Have You Tried Unplugging It and Plugging It Back In Again?

Hey, does anybody remember that TV show Lost?

Sawyer and Juliet at the vending machines
Pictures from ABC.com’s Lost site

Last Sunday night, ABC aired four and a half hours of commercials, with intermittent breaks for the final episode of Lost and a featurette with interviews with the cast and show runners. In the interview with Evangeline Lilly, she said something like “Kate’s strengths were her weaknesses.” Or maybe it was vice-versa. It was a long time ago, and all I really remember were the Target ads.

Whatever the case, that’s a pretty good summation of the whole series: what made Lost so great — and I still say it’s one of the top 5 best TV series ever made, even accounting for the tail end of the plane — is that it seemed to have an infinite supply of potential energy. They were calling up references left and right, from fringe science to pop culture to videogames, constantly tossing big new ideas into the mix. Hardly anything was out of bounds. You just don’t see that kind of fearlessness in network TV, especially not in a series that was so high-profile for a big network.

But then, you can’t really run for six years off of potential energy. (Even with the limitless magical properties of electromagnetism). People kept abandoning the show in frustration once they realized that the entire series was going to be all build-up but no pay-off — it even threatened to throw me off a few times, and I have an extraordinarily high patience for being blue-balled. By the last season, the show runners basically had to come out and admit that they weren’t going to answer every question raised, and a ton of them didn’t even get addressed.

But they said it would be “satisfying,” and I think it was, for the most part. They came up with a way to deliver a mediocre but acceptable “real” ending for the series, and then also a “let’s just throw whatever we can think of together for 18 episodes, and try to make it seem meaningful” ending. I can totally understand how people who were expecting some kind of big pay-off would be pissed; I didn’t mind as much, because I’ve always been more interested in the build-up.

Or to put it more poetically: Lost at its peak was a character from The Flintstones, forever trapped in pre-run, its legs an indistinct blur, the bongos forever playing their mad rhythm, a too-fleeting moment of beauty trapped in time before vanishing in a dash leading towards an uncertain and ultimately unsatisfying destination, like The Gruesomes’ house next door or a Stony Curtis autograph signing.

And for anybody who’s still disappointed that the show didn’t provide more answers, just do a Google search on “The Valenzetti Equation” and “The Lost Experience”. That is what happens when you try to explain too much about Lost. This kind of thing can never end well. So I guess it’s good that they left the obsessive fans to their own alternate-reality game and wikis, and kept the series proper kind of vague.

I do have plenty o’gripes, though.
The Mastermind Looks On
Whoever did the editing on the before-the-show featurette should have a bright future when the Corporations completely take over and begin their program of revisionist history. At some point during this season, the show runners decided what they wanted the series to be about, and then they began systematically erasing all evidence to the contrary. We have always been at war with Grey’s Anatomy.

In particular, they made it seem as if the key moment of the entire series was Jack giving his “If we don’t live together, we’re going to die alone” speech. That way, the finale seems particularly fitting: they all had to live alone for a while before they could die together. (Another key lesson of Lost, observed by M. Stemmle: the only sure way to heaven is to find your heterosexual life partner).

But the “Live together, die alone” speech was just one part of the first couple of seasons, which talked a lot more about faith vs. reason.

Actually, it was faith vs. science, but that would just open me up to one of my biggest peeves about Lost: the complaints that the show started out science-based and then turned all “mystical.” This is false. The show was at best about “fringe” science, and I think that’s stretching it. Take any fairy tale or bit of ancient mythology, replace “magic” with “electromagnetism,” and you’ve got Lost. I say it was never about science fiction, but about storytelling. It was an attempt to create a new mythology for the 21st Century. In the 21st century, our frame of reference is pop culture and technology. So everything’s based in a layman’s general understanding of technology and science fiction, which isn’t the same thing as science fiction.

(Notice they never actually attempted to explain how the time skipping worked or what caused it. That’s because people in 2008 understand the concept of time travel, from fiction, even when we don’t understand the theoretical physics behind it).

And as far as creating a new mythology: to quote Juliet, “It worked.” You don’t have to be a particularly dedicated fan of Lost to be familiar with the basics: a plane crash on a tropical island, a smoke monster, polar bears, “The Others,” The Dharma Initiative. Even some of the more obscure details are pretty familiar: the numbers, the hatch, Oceanic Airlines and flight 815, the four-toed statue, even Waaaaaaalt.

To compare it with “real” mythology, I’ve yet to be able to make it through The Odyssey, but I could probably only recount the same level of detail: DesmondOdysseus goes on a boat journey to make it back home to Penelope, runs into some harpies, meets a Cyclops, gets home and kills some dudes. I remember just about as many details of the Labors of Hercules.

Every complaint I’ve had about season six still stands — nothing seemed relevant because there was no context for it, and much of it was completely superfluous. But I can see why they made the decisions they did: they wanted to keep introducing stuff instead of just spending the entire season tying off loose ends, hence all the nonsense around the Temple and its goofy resurrection pool. (Even if it means Sayid’s story was ultimately pointless). They wanted to pull one last long con on the audience with the flashback structure, keeping everybody guessing about when or where it was set. (Even if it means that Juliet’s “It worked” about the atom bomb makes no sense). They wanted to give a real ending to the story without completely going into “it was all just a dream” territory, preferably a real ending that had a Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis cave and Jack leaping across a commercial break to attack Locke on a crumbling cliff. (Even though there are so many things that don’t make sense about the whole rules of Jacob/Man in Black/Jack/Locke/Hurley/CJ that you’d never be able to count them all).

But ultimately, thinking about Lost in terms of modern mythology helps me gain a better appreciation of the last season, and even the entire last half of the series. Looking back over what I’ve written about most of the series, I can see that I spent a lot of time complaining that it was a lot of cool scenes that didn’t really add up to anything.

But look at the old mythology: what do those stories mean? I couldn’t tell you specifically why Odysseus fought a Cyclops or fell in with a pack of sirens, even though I remember “the good bits.” And not only am I unable to tell you the point of the Labors of Hercules, I’m pretty sure that there were multiple conflicting versions of those stories, so that nobody can tell you what the cause and effect was. Still, the stories lasted, because a snake-killing baby who later wears the skin of a lion he just killed with his bare hands and then goes to Hades (voiced by James Woods, or something?) is just plain good storytelling.

The value of those stories isn’t in the morals, but in their epic scope, and in the commonality of them. We all know at least enough about them to be a shared frame of reference.

I still say Aaron got shafted, though. Unless that helicopter crashed somewhere in the Pacific a few minutes later, then both his moms raised him to adulthood but he still has to be a baby in heaven.

3 thoughts on “Have You Tried Unplugging It and Plugging It Back In Again?”

  1. I’m too lazy to look this up, but didn’t Miles say he heard Juliet say “It worked” from the beyond the grave? She didn’t actually say it to Sawyer, did she? Either way, that whole scene by the candy machine included some of that same exchange, (the bit about getting coffee, how “it worked” after they unplugged and plugged in the machine), so I just took it to mean that during her death, she was kind of in between worlds, and Miles was hearing snippets of her after-life conversation. So that comment was just a red herring and no in relation to the atom bomb at all….Just a theory.

  2. You’re definitely right that Miles heard it from beyond the grave; she didn’t say it to Sawyer.

    That could totally be the case with that conversation, now that you mention it, but it’s not how I interpreted it. I think I’d actually be more disappointed if that was their intention — not only was it just a fake-out, but this is how we’re justifying it, he’s hearing bits of a different scene. I kind of like it better if that scene at the vending machines was just written as a call-back/parallel, and the whole business with “it worked” was just an idea for a bigger plotline that didn’t go anywhere.

  3. They came so damn close to satisfying me. I was a little stunned midway through, thinking “my god, they’re not going to answer a single one of my questions and I’m going to be okay with it.” I wanted the sideways universe to be real, dammit. I just loved the idea that all of their pain and anguish would ultimately result in them finding an exceptional happiness in another version of their lives. I wanted them to simply go about their lives in the sideways world, deeply enriched by the knowledge of their alternate-selves. The end result of everything was that they found true love, peace, the ability to walk, etc. All they had to do was leave it alone, and I’d have forgiven it all. But no, mystic mumbo-jumbo and it was all a dream. Sigh. Oh well, In a sideways universe somewhere they did just what I wanted, and I’m happy forever. So it was all worth it.

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