What do we want from a story?
How do we experience them? A story is infinitely more than a series of narrative points strung together in order; if it weren’t, there would be no difference between reading Romeo and Juliet and having me tell you, “A boy meets a girl. Their parents hate each other. They sleep together and try to run away, but it backfires. They wind up committing suicide.” There’s more to a story than just what happens: There are the people, the places, and the relationships that give it color and depth.
But there’s a flip side to that, or rather, an opposite end on a continuum. One extreme is pure fact; the other is pure emotion. The best stories land somewhere in the middle, creating memorable characters and moving them through a narrative that’s by turns engaging, moving, and ultimately coherent, if not in terms of clarity then at least in terms of unity. Move too far one way, and you sacrifice enjoyable characters in the name of bland recitation of bullet points; too far the other, and you give up telling a good tale just to play with the people in it.
This has been the battle “Lost” has been fighting for years, and one that came to a surprising end on Sunday with a finale destined to divide viewers. (It’s certainly divided me.) There were wonderful, sweet, sad moments of reunion and heartbreak as moving as anything the show’s done in its entire run; but there were also large parts of the story elided in favor of finding a type of closure for some of the characters. The episode was designed to hit a series of smart emotional punches based on six years of viewer investment, and it did so flawlessly. But its focus on the group of people on the show, and not the reason they were together, felt ultimately like an insubstantial attempt to cancel out all those wandering plots and unanswered questions and say they never mattered. Yet they did matter. Not because they were more important than the characters, but because they were the reason those characters lived and died the way they did.
There’s a beauty to mystery that’s impossible to deny. Sometimes, it’s more alluring to luxuriate in a state of confusion than to actually find an answer to your questions. But there’s a difference between the sublime unanswered narrative question and the one left dangling simply because it was dropped for other things. The finale of “Lost” worked fantastically, but only if you ignore chunks of previous seasons. Does that make it a bad episode, or series? Not at all. It’s been one of the most entertaining action/sci-fi shows of this generation. But it doesn’t live up to the promise and power of its first daring year, when we hadn’t yet learned the happenstance ways in which our questions would be answered or ignored. There have been amazing moments along the way, but I’m not sure the series holds water the way it’s been knitted together. I didn’t want everything answered, I honestly didn’t. (Weirdly, I like that DHARMA is this kind of tangential story that just kept getting whatthefuckier until it exploded.) But I’m also not going to say that crafting a mystery and then backing out of it is anything other than desperate.
I’m not even going to do a beat-by-beat recap. This is my last chance to jabber on about “Lost” here, and there’s just too much else to talk about.
The big reveal at the end was that the flash-sideways timeline wasn’t in fact some other timeline, or even alternate world where the plane didn’t crash. It was the afterlife, one constructed for the Oceanic survivors as a way for them to reconnect with each other after death before moving on. Jack was the last one to figure this out, after everyone else was introduced to some kind of major relationship or act that triggered a flood of memory of their previous life. For many people, it was seeing their one true (island) love: Juliet, revealed to be David’s mother because she was the last major female character unaccounted for, saw Sawyer at the hospital and touched his hand, igniting a fury of memory and love that was the sweet reunion we’d wanted since she died last season. Sawyer’s soft utterance, “It’s me, baby,” as they held each other was perfect. Ditto the nice moment when Hurley and Boone conspired to have Sayid interrupt a fight and rescue Shannon (!), whose presence reminded Sayid of their time together and reminded me how much I liked them as a couple and her and Boone as integral characters in the first season. (Though why Sayid wasn’t able to reunite with Nadia seemed a little weird.) Same with Charlie and Claire, who remembered each other after Claire gave birth at the concert with Kate’s help, an event that triggered their own memories to come back. The entire Los Angeles story led not to the concert but to the events after it, as Jack showed up to find the party over but Kate waiting for him, and she’s the one who took him to the church where all was finally revealed.
Of course, the island events were very much real, and as tightly packed as you’d come to expect from “Lost.” Jack’s anointing led him to challenge the Man in Black in a major way, and he wound up being right that Desmond’s ability to survive entry into the cave of light would ultimately prove to be the Man in Black’s undoing. The interesting thing was when Jack was preparing to lower Desmond into the cave and Desmond told Jack that it didn’t matter what happened because he, Desmond, was going to a better place where everyone got to be with their loved one and the plane had never crashed. “Maybe I can find a way to bring you there, too,” he tells Jack. In other words, the Desmond on the island is acting like someone in the L.A.-themed afterlife, and vice versa, given the L.A. Desmond’s hardcore desire to puncture everyone’s illusion and remind them of the real world. Is this because Desmond is special, and his consciousness can slide through time? If time, why not space or other dimensions? Eloise has already proven to know the truth about the L.A. world, telling Desmond in “Happily Ever After” that he wasn’t ready to know the truth. She knew he had the perfect life there, which is what island-Desmond now tells Jack he can have. It’s like Desmond’s personas are reversed from everyone else’s ever since his little electromagnet jaunt from Widmore. What role, if any, did Eloise play in the construction of that special after-death world? Desmond’s lack of fear when facing the Man in Black can be chalked up to his knowledge of this other world, but will he ever be fully in one or the other?
I liked that Jack was, as the Man in Black joked, the obvious choice to be the new island protector, and that he died to save the island and passed his job to Hurley. The scene where Hurley takes the cup and drinks to become like Jack was earnest and moving. Hurley’s tears felt the most genuine because they’ve been the least exploited on the show. At this point, seeing someone like Kate cry is like watching Ben get punched in the face; it happens all the time. But Hurley’s sudden softness, followed by his slow gathering of strength and will, were perfectly done. I also loved that he recruited Ben to be his second in command, effectively setting them up as the new Jacob and Richard but with far more leniency and humanity than Jacob’s regime. Hurley asks for Ben’s help from the beginning, and Ben comforts him by saying Hurley will succeed by doing what he always does: taking care of people, starting with Desmond, who needs to get home.
It was also good to see Frank (who survived that sinking sub like a champ) come back for the win and get the Ajira plane running again to fly himself to safety along with Richard (now mortal), Miles, Kate, Claire (who initially didn’t want to leave because her har was bad, or Aaron wouldn’t like her, or something) and Sawyer. I liked Sawyer and Jack’s farewell for the way it let them finally feel like equals, though I think Jack’s final sweeping kiss with Kate was a bit much. She’s been gunning for Sawyer ever since she got back to the island, and was even going to offer him some physical comfort after Juliet died. I’m not saying Jack and Kate don’t make sense. They’ve been set for each other for a while now. This just feels like it would’ve carried a lot more weight if she’d, you know, liked him in the past couple years.
Which brings me back to L.A. and the way it all ended. Kate took Jack to the church where his father’s funeral was to be held, and everyone who’d been having memory flashes all night had gathered there. Jack found his father’s coffin empty and turned to see Christian standing there, which is when Jack remembered that he’d died on the island. He flashed to waking up outside the falls that exit the cave (in the same place where the original Man in Black’s body washed up, and don’t think I didn’t wonder if Jack was gonna become an incorporeal cloud), then slowly staggering to the bamboo forest and laying down to die as Vincent ran up to lie with him. The church and that whole world are apparently a kind of transitional afterlife, like an interactive purgatory, that the Oceanic survivors made (?) to find each other after death. (Did the bomb do it? Somehow?) There’s no passage of time there, so the few “days” that have passed since their flight landed have all unfolded differently depending on your earthly point of view: Jack died on the island and went there, but Hurley and Ben lived for who knows how long on the island before dying and arriving there. (The exchange in which they talk about how much they enjoyed working with each other hints at some amazing stories.) This world exists as a place of comfort for them to discover each other again when they’re ready because, as Christian says, their time on the island was the most important time in their lives.
To which I can’t help but say: Yes, and? I have no idea how that special post-death pre-Heaven place got built, but its impact would not have been lessened if it had only been introduced tonight. So many intriguing possibilities about the dual timelines — will one destroy the other? Is one more “real” than the other? — were left to rot when it was revealed that the Los Angeles story had no connection to the main plot and no purpose except to function as a gathering place for the people who had been on the island to find each other again after death. (Which doesn’t explain why Penny was there.) It would not at all have changed the story to have this epilogue in the finale and tie together more threads in the main plot like Jacob’s cabin, the ghost of Walt, etc. This episode works in theory and looks great on paper, but when you try to place it within the larger context of the show — let alone have it serve as the series’ final word on everything — it doesn’t quite fit.
Honestly, I’m still digesting it all. I will say it again, for those in the cheap seats convinced I’m a heartless monster: I enjoyed the episode, and I loved getting to see so many broken hearts made whole again. So help me, I got a little misty at times. But when I step back and tell myself to really think about things, to use the brain that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have wanted me to use for six years, I can have no other response but to say the episode fell short of the scope promised in earlier years. The finale would have served a purpose for a more limited show — granted, a corny one that wanted to go out like a soupy redo of The Five People You Meet in Heaven — but it wasn’t enough for “Lost.” This was a show of action and adventure, science fiction and romance, mystery and mysticism, and moments of pure poetry. The finale felt like a casual abandoning of everything the show used to cherish. It worked in the moment, but it falls apart in the light.