This is a discussion of the last episode of Lost. As such it is filled with major spoilers. Not only that, it assumes you’ve seen the last episode. Don’t read this expecting a recap.
These are initial, quick post-viewing thoughts. I reserve the right to amend them, expand upon them or change my mind about them in the future. I see this as a conversation starter, not a conversation ender.
I should probably wait to write my final wrap up on Lost, should probably give myself some time to get distance from the ending and really think things over. But at the same time I kind of want to strike while the iron is hot; this show has taken up a lot of my mental real estate over the last few years and the weird thing is that the more I have come to dislike it the more real estate it has squatted on. So now, with the ending all wrapped up, I feel like Lost has built a metropolis in my brain, and I think I need to clear it out.
Lost taught us how to watch it in the first few seasons – to look for clues, to examine names for meaning, to ignore the slightest line of dialogue at our own peril. There was a belief that this show was really going to blow our minds, and that the final episodes were going to be full on graduate level when it came to depth and meaning.
But Lost never got there. And in the final hours of the series creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse suddenly decided that nothing we had watched for the past six seasons really mattered that much (despite an ending that included a wise fucking ghost saying that it did matter, but how is anyone’s guess). And in season six Lost retaught me how to watch it – to just let stuff (like Walt or the infertility or the sickness or the time travel) slide because none of it mattered. Nobody making the show really cared about those things, and they weren’t going to address them. By the end there was only one mystery I cared about – why is the Island special? Why did the heart of the Island need to be protected? What would be the bad thing that would happen in the Man in Black got off the Island, or destroyed it?
But that mystery was never answered either. The entire sixth season turned out to be essentially a waste of time – the only thing that mattered was the alt-timeline, which we learned wasn’t really an alt-timeline but actually purgatory. Just typing that infuriates me.
Anyway, to me this is one of the show’s two biggest sins. The first two hours of the two and a half hour finale were excellent; director Jack Bender is always the guy who brings the best out of Lost and this episode, while not quite as big and epic as I would have liked, was some of the best paced and most interesting hours of the show. But there hit a point where I needed to know – even on a basic level – why the light in the cave was important. Why Man in Black leaving was bad. All of the show’s philosophical arguments would just float away if there was no explanation (and again, not a detailed one, just one that was more fleshed out than ‘Jacob says it’s important!’). And there was no explanation.
Now, I’m not stupid (really). I think I know what the creators were going for here. The entire sixth season of the show took a hard right turn into Gnostic territory, and I think that the basic unknowable quality of the Island was key to that. I’m simplifying many different gnostic schools of thought for this, but then again so is the show. Gnostics hold that God is a distant and unknowable thing, and that he didn’t create the world. The demiurge did – an imperfect being, the demiurge took the raw materials of eternity and made the world as we know it. The gnostics often found themselves in trouble for saying that the demiurge was none other than the God of the Bible. He’s not always such a bad guy, depending on who you talk to, but some people think he’s a real dick. There’s more to it, including various levels of duality, including light vs dark mythology stolen from the Zoroastrians.
So in Lost the Island is God (or the Godhead, as it’s known). This makes Jacob the demiurge – the guy who creates the scenarios but isn’t really the ultimate big C Creator. And Man in Black is… well, he’s a confused mishmash of a couple of beliefs, which is pretty much par for the course for the show. As Lost moved into its final hours it became apparent that the philosophical and religious underpinnings were more or less what you would glean from a Theology or Philosophy 101 class, a kind of quick survey course that leaves a lot of disparate ideas jumbled in your head.
In a lot of ways I don’t mind this; gnosticism, as I said, borrowed from Zoroastrianism, and the twin brothers of Jacob and MiB come right from Zoroastrianism. Jacob is Ahura Mazda, the light spirit, while Man in Black is his twin brother Angra Mainyu, the dark spirit. Zoroastrianism is all about Ahura Mazda as the ultimate good dude, while Jacob is much more like demiurge in that he’s flawed but means well. There’s a lot of this struggle that has worked its way into Judaism and Christianity, but Zoroastrianism is really where it all began. And Zoroastrianism is heavy on free will – you must actively choose to do good deeds and think good thoughts and live a good life. In a lot of ways the convergence of gnosticism and Zoroastrianism can give you a blueprint for Lost‘s mythology.
Which is why the last half hour of the series was so disappointing. Gnosticism is rarely dealt with in popular culture, and while I was wildly dissatisfied throughout season six I was at least interested that the show was choosing to tackle something unique. But then, at the very end, it throws that all away. In the last half hour Lost suddenly decides that it wants to leave you not with real questions (by which I mean questions about the nature of life and the universe, not questions about what the Smoke Monster was made of anyway), but with bromides. Everything the show has been about, it turns out, wasn’t that important. What was important was that these characters found each other and became really, really good friends.
And you know what, I’ll almost forgive that conceptually, because gnosticism’s end goal is gnosis – knowledge – and it’s all about you awakening (just like everybody did in this episode) to discover that the world is bullshit and that the true important universe lies beyond, with the Godhead. It’s similar to the Hindu concept of the Veil of Maya, the illusion of reality in which we live which keeps us from perceiving the true world beyond us. Basically – and this is conceptual, not in execution - Lost was six seasons leading us to the end of the first act of The Matrix, a movie that traded in much of the same references and religions.
Which would be okay if the show had done it with any grace, skill or ability. Instead the show ends up not being about awakening and perceiving the true world (despite spending an entire season on alternate universe in which this was the end goal), but about realizing that when we die we’re all going to end up in a happy place with our best friends ever. It’s the kind of trite bullshit that you tell your nine year old when grandma dies – “She’s gone to heaven, where she’s happy and playing mah jong with all her friends and with Uncle Carl!” – which is why it irks me. It’s simplistic, middle of the road bullshit. It’s meaningless. It’s what you say to comfort yourself when the cold grip of mortality comes down on your shoulders.
And then there’s the idea of Purgatory (or whatever you want to call the alt-timeline) as portrayed in the show. It’s the wishy washiest thing you can imagine – you just keep getting chances to get it right and learn your lessons and then you can go to the party with your friends – and it devalues the experience of your life. In Lost you don’t really go around the karmic wheel again, you just get a do-over. Instead of being reincarnated into a life that has been informed by the one you just left, you get to live your own life all over again, but with the circumstances changed to favor you (and this, by the way, is a major dropped narrative ball. I hate to make guesses about behind the scenes stuff, but the alt-timeline’s seeming connection to the Incident and the fact that it began with the Island underwater and our character’s lives untouched by Jacob makes me think that it was conceived one way and in the final episodes got hijacked to mean something totally different). It’s video game theology – hit the X button to try it over.
But it’s the half-baked execution of this afterlife that ruins it all. Kate and Sawyer show up, still attached to their dead on-Island loved ones. These people never moved on? Didn’t have other lives? It’s actually grim when you think about it – yeah, of course the magic island with the smoke monster was the most important thing in their lives, but come on, I would hope that baby Aaron would have SOMETHING else that happened to him that might have sent him to a different death party. Aaron’s the most troubling one there, since he’s in Purgatory as an infant – hardly the right circumstances in which to relive his life and make better choices or come to grips with his issues. In fact the final scenes leading up to the church were so heavy handed and so obviously full of fan service that I began wondering if the show would break the fourth wall. “Where are we going?” Jack asked Christian. “Into syndication,” came the reply.
The ending of Lost comes to a place without consequence or meaning; the Island storyline has literally no meaning because we never know what anybody was fighting for. Was it worth it for Jack to go back into the cave at the end, or should he have just flown out with the rest of the crew? And what was the point of the alt-timeline, since we didn’t see many of these people really grow or change in significant ways? Did Sayid really have to go through Purgatory just to get over Nadia so that he could end up with Shannon, who was so mismatched with him that they were one of the worst primetime couples in history?
The reason for all of that, though, is bad storytelling – the creators wanted to give a happy ending curtain call, and this was what they came up with. The final minutes of Lost - the idea that this show would not turn out to be ‘They were dead all along!’ but rather ‘And then they died and this is what happened when they died’ – don’t line up with what came before. While the show has always had ghosts and painfully on the nose religious allegory (I was happy to see Kate acknowledge what a clunker of a name Christian Shepherd is), it’s been about free will versus fate and reason versus faith. Those have been, from day one, the driving forces behind the narrative. They have nothing really to do with everybody becoming Happy Heaven Friends. In fact, all of the show’s basic themes are explored only in the on-island story, with the show’s big message – nobody knows anything – coming through with the repeated trips to the cave that resembles the dilithium chamber from Wrath of Khan. This guy was wrong, that guy was wrong, this guy was right but in a way he never imagined – that’s the final wrap up of it all. The show tangled free will and fate so closely – everything was planned by Jacob, but apparently his plan needed the Losties to make the decisions he wanted but couldn’t force them to make – that they were indistinguishable at the end. That’s dramatically frustrating but is thematically appropriate.
But Heaven isn’t thematically appropriate. Especially not the happy hand-holding we get with our favorite characters having a big smiley moment. The Heaven finale belongs on another, smaller show. When Christian tells Jack that his years on the Island were the most important in his life you have to say ‘No shit!’ He was on a magic island with a monster and he was shot at and shot people and he traveled back in time. Of course these were the most important years. That message is much more powerful when applied to the mundane – a high school show that ends with a Heavenly high school reunion might mean something, telling you that the most ordinary parts are the ones that matter. The every day days, not the crazy days. Lost is a show only about crazy days. There’s no revelation in learning that the magic Island was a big fucking deal for you.
Season six’s big theme seems to have been botched execution. It’s what happened all year long, from the Temple story that went nowhere to the vague hints that Jacob could be less than perfect (hints that went nowhere because MiB was so evil the duality of the Island forces was unquestionable). Concepts were brought up and then dropped immediately; even the season-long time travel story ended up having nothing much to do with anything, in a real narrative way (thematically it allowed the show to dwell on free will versus fate for a bit, but botched execution once again – cut the time travel story and you pretty much have the same show, except you need a new reason to bring the Oceanic 6 back to the Island).
To spend six years with these characters, in these increasingly bizarre scenarios, going through pain with them, examining the most basic aspects of good and evil… just to suddenly say ‘What really matters is that they were important to one another’ is whiplash inducing. Over six years the show kept widening the canvas, pulling back to show us more of the picture. Then at the last moment it slams to the most simplistic, trite place it could end up. The better ending would have been pulling back on the canvas to show that it was all fractal – ‘As above, so below’ – that the larger picture was the smaller picture. Instead the show dumped this for an easy, lazily metaphysical ending.
Let’s put it this way: any ending for a show like Lost that feels like it could more or less be used to end any other TV show in history is probably an oversimplified ending. The sappy afterlife stuff is an epilogue, not an ending, and it’s an epilogue we didn’t need. We didn’t need to know what happens to the characters after they die, and finding out adds nothing to them or their stories.
Lost created a Gordian knot of ethical, moral, and philosophical questions and then cut through it with gooey sentimentality and maudlin faux-spirituality. There could have been no more disappointing ending.