Green Room

The Betrayal of Mystery

posted at 1:04 am on May 25, 2010 by

Note: the following includes spoilers about the finale of Lost.

If you enjoyed the finale of Lost, I’m not writing this to challenge your taste.  You have nothing to apologize for, or defend.  There’s nothing “wrong” with cherishing the fine acting and emotional resonance of its reunions and farewells.  For my part, I loved the early years of Lost, which I would happily have declared the greatest television drama of all time, in the moment when Jack’s season-ending “flashback” was shockingly revealed to be a flash-forward.  I absolutely hate what the show degenerated into.  I thought the plot of the finale was a stunning act of creative cowardice, which no amount of effort from the talented cast could redeem.  I offer these thoughts as a memorial to what I thought Lost was trying to be, and a critique from someone fascinated by the art of storytelling.

The most common defense of the finale, along with the formless mass of random events and dead-end plotlines the series became, is the assertion that only the characters truly mattered.  The plot was a bit of intellectual stage lighting, designed to illuminate them from various angles.  Personally, I think both plot and characters are essential components of drama.  Does anyone seriously think Lost would have been nearly as popular if it had followed the exact same characters, living humdrum lives in suburbia?

To excuse the empty “secrets” and arbitrary plot points of the show is tantamount to saying it only matters who the characters are, not what theydo. This is a profound contradiction of the philosophy expressed during the show.  Much was said about the importance of making choices.  The wizard Jacob explicitly states, in one of the last episodes, that his millennia-long existence has been shaped by his desire to give others a choice in determining their fates… but the characters, and the audience, are completely in the dark about the rules and consequences governing these choices.  Powerful forces, like the Smoke Monster, operate by utterly arbitrary rules, revealed very late in the game.  In other words, the choice being offered to our heroes is a blind choice… and how is that really a “choice” at all?

The audience was kept in the dark as much as the characters were.  This was coupled with annoying prods from living plot devices like Eloise Hawking, who were inexplicably certain about various arcane matters.  The central drama of the last season revolved around the Smoke Monster attempting to escape from the island… until he suddenly decides to destroy it instead.  What made him think he would be able to accomplish this?  What made anyone think his escape would destroy the world, beyond the assurances of completely mysterious characters who make no effort to explain what they mean?

There is little real dramatic tension in a contest with random rules and imaginary stakes.  The early seasons of Lost were gripping because we embarked on a voyage of discovery with the characters, exploring the dangerous mystery of the island by torchlight.  By the end, everyone was plodding back and forth across the bland expanse of that island, blind pawns in an ancient contest whose rules and outcomes they couldn’t begin to understand.  It might have passed for dreary existential humor in a bull session down at the college coffee shop: our only real choice in life is deciding whether we want to be white or black tokens in a game we’ll never actually play!  It’s a poor excuse for storytelling, though, and I find it melancholy to watch good characters fumble through a bad story.

I’ve got no problem with sorcerers, demons, and magic caves as elements of a heroic fantasy.  I do have a problem with a story that pretends to be something rational, only to drop such elements on the audience at the eleventh hour, to cover the embarrassing inability of the writers to finish what they started.  Not even the most satisfied viewer of the Lost finale can pretend the show began with an honest confession that its puzzles were random and insoluble.  A commitment was made to the fans, both implicitly through the scientific trappings of early episodes… and explicitly through interviews given by the producers… that it would all make sense in the end.

The show achieved its greatest popularity during the years when eager fans flooded chat rooms with theories about The Numbers, The Hatch, the island’s fertility issues, the “sickness”, the frozen donkey wheel, the “special” children, and countless other plot twists.  If the producers had stated none of these riddles would ever be solved, most would be completely forgotten, and some would simply be dismissed as sorcery, those chat rooms would have turned into ghost towns overnight.

It’s not merely a question of riddles left unanswered.  The show lied to its viewers, repeatedly.  Remember Juliet saying “it worked” after the atomic bomb went off, followed by the last season’s opening shot of a submerged island in what appeared to be an alternate timeline?  That wasn’t some sort of clever misdirection.  It was an outright lie.  The reason everyone immediately rewinds The Sixth Sense after seeing it for the first time is that it plays fair. It shows the audience certain things, with complete honesty, and the audience misinterprets what it’s seeing.  It’s the difference between pulling a quarter out of someone’s ear with sleight of hand, versus knocking them unconscious and stuffing a coin in their earlobe.  The kind of cheating indulged by the Lostwriters will cost them their feet, if they ever run afoul of the madwoman fromMisery.

What happened at the end of Lost is the betrayal of mystery.  Storytelling requires a commitment of trust between author and audience.  Lost squandered six years of that trust.  None of the plot elements from the first two-thirds of the story had anything to do with its resolution.  The end of the story came from out of left field, as if the Harry Potter series had ended with a cop shooting Voldemort dead.  Sorry about all the fuss and bother, Harry.  Guess that whole “Chosen One” thing was just a dead end.  You were still a great character, though!  Give our best to Ron and Hermione!

That final scene in the Church of the Non-Denominational Afterlife was touching, but it was almost a separate story from the ugly mess lurching to a halt between the endless commercial breaks.  Jack’s painful walk to his final resting place gave his character the dignity of a tragic, yet uplifting end.  It matters that the reasons he died, along with everyone from unborn children to Dharma scientists and unlucky French explorers, were pulled from the creative oven half-baked.  Too much of their collective story was left to our imaginations, and we aren’t the ones getting paid millions by ABC Television to write this stuff.

The parts I don’t mind scripting for myself are the wacky adventures of Hugo the White, as he teleports around the globe and tries to… subtly manipulate people into making the fateful journey to his mystic island.  “Dude, you should totally catch that flight to Sydney.  And, um… insist on an aisle seat, okay?”

Cross-posted at

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