Losing the Plot: Or How I Learned To Love Making LOST Puns

lost_a

IMAGE: The Cast of LOST, season one (ABC)

It’s been ten years since LOST burst onto our televisions screens making bold promises that its writers now admit they never intended to keep.

I don’t say that to be a jerk or get pissy about it; that is literally what the showrunners, Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse, have themselves described in several interviews and statements in the years since the show’s controversial conclusion. It was the very point of the show, apparently. For them, LOST was always a narrative about people searching for meaning. And searching – as the narrative went on to prove – is very different from discovering. Searching, for example, doesn’t necessitate that anyone actually finds the answers they seek.

This past month I wrote a long, convoluted article about the ending of LOST (because the world needs more of those, right?) for the PopMatters journal. You can read it here. Weirdly, despite being decade-old news, it seemed the thing to do. The ending of How I Met Your Mother was foremost in pop culture’s communal consciousness (and went on to provoke a good deal of audience dissatisfaction itself*), and the creators of LOST had just appeared at the Paley Centre to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the their show, once again referencing their controversial conclusion as the definitive statement that they wanted to make, even if in their opinion it still appears to be misunderstood.

It all got me thinking. Firstly, about what it is that makes the ending of LOST so controversial – why it still enflames audiences, for and against it, even now. Plenty of shows have ended poorly, and yet the ending of LOST still remains the punching bag of narrative letdowns. Meanwhile, it’s by no means universally despised: it has quite a vocal group of supporters who cannot themselves see what all the fuss was about. In many ways it’s the Vegemite of television: there are those who love it, who will never understand those who don’t; while those who despise it, who will stare in bafflement at anyone that could find it edible. I guess I wanted to know what was in the ingredients.

Secondly, I was curious to understand why one of its creators, Damon Lindeloff, seems intent on repeatedly revisiting this argument – in the reviews he writes about other programs and films; in his (now defunct) Twitter account; in interviews – almost as though he legitimately doesn’t understand why people would not appreciate (or at least respect) the authorial decisions he made in closing his opus. Lindeloff can be delightfully self-depreciating about his work, but this seemed like a peculiar form of self-flagellation, actively inviting further criticism by constantly bringing the topic up, even when it wasn’t part of the conversation.

So I set about wildly speculating about why all of this was. Why some fans found the ending a violation of trust, and a complete abandonment of the show’s entire premise; why others found it an ideal, even inspired resolve for their characters’ journeys; and even why Damon Lindeloff, understandably, seems unable to let go. Hopefully I teased out an answer. Almost certainly those who read it will disagree. In any case, it’s done, it involves a minimal amount of snark, and for some reason contains a faked up poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

‘Cause that makes complete sense.

For the sake of neutrality, I tried (and undoubtedly failed) to leave my own personal history with the show out of the article. But I did want to talk, briefly (ha!) about it here. Not because I think it will be particularly revealing, not even because I think anyone else shared my experience, but just to get it out.

Because I have a complicated history with LOST. One filled with a lot of conflicting emotion. I loved LOST. I hated LOST. I loved to hate it, then hated to love it. By the time the tenth anniversary rolled around I told myself that I now mostly just think of it as a cautionary tale about buying into too much marketing hype …and yet I go and write a several thousand word article about it, trying to constantly tamp down the rising emotions that are rekindled with just the mention of its name…

I think, much as I say in the article, it’s because I really was enamoured with its potential. So for me it remains one of the most frustrating, contradictory, and aggressively wasteful uses of an extremely fertile premise ever conceived. It wasn’t offensive in the way that something like the end of Mass Effect 3 was. It wasn’t gaudy pretentious drivel that lazily milked religious iconography the way The Matrix sequels had (although the hero of LOST was a ‘Shephard’, with a father called ‘Christian’, who led them all to an afterlife in a church… so it was certainly pushing it). It just felt as though it was actively and continuously dishonest with its audience, so that when it concluded not only was I left let down by the ‘resolution’ it offered (not a big surprise, this is television after all), I felt as though it had actually robbed me of the opportunity to enjoy the program for what it always was – not what it had constantly purported, falsely, to be.

It is a particular personal shame, because I would have had no problem had they been up front to begin with and just admitted that there was no overarching plan – that it was all just an experiment in storytelling in which the writers too were on a ride – just as the audience were. After all, I’m one of the viewers who drank the Ron Moore Kool Aid of the Battlestar Galactica remake, happy to follow that narrative wherever it led, accepting that (despite the first few season’s naff pronouncement that the Cylons ‘Had a plan’) it was less of a tightly ordered tele-visual novel and more an excursion into reactive, evolving, serialised plot. Just as the human race’s familiar conventions and structures had been decimated, leaving the survivors to eke out new social orders and an endlessly renegotiated status quo, so too was the narrative racing to keep up, testing its character’s hopes and fears and faiths.

Sure, it plunged into some pretty nutty mysticism, and swung for the fences on a central theme of cyclical technological singularity and self-destruction that it struggled to always fully articulate, but this kind of urgency, of desperately trying to find meaning in the face of incomprehensible loss, to rebuild belief structures in a vacuum, was always thrilling. You just weighed the wins (’33′; ‘Unfinished Business'; ‘Exodus’) against the losses (whatever the hell ‘Black Market’ was meant to be), and you ended up way, way ahead. And when resolve was finally reached, and a new Earth founded (although many, many, many people no doubt disagree with me here), the peace was earned. The gauntlet of struggle and bewilderment along their journey revealed to be the chrysalis for a necessary change.

But LOST was always a text irreconcilably torn between its intent and its execution, seemingly unsure of what viewership it was trying to serve.

If you were watching for the mystery, what you finally discover is that there isn’t actually a puzzle to unpack. All that fan investment, all that effort to parse out the clues, all the theorems and hypothesis and projections into the text to give it meaning, all risks being revealed a waste of time. That’s not to say that such fan imagination is itself invalidated, or pointless; but it is, ultimately only a projection onto a text that is trying to remain wilfully abstruse.

If, on the other hand, you were watching the show for its characters, and for human drama, then this too was constantly swallowed by the plot’s overriding infatuation with mysteries. The characters were obsessed with searching for answers. The episodes invariably revolved around big honking questions: Who are the Others? What’s under the hatch? Who is Jacob? So what’s going on in that weird room with the –

AHHH!!! POLAR BEAR!!!

Consequentially, I’ve often wondered what I would of made of the show if I had not followed it as it first went to air; if I’d not (for the first few seasons at least) actually believed the writers when they assured their audience that there was a grand narrative they intended to unveil. Perhaps if I was instead seeing it all for the first time on DVD, fully aware the entire time that there would never be any fundamental answers coming (ever), then maybe I would be able to enjoy it all a great deal more. To actually see it for the courageous, oddball mesh of genre tropes and bombast that it attempted to be.

Because for all of its floundering around** – trying to gesture towards arguments about free will and determinism, about the nature of the metaphysical, the impossibility of human comprehension – LOST was ultimately just an elegantly made, exceptionally well-acted, rollicking adventure story. Nothing more.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It actually rescues the whole enterprise. It makes all its efforts to tie inconsequential puzzles into one another a fun quirk that propels its eccentric momentum. It makes the whole adventure fun, rather than pretentiously obscure. And if I had have known all that going in, rather than getting incessantly distracted by the aimless magic trick of ‘mystery’ perpetuated by its writers, I suspect it would have been a far less aggravating, and infinitely more satisfying ride.

It certainly would have justified the mawkish, totally-illogical-but-feel-good ending they eventually bowed out with. Because, ‘Thanks! We love you! And we appreciate you hanging out with us for six years!’ is a lot sweeter a message when it’s coming from a show that was just trying its hardest, every week, to take you on a big, fun giddy ride, instead of from a text that just called you a gullible idiot for making you believe it could ever be anything more.

Lost ending

IMAGE:  The Sensation of Watching the End of LOST (ABC)

* I was never a viewer of How I Met Your Mother, so I can’t speak to its ending personally, but I did have the details of it spoiled by a particularly irate friend who had always adored the show and needed to vent his frustrations to someone. …And yikes. (He rechristened the program ‘How I Met Your Disposable Plot Device’.) For whatever it’s worth, in his opinion the last few minutes of the finale would have worked well after a season or two; but once several years had passed, once characters had moved on and the mother herself had been introduced as a legitimate, likeable character, he felt that the way both she and the emotional growth of the other characters were treated, all to service a trite ‘happy ending’, was not cool. …But again, I haven’t seen it, so I have no idea.

** The second and third series are particularly guilty of this: can anyone explain why the survivors of the back of the plane were in any way relevant to anything?

3 Responses to “Losing the Plot: Or How I Learned To Love Making LOST Puns”

  1. Tom Painter Says:

    Great article once again Colin, really enjoyed reading it. I have to admit despite being a fan of the show and watching it week-to-week as it aired the anger viewers directed towards its ending was something I never truly experienced myself but understood intellectually. This was probably due to being disillusioned by the entire endeavour by about season 4 and coming to the conclusion that the writing team had absolutely no idea where this was going. By the time the finale aired all I could muster was a shrug. I had no expectations that they would make good on their promises, mysteries and questions and the progressive dominance of the theological/spiritual aspect of the narrative left me utterly bemused. It left me with the characters to hold on to in the final hour and on that basic level I found that it worked. That’s why when I think back on the finale I remember the bookend shot of Jack dying, with the dog there to ensure he doesn’t have to do it alone, and not Jack putting the giant plug back in the sink of light to stop the vague threat from doing … something.

    I was still disappointed but it wasn’t coupled to any emotion, so no ME3 level anger from me. I was left in a stange position of completely understanding other people’s ire and how justified it was but not sharing it. My main take-away from the debacle was a marked drop in respect for Damon Lindelof as a storyteller. His prioritising searching for meaning over discovering it finally reache boiling point for me upon watching Prometheus. My issues with that film are legion but one of the main offenders is that that aforementioned priority resulted in an atmosphere of the most banal pseudo-intellectual naval gazing I have had the misfortune of sitting through in years. It is a thought process I find, for lack of a better word, offensive. The notion that just musing on a question is as far as humanity should go, actually discovering answers somehow cheapens our world and should be dissuaded at all costs. I mean we were all better off just accepting that Ra’s chariot pulled the sun across the sky right? It was decidedly the stupidest movie that thought it was smart until this month’s Transcendence but I digress.

    Endings are tricky beasts, I feel that the adage, ‘It’s the journey not the destination that matters’ is a tacit acknowledgemnt of that. It places the onus of responsibility on the consumer of art and not the artist. A defensive posturing born of knowing that completing a narrative is the hardest part of story telling and doing so well is a labour worthy of Hercules. “If you criticize the ending then you are consuming my art wrong!” As much as I am tempted to respond flippantly to this defence with a picture such as this:

    I think that the quality of the preceding tale truly impacts one’s desire to return to it. That’s why I have no intention to return to Lost despite being fairly apathetic to its finale and often find myself returning to Battlestar Galactica despite having major narrative, theological, moral and scientific issues with its ending (yep, you and I disagree on this one :-)). I enjoyed the journey of the museum among the stars, I enjoyed spending time with those characters, I enjoyed the show’s aspirations to commentary and critique of society, I enjoyed Saul Tigh saying ‘frakkin’ in that way only Michael Hogan can more than I enjoyed Lost. As you put it, the good outweighed the bad.

    Once again fantastic piece, I’m looking forward to reading your article at Pop Matters.

    • I feel I say this to your every comment, but that was a fine reply, Tom.

      And I must admit – I am so jealous that you were able to detach yourself emotionally from LOST while it was still screening. To me it seemed that every season – hell, every episode – I was shouting at myself: ‘You know they don’t know where they’re going! Why do you keep investing in this?! Come on, man! Look at how contrived that was. They just pulled that out of their butts! Let it go!‘ And I would storm and huff and make sarcastic comments to my friends and roll my eyes and act all disaffected… and yet every week I’d be right there, watching that same blurry title sequence float by, waiting to be wooed, annoyed and disappointed all over again.

      If anything, maybe my initial frustration with the ending was more an outright condemnation of myself. Not ‘How dare they mislead me!’ but rather ‘That’s what you get for not listening to yourself five years ago, chump.’

      I must say though that writing the lengthier PopMatters column has helped me better understand where those people who actively adore that ending are coming from. I certainly didn’t (and still don’t) share their opinion, but I can understand it as I never did before. And ultimately that’s a gift that the experience of watching LOST gave me, even if it didn’t mean to.

      Also, I think I can completely understand where you are coming from with the ending of Battlestar Galactica (or at least where I suspect you are coming from.) I’m completely aware that I give that that ending (hell, that final season) a pass that would never allow any other show, all because it tapped into some raw emotional nerve that allowed me to coast over the nonsense.

      (Also, I predicted the ending of the whole show two episodes into the second season, so I was probably running on some smug fumes that blinded me to its many problems. My wife was certainly sick to death of me pointing at the screen making self-righteous humming noises.)

      • Tom Painter Says:

        Thank you for your kind words. I have since read your Pop Matters article and must heap further praise upon you for it. Mighty fine article. I’m glad that the process of writing it allowed you to better grasp the differing opinions on that conclusion. It can be quite difficult when one’s reaction is intrinsically tied to an emotional state to view it from the other side. Watching from a (now that I think of it) bizarrely dispassionate perspective, especially for one that was ostensibly a fan of the series, meant absorbing all responses equally, seeing the merits of both sides. Not a common state of being for me as a consumer of media.

        Also if there is an alternate world in which someone hasn’t taken a swipe at Prometheus via poetry I don’t want to live in it. Great work.

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