I’ve been intrigued by Lost ever since I saw its pilot episode way back in 2004. I’m a sucker for magical realism and narrative ambiguity, both things which Lost possesses in spades. Yet for some reason I never did pursue it past that first episode, and the flak it received from critics for its ever-increasing incoherence over the years left me reluctant to make the commitment to watch it retrospectively.
A few conversations with friends of good taste over the past year or so finally convinced me to take the plunge. Some suggested that its claimed incoherence was really a result of lazy viewing - that close watching and a willingness to use one’s imagination could fill in all the apparent plot holes, that the entire show and its mythos was actually meticulously planned from beginning to end and obviously so to any true fan. And I thought - hell, I’ve made similar arguments defending of some of my favourite shows (looking at you, Twin Peaks) against the same criticisms, so I might as well give it a shot and form my own opinion.
Several months and six seasons later, I can definitely say it was worth the commitment, although it frequently tested my patience along the way. On the one hand, it often felt that the writers were simply throwing shit at a wall to see what stuck; on the other hand, they’d throw in just enough clever callbacks to hints dropped in previous seasons to make it seem like maybe, just maybe, they’d planned it all this way from the beginning. Ultimately, I kept telling myself, it would either all be justified by its final act or the whole thing would come tumbling down like a house of cards.
Some like to say that the journey matters more than the destination, but that’s never been my philosophy when it comes to storytelling. A good ending gives meaning and context to what has come before; it provides thematic and narrative resolution and satisfies the core conflicts. I’m even more particular about endings to “mystery” stories like Lost. A good mystery ending doesn’t have to give us all the answers - personally, I like having a few loose ends to reflect on - but those loose ends should be resolvable in principle, that is, there should be a right answer (or several possible right answers) which can reasonably be inferred from the information we have been given, rather than just being left dangling because the writers couldn’t figure out what to do with them either. And where it does give answers, they should make sense, that is, be consistent with the clues we’ve been given previously and with established themes, and it should not rely on deus ex machinas arbitrarily introduced at the last minute such that even the most astute viewer could not possibly have figured things out for themselves. I like to call this “Horcrux Syndrome” - after the Harry Potter books’ all-important vessels for arch-villain Voldemort’s soul which must all be destroyed in order to defeat him, a plot device which is not introduced or even hinted at until the final book and which would have been so much more compelling had it been developed or at least foreshadowed sooner that the only plausible explanation is that Rowling was simply making it up as she went along. I digress, but my point is, Lost suffers from a SEVERE case of Horcrux Syndrome, particularly in its introduction of “The Heart of the Island” in its pen-penultimate episode, a device which is supposed to serve as the ultimate motivation for all that has hitherto transpired.
It’s not just the hackneyed nature of the Heart’s introduction (along with many of the other revelations in the show’s final season) that bothers me, it’s that the very existence of an Ultimate Answer, of an objective Good Guy (Jacob) and Bad Guy (The Man in Black) is just completely at odds with the thematic setup which occurs in the show’s first five seasons.
Okay, so there are a lot of themes in this show. Good vs Evil. Science vs Faith. Life, Death, Rebirth. Coincidence vs Fate. From the beginning of Season One the Island is set up as a “battleground of the soul” - a purgatorial, cathartic world in which its characters must overcome their egos, shed their baggage (as revealed through flashbacks), and do penitence for their sins. Its characters (particularly Jack and Locke, although the former more obliquely than the latter) are on a constant quest for meaning and purpose in the face of the chaotic and mysterious forces which reign on the Island, a quest which parallels the viewers’ attempts to piece together the disparate clues the showrunners have thrown at us. Again and again we hear them say “This is what I’m supposed to do”, “This is what the Island wants”, “This is my Destiny”, and again and again their zealous pursuit of their objective ends in disaster, futility, and/or disillusionment. There’s a brilliant and subtle existentialism in this, a commentary on the way we necessarily construct meaning in our quest for it, and a cautionary tale about the danger of conviction untempered by doubt and the blind seeking of validation from others. True purpose isn’t given to us from on high, it comes from within, a message which is reinforced as each successive “man behind the curtain” steps out and we discover them to be as clueless as anyone else to the true purpose of the Island and its goings-on, a pretender following orders which they themselves barely understand.
See, a satisfying resolution to all this would be one in which the characters develop a self-awareness about the inherently fickle and meaningless nature of existence and learn to find their inner purpose without the need for higher validation. Instead after blindly stumbling from one misguided venture to another it finally transpires that there was actually a Right Answer all along and that the man behind the man behind the man behind the curtain knows what’s up and is (along with his evil twin) responsible for everything. He’s the Good Guy - even though his followers served as antagonists for much of the show and inflicted untold cruelty on our heroes - and his brother is the Bad Guy. All the crazy things that happened over the past five seasons - the plane crash, the time travel, the leaving the island only to come back again, the dropping-a-nuke-down-a-well, etc. - were just part of an inordinately contrived and elaborate scheme to pick a replacement Good Guy and stop the Bad Guy from blowing up the universe.
And yet.. for all my frustration, I enjoyed the hell out of this show. The character development is absolutely brilliant, heightened by the non-linear storytelling with flashbacks and flashforwards (as well as flashsideways and actual time travel although these do get a bit tediously convoluted) constantly adding new layers of depth to their stories and unexpected twists and turns which give new context to events we’ve already seen. It’s in the carefully woven connections between their lives on-and-off Island that the show really shines, where their on-Island struggles against nature and supernature become an elaborate metaphor for their off-Island struggles against their inner nature. It is uneven, to say the least - Season 3 was probably my least favourite season overall, yet its last few episodes were among the show’s best. I disagree with critics who claim the show’s Pilot to be its highlight - sure, Lost started strong, but it was the slow-burning revelation of the hatch and the subsequent introduction of the Dharma Initiative during Season 2 which really hooked me on it. The freighter arc in Season 4 is also among the show’s strongest. And maaaan, Jacob's Cabin was so sinister and mysterious and awesome, it’s just a shame they dropped so much of that setup when Jacob was finally revealed.
Benjamin Linus has got to be one of my favourite villains of all time, even if his motivations (and the protaganists’ repeated willingness to overlook his past deceptions and betrayals only to be deceived and betrayed yet again) never entirely made sense. His gradual redemption over the course of Season 6 was one of the few resolutions to character storylines I found genuinely satisfying.
On the less satisfying side, some of the romantic pairings were extremely contrived. Jack/Kate, Sawyer/Juliet, and Sayid/Shannon all went totally against type and made no sense whatsoever. It clearly should’ve been Jack/Juliet, Kate/Sawyer, and Sayid/Nadia. Jack/Kate is kind of plausible, okay, but Juliet and Sawyer had literally zero setup or chemistry (it’s just “THREE YEARS LATER surprise they’re together now!”) and Sayid dedicated his entire adult life to finding Nadia and being worthy of her. He’s a hardened, cold-blooded killer and ex-torturer with an enormous weight on his conscience and his soulmate is the spoilt whiny brat who won’t lift a finger to help anyone? Yeah, not buying it.
Lost is a good show. Occasionally, it’s a great show. It’s hard not to grieve for what might have been had tighter plotting and narrative/thematic consistency prevailed. But it’s just as hard not to fall in love with the sheer audacity of it all, its reckless willingness to keep piling on weirdness after weirdness until the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own gratuitous ridiculousness. It’s the hottest, messiest mess out there. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But there’s nothing else quite like it.