by Phillip Johnston
This past Sunday, Lost ended. If that means something to you, you may be happy to be reading about the show on a website dedicated to the very best of film and (sometimes) television; if it doesn’t mean something to you, you may be tempted to skip over this post.
I would ask you not to, for in evaluating this massive piece of storytelling that has unfolded on American TV screens in the last six years, there is a job to be done – a job I can only but begin in a short, accessible post and will try to do with a minimal amount of spoilers. It is the magnanimous task of separating myth from character, a job accomplished to near perfection by the creative team behind Lost, but perhaps not so well by a few viewers and devotees.
When Oceanic Flight 815 crashed on a mysterious island back in 2004, viewers and castaways alike were confronted with an inexplicable place that held more than a few impenetrable mysteries. There were polar bears on the island, a strange underground hatch, an ancient Egyptian statue with only four toes, and, most terrifying of all, a monster made of black smoke.
But there was always something more important going on. From the very beginning, each episode focused intensely on a different character, showing a flashback of what life was like for this person before they were brought to the island.
There was the fugitive constantly on the run from the law after putting a fiery end to her abusive stepfather. We met a member of the Iraqi Republican Guard who had tortured many men and lost the love of his life. There was the man of science who balked at the notion of destiny and the man of faith who knew differently after a life-changing healing experience on the island.
As the show progressed, the flashbacks switched unexpectedly to flash forwards then finally to a parallel “what-if” timeline that afforded characters an opportunity for a new life with new choices to make. A renewed existence was offered with a tabula rasa on which their redemption as characters could become palpable in an off-island world.
The alcohol-addled spinal surgeon finally got to restore a life, giving back to a patient the ability to walk. A self-absorbed megalomaniac became a father figure, learning to help others instead of endlessly looking out for himself. A likable castaway, plagued with bad luck, got to turn the streak around and become a successful businessman. The list of beautifully realized reversals goes on. (And most of these characters, I must add, have been impeccably and consistently acted.)
But all those island mysteries were still there. Some audience members have said that by not explaining the deepest mysteries of their show, the writers of Lost took the path of least resistance and performed one long con on millions of viewers. Others realize that since they wrote mysteries so deep, the writers rendered explanations irrelevant – asking “What is the island?!” became equivalent to asking “What is The Force?” in relation to Star Wars (i.e. something you just don’t do).
Explaining the truth behind a mystery will always leave some people unsatisfied. Mystery engenders wonder; rational explanations often decimate it. This was no doubt a matter of much discussion for the Lost storytelling team as they approached the end of their epic.
In one of the final episodes of the series, two characters approach each other after a long separation and are given a chance to catch up. “It’s about time,” one says. Yes, it is – the guiding theme of Lost has always been time and what people do with it.
In pondering all six seasons, I couldn’t help but think of something William Faulkner—no stranger to the concept of time and man’s relation to it—wrote in his novel Light in August: “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” Complicated? Yes. Thoroughly engrained into the world of Lost? You bet.
It would have been inconsequential for the castaways to leave the island the same people they were when they arrived, saying “Wow, wasn’t that a crazy trip?!” The many layers of Lost ensure that these characters will remember why they were once brought to the island and that their desolate pasts will no longer impede them from moving on toward a fuller life. Memory will believe even after knowledge is forgotten.
There will be holes of disappointment for we Lost lovers who, deep down, wanted our pet mysteries explained, but I would like to think that, like all of the primary characters, we’re no longer floundering in a place we must approach with unease and trepidation. We have been told a complete story in the classic sense—a story about lost and lonely people who needed some sort of redemption and found it in a most unlikely way. If anything, helping us believe in the hope of that redemption for six seasons is a most notable accomplishment on the part of Lost’s cast and crew.