I like a good mystery. I love to look for the clues and hints that the author scatters throughout the story. While certainly not true of all mysteries, the best are the ones you can figure out. Sure, there may be red herrings or surprise twists, but for me the mark of a good mystery is the experience of looking back, once the story is complete, and realizing that all the clues were there, all the hints led to this one point, the revelation.
But it isn’t just the mystery genre that demands consistency and hints or clues. Often these come in the form of foreshadowing, but in modern science fiction shows are relying more and more on plot-arcs. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but American television has traditionally been driven by episodic television. Episodic television allows the viewers to tune in whenever they wish and they rarely need to know what has come before. Each episode is self-contained. The plot-arc, conversely, demands repeated, sequential watching. Episodes may frequently end on cliffhangers or have recurring themes and events that form, one hopes, a coherent whole. One of the longest running genres in American television to do this are soap operas. Their plotting is serial in nature with padding to a fault. Science fiction has moved from episodic to plot-arc, partly due to the success of shows like Babylon 5 and The X-Files.
The problem with plot-arcs, the problem that American television confronts time and again, is that the stories are difficult to sustain over extended periods of time. In an ideal world, writers would control the progression of events, but in reality networks call the majority of shots in the television industry. Actors can also have an effect due to contract negotiations or the desire to move on. One of the shows that dealt with this problem most effectively was Babylon 5. J. Michael Straczynski, knowing the fickle nature of American television, devised his plot-arc in advance, and wrote a “trapdoor” for all the major characters. Thus, should an actor wish to leave the show (or be fired from the show), there was an out that allowed the story to continue to progress. The biggest obstacle that B5 faced was when the show was not renewed toward the end of season 4. Since the arc was always supposed to be five years, this was a problem. Straczynski played it safe and wrapped up the major storylines (quite satisfactorily, I might add) going in to the finale of season 4, only to have the show renewed by a different network. He suddenly found himself with only half a season of material, and so he had to rework some of the story. Season 5 starts out a bit weak, but soon finds its footing again about halfway through.
The X-Files is a show that didn’t work so well. There seem to be many conflicting stories as to what the ultimate plan was for this show, but from what I can tell it seems that there was a loose arc that was only meant to be spread over a certain amount of years. However, the show was a success and Fox wanted to air it as long as possible. This necessitated significant padding. By the end of the show, the plot was so convoluted and (by some accounts) completely beyond anything that had originally been planned that very little held together. If not for the “monster of the week” (episodic) episodes, the show would be a bigger disappointment to watch. It isn’t much fun to get wrapped up in a story that you feel doesn’t resolve well.
Which brings us to Lost. I love this show. I believe Lost is one of the most innovative and philosophical shows to ever be broadcast on American television. It was a show that fought against the stigma of the plot-arc due to the complete failure of The X-Files. The lead writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse continually insisted that they had a plan, that the story had an end. Truth be told, I believe them. I truly believe the show had a framework. I believe there are answers hidden in the show, answers that were not obvious but could still be found with some searching and a little thought. Unfortunately, I still think the show failed to resolve.
First of all, I do not expect every answer to be resolved. As a writer myself, I understand that this can be an impossible task. For Lost, a show with a plethora of mysteries, it is unreasonable to expect complete resolution. But the brilliance of strong narrative is to key in the audience to what is important. Using repetition or intrigue you can signal what questions should be asked. For example, the major question from the second season surrounded a button that had to be pressed every 108 minutes. We were given a reason at the beginning of the season, but the character (at the time) was unreliable, and we learn that the person who told him the story was also unreliable. Themes of faith and psychological manipulation came to the fore as we debated whether the button was nothing more than an abandoned psychological experiment or a fail-safe that would prevent a cataclysmic event. Repetition was used, repetition of location, actions, and arguments.
And along with”‘which questions do we need answered” we often found that we were asking the wrong questions. Q: What is in the hatch? A: Desmond. Q: What is the Smoke Monster? A: A man who wants off the Island. Q: What is the Island? A: An Axis Mundi. These answers make a type of sense now, but at the time they would have been unsatisfying because they would lead to more questions. Part of me is convinced that Lost may not make a lot of sense unless some sort of systematic explanation is released. It wouldn’t be the first show to do it.
So, what needs to be answered? What issues need to be addressed? In this particular instance I believe the show had a great weakness, the most unlikely weakness at all. The ending was set. The final shot of the show, whether Christian Shephard leading our characters into the afterlife or Jack dying in a bookend shot of the first shot of the season, was always meant to happen. I’m not opposed to Jack dying (it does work). It is the afterlife arc, the “flash sideways” that I question.
The mystery of season 6, among all the other mysteries piled up in the show, is the flash sideways. Season 5 ended with the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, an act which was theorized would reset everything. The plane would have never crashed and the past five years would have never happened. Season 6 opened with Jack on an airplane and the revelation that the Island was under water. We went to a commercial, and when we came back we saw that no, the Island didn’t sink and everyone was still on the Island. We flashed back and forth between these two realities, leading many to speculate that we were given alternate time lines. This would not be outside the realm of possibility as season 5 dealt with time travel. In the end it was revealed that the flash sideways was a type of afterlife waiting room. It was a reality that was somehow created by our characters as a placeholder. Once they had all entered the realm, they could theoretically find one another, and once they had their reunion, they would enter the final afterlife. This isn’t a bad ending. In many ways it supports one of the major themes of the show, the need we have for one another. Jack often said “If we don’t live together, we will die alone.” In this after life, they lived together and died together. It is a huge affirmation of relationships. But does it hold up to close scrutiny? If this purgatory was created by the desires of the characters, why were people like Keamy and Mikhail present? Who missed them? Where did Jack’s son David come from? Are each of these people present, looking for their own loved ones or were they created for the sake of the characters? You can provide you own answers, but I don’t know that they are present in the show.
The flash sideways was a huge step toward religious mysticism. Religion was a theme of the show. Eko dealt with the death of his brother who was a priest. He seemed to be on a spiritual journey that dealt with finding God and redemption. Charlie was a lapsed Catholic who desperately needed baby Aaron to be baptized. Locke was searching for meaning in his own life, and faith played a huge role, even if it was directed toward what Locke felt was important at the time and not a conventional religion. Faith in the Island was a recurring theme, but until season six we were never given an indication that religion would play such a large part in the finale. Naming things “Dharma” or giving characters names with religious significance was a clue, but such a minor one as to be virtually meaningless. These are things that are still grounded in the realm of reality with our own world. I can’t recall that the afterlife was given much reference at all prior to season six (with the exception of Desmond’s now pregnant phrase, “See you in another life, brother.”). However, in the space of a few episodes we are told that the whispers on the Island are trapped souls, some dead people are not really dead, but The Man in Black in disguise, and that there is a surprisingly malleable afterlife. As I think on it further, there is also the ability of Miles and Hurley to communicate with the dead, but I still maintain that developing a working mythology of the afterlife within the framework of the shows would have been beneficial. My wife and I loved Miles, but we always thought he would play a bigger role than he did. Perhaps he would have been a key to developing this mythology.
What of the exact nature of the Island? In truth, we still don’t quite have it. We were told that the Island was the gateway to Hell. We saw that there was an underground cavern where water flowed to an illuminated pool. In the center of the pool was a stone that acted as a plug. When the plug was removed, the water stopped flowing and drained and a red light began to emanate from the hole. While this seems to follow the pattern of the axis mundi, this concept wasn’t really introduced in the show. In fact, while mysticism is mentioned and implied in many places, it doesn’t seem to be present in larger quantities. Yes, there are unnatural healings, yes the powers of Jacob and The Man in Black are supernatural, yes Richard never ages. But these are questions that largely remained peripheral until the final season, then they were dumped onto us. Up until this point the show had largely dealt in science fantasy. This was the first time the explanations were purely fantasy with no scientific element. Citing “electromagnetism” isn’t enough for me. We don’t need scientific (even pseudo-scientific) answers, but the larger fantasy and mysticism needed to be set up in advance and repeated to keep it fresh in our memories. Seeing resurrected characters isn’t enough because many of them were actually The Man in Black in disguise and their appearance was the question itself, not an explanation or set-up to an answer. Science fantasy was rampant during the Dharma Initiative season (season five). We were given time travel (which was actually introduced in season three) and the question of changing the future (or the past). While I understand that when our heroes integrated into The Dharma Initiative, they did so to keep a relatively low profile. None of them really worked as a scientist with the exception of Farraday, and by this time he was on a mission to change the future. Studying the Island was no longer a priority. He was a character that could have unlocked revelations about the nature of water on the Island and its relationship the the electromagnetism so that when we see the construction of The Wheel by The Man in Black, we would connect those dots. And how many opportunities were there in the show to bring up the concept of a Cosmic Axis?
Finally, I turn to characters. Often a mediocre plot can be forgiven if there are compelling characters (and just to clarify, Lost is far from mediocre). This was a strength and also a weakness of the show. The strength was that these characters were brilliantly written and acted. We genuinely cared for them. One of the most powerful moments in the finale was the reunion of Sawyer and Juliet. This illustrated the depth to which we loved these characters. But the weakness, and an understandable one at that, was the decision to only reveal information that our characters would experience firsthand. This rule was broken only a handful of times, but by and large it held true for the course of the series. As a result, our characters would not have been privy to certain key pieces of information. I had assumed this would resolve by introducing and integrating new characters who would have access to this information. I stated a possible example earlier with Farraday. This could have also worked with Ms. Hawking or Charles Widmore (neither of which had their own flashbacks). I had even hoped for a flashback for Rousseau, instead of just having her appear while Jin was traveling through time.
I mentioned earlier the disappointment that Miles didn’t seem to contribute a bigger piece to the plot. Another development was the anticlimactic showdown between Ben and Widmore. Ben just shoots him, quite suddenly and shockingly. Their rivalry was given such weight in the last three seasons, only to fizzle out. Ilyana has an equally shocking death. Jacob’s champions seem to have a short life-span once called to serve. And we still don’t know much about Ilyana’s past. And what of Abaddon, who was also given significant weight in season four. He was just a gofer?
Ultimately the conflict was between two brothers. It was a conflict based on bad parenting (a recurring theme) and an accident. While perfectly ironic and believable in its own way, it achieves epic, mythological proportions as each brother gains supernatural powers. These powers are later transferred (we assume) to Jack and then Hurley. But even the powers themselves lie in a mythological blindspot. We don’t know where they came from (other than The Island, which becomes a mystical catch-all) or how they work. J. Michael Straczynski in his Spiderman feud with Marvel calls it correctly when he insists that magic has rules. Magic still has to make sense, whether it is using opposing elemental powers against one another or removing a single person from a timeline. There has to be coherency or explanation. We will assume coherency from Lost, but the explanation is lacking. This is still tied up in the nature of The Island. How are these powers granted and what are the rules? If there is a phrase that is repeated on this show ad infinitum it is “the rules”. There are many rules that govern, whether rules of conduct based on a treaty with The Others, a gentleman’s agreement, or the rules that govern the mystical forces at work on the Island. None of which are clearly defined on the show, although some seem more clear than others. In this case, Jacob has remained aggravatingly silent.
When discussing the finale a few days ago, my wife made a statement that seems to reflect the majority of viewers (at least, the majority on the internet). “If you understand and love the flash-sideways, then the ending works for you. If you can’t get behind it, if you don’t buy it, then the ending fails.” I think she is right. But my question is, if it has to be one or the other, did it work at all? Yes, Lost began as a character-driven show, but it became firmly science fiction by the time of season five (and it started to become plot-driven in season three, exhibiting it most firmly in season four). I personally believe that the organic nature of the show (ie – defining a framework, then exposing things through the characters) ultimately hurt it. Characters couldn’t know everything, and by introducing things that could never be resolved, did the writer’s make a mistake. Answers aren’t necessary, but they should be weighed in balance and the balance should have been in favor of answers, not questions. Battlestar Galactica (the new series) didn’t resolve everything, but the ultimate plot was resolved. We were left questioning the exact nature of one character, but we still had more pieces than not. Lost left us with many unresolved, and I hope to find more answers when I go back and rewatch it (the fact that I want to rewatch indicates that I don’t find the show a waste of time), but I still fear that I will find the ultimate answers of the Island unsatisfying. I still expect to be disappointed watching Eko die in a seemingly pointless death and to wish Miles played a bigger role.
Along the way I will still love Desmond’s phone call to Penny, Sawyer and Juliet’s reunion, Ben’s machinations and ultimate redemption, Christian Shephard’s unlikely wisdom, and all points between. My opinions are my own, and even if I think the show failed to resolve, I still love it so very much.