LOST ended almost four years ago…and I just decided to re-watch the finale for the first time as a favor for a fellow fan who was still feeling cheated by the finale. I don’t believe that any finale of any television program has ever been hyped quite as much as this one. It was, therefore, more volatile and more unlikely to satisfy than any other finale.
The defense I intend to mount is not so much an attempt to persuade the dissatisfied fan that he has been keeping his eyes closed to the purpose of the show so much as it is an offering of an alternate way to read the series…particularly its final chapter. Any readers still thinking of embarking on the pilgrimage that is LOST should turn back now, bookmark this page, and return in a month after you have binge-watched the entire series.
Okay dissatisfied fans, here is what I will be unable to solve for you today:
- They ruined a perfectly good wine metaphor by actually including a cork-shaped magical rock into the finale….that was lame and laughable….and I wish they hadn’t done it.
- Throughout the entire final season, particularly in the finale, they made almost no effort to resolve the many tantalizing unsolved mysteries that kept us tuning in year after year.
- IF any careful planning went into the final three seasons of the series…part of the plan was simply to throw fans off guard and trick us into chasing phantoms (or pineapples…if you read my defense of the “How I Met Your Mother” finale) instead of helping us ease into its philosophy-heavy closing moments.
Now that all of that is squared away, let’s open our minds, be optimistic, and find the beauty that this show had to offer. First, I invite you to consider the Serenity Prayer (be on the lookout….it pops back in near the end):
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Next, in order for my reading of the LOST finale to make sense…we have to take a look at Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri’s proposal of a rhizomatic structure in the presentation of information. In biology, a rhizome is also known as a creeping root-stalk. Essentially, rhizomes make up one large organism that can spread underground. Break that rhizome up into little pieces and each piece can survive, grow, and thrive independent of the other pieces. This theory is very different from the more familiar “arborescent” (tree-like) presentation of information. If you disrupt the complex system of a tree, the whole organism can wither and die. Here is how they applied this theory to the presentation of information:
“As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the original source of ‘things’ and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those ‘things.’ A rhizome, on the other hand, is characterized by ‘ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles. “
In short, these two philosophers believed that it is silly to look at stories, culture, or even ourselves as solid chronological constructs with easily indentifiable beginnings, middles, and ends. If we are too focused on conclusions…we miss a lot of valuable connections. The world is much bigger than one grand narrative that can be traced from beginning to end. There are too many plot-lines and stories…life is happening everywhere at every moment…and all of it matters. What we do as individuals is all part of a much bigger story of our world and its general philosophy and trajectory. Whenever we focus in and worry about a single tree in that giant landscape, we are missing a lot of important information. Life doesn’t explain itself in easy patterns. It is messy and unpredictable…and we can thrive and develop in a lot of different ways depending on the situations we stumble into.
I propose that LOST’s “island” was a very rhizomatic construct. This allows me to accept the fact that it is home to a lot of unexplained mysteries. What was this island but a container full of ambiguously magical, glowing, god-stuff, anyway?…it is a giant question mark. It’s that same all-powerful, inexplicable force that kills all of the Nazi’s at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark…or the mysterious glowing contents of that coveted suitcase in Pulp Fiction. We don’t slam those movies for their ambiguities…because…it doesn’t matter what the “god-stuff” IS…what matters is that we are influenced by forces beyond our human comprehension or control to make sense of a confusing world.
Why were birds so drawn to Walt that they would crash themselves into walls with lethal force? Who was shooting at the characters in their little boats while the island was time-jumping? WHY was the island time-jumping?? What the H is the black smoke and why did it take the human form of John Locke??? Did a weird bird-creature TALK to Hurley!????
….Dude (Hurley here), I don’t know man…like…relax and have some ranch dressing.
The island is a rhizome with no clear beginning, middle, or end. Its story is bigger, older, and more complicated than the show had time to explore. Personally, I always felt like it was some sort of threshold between life and the afterlife…or between alternate realities…or some kind of black-holeish structure than can bend time and space when you get too close to its center…if you COULD enter its center you’d be looking straight into the eyes of God…but we’re human (and the characters of LOST were human)…so we (and they) can’t go there. Instead, the island highlights and unlocks latent memories, emotions, and abilities within its many visitors…it gives them room to play and develop and discover who they are…it provides them with a peek at the type of self analysis that we all might endure when faced with some type of afterlife.
We didn’t need the story of “The Island..” this was the story of the survivors of an Oceanic Airlines crash against the backdrop of a startlingly magical island. That island had no beginning, middle, and end, and neither did the story.
A couple of things that the finale DID resolve are the fact that individual choices mattered in the world of LOST and the fact that we did not spend years watching a dream…we watched a human drama unfold with all of the positive and negative outcomes that spring from human choice. We learned that some characters we loved died irreversible deaths on the island…despite lots of hinting that resurrection might be possible. We learned that some of the central characters actually escaped the drama of the island and went on to lead lives free from the constant pull of mysterious island-forces. We also learned that the power of the island was just as real as the humanity of the characters. Some things actually were beyond human control or comprehension. Everybody on the island learned to accept the things they could not change, gained the courage to change the things they could, and acquired the wisdom to know the difference.
In the end, we didn’t get an intricate tapestry that wove all of the story threads together….and that is tough to accept because we LOVE the payoff of pretty patterns:
- Bruce Willis was dead the WHOLE time! Now all those weird moments make sense!
- OMG, Kevin Spacey WAS Kaiser Soze!
- Wait…WHAT? Mark Wahlberg is going rogue to murder Matt Damon for abusing his power and selling out his fellow officers. Badass. Awesome. Balance restored.
LOST doesn’t do that. Instead, it puts the impetus of meaning on the audience. Sometimes people feel cheated by that….and I’ll admit that we got was pretty underwhelming at times….we ultimately got a corny action sequence on a cliff and a plane taking off from a collapsing runway that belonged in a lame 1990’s natural disaster movie….THEN everybody in “sideways” world starts remembering all the stuff that happened over the course of six seasons of LOST and then they smile at each other and gather in a weirdly non-denominational church that bathes them in white “moving-on” light? Back on the island Jack laughs away his final breath and closes his eyes. HUH? Were they able to move on because they killed the Locke-ness smoke monster? Was that unrelated? Did they move on because Jack stopped up the weird evil wine bottle under the island?
The answer? Any and all of the above. Resolve it for yourself…. it’s ok.
Kurt Vonnegut created a fictional race of aliens called Tralfamadorians who could see in four dimensions. They could see all of time and space at once…so traditional suspense and patterns were meaningless to them. They needed their own novels…so they created Tralfamadorian novels. The novels were constructed to present a collection of separate images or messages that, when seen all at once, created a picture of life that was beautiful and deep. For me…those Tralfamadorian novels reflect the rhizomatic story structure that I discussed earlier. At the end of lost, you have to ask yourself…were you touched? Did you see something beautiful or deep?
Ultimately, all of that strange glowing god-stuff inside of the island connected that characters that we loved and hated throughout the series. We saw all of them grow and help each other grow. In the final season, we were presented with a mysterious sideways universe. In the finale, we learned that the mysterious sideways world wasn’t some fake, sterile alternate dimension created by the DHARMA Corporation….it was a human web of caring, emotion, love, and death that transcended earthly existence. Even in the afterlife…the characters who had loved and fought with each other so intensely in life had to band together in order to find the strength to move on to the next plane of existence. Lovers were reunited, friends got to share the feelings they never had a chance to share in life, and Jack was reunited with his dad for that moment of warmth and acceptance that eluded them throughout their earthly lives. Perhaps they were rewarded for the balance that was restored thanks to their actions on the island, or perhaps they were merely undergoing a final trial that all human beings will have to endure. Either way, I would argue that it was a beautiful message: your relationships matter forever, no matter how long or short-lived they may be….or whether or not they ever developed to their full potential.
OK…I know what you are thinking…”sure man….that was cute and beautiful at the end…and I shed a tear or two…but they STILL didn’t do enough with that really cool island story….they still failed us.”
As for that mystery island…even that got a decent sendoff in my estimation.
Sure we didn’t know exactly what supernatural or scientific force controlled the island, but we did develop a sense that the island tended to reflect the people controlling it. Under the ownership of the creepy island mother that ruled the island in the flash-WAY-back…the island was a place of isolation, power, and raw unchecked emotions. Under the leadership of Jacob and his foil, “the man in black,” the island represented a world of science, experiment, and exploration…ARE humans capable of anything other than destruction? Let’s test ’em to find out. Ultimately, Hurley got the keys to the island and chose to make the island a place of healing.
With Hurley in charge, it makes sense that the magical glowing mystery god-stuff might represent a force of companionship and love that reunited lost friends. That was Hurley’s MO….build a great big golf course for all of my friends to play and relax on.
For me…that right there is enough. Perhaps if the world can get on board with Hurley’s island mojo and see the world and the power within it as a force for selflessness and companionship…we can all be at peace.
In fact…that ending is not only sweet…it’s bold. This LOST finale told me that we there is no room in our short lives for the power-hungry Widmores or black and white lines between good and bad (between angels and smoke monsters). We ALL have to learn to connect on a human level….or we are a wasteland of a planet.
As Jack put it back in season one: “If we don’t live together…we’re gonna die alone!”
Ultimately, they didn’t die alone…they passed on together…having finally achieved the peace that eluded them for so long.
….or… the producers made up a new “purgatory” for season six because everybody figured out that originally the ISLAND was supposed to be “purgatory”…. but then the show got too popular to bring to a conclusion…so they had to drag it out for a while…and ultimately it WAS all just a cop-out.
I prefer my optimistic reading.