Lost: It Only Ends Once

Yes, they explained where the polar bears came from.

In 2004, ABC was a network in trouble. It had no big hits, its pilots were bombing, it was perpetually stuck in 3rd place behind its two rivals. But then two shows came along and changed everything. The first, Desperate Housewives, has had a decent run, falling off after its ratings-topping first season, but still surviving even as it gets soapier and soapier. But Housewives was a type – a primetime soap – that had been successful before, and would be again. The second show had no such guarantees: a fantasy version of Survivor, Gilligan’s Island meets the X Files, no major stars, no known talent beyond J.J. Abrams (best known then for Felicity and Alias) and a couple of “Hey, it’s That Guy!”s, a show about the most audience-pleasing of all things, a plane crash.

You know what show I’m talking about.

Six years have passed. And Lost is ending – not canceled, but on its own terms. Tomorrow night, Lost promises “The End”: a two and a half hour finale event that undoubtedly will not answer all our questions, will not tie off all loose ends and, hopefully, will not end up being a dream. Tonight, MediaElites Writers Christopher Dole and Luke DeSmet come to praise Lost, not to bury it, with some of their favorite episodes, memories, and predictions for what’s going to happen tomorrow.

CHRIS: Is it really ending tomorrow? What are we going to have to speculate about after that?!

I think my favorite Lost memory would have to be watching the 2nd Season Premiere with about 20 people in my dorm’s common room. At this time, of course, Lost was still the zeitgeist show in a way that, say, Glee is nowadays. And everyone – everyone – was talking about what was in the Hatch. Now, it was a stormy night that night, so we actually missed the first five minutes – the famous “Make Your Own Kind of Music” reveal. But everyone was still digging the hell out of the episode. And when Jack went into the Hatch, this was the first time we’d seen it.

We had no idea that there was someone down there, or that there was a computer, or whatever. And when they revealed Desmond, everyone was absolutely freaking out. The only thing that compared was watching the 2nd Season Finale – again, about 30 people crowded into the room and we had absolutely no idea what to expect. The Four-Toed Statue (and who saw how important THAT would be coming?), the reveal of the Others, the final countdown in the Hatch, the reveal of Penny’s tracking station…everyone was laughing and cheering and speculating during the commercial breaks.

That’s one of the best things about Lost, really. A big part of the fun is discussion – trying to put the pieces together, complaining about having to wait for the next episode, arguing about which mysteries need to be answered – and while we’ll always have the show on DVD, it’s a shame that, in large part, that’s going to go away after tomorrow.

Still, for all that, Lost first and foremost is tremendous entertainment. That’s why it’s been able to sustain a fan culture for six years. It’s funny, moving, exciting, scary – it’s pulp on an absolutely grand scale. And when it ends tomorrow, TV’s really not going to have anything like it, and that’s too bad.

LUKE: Forgive me for getting a little autobiographical, here.

Growing up, I was your typical shut-in nerd, playing Final Fantasy games, watching Star Wars, and reading the Dune novels. Of course I was into all your standards: Ursula Le Guin and Tolkien, and Stephen King and The X-Files, and Steven Spielberg. Hell, I was so obsessively into Michael Crichton that I corresponded with the guy as an 11-year-old, and proudly hung an autographed photo of him on my wall. I was 10 years old when I started writing my own fantasy stories, staying up late at night drawing elaborate maps of fantasy worlds I concocted.

As I grew a bit older, Kurt Vonnegut would become my new religion. I was even one of those assholes who would list “Bokononism” as his religion, and to this day I often begin conversations by quoting Vonnegut’s famous opening line: “Listen.”

I would move on to read other types of literature, of course, and eventually I discovered my second major nerdish obsession: philosophy. It would become my major in college, and it wasn’t just some random choice that I stuck with by default: I was really into it. It seemed of the utmost importance to me that I read Kant, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. I found pondering big ideas to be exciting in the same way that letting my imagination run amok with fantasy was. Both were avenues to let go, and feel like I was involved in something larger than myself and enjoy something that was sweeping and epic in scope.

And then there was Lost.

Lost has allowed me to be a childish fantasy nerd, and at the same time a poncey philosophy nerd. It’s a show that understands that big ideas and sweeping narratives are exciting for the same damn reasons. They’re both, above all else, about imagination. And Lost doesn’t hide behind some veneer of respectable, literary constraint; it’s proud of what it does, unabashedly throwing around questions philosophers have been struggling with for thousand of years, and delighting in ridiculous genre plots backed by Giacchino’s epic crescendos.

And it does it all so well that it makes it perfectly okay to enjoy every second of it. I haven’t indulged in my love of fantasy since I was a teenager, because I’m a grown up now, right? And I haven’t indulged in my love of philosophy since college, because who wants to hear about that shit?

I will always be grateful to Lost for creating an amazingly enjoyable amalgamation of all the shit I’ve found cool growing up. While watching it I feel like Luke De Smet has “come unstuck in time,” visiting various moments of my life and exploring whatever my imagination was caught up with at that point in time.

Of course, I’m older now, and my interests are much more diverse. I will survive without the release Lost has provided me, but, like you, it’s very sad for me to see it go.

CHRIS: There’s an article in the New York Times this weekend that – despite the writer claiming to be a fan – says the show only had one good season – the first – and suffered from the problem of turning mystery into mythology: “A spooky tale about plane crash survivors on a strange island increasingly became a labored allegory about free will and destiny, individualism and solidarity.”

Frankly, I think that’s a little ridiculous. For one thing, the themes that the author complains about have always been the cornerstones of the series. Even the first season came down to those exact questions. Jack first proclaims “live together, die alone” in the third episode. The entire cave/beach question was about that. Similarly, I’ve heard a couple of critics wish that there was no supernatural/sci-fi element, that the show would just be about a bunch of people trying to survive on an Island.

But, more crucially, we have the question of mystery vs. mythology: why is attempting to build a mythos such an awful concept? This, I think, takes us back to what we discussed when “Across The Sea” aired two weeks ago. As you said then, Lost first and foremost is a story – “the product of uninhibited, uncynical, fantastical imagination that’s in love with the possibilities of storytelling”. Sure, it’s a show that can overreach at times (though to say the show’s only had one good season is absolutely a falsehood), but it’s so boldly ambitious that it’s easy to forgive its overreaches when it can pull something like “The Constant” out of its hat.

Still, what’s wrong with mythology? If parts of Lost don’t fit together, that’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t matter if they don’t answer every little question and tie everything up in a neat bow. What’s more important is that they built this world from the ground up, and used the mythos as an excuse to create that “labored allegory”. I think it’s great that Lindelof and Cuse decided to use a pulp story like this as an excuse to create this grand experiment. Lost is a show that can have characters named Locke and Hume and Rousseau with legitimate discussions of the questions they raise, and at the same time have a rampaging smoke monster destroy everything in sight.

LUKE: As a side note, I find that piece odd in that it spends most of its time ridiculing Lost in terms of its fans, and then chastises those same fans for not judging the show for what’s on screen. But anyway, I’m fully prepared for the onslaught of backlash tomorrow’s finale is sure to produce. Endless amounts of fans will scream about how the show let them down because it never explained the food drop, or the Hurley Bird, or because it didn’t provide some pseudo-scientific explanation for what the well-lit pond really is. And long-time detractors will cross their arms and smile in satisfaction. In short: the exact same bullshit that happened to Battlestar Galactica’s (wonderful) final season will happen to Lost.

And it’s sad that so many people will hate Lost because it either never was, or wound up not being, exactly what they thought it should be. One of the show’s greatest virtues is how open-ended it is. The idea that the show has come to rely on its mythology to such a negative extent that the series could be ruined by how well it ties everything together in the last two-and-a-half hours is, to put it nicely, silly.

Tracing back to Tricia Tanaka is Dead– this is probably the fifth or so time I’ve referenced this episode in our talks, I apologize (but it’s on par with The Constant!)– one of the biggest things I’ve taken from Lost is the story of characters learning to create their own value in an otherwise fated universe. Is this all Lost has to offer? Of course not! But it’s an aspect of the show that appeals to me. Far from being a “labored allegory,” I think the Lost mythology successfully provides to fans whatever they choose to take from it. The finale, I can only image, will continue that tradition. Lindelof and Cuse have never attempted to play the role of authorial Gods, and thank heavens for that. Expecting some airtight, unifying theory of everything that happens, I think, would run contrary to the very spirit of the show . If there’s any one ‘allegory’ in Lost, it’s simply the general idea of life being an existence we’re thrown into with no understanding, no answers and few moments of happy recourse before we’re killed all-too-soon. (Suddenly, I’m not feeling so hopeful for a happy ending.)  The finale doesn’t need to be any one thing, and I feel sorry for anyone who watches expecting it to be so.

As long as it’s not, you know, terrible.

CHRIS: Well, yeah, there’s that.

Lost now is less a show than an experience: something you discuss with other fans – or with critics – and consider the implications or theorize about what’s going to happen next. And while we’re not going to be able to guess about what happens next (unless ABC decides to launch, I don’t know, AfterLost – or, better, AlternateLost), it’s nice that the show’s almost certainly not going to wrap everything up in a neat little bow.

Getting back to a more prosaic question (as tonight we come to praise Lost, not bury it) – you’ve mentioned Tricia Tanaka is Dead, and God knows The Constant comes up a lot in discussion here, but what are some of your other favorite episodes or moments? I’d personally like to give a shout-out to two episodes from the vastly underrated Season 2 – The 23rd Psalm and Live Together Die Alone. Now, the Tailies seem to increasingly be a Shaggy Dog Story in context of the whole show, but 23rd Psalm, to me, is an outstanding example of the type of episode this show did early on, where the Island allows a castaway to find closure and new life – the Island as Tabula Rasa (with Walkabout as probably the crowning example of this). Mr. Eko was a fantastic character whose time on the show was far too short, and 23rd Psalm remains a great, great standalone. In contrast, Live Together Die Alone introduced the epic romance of Desmond and Penny, set up everything that was to come in Seasons 3 and 4, established Benjamin Linus as the leader of the Others, and fantastically paid off the entire season-long debate of the Hatch (which increasingly seems to be a metaphor for the show as a whole). It’s an episode that’s grown in significance from its first airing, and also stands alone as great, edge-of-the-seat television.

As for least favorite, I’d have to dodge easy choices like Fire + Water and Stranger in a Strange Land and go with Homecoming from the first season. Homecoming kicks off the two-season arc of Charlie’s fall from grace that basically derails the character. By the time the third season begins, he’s pretty loathsome and it takes the entire third season to redeem him in time for Through The Looking Glass (another truly great episode and one of the all-time great TV cliffhangers). So what are some of your favorite and least favorite memories from watching the show?

LUKE: I find myself looking back at Season 3 fondly. I think that Enter 77, while maybe not one of my absolute favorites, is nonetheless extremely underrated, and is indicative of Sayid episodes being undervalued in general. Enter 77 is the episode in which Lost most directly engages with the theme of guilt, and it came as a refreshingly thoughtful piece on torture at a time when 24 was beginning to go bat-shit insane.

We’ve seen a lot of Losties fret over their ‘destiny’ or what the island’s plan for them is, but Sayid is really the only character who ever questioned his claim to a destiny in the first place (Desmond did, too, but out of concern of existential worth, rather than guilt).  And what I found most powerful about the episode is that you’re given the impression that Sayid, consumed by guilt, would have understood being murdered, perhaps justly, by the woman he once tortured better than he did the act of mercy he was ultimately shown. That he was shown compassion at his most helpless moment was more crushing to his soul than torture possibly could have been. It was all brought to life beautifully by Andrews often unsung performance, and I think the episode is largely responsible for whatever poignancy the character’s later fate was able to produce.

And, with all respect in the world to Miles, I still contend that the Hurley/Sawyer ping-pong showdown and Sawyer’s resulting moratorium on all demeaning nicknames is the funniest Lost has ever been.

The worst of Lost, contrary to claims in the NY Times, I feel came in the first two seasons. It’s not that these seasons didn’t have a lot of great stuff to offer, as well, but the show obviously still had a lot to figure out. I often figure people must be remembering Season 1 as something more than what it was, because for all its high points, I still doubt I’d place in my top three seasons. Much of the character work, frankly, seems infantile and two-dimensional compared to the heights Lost would later reach. The characters just sort of played out their predetermined roles (Locke the helpful sage, Charlie the fuck-up, Sawyer the bad guy), and the episodes offered their weekly lessons. Some of the character (Sawyer, notably) would undergo major resets in the second and third seasons before they became truly interesting, and the show itself hit some pretty awful low spots (I don’t want to beat up on The Moth, but…c’mon).

For Season 2, you’ve already mentioned Fire + Water, but I’d put the follow-up The Long Con right there beside it, being probably the worst incarnation of pre-Season-3-reset Sawyer the show had (remember when he was a redneck who attacked Sayid for being brown?) . That stretch, of course, came during the awkward period when the show didn’t really know what to do with the whole Hatch business, but I still find it largely inexcusable.

I guess I just don’t know what show the “Lost-was-only-good-in-its-early-seasons” people have been watching. I’ve already mentioned Sawyer, but do they really think Michael-beating, handcuffed, Season 1 Jin was as interesting as his character would later become? Was following Claire and Charlie, and Shannon and Boone really that much more exciting than Ben and Juliet, and Desmond and Daniel?

CHRIS: I agree. As of right now, I’d probably put Season 5 at the top, with seasons 4 and 6 behind it, followed by 1, 2, and then 3 bringing up the rear due to the initial six-episode pod. And yeah, the first season does get a little more credit than it deserves. This is not to denigrate the first season, which is in large part great television, but it in large part suffers from the same problems every season does. There’s always characters we don’t care about (Boone and Shannon, the Tailies, Nikki and Paulo, The Dharma crew, Zoe), lulls (Whatever The Case May Be, Fire + Water, Eggtown, Namaste, The Package), frustration about answers and untimely breaks in scheduling – Lost, for all its strengths and weaknesses, and for all it’s encompassed since Oceanic 815 has crashed on the Island, is unquestionably the same show it has always been. It’s simply just on a much, much larger scale.

And speaking of characters who’ve improved over the run of the show, what about Jack? is the arrogant alpha-male/Bush deconstruction of Seasons 2 and 3 as interesting as the Man of Faith we’re seeing now in Season 6? I used to dread Jack episodes, especially after they spent an entire episode on his tattoos, but the arc they’ve taken him on through Season 5 and especially this season is absolutely incredible. Or what about Locke? Even as his arc took him down a darker and more depressing road, it was an extraordinary commentary on the guy we all thought was the Island sage, and a set-up of how this show has treated everyone who’s claimed to know what Island’s purpose. I can’t think of one major, long-running character who was at their most interesting in Season One.

What Season One had, more than the other seasons, was the thrill of discovery. We were still just meeting the Island, and the questions were so simple – what’s in the Hatch? What is the Monster? Why are there polar bears? Who are the Others? It was focused on the survivors – there weren’t other factions. And while it was a good show, it was a somewhat more limited show.

The Hatch has come up a couple of times here, and while some of the muddling on the Hatch was less than effective, I feel that I’m going to look more fondly on that plotline when I rewatch Season 2 on DVD. Certainly, Man of Science Man of Faith and Live Together Die Alone are both very strong episodes, but the overall progression of the arc, without having to wait week-in week-out and without the multiple breaks in the season – is more satisfying as well. It also does a great job of distilling the series’ primary themes: do we believe, or do we investigate? Do we consider the debate irrelevant, like Sayid does, or do we have to see what happens when the Button isn’t pushed? Too, the background that Season 5 gives the Hatch makes it much more poignant, once we know that the Incident so tantalizingly referred to by Dr. Chang killed Juliet. One arc I’m not really certain works in retrospect – the pregnancy issue that so dominated the first three seasons. It’s basically disappeared, and I guess we’re supposed to assume the fallout from The Incident caused it. Except, Alex was successfully born on Island and that was after the Incident and so was Aaron and oh dear my brain’s gone all cross-eyed. Though there is a nice bit of irony in supposing that Juliet caused the pregnancy problem with the Incident, which is what brings her to the Island – we are the causes of our own suffering, indeed.

Another episode I’d like to point out: The Other 48 Days. Lost has since made a tradition of episodes showing Island events from different POVs (the opening of Season 3, the entire Dharma arc in Season 5), but The Other 48 Days was the first one, and it wonderfully distills the Tailies’ arc as parallel to the original Losties. A fascinating experimental episode that helped to broaden the show’s scope and allow it to do further episodes along those lines. Good stuff.

LUKE: I suppose I’m a bigger fan of Season 3 than you are, but I agree that Season 5 is probably the best. Which is interesting, because on paper the whole season could have been a disaster. Time travel is introduced, the cast is separated for a large chunk of the season, much of the season is spent trying to reverse the major plot development they’d just spent four seasons getting to, and most of the major action takes place in a past we already knew about. But somehow everything works. We began with the crazy time-jumping shit that gives us the tremendous Jughead and ultimately leads to the fantastic La Fleur arc, we witness the heartbreaking deaths of John Locke (which became a whole lot more permanent than we first expected) and Daniel Faraday, and we were introduced to Jacob and the Man in Black. Plus, it was the season  least constrained by the show’s flashback structure.

If I think it’s more than a tad bit ridiculous to suggest that my love of the show as a whole would hinge on the final episode, I will admit that the final episode will bear a lot, at the very least, on the flash-sideways structure. I think that there are episodes– specifically those involving Desmond– where the sideways universe will work regardless of the plot line’s ultimate fate, but nonetheless this is a major gamble Lost has taken. Especially as it now stands as Lost’s final major mystery. And because of this structure, Lost’s final resolution remains entirely in the air. It could end with those we have lost throughout the series’ run being brought back, and close on some happy scene of Sun and Jin sharing a meal with James and Juliet. Or it could end with everyone dead, and with Lost making it’s final statement: “life is inexplicable, and then you die.”

One ending’s so dreary it’ll hardly seem worth it, and the other’s so happy it’ll seemingly erase all stakes the show ever had. And yet both are possible! And, indeed, both may actually happen. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the sideways-verse is what happens when Desmond sinks the island (explaining, partially, why he’s the one who knows how to change things back). What ramifications this will have, I’m not sure. But somehow Lost has pulled off the feat that every great mystery strives for: it’s kept us guessing up to the last page.  If nothing else, the flash-sideways accomplished that.

CHRIS: Oh, absolutely. I know people who hunt down every spoiler they can find, but in a case such as this, after six years of guessing and speculating…why would you spoil this?

I admit, part of me has trouble seeing an ending where everyone dies in the one timeline, mostly because I have trouble seeing the show killing off Hurley either way, but, honestly, Lost could end with the destruction of the known universe and probably make as much sense as it always does.

Now, I don’t think a finale that doesn’t answer every question and tie up every loose end will ruin the show. Even if the finale is terrible, it doesn’t mean the show as a whole is bad. It’ll be disappointing, to be sure, but it doesn’t invalidate what has, on the whole, been fantastic television. And absolutely, as you said, there will be people disappointed. There will be people whose pet answers aren’t given, people who complain about the turn the show took, but ultimately, if it’s an entertaining two and a half hours of television that gives us a satisfying resolution to the alternate timeline and to the characters we’ve been following for six years, I’ll be fine with not, say, knowing why Walt is “special”.

Now, I have a few ideas about what’s going to happen but, oddly enough, I find myself most worried about what’s going to happen to Ben. I’d be disappointed if he did end up pure evil – he should go out the ambiguous SOB he is (at least, in the original timeline; Dr. Linus should run off and live happily ever after with Alex and Danielle). That and the alternate timeline are my two biggest worries going into the finale. As for what I’m most looking forward to – the resolution between alt-Jack and alt-Locke. Jack and Locke finally finding common ground has taken six years and a whole ‘nother universe to do it, but find me a Lost fan who wasn’t grinning like a loon when Locke said he was ready to get out of that chair and I’ll sell you a bridge in Brooklyn. How about you?

LUKE: Since that final scene of Season 2, I’ve been something of a Desmond and Penny shipper. But then, who hasn’t? Between that scene and “NOT PENNY’S BOAT” and the ending of The Constant, Desmond and Penny have been, in many ways, the soul of the show. Desmond’s on-land chances of survival don’t seem so great right now, but since ‘awakening’ Desmond himself has seemed far more interested in his off-island shenanigans, anyway. So who knows, maybe there’s hope left.

I’m also interested in the kind of treatment that Juliet and Daniel get, when all is said and done. I’m assuming they’ll be in the finale (Daniel playing the piano, probably, and Juliet possibly as Jack’s ex-wife), and given Juliet’s “it worked” and Daniel’s…well, being Daniel, I’m also assuming they’ll play significant roles. These can’t just be final-farewell cameos before they fade out of existence, right? Part of the problem predicting Lost, right now, is that everything seems either too easy or too cruel.

As far as answers, I’m not too demanding (except for with the obvious things, like the flash-sideways), but I would like to know a little bit more about how the Others were structured. I like the idea that Jacob was never truly leading them, but rather it was a plan by the Man in Black all along to drive Ben batshit crazy with neglect until he finally murders his absent God. But, then, that wouldn’t explain the presence of Richard nor the role of the temple. I guess I’d also like to know what Anthony Cooper’s presence was all about.

But, ultimately, so long as Lost remains true to its characters, I’ll be happy with whatever plot turns they decide to take. I’ll happily accept a few “well…God did it”s if they come along with some good character resolutions.

And of course, I hope that Lost knocks it out of the park on all fronts. Both out of interest for good television, and also for the legend this episode of television has the chance of becoming. Of course, Jacob himself once warned about attaching too much importance to the ultimately fleeting ending, but, goddamn it, I’m excited.

CHRIS: In all honesty, I don’t think I’ve anticipated a major pop culture event this much since Return of the King in 2003. And even then, we kinda knew how it was going to end. But this time? Who knows.

Since we very well may be spitting with rage this time tomorrow, I would like to take a moment to say how much I’ve enjoyed talking with you over the course of the season – it’s been a tremendous amount of fun, and I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed this season half as much without it. And, also, I’d like to thank Damon Lindelof, Carleton Cuse, Michael Giacchino, J.J. Abrams, Terry O’Quinn, Michael Emerson, Henry Ian Cusick, Yunjin Kim, Elizabeth Mitchell, the entire cast (even you, Nikki and Paulo!) and crew for the last six years. It’s been one hell of ride. Now here’s to you guys knocking it out of the park one last time.

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