Friday, June 04, 2010

Saying Goodbye to LOST

I had a drink with a new friend tonight. We're both reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest right now, and it's quite nice to have someone to talk to about it--it's another read, like House of Leaves, that is quite daunting on its own. I'm also a bit intimidated by it because it was recommended to me by another friend, who recommended to me by saying the following: "Rhi, it'll change your life." On one hand, I'm thrilled by that idea. I would love to read something that could change my life. On the other hand, though, that's always a bit dicey. What if it doesn't change my life? What if I don't even like it? I don't think the friend would be mad, exactly1 but it would be awkward.

One of the things that we got to talking about tonight was LOST and the LOST finale.2 Before I start, I have to confess to enjoying the finale (and indeed, the last two seasons) immensely. While there were several things that I was not totally thrilled about with this last season, there were also a number of very good things, including Ab Eterno, the episode about Richard's backstory, which I would argue might be the best episode the show has ever produced.

One of the reasons that I want to teach a course on LOST is that it requires its viewers to learn many of the skills that are important in English Studies, particularly in reference to close reading. The show is rich with subtext, metaphor, and intertext. It very aptly delineates the difference between plot and story, which is something that my students have a hard time with, and I think that it is a very neat narrative trick to tell the audience in the final season that the main storyline that has consumed us for five seasons is actually in the service of another, much larger story, that it's only a small piece of the whole.

The show's greatest strength, to me, has always been the emphasis that it places on storytelling: We are almost always being told two stories simultaneously. These dual narratives give us characters who are more than their simplistic archetypes lead us to believe: there's an actual heft and depth to the story that's being told, a mythology to be discovered. This is television that thinks like a book; this is television that places demands on you as a viewer. You can't simply start watching somewhere in the third season any more than you can pick up Moby Dick in the twelfth chapter. You also need to pay attention to detail, to nuance. The rocks that show up at the end of the first act will be meaningful in the sixth.

Above all else, LOST is a story of redemption. So many of the characters are deeply flawed when we meet them, and they are healed by their time on the island. Some are actually healed by the island, like Locke, and some are healed simply by what the island asks of them: As Jack tells us early in the first season, "Live together or die alone."4 Sawyer is perhaps the best example of this: the character we are introduced to in the pilot is morally repugnant and content to cause trouble for trouble's sake. The beauty of his physical form contrasts quite strongly with the way he conducts himself: On the island, stripped of his former life, he can choose to be anything he wants, and he chooses to be a douche. He's a great foil for Jack's perennial Dudley Doright act, not least because Sawyer lacks Locke's dogmatic nature. It is only when Sawyer truly accepts what "live together" means that he is redeemed: first through his sacrifice in jumping off the helicopter, and later through his work for the Dharma Initiative. Once Jack and Locke are gone, Sawyer steps into a leadership role for the castaways; he takes care of everyone. The reward for this growth, his relationship with Juliet, is a reward for both him as a character and for us as the audience: their reunion in the sideways world is profoundly affecting. (Translation: I cried. I cried a lot.)

Most of the problems I have with the finale are the ones that are documented elsewhere. (What's the point to Shannon's return? Where was Walt? What was the deal with the other Others? What about all the stuff that the psychic told Claire?) One minor point that seems to be fairly unique to me is the drastic underuse of Miles: he's a really interesting character to bring in to the show, given his abilities, but it never really goes anywhere. What's the point of having a guy who can talk to the dead if a) he never does anything with it, and b) Hurley is going to gain a similar ability? It's pretty lazy writing, I think, and inexcusable in a show that's normally quite tightly written. I'm also unimpressed by how Sayid's character was handled throughout this final season; Naveen Andrews is a fine actor (on a show that I don't think is particularly well acted) who is totally wasted here.

Writing a show like LOST must be, I imagine, an awful lot like wrestling an octopus: you're never going to manage to subdue all the tentacles effectively. That said, none of the loose ends really bother me all that much--there's nothing here I can't live with. It has been quite interesting to listen to and read the comments that others have made on it over the last few weeks. As with Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga before it, so many people have taken the show to heart that they feel personally invested in the end, and, inevitably, personally betrayed by said ending. I don't feel that way: while it wasn't the biggest, most exciting reveal ever, it did end well enough, and that's about all I can ask for.

Thanks for the last six years.
1 This is kind of a lie. He might not be mad, but I'd definitely get an earful about it.
2 And also the Texts and Intertexts course that I want to teach called "The Literature of LOST."
3 Which I think might actually be the show's strongest episode, period.
4 I do kind of wish someone had made a joke about dying together at the end.

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