Lost series finale review: ‘The End’
Warning: Major spoilers follow for various swaths of “Lost” in general, and the series finale in particular. I urge you NOT to read this review if you have (1) not watched “Lost,” (2) remained spoiler-free on “Lost” and (3) ever intend to watch it (which I highly recommend).
As I’ve said before, the true genius of Lost was that it could be so many things to so many people. Because of its vast array of diverse characters and settings (in its various flashbacks, flash-forwards, and this season’s “flash-sideways”), it could do so many things as a narrative universe — episodic, serialized, weaving in and out and connecting characters in Short Cuts-like ways.
And because all of these characters were stranded together on a mysterious island with bizarre electromagnetic properties, a mysterious smoke monster, and apparently no hope of rescue, there were so many stories to be told, and plenty of conflicts to be had along the way. Also, lots of teamwork and camaraderie. It was a community of necessity. Sometimes dysfunctional. Sometimes working well together. Often pitted against outside forces (like the button, or the Others, or a band of Widmore’s mercenaries). And sometimes pitted against one another.
And because of the structure of the show, there was almost literally no limit to how much new information we could learn about the characters. Because this was a narrative that could jump around in time — first in terms of narrative devices like flashbacks, and then later with actual sci-fi time travel — there was a never-ending amount of new information the writers could convey in a purely cinematic way. They could almost always show, rather than tell.
And because this show enjoyed a production unlike many others — and, given the economics of the industry’s future, unlikely to be equaled on network TV ever again, I’d guess — this became not just a series about these characters and their community on this mysterious island, but one of the most cinematic and best-looking TV series ever made, of any genre (partly because it contained within itself nearly every genre).
In short, the real key to Lost was not in its mystery, but in its characters, storytelling, and structure.
Truth be told, if you look at Lost as a big mystery to be solved, you may very well be disappointed with “The End” and season six as a whole, because the secret to the flash-sideways is revealed here as something that is simultaneously completely brilliant and indicative of the season’s big secret being, at its narrative essence, a somewhat dishonest cheat.
The last 15 minutes of the show had me in a stunned silence. It was moving, it was powerful, and as my fiancee and I sat there watching it, I was fully aware that neither one of us said a word because we were so transfixed by the reveal that was unfolding before us, and what it meant. After the screen faded to black, my reaction was simply, “Whoa.”
Followed about a minute later by, “I have a feeling a lot of people are going to be pissed about that ending.”
That was a gut reaction. I’m not sure how many people were pissed, or sort of pissed, or sort of accepted it while also feeling partially cheated. I can say that I am not pissed about the ending. I found it rather satisfying, even if it ultimately revealed many secrets of Lost‘s final season to be red herrings.
Emotionally, it packed a wallop. I went back and watched it again a few days later, and I was even more affected by the final minutes the second time than I was the first. The show really finds the perfect notes in arriving at the revelation that the flash-sideways are actually a purgatory-like afterlife. Jack Bender’s direction, Michael Giacchino’s score, the way Kate looks at Jack and invites him inside the church with the serenity of knowing something great waits inside, and Jack’s trepidation throughout, right up until he puts his hand on his father’s coffin — all of this has a sweeping spiritual feel, an emotional current that few hours of television ever attempt, let alone reach. I thought it was exceptionally well conceived and executed.
As a character piece, the final moments belongs to Jack (as he dies in the parallel narrative on the island), and I thought his conversation with his father was something that worked both as a purely emotional character payoff and as story exposition that finally explains once and for all what this “place” is. As exposition goes, this is about as elegantly done as I can imagine it. A line like, “There is no ‘now’ here” explains all that needs to be said and absolutely no more; yes, everyone in here is dead, but they all died at different times and ended up here together. Time is no longer strictly linear. To emotionally evoke something as mysterious as the afterlife within the confines of strictly earth-bound images is a tall order that requires a pitch-perfect tone and precise performances. They pulled it off.
Also consider that these final minutes pay off with some wonderful character beats. Probably the highlight of it all was the culmination of Ben’s arc. As portrayed by Michael Emerson, Ben has been one of Lost‘s greatest assets — a villain and a liar who has done terrible things (and who deserved all those beatings he received over the years), and yet he has always been complicated and fascinating, and for me there was always the hope that deep down he could be redeemed.
The way his arc wraps up, with his decision not to go inside the church because he simply is not ready, displays a perfect note of ambivalence about the character. He knows he has done awful things — most especially to John Locke — and he is sorry and wants to be forgiven. But he has not forgiven himself. Will he ever be able to do so? Does he deserve redemption? Rarely has a note of ambivalence felt so perfectly right and satisfying and been emblematic of what the character itself represented.
And there are plenty of other satisfying payoffs where that came from. Claire and Charlie and the baby delivery: good stuff. The Sawyer/Juliet scene at the vending machine: really great stuff. Sayid and Shannon: well, two out of three ain’t bad, I guess. (More on that later.)
As a finale, “The End” works both as an exercise in suspense and as a grand storyline/character/emotional payoff. “What is the nature of the sideways universe?” has been the big question driving much of season six, and if you had asked me if the show could possibly have held that secret until the final 15 minutes of the final episode and yet still made it satisfying, I’d have told you it was impossible. Why? Because I’d have figured the flash-sideways would be explained in sci-fi parallel-universe terms, and that ultimately the sideways universe would have to be destroyed or otherwise resolved apart from the island storyline — something I’d assumed would be impossible to do in the final 15 minutes. The twist of making the flash-sideways a spiritual epilogue to everything else is a brilliant move that I’m guessing few people saw coming.
Which of course brings me to the other part of this review, which must admit that, no, “The End” (and season six) is not perfect.
Part of the reason we couldn’t see this ending coming is because it is, at its core, a massive exercise in narrative misdirection. The sideways universe is revealed here as a limbo created by our characters where they could find each other before moving on to whatever awaits them at their next/actual afterlife destination. Fine and good. But why, then, does it look exactly like Los Angeles after Oceanic Flight 815 has landed, in an almost-but-not-quite replica of where the characters were headed before the real flight crashed on the island? Why must they go through this process of discovering each other on a plane of existence that so much mirrors real life?
The answer is simple: Because it’s a narrative device that must fool us into thinking it’s a parallel universe instead of what it actually turns out to be. This place was not created by the detonation of Jughead as was strongly purported. The writers were playing tricks on us.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment stemming from this trick on the audience is that the season’s great opening teaser image of the sunken island — a truly inventive and intriguing mystery — turns out to be a complete red herring that doesn’t mean anything. While I fully appreciate that the solution to the sideways universe is what it is, I am also very frustrated that certain intriguing clues dispensed throughout the season — most especially the sunken island — wind up meaning nothing. They were just diversions.
A lot of people wanted to “solve” Lost like a puzzle, and that’s not an unreasonable approach to the show given what it has been throughout its run. But season six represents a puzzle with many clues that are dead ends in retrospect.
What about all the other people who populate this place? Are they real like the Losties are real? Or are they phantom illusions who exist as false projections? While the final minutes really nail the otherworldly notion of this place, there’s a weird disconnect when you consider that the afterlife is also a place with car chases and gun battles, hospitals and baby deliveries.
In one way of looking at it, if Lost is ultimately just a laboratory for ambitious experiments in narrative storytelling, I suppose there’s some leeway to be granted here. My enjoyment of Lost is not wrapped up in my ability to solve it. It’s just that there’s a certain amount of logic that I want to apply to the show, even though I accept that logic is honestly not always the point. I’d hate to get too hung up on determining whether the finale makes enough “sense” on logical terms, because those honestly aren’t even the terms it wants to live or die on. It wants to live or die on character and emotion, and on those it delivers.
You could make the argument that the finale is the ultimate example of how Lindelof & Cuse have used the Lost universe and all of its structural narrative devices in order to deliver a series finale that brings back as many characters as possible for a grand, satisfying reunion. (Of course, even there, I would say it’s not perfectly realized: For example, why do Sayid and Shannon end up together in the church at the end instead of Sayid and Nadia? No, Nadia wasn’t on the island, but neither was Penny, and she’s here. I just don’t buy Shannon and Sayid as that transcendentally important to each other.)
As for the action on the island, I enjoyed the hell out of it, even if half of the rules were arbitrary. There are some great cinematic callbacks (Locke and Jack at the top of the waterfall peering down as the camera descends), an epic fistfight on a cliff between Jack and Smokey/Locke/MIB (in the grand tradition that the hero and villain must duke it out to settle things that are much larger and more complicated than just the two of them), a white-knuckle race to get the Ajira plane off the ground, and effective uses of dark skies and storms to lend everything plenty of atmosphere.
Granted, the whole business with the magical light at the bottom of the waterfall and the cork that turns it on/off is nothing more than an arbitrary concoction, and a fairly silly one at that. And the show seems to make it up as it goes when it comes to the island’s mysterious magic. Smokey apparently knows little more than anyone else about how it all works (when the cork is removed, he becomes mortal; had he not been killed, would he have become immortal again upon the cork being replaced?). And Desmond’s impervious nature to electromagnetism ultimately doesn’t matter; when Jack puts the cork back in, the light doesn’t kill him any more than Desmond.
So, it’s not exactly iron-clad here. Of course, this is all academic debate, when what I should really be talking about here is entertainment value and payoff. And I can’t really argue with the finale on those counts at all. It works exceptionally well. I wasn’t expecting “The End” to make perfect sense of the season or the series. And it doesn’t. But it was a hell of a ride and it paid off where it mattered. It is fitting that the finale is representative of Lost as a whole — ambitious and entertaining and well made, but with its share of logical caveats.
In many ways, “The End” strikes me as an ending that has an effect similar to the BSG finale. People will come in with certain expectations and will be delivered something else — something that I believe honors the series and the characters, but may not satisfy those who want to solve the puzzle to their satisfaction (even though they may not know what the satisfying conclusion would specifically look like).
Perhaps lost in shuffle when we get too wrapped up in the business of logical dissection is that “The End” honors Lost thematically and emotionally about as well as I can imagine it. If some of the pieces have to be fudged in getting there, I suppose that’s not the end of the world. Because of the size and weight of the series’ mythology, you could argue over the merits and demerits of “The End” forever. I’ve said my piece; now you can say yours.
Footnote: You can file this review under “better late than never.” The blog has not been a place where I’ve been prolific the last couple of months. Such is life.