The End of Lost as an End to Mystery

24 May

[NOTE: This post contains spoilers about the series finale. The usual precautions apply.]

Update: See also Tracie’s excellent re-cap/analysis over at Jezebel.

I think Charlie Anders’s response to the finale of Lost over at io9 is representative of the reaction many other Lost fans had last night:

In the end, it’s hard not to see Lost as the longest con of them all. Not because we didn’t get enough answers – it’s really true that after this episode, I don’t need any more answers than what we got. But because all along, Lost seemed to be a story. Until the end, when it wasn’t. In the end, it was just a bunch of stuff that happened.

[…] It just felt like a cheap, cop-out ending.

Slb over at Postbourgie has a similar take:

I haven’t encountered too many fans who weren’t at least a little let down by this resolution. The whole, “Surprise! You’re all dead!” thing seems far too convenient for a show that encouraged its audience to invest so much time cracking codes and trouble-shooting mysteries. If you think about all the websites with secret messages and comic book plotlines and DVD commentaries and literary references and numerical fake-outs this show employed over the years, in light of the show’s last few minutes, it’s enough to make you want to throw something at your TV.

Contrast this with Tyler Cowen’s take:

Most of all I viewed the ending as tragic.  It was not mainly about any particular account of the metaphysics of the island.  It was about how few couples had the chance to actually live together, love together, and stay together.  The perfect reunions of the couples in the “we’re all dead” scenario only drove this point home.  I found this contrast moving.

[…] Overall I thought it was the best final episode of a series I have seen, with close competition from The Sopranos.

I favor Cowen’s reading for several reasons, mostly because I think it captures what was resonant and frustrating to the viewers annoyed by the finale: the promise of an end to mystery left us with another mystery and that mystery was different than the mysteries proffered by the show before the finale.  But first some quick background on what kind of Lost watcher I was for context: I wasn’t a committed Lost fan over the entire series.  In fact, I began watching the series starting with (I believe) the Season 3 DVD and stayed with the show mostly because 1) I had enough character background and basic mythology that I could watch an episode and follow the rough contours of the mysteries and revelations while grounded in the character drama and 2) I was sucked in by the Lost cultural phenomenon and was curious to see how it would all end.

I think slb has it right with the initial reaction to the ending: It seems like the writers, in an attempt to sustain the mystery and tension of the final reveal, waited so long that “We’re all dead” was the only viable ending that could “resolve” so much of the series so quickly.  It reminds me of a clever short story a friend wrote in high school that resisted giving away that the child at the center of the story was deaf until the final word.  The longer you put off the reveal, the fewer your options of radically reordering the context. “Dead” happens to be one of those words, and part of the reason why it feels rushed.  It’s also of a piece with Lost’s use of misdirection (Think we’re showing you the past? Nope, you’ve been watching the future): You know that alternate universe that was confusing?  Just kidding, it was really a kind of waiting room for the afterlife.

And this is where many fans felt cheated, as if, as Anders writes, the primary story of the island was inconsequential and the central mystery was not particularly rewarding.  I think this because of the misdirection of the central mystery: it wasn’t the kind of mystery that can be decoded or pieced together through careful study–which is what Lost had, at different times, lead us to believe.  There was no final end to mystery because–as the finale suggested–that end is death.  This mystery is less cryptogram to be decoded (or spare clues pieced together) than something more ambiguous and interpretive

The ending opts for continuing mystery (or at least open interpretation) by joining a hopeful ending (Jack and some of the other Losties meeting after death) to a more somber one (Jack sacrifices himself to save the island and give others a chance to escape).  Cowen’s reading is persuasive because, ultimately, the end to Lost-level mystery is tragic (i.e. death  and an end to any dreams the characters or audience may have held) and the only way to blunt that tragedy is to give the viewer a glimpse of something hopeful, that the trials and losses endured on the island had meaning beyond whether or not the castaways would leave or what exactly the MIB was going to do once he left.  That meaning isn’t grounded to any particular character arc (though it is expressed through Jack) or island mystery or event–it was expressed in the relationships between the characters, which isn’t the sort of revelation that many fans were looking for.

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3 Responses to “The End of Lost as an End to Mystery”

  1. Disappointed Lost Fan June 30, 2010 at 7:49 pm #

    Huge let down, no question. The way the story was set up was truly awe inspiring and it promised to be something more. Instead at the end what we get is one big group hug, and the last entire season was really, of no real importance. In fact the characters could have taken as long as they liked in la la land. All of the suffering, trials and tribulations that the characters actually endured are also diminished, by extension. It’s been a long time since the finale but discussing the ending with friends just makes me insane: things weren’t purposefully left open to be discussed and interpreted, and to simply tug on the heart strings to make up for that lack of a story arc is a con, and a cheap one at that.

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