It’s happened again.
A few days ago, Twitter provided me some links to a new article from Variety about the worst-ever TV series finales. Even before I clicked into the thread, I breathed an exasperated sigh, knowing exactly what was going to be in there: The Sopranos, Seinfeld, Dexter, Game of Thrones (the latest addition to the club) How I Met Your Mother, and LOST.
This bugged me on multiple levels. The premise of the article, itself, is a perennially hacky conceit, devoid of original thought that always conforms to conventional wisdom, whether that wisdom is accurate and informed or not. Everybody already “knows” how bad the final episodes of each of these shows is. There’s nothing to be gained by re-stating it, the articles never have any fresh insight into what was supposedly promised but not delivered. There’s nothing risky or interesting about writing this article. It’s dumb and professional writers should feel bad for being involved.
Some of these shows did end at least sorta badly. The final seasons of Game of Thrones felt like a train wreck in slow motion but watching it in real time I offered it a forgiving shrug as they reached a cromulent ending that just didn’t seem properly set up. Dexter made the understandable but wrongheaded decision to let its protagonist off the hook and let him live out the rest of his life, bizarrely, as a lumberjack (and ultimately lead to a sequel series down the road.) I only watched the last seasons of that show — when it was largely considered past its prime — but I don’t remember Dexter ever saying that if he gave up his murderous ways, he’s like to transition into forestry. How I Met Your Mother made one spectacularly incorrect guess about how its audience saw its characters. Seinfeld’s finale was based on a conceit that sounds funny when you say it, but couldn’t be stretched far enough to sustain an episode, let alone one with such weight behind it — it was never going to play to the big room. And as for The Sopranos, if you don’t like how that one ended, that’s what we call a you-problem (my friend who retweeted the thread did so specifically to call out the wrongheadedness of a professional critic calling it bad.)
Whatever their perceived flaws, for the most part these endings (minus, I would say, Dexter,) exhibit uncommon ambition. Mostly these were mold-breaking shows that captivated us for years and had to make a big move to send themselves off. TV shows aren’t really designed to end, at least not in their original form of weekly broadcast series. They’re supposed to keep going until they pass their peak. A show like Seinfeld or How I Met Your Mother even having an ending that was more notable than “The cast gets new jobs and moves away from the usual standing sets” was novel. I’m not attempting to justify or argue on their behalf, only to examine why they happen and yes, maybe temper some of the hatred that gets thrown their way. They wouldn’t be “bad” if they merely performed as adequate closures to the shows’ stories. Nobody makes lists of “The most forgettable, predictable, unimaginative series finales you’ve already forgotten” lauding the likes of Home Improvement, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Big Bang Theory, The Office, Friends et al, for doing basically what they were supposed to. They came, they entertained (mostly) and they said a quick and simple goodbye.
With Game of Thrones being based on a series of novels whose ending hasn’t even been written, and the Sopranos being compared to a novel that played out on TV screens, they warrant a little more scrutiny as to whether they could wrap the story up. Scrutinize away, I suppose, but as bad as the taste in my mouth after GoT ended, I could get what they were going for, and while I have yet to watch the Sopranos, I know enough about its ending to consider it a daring choice that people just aren’t ready for, the kind that comes from an advanced creative assurance on the part of its producers: Some real cajones.
And then there’s LOST.
There has never been a show like LOST. There will never be another show like LOST. This despite the fact that at any given time since 2005, television is flooded with shows that philosophically, or literally, want to be LOST, but lack all of its charm and (dare I say it) nuance. [My favourite of these is MANIFEST, which has the premise of “What if LOST was actually as insane as people think?”] LOST may not be the greatest show ever made but it is one of the towering accomplishments of weekly network television and will never equaled in that sphere. It was a show that folded in multiple genres and character archetypes, featured memorable villains and /redemption arcs, incredible twists, first-year philosophy, time travel, ghosts, the smoke monster, and a parallel universe that was, of course, not what it seemed. It was a complete story, but one that was composed as it went along and contains a few hitches and inconsistencies that become less important as the big picture reveals itself.
I love LOST, I admire LOST, I would consider re-watching LOST tomorrow if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve internalized it so thoroughly that I probably don’t need to ever watch it again. With everything LOST had built itself up to be, it was going to be hard for the show to provide a conclusion that satisfied everyone. But the negative discourse surrounding those few hours of television has gotten way, way out of hand and taken on a life of its own to where people are not actually talking about what happens in the show, and more their vague ideas of what was supposed to happen but didn’t. It dismays me that I have had many friends who missed out on LOST but refuse to go back and check it out because they claimed they already knew how it ended (“badly.”)
If you’ve never watched the ending of LOST, you don’t know how it ends. And if you watched the ending of LOST and you think it’s a complete miss, you may have missed, well, a lot.
The rest of this post, obviously, contains a lot of spoilers for the finale episode of LOST, but I hope I can write about it in a way that at least intrigues you into checking it out.
There are two main plot threads in the final season of LOST. One takes place in the reality we know where a group of individuals (surgeon Jack, con man Sawyer, fugitive Kate, wannabe bushman Locke, Korean couple Sun and Jin, and the lovable Hurley among them) have crash landed on a mysterious island. In the time since they crashed, there has been much discussion as to whether something, or someone, brought them there for a purpose. That turns out to be the case, as the Island, which has magical properties, has a protector in the form of a thousands-of-years-old being named Jacob. Jacob has subtly influenced these peoples’ lives to get them on the plane and to the Island. He’s looking for a replacement, because he believes he will soon be killed by his evil brother, a being without a name who takes the form of a monster made of smoke, and later appropriates the appearance of the character of John Locke (because it’s easier for characters to converse with a human than a cloud of smoke, and also Terry O’Quinn gives a hell of a dual performance.)
When it’s revealed that Jacob — who weaves tapestries by hand, in case you needed a handy visual metaphor — has been influencing these peoples’ lives, it’s a major “Aha” moment for the series, because it’s been happening all along. Characters like Sawyer and initial “big bad” Ben manipulate situations and people constantly, performing a small-scale version of Jacob’s project. “They think it’s their idea, but it’s your idea,” Sawyer explains to a character interested in his work as a con man. The show spends long years with characters trying to decide whether things are coincidental, or fate, without suspecting that someone has set up the dominoes just so, to bring everything together.
If that seems pessimistic, perhaps it is, but perhaps fate really is indistinguishable from the hands of forces beyond our control, which is either trying to nudge us into a certain position, or disregards us altogether. Jacob rationalizes his work by noting, to the assembled candidates, that he didn’t pluck any of them out of happy existences. They were suffering, they were flawed, they were — I gotta say it — LOST. But they were good people seeking the kind of meaning that guarding the island would give them, and in the end it’s their choice: whoever wants the job can take it, and everyone else can go home. Ultimately, though, the show assures us that there is a reason why we are watching these people on this island (and even how they seem to have unlikely survived things that should have killed them.)
As to why the Island needs a protector, it’s because of that smoke monster. Smokey is bound to the island, unable to leave it, which is all he’s ever wanted to do. However, the only way to do it is to basically unplug the island’s magic properties which would release an untold evil into the world (which may be Smokey himself) and/or kill the light that exists inside of people. He actually succeeds, but before he can escape, he is made mortal, killed, and his work is undone by our heroes at the 11th hour while the Island literally crumbles. It’s all very mythological and trippy for a Tuesday night at 8.
The end of this thread of LOST is both thematically and dramatically satisfying as it plays up concepts that had been present in the series since its first episode, and resolves with its major characters having an all-out fight for the fate of the world, which is unassailably cool. Maybe you don’t buy into the mythos and magic of it, but that’s what LOST was tilting toward for years, so if you didn’t like that, I’m not sure what the hell show you were watching.
The other thread is less dramatically important, but it’s the one that everyone talks about, blowing things way, way out of proportion. This is the one that ends in the church.
Throughout the final season, we see glimpses of an alternate universe where flight 815 never crashed, which is presented as being due to some time-travelling shenanigans that our characters did while they were in the 1970’s (the show went to some weird places, which is why it’s my shit.) Characters like Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Locke, Hurley, Ben, Desmond, and the rest (some of whom had already died onscreen) are presented as having pretty much everything they want in life: families, careers, direction, stability, confidence, success, seemingly because of the lack of influence from Jacob and the Island. And yet there seems to be something missing for each. Gradually, the characters start to meet each other and awaken their memories of their other lives on the island, and it seems as though something needs to be done so they can go “home.” Narratively, this is a little confusing, since we’re actively watching the “mainline” reality in which they are on an island, and it seems strange that this sideways-verse is happening in between moments we have already seen or are seeing now. It’s a puzzler, for sure.
As it turns out, this other reality isn’t a parallel history for our characters: it’s an afterlife. It’s purgatory. It’s the waiting room. It’s where you stop a moment before what’s next. As they meet each other, they realize the significance and importance of their time together on the Island, and prepare to move on. Significantly, Jack, the hero doctor with the pathological need to fix things, is the last one to awaken and let go of all the flaws and troubles of his Earthly life.
Throughout the series, one of the recurring catchphrases is the admonishment that these characters need to “live together, or die alone.” What the sideways verse does is confirm for us that they did, in fact, live together, and do not have to face death, or anything that comes afterward, alone. The final statement is more or less that nobody is truly alone and that we need to embrace whatever group we happen to find ourselves in for the sake of a greater good.
The sideways universe is a strange conceit, but it plays out of the big plot twist from the previous season, they Jack is going to undo all the mistakes he made by setting off a hydrogen bomb (don’t forget, it was that show,) so toying with the audience in that way was extremely creative, and they made it count. The end result is not really that confusing, especially if you have been watching the show even moderately closely for six years. It’s a very literal dramatization of one of the show’s core themes, and the worst you can probably say about it is that it’s overly literal, a little awkward, and pretty sentimental and corny. That, I will cop to, but it’s not series-ruining by any means. In its two threads, LOST does more in its finale to tell you “Hey, this is why you just spent all this time watching these characters, this is why they did all that stuff, and this is their happy ending.” When I watched it ten years ago, I got it, I felt it, it moved me, because it was all so important to me.
There are two specific criticisms that I hear about the finale of LOST. One is a flagrant misunderstanding, and one is a mild one. The flagrant one is “They were dead all along.” This is patently untrue, and whoever told you it was either a liar or an idiot. Everything that happens to the characters onscreen is happening and means something, and hell, even the stuff that is shown to happen to them in the afterlife can be said to be really happening and significant. The island is real, in story, with appropriate stakes for the fate of mankind.
The other one is “There are no answers.” Some people got it into their head that LOST had raised questions to which they were owed answers that were never offered. This is probably the result of the show merely spoonfeeding you, as opposed to shoving it into your mouth like a fussy baby. The show’s final seasons feature multiple overly-detailed exposition speeches where a character in the know explains something like, what the Island is (a cork to contain a certain form of evil in the world) or how Jacob can do certain things (which boils down to, he possesses Island Magic.)
Most of the rest of the “questions” do have answers in at least an abstract but often literal way, and those that don’t aren’t really important to the narrative except as color (my favourite is “What are the numbers?” referring to the recurrence of “4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42.” These numbers represent the ambiguity between coincidence and fate, but also they are literally written next to each of the candidates’ names on a cave wall due to Jacob’s love of numbers. That’s all there is to them.) Anything left out of those two categories is likely the result of the fact that the show is not a novel that was drafted and revised as a whole, but something that had to be completed piecemeal, where real-world conditions and in-story concepts changed. I’m sorry, we will never know whether that Australian guy was a real or fake psychic, or what the deal with Libby was, but the truth is it doesn’t matter. It’s scenery, not story.
What’s more, the LOST producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, knew what they were looking at when they produced the show and its ending, and prepared for it with a winningly snarky DVD-only epilogue that took the piss out of this line of thinking. “You want ‘answers’? When does life ever give you answers? And what do you hope do do with them?”
I think people latch onto these criticisms because they need some objectively correct justification for the actual, harder-to-process truth: it simply wasn’t their cup of tea. That would be okay, if you merely feel it in your gut that you don’t like the way the show ends and want to move on with your life. I invite that, since in matters of taste there can be no dispute. But I think people really want it to not be “their fault” for not getting or liking it; they need for it to be a massive miss that everyone should hate. I’ve never seen a convincing argument of the finale’s supposed inherent failure that didn’t rest on these very specious starting points.
In 2022, I’m more done with people who are still apt to slag the finale of LOST than I am other kinds of hackneyed entertainment takes. It’s lazy and shows absolutely no regard for the actual content of the work they are attempting to critique. LOST had its stumbles and I wouldn’t argue that its finale was its absolute finest moment, but it doesn’t deserve the shit that people give it by a long shot. I just see people witnessing a cultural moment that is outside the norms of what is expected, and being so ill-prepared to process it that they have to shit on it. It’s dispiriting to see from professional critics, people who are paid to do a job I could, at least in this one instance, do way better. I hate that my favourite action-adventure show is tainted in the public imagination by a relatively phony bogeyman.
I think often about those people who wanted answers but believe they never got them. They aren’t talking about the end of LOST the show, they’re talking about the end of LOST the idea, a LOST that will forever be suspended in their memories as that moment at the end of season 1 when Jack and Locke peer down the narrow, darkened hatch they’ve just broken open, neither we nor they knowing what’s down there. They miss the mystery and the speculation of it all and feel damned that the ambiguity was ever ruined by the show actually daring to continue and develop as a story. They answers they got weren’t the answers they wanted because there was no answer that could have satisfied them and outdone the shadow of a non-answer in their mind, whether it was “what is the DHARMA Initiative up to?” or “what is the Island?” or “why was Libby in the mental institution?” The show provoked us so much that it broke people. It actually broke them. Very few shows can say that.
(Even some of the defenses of the finale I’ve read lately, from Esquire and The Verge, give too much credit to the “Yeah, they shortchanged us on answers” people. If I, a person of middling intellect, can process it, most of you can too.)
And anyway, rather than re-state what everyone already thinks, wouldn’t it be more meaningful to put on your thinking cap and advocate for things that are misunderstood and maligned unfairly? It can be risky to make a wild swing like that, but so much more rewarding.
Today in the unfathomably deep streaming world, shows come and go completely without kicking up the king of fuss that LOST did, which is both a relief and sad. Shows that would have been the best thing on TV decades ago are now there to take or leave, and their endings (if marked at all and not merely left unrenewed by their corporate overlords) pass without much comment. There’s a reason why most lists about TV, for good or ill, feature few shows that debuted after 2014 or so — because there isn’t enough “common knowledge” amongst readers to fuel articles after that. But that’s a different problem.
Only a great show that unified a lot of people can have a “bad” ending, and the reason for a lot of these endings is the same drive that made them great to begin with: experimentalism, big ideas, outsized ambition to not merely entertain for 44 minutes a night, and ideally, an important place in viewers’ hearts. Everything you need to understand and enjoy the finale of LOST — if you’re so inclined — is right there in the 100+ hours of television you’ve previously watched. You can take it how you will, but for me, I’ll always be glad I got a chance to experience that journey, and nothing can take that from me.
While every post on this blog may be the last one, you can usually find Scotto on Twitter or on his weekly history of the X-Men, Uncanny X-Cerpts. He is available to do 90 minutes on LOST with minimal prompting any day of the week, and you can ask him any questions you want about it.