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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lost: The End...part 1

This is my third attempt to write this. I guess it's a bit difficult to boil down 6 years of obsessed TV watching.

Lost ended on Sunday. Well, part of it. In the gutsiest narrative flourish they've done yet, Damon and Carlton, at the risk of alienating the faithful, chose theme over plot.

"Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison to one's self," reads a sign in The Prisoner, the island based TV series that along with Twin Peaks, is probably the highest level TV has ever reached. It also describes the realization I had at the end of the final season of Lost.

It turns out the writers didn't know what they were doing the whole time. They did make some of it up as they went. And it turns out the oldest theory was partially true ("they're in purgatory"). But what the writers did know, and the element that will be Lost's legacy is not it's ground-breaking narrative style, but rather it's awareness as a narrative, not in any meta-sense so much, but the understanding that Lost wasn't so much the story itself, but made up of the telling of the story itself. This is something the writers did know and have told us, most recently with the book Desmond had on the plane in the premiere. The references that may be considered meta, really aren't. Hurley's Star Wars inspired "I have a bad feeling about this," Sawyer's nicknames and world according to "Little House," stories were the way these characters, like us, help make sense out of the human experience. This is partially why the finale was titled "The End." It really isn't, or wasn't. However, all stories end with "the end," even if followed by a cheesy question mark. What was the Island? In one way it was a collection of stories: the black rock, the drug plane, the statue, and as we were shown in the credits scene, now the wreckage of 815. This was a story of a survival in several wildernesses: the Island, off the Island, the interior wilderness. It is interesting that in Hebrew, the word for wilderness is midbar which literally translates to "word place." These wildernesses were places of words, and words create stories.

Before the finale I joked that what will happen is that someone new will show up and the episode will be their story and show why they're the key to it all;a reference to how the characters who appeared to be most important, MIB (his name was Samuel in early drafts my sources tell me) and Jacob, showed up essentially in the final season. But it wasn't as Jacob said to Ben "What about you?" or about them I guess.

A good story, even a complex one, can be boiled down to a single, simple explanation. This is also a helpful way to figure out what a story, at its heart, is about. For the first four seasons it was: "It's about these people who crashed on a weird Island and want to get home." The last season and until the finale, it almost appeared to be "about this strange Island that all these people crash on." This shift was a bit of a mistake on behalf of the writers, but was a result of the desire to answer questions: about the Dharma initiative, the others, Jacob. The Island may have needed saving but that was of secondary importance: our characters had to, one way or another, ultimately go "home."

I'll leave Doc Jensen at EW to go on for pages about what the story of Lost may have meant. I'll focus on what it was as a narrative.

It was a hermeneutic tale. Ian Maclean describes a hermaneutic reading of a text, originally the Bible: "the circle is that movement from a guess at the 'whole' meaning of a work to an analysis of its parts in relation to the whole, followed by a return to a modified understand of the 'whole' of the work." In other words, there is a process, a dialectic, in which because of historical distance, narrative distance, the reader attempts to overcome that distance, and in turn creates the meaning of the text itself. This is the gift that the writers of Lost gave us. It is not their story, but every fan of Lost story. It means something different to everybody. They could have attempted to wrap up the narrative plot points, explain things away, but that would turn out like Across the Sea. An episode that left me expecting the worst, and a good deal of the people I talked to either scratching their heads, or ticked off. The Island's mystery is far more powerful than an explanation by magic light (which made me think of the ICP Miracles video). Jacob's line that "It only ends once...everything else is just progress," can also describe the narrative journey of the viewer.

In 1848 Thomas de Quincey wrote an essay called "The Poetry of Pope," in which he described two kinds of literature: the literature of knowledge, which had a purpose to teach, and the literature of power, which had a purpose to move. As he wrote "the first is a rudder, the second an oar or a sail. The first speaks to the mere discursive understanding, the second speaks ultimately, it may happen, to the higher understanding." This is also an apt description of the finale. The End didn't answer a single question; it wasn't supposed to explain things, to convey knowledge, but to convey a feeling, something that can't be explained, something spiritual that when it is talked about is told in parables, metaphors and allegory. To tell it explicitly robs it of its power, and counter-intuitively, limits our ability to understand the concept through its definition. What was the flash-sideways? Was it purgatory, in some Christian traditions? Was this some sort of astral plane as in magic traditions? A singularity, a place like the room at the end of 2001? Was it the Jungian result of a dying man trying to make sense of his life? Yes.

Any explanation would have ripped the sail, to use Quincey's term. I'll go a bit further into the the problems of describing the spiritual. In his writings on the second of the ten commandments (the one against idolatry) Rabbi Irwin Kula, invoking the thinking of Maimonides, Ishbitzer Rebbe, and Medl of Rymanoff, writes "the point of the Second Commandment is that any one image is only a partial truth. And a partial truth made absolute puts God in a box of our choosing. Every image of God, even no God, is just a resting place, a moment of truth...when we've lost God, it's time to look deeper. When we've found God, it's time to get lost." Likewise, our self, made in the image of God, is a "projection, just as God is...Our self is really a container for our multiplicity. It is a resting place, a makom; yet another name for God."

There's a lot there, and it seems that I'm contradicting myself by trying to explain a TV show by talking about how it's important to leave the sacred things unsaid and undefined. There have been a lot of comparisons between Lost and Battlestar Galatica, perhaps because it was the most recent sci-fi series to end. But BSG was a Greco-Judeo-Christian mystical foundation myth, with Gods and gods in the making, and the finale of that show, like those ancient founding stories, placed us inside the narrative, as the descendants of those gods. Lost, on the other hand, was about mortals, not about the creation or foundation, but about the messy stuff afterwords. It wasn't about the grand design, but characters grasping for any design.

As far as a narrative, the plot was important. What happened happened. But it wasn't all that happened. We don't know how many centuries Hugo and Ben were the new Jacob and Richard. We don't know how any of the 6 815ers who escaped lived out the rest of their lives. We can all imagine, some will no doubt write fan-fiction, there may be comics made, etc. This allows the Island and Lost to continue even though it won't be on TV. The story lives on while the show has ended. Lost lived or died by its characters and it did them right in the end. And by extension it did right to those of us who loved those characters. By giving us an imaginative world with an excess of mysteries, and vivid characters who we have gone on this journey with to populate that world, the creator's of Lost, in their biggest twist, essentially made us, the individual viewer, the new Jacob. To weave our own narrative, to make our own connections of the various loose threads. That was what the fun of Lost was all about. I could say that Lost was important even more for its non-textual elements. It's groundbreaking Alternate reality games and the many many message boards, podcasts, and forums. The debates will live on. And because of that, so will the show.

In Part 2...I explain what I think happened.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Excellent thoughts. I particularly liked Quincey's "literature of power" idea as it applied to the LOST finale.