Lost started with a bang but ended with a whimper. After last night’s finale, I have to say that Lost is going to become my go-to example for illustrating how easier it is to sprinkle a story with mystery without having any idea of how the mystery is going to be resolved than it is to write a solid story in which mystery serves the purpose of a well-crafted plot. I am reminded of J. Michael Straczynski (creator of the sci-fi show Babylon 5, among other things) saying that people often came to him with “ideas” but that what matters to an author is not an idea but a story. It seems to me that Lost was a show in which too much emphasis was put on ideas and too little on story. Read on for more thoughts…
Discussions about the show have been raging all over the Internet today. Some people (including myself) are unhappy about the lack of proper answers to the questions raised during the show. Others reply that answers were given. Technically, the latter people are correct: answers were given to some questions. However, the answers provided are too thin to be satisfactory. Let’s say someone hits me in the face. I ask “why did you hit me?” They reply “because I hate you!” This is an answer but it does not get to the substance of the matter. Surely I’m going to want to know why this person hates me. Imagine how poorer the Iliad would be if the reason for the war was merely that the Greeks hated the Trojans. One example of an unsatisfactory answer in Lost is why the Man-in-Black wants to get off the island. He states that he wants to “go home” but this sounds rather hollow as a motivation given that he was born on the island and thus has known no other home than the island. Yes, the show provides an answer but the answer is both dubious (insofar as it does not make much sense) and thin. The answers which were provided during the last season of Lost were of this sort: dubious and insubstantial.
The finale itself was not very compelling. So what fans had hypothesized to be an alternate time-line seen in “flashsideways” (by contrast with flashbacks and flashforwards) turned out to be some sort of antechamber of the afterlife, where people have to learn to “let go.” There’s a movie called Jacob’s Ladder which does explore this very idea in a more satisfactory way. Now, the movie is not perfect but the ideas in the movie serve to drive the plot rather than pad an anemic script or create hollow hype. Basically, the movie does concisely and powerfully what Lost has done in a muddled and meandering way. It seems the art of conveying a story or an argument concisely is undervalued in this era of “more is better.” Note here that my beef is not “unoriginality.” If I recall correctly, both Neil Gaiman and J. Michael Straczynski have observed that any story written today will necessarily have something in common some older story, intentionally or not. I think they are right. The issue is not whether or Lost is original in its ending but whether the idea explored by Lost was explored as well as in Jacob’s Ladder.
Apparently, the creators of the show have been claiming that the show is “character-driven”. If Lost is supposed to be a character study, the plot should focus on characters. However, Lost’s setting takes the focus away from the characters because it is so unusual and mysterious. The creators of the show cannot present this extraordinary setting and then claim that really we should have been focusing on the characters instead of the setting. Let me put it this way, in a character study the features of the setting should be only as extraordinary as needed to serve the study. Albert Camus’ La Peste comes to mind here as an example of a good story focusing on characters. Sure, the setting is extraordinary insofar as the characters are besieged by the plague. This is not a normal occurrence. However, there is no extraneous mystery in the story. If the story incorporated some sort of red-herring plot concerning a possible governmentally-sponsored biological attack on the city, then the focus would shift away from the characters themselves. This is precisely what happened in Lost: extraneous stuff was introduced, shifting the focus away from the characters. I enjoyed tremendously some of the character development in Lost but it was diluted by things which had little to do with character development. Maybe there is a solid character study somewhere in Lost but to be an effective character study the overall story line would have to be cleaned up to remove a lot of fluff.
On a tangential note… Rober Ebert recently argued that video games are not art. Actually, let me correct myself: Ebert did not argue that video games are not art: he defined art so as to exclude video games. Now, if I am to decide which of the ending of Lost and the ending of the first Fallout game is most satisfactory, Fallout wins. The game successfully hints early on which motivations and forces will shape the ending and yet does not give the ending away. At the same time, the story does not substantially go into directions which have nothing to do with where the plot ultimately goes. (Yes, you can meet aliens in a random encounter despite the fact that they play no role in the main plotline. This is an acceptable diversion because random encounters do not form the substance of the plot. It would be another matter if you had to save a town from aliens.) In the end, the overseer recognizes that you saved the lives of everyone in the vault, not once but thrice (retrieved the water chip, eliminated the source of mutants and got rid of the Master), but he is afraid of the influence you would have on the inhabitants of the vault. Consequently your success is rewarded with exile. Fallout‘s slap in the face hits more forcefully than the let’s-all-be-happy-in-the-afterlife ending of Lost. Better narrative, period. Probably, Ebert would declare that Lost is not artistic so as to preserve his axiom…
PS: If you are satisfied with Lost overall and with the ending, then good for you. I would not want to convince you that you should not be satisfied. I did enjoy Lost. I just do not find the overall package to be a successful work of storytelling.
PPS: I do not think that Lost is the only show suffering from unsatisfactorily resolving issues raised in the plot. For instance, Babylon 5 was a much better show overall but the resolution of the Shadow War (“LEAVE US ALONE!” “Oh, ok, we’ll stop using you as pawns and leave.”) felt rather bland.