for the light at the end (in the church), but what people are calling the “afterlife” is, I think, not an afterlife at all. That perspective is strictly Western, and the show included consistent references to Easter faiths as well as a type of quantum physics which is unraveling the possibility of a multiverse.

    I think we were looking at an alternate dimension. I can’t explain why there was a sudden convergence of universes. I wish they explained the Island better… but I agree with you in that corporate pressures were a really obvious factor…. They could’ve gone on for at least three more seasons with all the questions we’ve got left about the Island, itself.

    • Though I love your shaky interpretation of “Easter” faiths, the show couldn’t be more explicit. Jack says: “I’m dead.” No multiverse, no matter how vague your allusions to, well, whatever it is you may be specifically talking about.

  3. Not to be crass after such a well written article on the matter, but the finale just plain SUCKED. It infuriated me, and to make matters even more frustrating, I feel I have no adequate outlet for this fury. I feel tricked, betrayed, etc. etc. and to ad insult to injury I have to remember that I’m feeling all these things over some silly TV show.

  4. [“W/ the exception of Locke (Terry O’Quinn), Sayid (Naveen Andrews), and Ben (Michael Emerson), I think anyone would have to agree that the acting was pretty wretched on the show as a whole, at times bordering on the wholly melodramatic.”]

    I have to disagree with you on this. One, I also believe that Matthew Fox, Elizabeth Mitchell, Yunjim Kim, Daniel Dae Kim, Harold Perrineau, Nestor Carbonell, Jeremy Davies and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje were among the outstanding performers on the show.

    [” For instance, Harold Perrineau’s performance as Michael was particularly awful. If I never hear “WALT!” again it will be too soon.”]

    This is the most shallow piece of criticism I have ever come across. Really . . . shallow. You sound like some immature man-child who demand that a character who is also a parent, act like Mr. Spock.

    Now, I wasn’t that fond of the finale. I really hated the church sequence. And the series had a lot of plot holes that failed to be explained. Yes, some of its characters were poorly written (and I’m thinking of Kate Austen, Claire Littleton and the Kwons between Seasons 4-6). But not all of the characterizations in the series was bad. And despite the plot holes and the unsatisfying finale, not all of the writing on “LOST” was bad.

    “LOST” had the potential to be a great show, but didn’t quite make it. But I still found it entertaining. And I do believe that some of the writing was exceptional, if not most of it.

    • I’ve been nice enough to approve your post (despite the insult), but I’d urge you to go back and actually read what I wrote as none of your qualms w/ what I said really addresses the point, like, at all. (And btw, since when is Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock the height of thespianism?)

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