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Monday, May 24, 2010

Yes, fine, I cried over the ending of Lost

There will be spoilers.

Some time ago, watching later-season X-Files, I realized the show sucked.

It was a tough realization for me because I'm not really a TV person; never did ER or Law and Order, never really kept up with a sit-com. The shows I've dedicated time--actual time, like, scheduling parts of my life around type time--are very few (tho, admittedly, with increased viewing options, I've managed to catch up on a few shows I passed up the first time around, such as[motherfucking cocksucking] Deadwood and The Wire). Most TV shows don't really require dedicated viewing. For a while, to me, X-Files did require it. The show's internal logic and the constructed mythology seemed to warrant obsessive repeated viewings, Internet forum scanning, discussions both virtual and IRL; the nature of the Black Oil, the significance of bees, the clones and the many races of aliens; the kidnapping of Mulder's sister Samantha, the murder of Scully's sister Melissa; the Well-Manicured Man and the Smoking Man. How did all these things fit together to form a cohesive, grand unified theory of X-Files?

The answer to that question is, infamously, 'They didn't fit together at all.' The point wasn't the mythos. The point was the character study, week after week, of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Turns out, when people talk about the decline of the show, they're not talking about the very obvious step away from the conspiracy myth plot-lines, but instead about the shifting away from Mulder and Scully's relationship, which happened around season 7 or so. Viewers responded to the characters, not the story-arc. When Mulder left the show (kidnapped!) and Scully was pushed into an advisory role for two new agents played by actors with the chemistry of frozen water, no cohesive alien mythology plot-line could've saved interest in the show.

Twin Peaks, another show over which I obsessed, had a similar problem: the murder mystery at the heart of the first season and a half, about a dead high school prom queen, provided a nice skeleton over which to layer a story of a strange town peopled by complex, compelling characters. Originally David Lynch, the show's co-creator, never intended to reveal who killed Laura Palmer, insisting the identity of the murderer was secondary to the mystery of the town and the nature of its characters. He was right of course. ABC, upset about the show's sagging ratings, forced Lynch to reveal the murderer early in the second season, upsetting the once tantalizing balance between the show's hyper-reality and surreality and leaving writers without the show's skeleton--suddenly Twin Peaks was merely a TV show with a bunch of eccentrics running around holding creamed corn and getting themselves imprisoned in end tables (yes, that happened, but the link is unrelated because I couldn't find a clip of Josie stuck in a wooden knob).

The difference between X-Files and Twin Peaks is minor but important: X-Files suffered in the end because writers felt the show's central mythos was hurting viewership, when in fact it was the shift away from consistent and careful character development, not the shift from the myth, which doomed the show. Twin Peaks suffered because the network felt the Laura Palmer storyline was losing steam and demanded a resolution to the show's myth even though it was the Laura Palmer storyline which gave the show its structure. One show decided to abandon answering questions, the other decided to answer all questions. Neither show got the ending it deserved.

So. Lost.

The writers of Lost learned the lessons from these two earlier shows, and have admitted as much in interviews. Both Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof mention X-Files and Twin Peaks during their endless interviews, and stress that Lost has never been about the mysteries--and there remain many mysteries on Lost--but about the journey of each character, the transformation of those characters. Critics point out this assertion is a cheap way of avoiding the Herculean task of Answering the Mysteries presented weekly on Lost--what was the deal with Walt? Why are there polar bears on a tropical island? Why does turning the donkey wheel send the wheel-turner to Tunisia?--and that's a fair point. It's also an unimaginative point (why are there polar bears on the island? Well, they were used to turn the damn donkey wheel when the island's inhabitants realized that any person turning the wheel would be shot into the Tunisian desert. There. There's your answer. Need more info? Use your fucking imagination).

Writers of Lost used the mysteries of the Island as a skeleton on which to hang the flesh of several real, interesting, changing characters, and to give those characters the ability to evolve. That's it. That's all. Ultimately, it didn't matter if they spent three years in an underground bunker pressing buttons or if they managed to explode a hydrogen bomb. Each time a mystery was resolved, the resolution came at a price--characters either were forced to lose an assumption, or gain a new experience. The unraveling of a mystery meant, invariably, that an idea was shattered or confidence was gained.

Not gonna say that Lost was a profound and brilliant thing, but then I didn't expect it to be and didn't expect it to pretend it was an absolute, immutable, All-Knowing TV show (unlike, say, Battlestar Galactica, a show so weighted with dogma and absolutism that it imploded during its last hours like Starbuck's black hole). Lost was flawed. It used some of the lazier writing techniques to maintain viewer interested week to week, like MacGuffins and red herrings and, during seasons two and three, a habitual dependence on sudden plot twists over logical progression of narrative. But the final episode, to me, was elegantly simple. In the end, it wasn't the mystery, but the characters, which mattered most. And that's how it is in life. We can contemplate the questions--How did we get here? What's the point of all this? Why do bad things happen to good people?--but when we come to die, those questions are beside the point.

It isn't profound, but it's (probably) true: In the end, what matters are the relationships we've had, the connections we've made, and the importance in our lives of the people we love. It's not about the buttons we've pushed, the jobs we've done, the weird glow-in-the-dark maps appearing on the back of blast doors we've managed to decode. Everything, from birth to death, is about caring for others, and being cared for in return. It's about pushing ourselves, growing, evolving, and having a rich intellectual and emotional life. Ultimately, the important thing in life is to have one, and to be a human being while having it.

Hokey, I grant you. The first time I sat thru the finale of Lost, I rolled my eyes more than once. But the second time, knowing how the show would end, I surrendered to the narrative, put aside my pet theories and assumptions, and accepted the mystery for what it was. No solutions, just a resolution. No answers, just the ideas. And acceptance is the skeleton, the idea, we hang our flesh upon.

Lost learned from X-Files and Twin Peaks. The only mystery that matters is the mystery of human relationships. The only resolution is when we close our eyes the last time. Hopefully, we'll never quit trying to work out the various mysteries of our lives, but the point isn't finding solutions. The point is finding as many human connections as you can to give you a bit more clues to life, and when you have your finale, you have a life, not a mere air-date.

1 comment:

Scott Coats said...

Damn good stuff. (Both Lost's and yours.)

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