Warning: the following contains spoilers for the series finale of Lost.
I’ve written many times that the finest television series finale I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching was that of Babylon 5. “Sleeping In Light” was emotional brilliance, effortless profundity that shone past its limitations of crappy special effects and pedestrian acting. It worked because its writer, JMS, understood the nature of what he had created: a character study defined by archetypes. Those needing didacticism were disappointed by the episode’s lack of exposition regarding a couple of dangling plot threads. Those of us attracted to the esoteric were more than pleased.
Last year’s finale of Battlestar Galactica, “Daybreak“, had a similar problem. The writer, Ronald Moore, decided that “answers” were not as important as being true to the characters. I think this was a good choice.
The writers of Lost landed upon the same solution. To be didactic, to focus on providing easily digestible answers to what are intrinsically complex questions and mysteries, would in the end make for a reasonable finale, but not a transcendent one. “Sleeping In Light” was transcendent, and still lingers with many of us years later, not because it neatly wrapped up all the competing plot lines, but because it touched us as feeling human beings.
Christopher Nadeau put it best:
Those who tend to over-analyze (and you can’t spell the word without “anal”) rarely seem to want esoteric storylines. They prefer adventures based on scientific speculation with logical and orderly conclusions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The problem arises when these same analytical types thumb their noses at the creative process because they somehow think it should conform to the scientific method or at the very least deductive reasoning. For some reason, they seem threatened when this does not happen. Such was the case with the finale of “Lost.”
Nadeau’s approach is, I believe, the correct approach when considering Lost. The show is not about a set of mysteries. It’s about a set of relationships and values, the nature of sacrifice, redemption, duty, destiny and, above all else, love. Those drawn to didacticism will see the mysterious island as a laboratory. Those drawn to the relationships will see it as a stage. And those of us drawn to the show’s exploration of philosophies and values will see the island as simply a metaphor. The smoke monster itself –while ostensibly the manifestation of evil or anti-life or some other sort of poorly described negative force that serves as a convenient foil against which our protagonists exercise their heroism– is more accurately a metaphor for the unnamed darkness that separates a hero from complete understanding. A finale that plays with metaphors and archetypes, then, speaks to a viewer’s emotional core, and not to his simple and immediate need for intellectual closure.
Nadeau sees the entire series of Lost as a study of the three classic themes of literature: Man against Man, Man against nature, and Man against Himself. The finale makes clear that it’s the final theme, Man against Himself, that is ultimately the most relevant.
Over its six seasons, the show transitioned from basic drama to fantasy to action to romance, then finally embracing its all-out science fiction roots in last season’s time travel arc. It was inevitable that this season, and the eventual finale, would eschew those roots in favour of a return to the original formula of drama and romance and a touch of fantasy.
The “alternative universe” or “sideways universe” of the final season is, of course, a constructed shared purgatory for those handful of characters for whom the events on the island were the most important moments of their lives. (Thus explaining the absence of characters like Walt, Michael, Mr Eko, etc, who had other priorities in life.) For souls long dead, for whom these adventures are decades past, the minutiae of temporal mysteries are supremely unimportant. What are important are the people who touched them during their living days.
The symbolism of the finale is arranged to push an obvious lesson that is nevertheless powerful and needed: that all that matters in life are the relationships we form, the lessons we derived from those relationships, and the values we both learned and expressed. The church, a symbol of sanctuary and philosophical inclusiveness (check out the stained glass with symbols from six major religions), is artistically populated by the key characters arranged by their key relationships: Desmond and Penny, Jack and Kate, Sayid and Shannon, Locke and Boone, etc., because it is those key relationships that ultimately transcend our trivial lifespans, not the the mysteries we solved or the smoke monsters we fought.
In the lingo of the show, the “constants” that we find and keep to us are who allow us to avoid being unstuck. As was oft said, we must “live together or die alone.” And so I don’t understand the viewers who have found this finale so surprising and unfulfilling: it was telegraphed years ago that the heart of the show was that the deepness of human connection would be the salvation against the incomprehensible brutality of the unknowable universe.
Yes, the surprise that the “side flashes” were in fact flashes to a distant metaphysical future purgatory was pretty unseeable. But the specifics of what eventually happened on the island –that the Locke monster was killed, that Desmond turned off the light, that Jack turned it back on again, that six survivors flew away, and that Hurley and Ben were left to be caretakers of the island– were ultimately irrelevant compared to the undeniable, impressive fact that the writers of this superlative creation managed to conclude by accessing the spine of their magnificent child, its recurring thematic core.
Lost was a story about love and the mutual dependence of people. That’s all it was. Its brilliance wasn’t in the mysteries it presented or the long thread of narrative that it tautly wove or its exemplary production qualities, but rather both in its realization that all those things were merely vehicles for a grand heart, and for its courage to express that vision in the finale, eschewing the predictable demands of didacticism.