Answers to LOST’s unanswered questions

25 May 2010

[Note: Substantial spoilers, for both LOST and The Wire, lie within - if you haven't seen either series in its entirety, then be warned: there are dragons here]

After 121 episodes of polar bears, monsters, the sky turning purple, teleportation through time and space, parallel universes, the disaster-sci-fi-slash-rumination-on-philosophy series LOST came to a thundering and resolute conclusion this week.

Resolute by its standards, that is. LOST isn’t just one of those TV shows just delights or infuriates, both the frustration and delight camps themselves can be broken further down into differing factions. The show’s most ardent fans, and its severest critics end up agreeing on one thing – they hate the show for leaving so many questions unanswered.

What was the deal with the numbers? What were the DHARMA initiative up to? Why was Walt so special? Why did they go to the effort to rescue Mr Eko only for him to die two episodes later? Why can’t women survive pregnancy on the island? Who dropped the DHARMA supplies? Why does Mr Friendly throw like a girl?

The show’s detractors say this is what makes LOST a flawed television series, by being so patently ridiculous. Conversely, the show’s adoring fanbase grew increasingly demanding of a neat solution to it all to justify all the faith they’ve put in it. More laidback afficionados of the show will hopefully appreciate the irony at how this is a great example of faith versus reason, one of the show’s major themes.

Prior, to the finale, some fans seriously expected it to explain everything hidden about the island, and to provide a “satisfactory” conclusion. Instead, the writers chose to play one of the best jokes in modern television writing: for years fans had semi-jokingly explained it by saying the Island was actually Purgatory and this would be revealed in a “it was all a dream”-style disappointment. The writers decided to actually make that come true by telling the audience the cast was in Purgatory. Only it wasn’t the Island, but a parallel universe where the crash never happened, which we were all led to believe was an alternate timeline until the final twist. Everybody fell for it – not a single fan explanation for the “sideways timeline” comes close to predicting this.

The finale managed the difficult task of bringing closure to the series, but also, like in the underrated parody episode “Exposé“, it delivered with a delicious joke on the show’s fans’ endless theorising from the writers – if they want purgatory, we’ll give them purgatory. Smarting from this, fans and detractors alike have been quick to register their disappointment at a “cop-out” ending that steadfastly refused to answer all their questions. The mysteries of the show end up being dismissed as nothing more than the writers making it up as they go along, or even just utter toss from start to finish.

So, the following needs to be spelt out:

It doesn’t fucking matter that none of LOST’s mysteries got answered. That’s the point.

Let’s compare and contrast LOST with another fanatically followed and critically-acclaimed television series of recent times – The Wire. The Wire is everything LOST is not. By and large, the camera is a highly reliable narrator. Characters will lie, cheat and obscure, and you are quickly drawn into a series of deals, double-crosses and treble-crosses but it is still unrelentingly committed to being realistic. Storylines are complex but vastly dramatic plot twists are few and far between; events do happen off-camera, but when they do occur they are deftly explained and exposited.

This realism is perhaps unsurprising; Ed Burns and David Simon drew from their experiences as a policeman & teacher, and journalist, respectively. The realism even goes down to the names of the characters (many derived from or amalgams of Baltimore cops and criminals), and so much is their commitmen to reality that they even cast real-life police officers and former gang members in bit-part roles.

Barely a line of dialogue or a scene is superfluous – they all contribute to greater whole, an intricate mesh of threads where no piece of gossamer goes unwasted. The series is entirely linear with no flashbacks or other devices; the attention to detail is terrifying, and the resulting work is the sum of its parts, a meticulous depiction of people, institutions, and the city, woven together from the street corners, schools and precincts, upwards to the politicians, journalists and kingpins at the top, shows it in every detail. When put so deftly together, it makes utterly brilliant television.

LOST on the other hand is played out in a vastly different universe. Here the details are scattered among a world of myths, red herrings and outright lies. The characters in the show form only a tiny part of a much greater, unseen whole, connected loosely by seemingly random coincidences. The camera as narrator is incredibly unreliable (viz the flash-sideways, or Locke 2.0 turning out to be the smoke monster) and refuses to give up secrets easily.1 Nevertheless, this makes LOST too a brilliant piece of television, despite the vastly different narrative setup.

As an aside – this does not mean that The Wire never gets weirder than LOST. Just look at some of the characters a supposedly realistic show brings out. The brooding Adam Smith-reading drug kingpin Stringer Bell, the profane yet nakedly corrupt state senator Clay Davis, and perhaps notably of all, the outwardly homosexual drug dealer-robbing stickup man with a heart of gold, Omar. And just when Omar couldn’t get weird enough, he teams up with Brother Mouzone, a pious softly-spoken hitman from the Nation of Islam, to wreak revenge on the druglord who wronged them. I mean, come on. You might as well have had armed polar bears.

The Wire is a forensic work of art – the situation and universe it depicts is built up entirely from what the viewer sees over the series, piece by piece. LOST is a holistic work of art – one where the entire universe is never apparent, and you can only pick at some of its pieces before revealing a complexity within. You were never meant to find out all the answers because the answers are way bigger than what you can see. Even the moment that defines and sets up the series: the plane crash – normally the focal point of disaster television – turns out to be an insignificant event played against the backdrop of a millennia-old struggle between good and evil (wonderfully foreshadowed by Locke and Walt’s game of backgammon in the second episode of season one).

So what’s the point of LOST then? As I see it, you’re meant to be paying attention to is how the characters wrestle with the situation that is beyond their grasp. It would be easy and boring to have all our questions answered and to become an omniscient observer with a reliable narrator. Far better to suffer along unknowingly with the protagonists as they try to work out philosophical struggles such as what being “good” means, faith versus reason, individualism versus communality, fate versus free will. That’s what science fiction is meant to do – take human nature and push it in extreme situations.

This is not to knock The Wire either for trying to be too realistic – indeed it confronts many of the same issues of morality as LOST does, in a very a different context and with a very different narrative structure. Ironically, the setups for both shows are the converse of what happens in real life – usually it is police investigations that are full of unknowns and ambiguities, whereas air crashes can more often than not be rigorously modelled and reconstructed second-by-second.

The solution is realising that there is no one “right” way to explore the ins and outs of human nature, the very best and worst of the human soul. Both approaches, of The Wire and LOST, do so in contrasting universes,2 but neither is inherently wrong. To demand that LOST destroy its mysteries is as unfair on it as demanding The Wire to lose its gritty authenticity. In short: it’s not meant to make complete sense. It will be baffling in parts. The characters and the stories they live out, are all set against this backdrop, and you’re meant to experience it as the characters did. So can we please stop moaning about not knowing everything? Good. Thank you. And Namaste.

1 About the only other work I know of that does this so well is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest – an enormously long book which also has an unsatisfactory ending – well worth reading for any LOST fan suffering withdrawal symptoms.
2 That is of course except for Matthew Abaddon and Cedric Daniels being the one and same, naturally…


4 Responses

Marcus Hickman

I saw someone compare the writing in LOST to several great novels, less about explicits and more about having the reader/watcher fill in the blanks.

In hindsight this works well and feels right, during the shows broadcast though i’m pretty sure 99% of people were watching to have WTF questions answered rather than enjoying character development – which lets face it was pretty thin over six series.

People watched to have questions answered and ultimately a lot of the plot now seems like nothing more than constructs to give people that WTF moment, the killer hook that kept people watching.

If i was being very cynical i’d say the final episodes massive character love in was merely to plant the idea that we gave a damn about them over the last six years. Personally, when i talked about Lost it was about the WTF questions, not about how i wished Jack and Sawyer could get along etc.

The brooding Adam Smith-reading drug kingpin Stringer Bell, the profane yet nakedly corrupt state senator Clay Davis, and perhaps notably of all, the outwardly homosexual drug dealer-robbing stickup man with a heart of gold, Omar.

See to me, the difference between Lost and the Wire is that – although all the types above are unlikely-according-to-stereotype – any time spent reading the crime news (Reuters’ “weird news” section is particularly likely to throw this up) will conjure up far odder things that actually happen in real life all the time, whereas Lost is just impossible/’magical realism’/whatever.

The Wire is brilliant because you know that for all its implausibilities in the face of stereotype, you could dig out a mayor/copper/drug-lord/hit-man who was actually weirder (Christopher Dudus Coke?). And that Burns and Simon have probably met such people in all camps. The concept that all of them would be in play in the same district & city at the same time is unlikely, but it’s plausible-unlikely.

I was always totally cold to Lost because it seemed to just be silly for the purposes of being silly. Maybe this is because I’ve read too much Ayer and Dawkins, and so think that metaphysics is uninteresting and the amazingness of what does actually happen in real life is what’s interesting.

(on the other hand, I’m currently reading HP Lovecraft for the first time and quite enjoying it; maybe that’ll convert me to mystical non-worlds…)

Geekchic

Just wanted to point something out.

“it delivered with a delicious joke on the show’s fans’ endless theorising from the writers – if they want purgatory, we’ll give them purgatory. Smarting from this, fans and detractors alike have been quick to register their disappointment at a “cop-out” ending”

This show was only successful because of its fans, to laugh at them, to suggest they are in some way stupid for expecting a “proper” ending means it deserves nothing less than to be relegated with other numerous, silly shows that have disappointed generations.

Great article although I noticed one tiny little error:

The series is entirely linear with no flashbacks or other devices

There’s one flashback in The Wire in the very first episode:

Simon has complained about the flashback at the end of the pilot, the glimpse of William Gant testifying against D’Angelo. HBO made him insert it, he said, because they were afraid that people wouldn’t understand the significance of the dead body and why it upset D’Angelo so much.

(More here)