How answers ruined Lost

24 May

by Jess

All the smart people I’ve talked to who liked the Lost finale have said the same thing: “It was emotionally satisfying.” No argument there. Everyone coming together, becoming enlightened about their importance to each other, seeing each other again after all their trials and in some cases long stretches of separation we never got to see — it’s not only what you want emotionally for characters you’re invested in, it’s also what you want for yourself and everyone you know. It’s the reconciliation scene, the love scene, the triumph over death, the final moment in the movie where everyone stands up one by one and slowly starts to applaud, all rolled into one.

I’m willing to allow a lot of space for the importance of emotional catharsis, which the Lost finale had in spades. I thought, for instance, that the historical absurdities of “Inglourious Basterds” were entirely justified by the way that the film provided illusory catharsis for something that, in real life, can never be exorcised. But I admit I’m hugely frustrated by the way that Lost presented itself as something that would be intellectually satisfying as well as emotionally — a much more difficult and rarer feat — and not only failed to pull it off but failed spectacularly. My sense, from the proliferation of “questions we need answered!” posts leading up to the finale and “questions we still have!” postmortems today, is that most intellectually dissatisfied Lost fans blame the failure on the writers not providing enough answers. I think it’s because they tried to have too many.

For a show like this to be intellectually satisfying requires a finicky balancing act, avoiding both deflationary answers and complete abdication of sense-making. The writers must show glimpses of patterns that hang together and suggest other patterns even larger and more luminous, but resist  spelling out what those patterns mean — implying wheels within wheels without showing the clockwork. TV usually can’t do it. Novels can — but novels also don’t have to deal with fan message boards shouting instructions between chapters, or characters getting booked by other novels and having to be killed off. Given the intense fan scrutiny and the vicissitudes of TV specifically and the serial format in general, it’s not a surprise that writers who have expertly layered five seasons worth of questions get panicky when faced with the need to start handing out answers. They perceive a demand — and no doubt it’s real — to provide answers that are not only concrete but significant, showing some kind of insight into the nature of the reality they’ve created and the reality within which they created it. It’s a lot to undertake.

But maybe they don’t have to. For my money, there’s not a single mystery that was explicitly answered on Lost that wasn’t more interesting when it was open-ended. It’s like Schrodinger’s cat, or the particles it’s meant to represent — until observed and pinned down, they exist in every possible state, but observation collapses those potentialities into a single certainty. When it was piling mystery on mystery, Lost was a mesh of patterns and possibilities, as strange events overlapped and resonated and made each other clearer or murkier depending on the interaction. But each explicit answer collapsed the wave form, knocking the wind out of a hundred furiously debated and rewritten theories. The creepy vertigo we got when we heard the Whispers wasn’t just from the eerie sound and camera work — it was also from our sense of the nearly limitless possibilities of what we were hearing. Were they ghosts? Time echoes? Some supernatural force controlled or projected by the Others? How did they relate to the manifestations and monsters and other mysteries of the Island? Turns out: they’re trapped spirits who did something bad and then died. Oh.

There is a way to provide answers that don’t fully collapse the wave form, but just direct and add savor to the questions. When we first heard the Monster described as “a security system,” the possibilities were fascinating. Was it animal or machine, or a little of both? Why did it look into your mind and then present itself as images from your past? I thought of Solaris, Stanislaw Lem’s novel about a planet that protects itself from human intervention by manifesting potential intruders’ deepest guilts and fears. Could the Island be manifesting the black smoke as a sort of immune response, an extremely sophisticated way of destroying invaders through psychological pain? Or was it more like a guard dog? And what was it guarding? Or was it trying to help them, not destroy them, as when one manifestation led Jack to water? When it was Yemi or Christian or Alex or the horse, that was clearly for some specific character’s benefit or possibly detriment — what, then, did it mean by becoming John Locke? The complexity of that web of patterns, questions, and suppositions touched off by this one hint is not done justice by the later, more specific answer (“Titus Welliver went down a log flume and came out as evil smoke”).

Attempts to offer answers — concrete answers, finished answers, answers that let you know in no uncertain terms what’s been going on all this time — always seem to end up as variations on “it was all a dream” or “God did it.” That’s what happened, famously, to St. Elsewhere. It’s also what happened to Battlestar Galactica and (to a disappointing degree) to Carnivale, which pulled off a masterful layering of clues and mysteries for more than a season before starting to lose the courage of its convictions. It didn’t happen to Twin Peaks, but it might have if the show had gotten its anticipated third season. (Maybe not — David Lynch is unapologetic about not offering recognizable answers, but he wasn’t the only person involved.) As it is, Twin Peaks is a nice example of what can happen when the show’s mysteries remain in a superposition, when the waveform isn’t collapsed by the weight of the answer obligation. Sure, the show managed to wreck itself in several ways in season two — the less said about James’ bike adventure, the better — but they never got a chance to take the wind out of our lofty theories about what it all means, and now they never will.

The trick when crafting a mysterious fiction (she said, having absolutely no expertise in fiction-making whatsoever and just being a pushy and opinionated consumer) is not trying to hand out satisfying answers but satisfying questions. But answers are what people clamor for, and the Lost writers, faced with that answer-lust, seem to have panicked. What they offered up was a pat bit of exposition that functions, insofar as it functions, only to explain the brand-new mysteries set up in the final season, shrugging off the earlier questions on which fans had built their beautiful network of theories. I’m grateful, at least, that they left those alone — it allows the uncertain story, the superposition story, to maintain a kind of independence and dignity. But the rush for a resolution — especially the resolution they chose — still feels like an act of desperation, introducing and immediately solving new mysteries in order to provide people with some kind of answer. If they couldn’t truly illuminate us, if they never really had a plan — and nobody seriously believed they did — the least they could have done was trust us to do some of the brain work, tracing connections and spinning out theories. A light touch instead of a heavy hand.

Noel Murray at the AV Club, who is a real TV critic unlike me (and who is less begrudging than I am about still loving Lost despite its many flaws), put it better than I could:

I like that Lost has dropped enough clues to its minor mysteries—just about anything to do with DHARMA, for example—that viewers can interpret them however they’d like. Why couldn’t women give birth? What was the deal with the statue? Those kind of questions are answerable, with a little viewer imagination and the details already provided. When the show spelled out its answers, it became painfully prosaic. When it was focused on keeping viewers stimulated and disoriented, it worked much better.

I’m not leaving last night’s episode saying “what about all the things they didn’t explain?” I’m wondering, what about all the things they didn’t need to? And will there ever be a TV show with the guts to refuse us final answers, and thereby let all the final answers be true?

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10 Responses to “How answers ruined Lost”

  1. Laura May 24, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    This is maybe the best thing I’ve ever seen written about Lost. “Not trying to hand out satisfying answers but satisfying questions” is, IM-ever-so-HO, one of the key glories of narrative art.

  2. Jess May 24, 2010 at 3:16 pm #

    Talking to myself, because there were many things I didn’t get to get into here:

    I think a lot of people are complaining about feeling like the show undercut its own significance, that nothing that happened before “mattered.” I mostly don’t agree with that — if the Island was purgatory, yeah, in a sense nothing would have mattered, but they’re very clear that that wasn’t the case. However, I wanted to highlight another good point made by Noel Murray:

    But again, if you think of Lost as one long story, I’m not sure that anyone was thinking after the first chapter, “I wonder what happens to these people after they die?” And I’m not sure that the enlightenment the characters achieved really resonates given that they didn’t get the chance (at least on-screen) to put those lessons into action on the real, off-Island world.

    I find it sort of narratively unfair to bring characters back after long untold stories that are never shown or referenced, and the unfairness ties into what I’m talking about above. Good narrative practice: Leaving Hurley in charge of the island and then walking away from that story, letting viewers fill in what they think will result from that pairing. Sort of smarmy narrative practice: Doing the above, but then having Hurley show up in the afterlife dragging his unwieldy, conspicuous lack of story with him. Not showing Hurley’s story allows it to be what we want it to be. Not showing it but having him come back after it, dead says “Hurley’s story is unimportant compared to Jack’s afterlife fantasy.” It’s a constraining, negating absence instead of one that opens up possibilities.

    • Laura May 24, 2010 at 5:38 pm #

      I have mixed feelings about that, actually, largely because of Harry Potter, which did that in the exact wrong way (look, everyone gets married and has babies and their lives are all mundane now!). I totally agree with you that I think it would have been much more compelling, narratively speaking, to end the events on the island by, you know, ending the events on the island. Especially since Hurley is the perfect character to make into some kind of demigod. But I’m also grateful (because of the unfortunate “here are the stupid answers” quality you describe so well) that we got the ending of the afterlife rather than a montage of everyone living happily ever after off the island in the real world… which you know some people must have been clamoring for.

      • Jess May 24, 2010 at 5:43 pm #

        Oh yeah, I don’t actually want to hear those stories! And I think HP fucked up in the exact same way re: wanting too much explicit resolution. I just want to not hear those stories via never hearing from those characters again. Bringing them back after death but having it be as if they never had post-Island lives seems negating, not open-ended.

        But it was hardly my biggest problem with the episode. 🙂

        Tracie at Jez, who to my mind has always been the thinkiest Lost commentator, wrote a post that made me feel a little better about the whole thing: http://jezebel.com/5546559/lost-finale-recap-case-closed

      • Laura May 24, 2010 at 6:15 pm #

        I get what you’re saying. Tracie’s post is really really good but also does not negate anything you said here.

  3. Lynne May 24, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

    I totally get this. I guess I never had the expectation that the writers of Lost would hold back from giving us too many answers, though, so overall I’m feeling pleasantly surprised they held back and kept things as mysterious as they did. They’ve always been eye-rollingly heavy-handed with their themes. (DON’T FORGET ABOUT BLACK AND WHITE AND GOOD AND EVIL AND EYES AND THE NUMBERS YOU GUYS REALLY DON’T FORGET) And they let us hold on to the mysteries for so much (like Dharma, and the other groups of people that once lived there and built things, and I mean, what the numbers actually mean) that I am left this morning feeling like the show is maybe a *little* less mine, but I still get to keep a piece for myself.

    • Jess May 25, 2010 at 12:17 am #

      I know, I know, I shouldn’t have expected anything! I actually have been kind of Zombie Sayid all season — I gave up my illusions that they’d be able to pull it off a while ago. Last night Dan said “I guess I just trusted them to do more with it” and I was like “good god, man, why?” You’re right that given how it could have played out and the expectations I should have had, they showed admirable restraint. This isn’t really about Lost so much as it is about the general trend towards both demanding and providing pat answers and how I think it’s the least smart form of storytelling. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place! But Lost did, in the beginning, seem to be a smarter kind of story and I am disappointed (though not surprised) that it didn’t really manage to follow through. Even once I realized that Darlton didn’t really have a plan but were just being kind of smug about it, I still wanted the idea of smart storytelling to win the day.

    • Jess May 25, 2010 at 9:55 am #

      I want to add also (just for clarification) that while I am grateful that they didn’t try to hammer an explanation onto everything, I think that in their rush for a Big Answer they ended up with an explanation that actually no-sells the earlier mysteries. It seems weird to simultaneously feel that they should leave things open-ended and also agree with the people who feel like it was a cheat to answer only the questions set up in the last season (when they knew they were gonna have to have SOMETHING to answer). But I think the particular way in which they presented the Big Answers undersold the remaining questions in favor of focusing on the characters’ emotional catharsis and redemption. I felt like the questions didn’t hang in the air so much as get shoved to the side.

      • Lynne May 25, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

        Oh yeah, I can totally see that. I think by the last couple seasons I had bought into the fact that the characters’ redemption and catharsis was the focus and point of the show, even though I really enjoyed trying to figure out the mysteries and puzzles on the logical side. So it surprised me, but I found it oddly satisfying that they wrapped it up that way, because the characters’ problems were the original focus of the show. They kind of came back to that at the end, which left the fun middle bits (the fun puzzles) hanging and also clearly told us they were less important. But I guess it felt like coming full circle to come back to that.

  4. Brian May 26, 2010 at 5:07 pm #

    I never watched one single episode of Lost. Therefore, this discussion is largely lost on me. I could say something about how difficult it is for episodic television–especially for shows with a devoted following–to have proper “closure” (look at how the last episodes of The Sopranos and Seinfeld disappointed viewers at the time). Instead, I will mention my favorite Lost anecdote. On Sunday, a former student of mine posted on Facebook the rather enigmatic status update: “Lost pig roast today!” My response: “How does one lose an entire pig roast?”

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