You lost me there.
So I’m pretty excited about tonight’s season finale of Lost. I’ve been watching steadily since the last part of the third season, and now we’re at the end of the fifth season, with one more to go. For those of you who have gotten behind, I’ll avoid spoilers in this post; for those of you who hate Lost, I’ll try not to geek out too much. As is the case with so many things I get really excited about, it’s completely clear to me why large groups of people just aren’t into it. The first three seasons had pretty substantial amounts of what seemed to me like dead time, when it took forever for barely anything to happen, and it’s also the kind of show where from time to time you set back and think, “Isn’t this all kind of, well, stupid?” You know, what with the increasing pile-up of science-fiction conceits, and the constant suspicion that creator J.J. Abrams is just playing a shell game with you, and everything like that.
Actually, I think the main draw of the show for me is precisely that it’s a shell game with an increasing pile-up of science fiction conceits. And I’m pretty sure I’m drawn to “Lost Theories” not because I care what happens to many of the characters (Desmond and Hurley aside), but because the show’s producers have made a big guessing game about which science fiction tropes they’re going to settle on.
It’s well known that science fiction/fantasty/horror needs rules to be effective, and most of us semi-nerds are pretty familiar with the rules of at least a few alternate realities. For example, George Romero’s slow zombies had different rules than Danny Boyle’s fast rage-virus ones did, in terms of how zombie-ism is transmitted, who can become a zombie (corpses too, or just living people?), etc. And movie writers, novelists, and game designers have long since figured out that you can give genre fans the shivers by setting up one set of rules and then revealing that we’re playing by a whole different set, like the time Executive Decision broke a major Steven-Seagal-movie rule pretty early in the film. (To be fair, writers have been doing pretty much since they first conceptualized genre.)
Lost does whatever it can to keep fans in the dark about which set of rules the show actually follows without actually driving them (the fans) away. This season, for example, they’ve given Miles and Hurley some conversations about what’s actually going on in the show that have been funny but also quite meta, in that the two characters take positions that different factions in the online fanbase hold. The question tonight’s season finale is supposed to answer is basically which version of a classic science fiction scenario the characters have wandered into. Which set of rules should they try to follow? And it’s been this way every season, as far as I can tell: different characters adopt different sets of rules and the show tries to suspend judgment on which character is right for as long as it can. Actually, we can take this dynamic a little bit further: most of the show’s characters see themselves as heroes in very different kinds of stories, and the writers spend plenty of time undercutting whatever notion of heroism Jack or Locke or whoever has adopted.
The two problems with this approach are that (a) there’s a fine line between misdirection and plain inconsistency and that (b) considerations of plotting get to trump character development. Will the next season be able to tie things up? I really hope so. The last two seasons have started to answer some of the questions that frustrated the show’s early fans, and they’ve given some reason to believe that there may be a semi-tidy resolution in store for us. If the show does work out fairly well, I suppose it’s worth thinking about what sort of an accomplishment it is.
My verdict: it’s basically sleight-of-hand. No doubt people will make grand claims for Lost as a great intersection of pop culture and the Big Questions, kind of like what happened after The Matrix came out, but I think Lost’s philosophical pretensions ultimately amount to little more than narrative prestidigitation. That is, I’ll be surprised if, when all is said and done, the show will actually have a lesson or a moral. I’m guessing the “what-is-reality” stuff will have the same relation to actual epistemology as John Locke, the credulous bald survivalist, has to John Locke, the Whig philosopher. But I think there will be plenty to say about how Lost managed its labyrinthine plot and played with so many genre conventions.
That being said, sleight-of-hand is a great deal of fun, and I think Lost is too. How about you guys?
(I suppose that if you want to drop spoilers in the comments, you should probably keep ‘em a few lines into your comment so they don’t show up on our sidebar.)