Wednesday, June 02, 2010

My (not particularly succinct or even all that poetic) Ode to Lost

*Spoilers* (for anyone who’s been living in a cave)

I can only imagine the blogosphere is saturated with anything and everything Lost-related at the moment, but for what it’s worth, here is my littlest tribute to Lost; a sort of obituary if you like: a would-be ode, (if I could’ve made it more concise and at least attempted some lyricism)… accompanied by an explanation as to why I accepted the finale and didn’t find it the let-down that many experienced.

I first saw Lost at the beginning of 2005 when we were living in Angola. The entire first series played out on South Africa’s MNET satellite channels before anyone in the UK had even caught a whiff of a smoke monster. At the time, I was the only foreign woman living in a small community of foreign ‘development’ workers: a team of about forty agriculturalists, engineers and construction workers, in a tiny town in deepest rural Angola. The town and its 15 surrounding villages constituted an island amid a wild ocean of bush-land, wide swollen rivers and impassable mountains. No one I knew, either there or abroad, had heard of Lost. And I’d been living out there so long it had begun to feel like, soon, no one would have heard of me either. It can’t be any great surprise then that Lost spoke to me instantly. It must be the fastest addiction I’d ever acquired. I was addicted from the first 3 seconds of the first episode. No, earlier than that. I was addicted from the first time I saw the trailer. The point is, I can remember the first trailer.

All year round, nights start early in Angola, so it was always dark by the time Lost showed on Saturday evenings. Electricity came from generators, so at night the hotel would sit in a small pool of pale light. Around it Angola extended into darkness, often stormy: the night-sky alive with debris from trees, or so still as to seem electrically charged. For forty-five minutes I’d sit on the edge of the bed and plug into a concentrated visual cocktail combining a hyper-real and fantasised version of the reality I was living in (or so it felt), with an unsettlingly insightful exploration of what felt like (or what was made to feel like – as the sensation isn’t mine alone, but turns out to have been shared by a great many viewers) my own imagination.

It’s the latter point that’s key, I think, to why I loved Lost – and to why Lost was loved by so many. The environment I, personally, found myself living in certainly set an uncannily close-to-the-bone context for the series, and greatly enhanced the experience, but I’d have loved Lost wherever we’d been.

The mysteries of the island, its anonymity, ambiguous nature and dislocated, unknown positioning figured almost literally for the show’s connection with, and exploration of, the unconscious, within imaginary realms hitherto unexplored by TV. Lost was a place television had never been – the first show entered living rooms like it was equally as surprised to be there as we were surprised to see it.

Its unusual subject matter - a strange island and its castaway inhabitants – and genre-blending - part sci-fi, part supernatural thriller, part swashbuckling adventure story – was not the only surprise. It was the instinctive recognition of the island as symbol, not only of the human condition, but figuring for the planet and for life itself, and this powerful and instant symbol’s lack of representation on television prior to Lost, that came as almost as big a surprise to its audience as anything the island threw at its long-suffering survivors.

For the island was a place instantly familiar and simultaneously alien and horrifying. The island was populated by everything we know about existence and the 'human condition' – represented and played out by the human characters, who figured for our 'localised', internal struggles: love, sex, power, violence, death.

Injected into that with graphic visualisations – forming, essentially, non-human ‘characters' – was everything we don’t know about existence, human and otherwise – represented by the smoke monster, the whispers, the incongruous creatures, the numbers and their significance and, fundamentally, the nature and central light and internal forces of the island itself. All this figured for environmental, external, existential questions and dilemmas: why we are here, what is our purpose, does time exist, what is the nature of the universe, how long have we got, what else is out there, what happens next?

It’s for this reason, I think, I did not feel let down by the finale. Surely it is unreasonable to expect a TV show to solve the latter: to demand of it answers to the unknown economies of existence, as opposed to the ‘mysteries’ of the human condition, which we are better equipped to unravel (at least through the medium of a TV drama).

It’s only human to demand existential answers, and to be outraged when someone deliberately poses a question – (or produces a polar bear out of nowhere, or decides a button must be pressed every 108 minutes) – that the same someone doesn't then propose an answer to, or a reason for, and that we can’t possibly fathom for ourselves. But it’s also because we are only human that I accepted the series writers’ choice not to address all these unanswerable questions and to focus on the characters’ journeys, and to close the show with personal, emotional resolution. Much of what was raised in the series that concerned humanness – love, sex, power, violence, death and our coming to terms with it – was resolved in the finale. There was closure on a human level, and an understanding and resolution for these very human economies:– even if not for its audience, there were answers for the characters. I did not expect the show to alter the nature of existence, to re-write time, to re-order the universe.

And yet, and yet, having said all that, the flipside of this is that in holding up its hands in surrender to the enormity of the challenge Lost had set itself, in admitting defeat in the face of the tremendous expectations it could not entirely deliver on, Lost did make some kind of breakthrough philosophically, even if it was effected imperfectly, chaotically and with infuriating, fundamental flaws.

In the midst of its own confusion and the elaborate messes it wove for itself, simply in its efforts to try to do so many things, Lost touched on the uncanny, on symbolic order and on the realms of the unconscious like no other show I've ever seen.

Simply in making the enormous effort; simply in trying to ask big questions, and to ask them differently, simply in trying to find meaning in exploring the apparent randomness and sequences of incongruities that mark human existence, Lost deserves praise and not derision for not entirely fulfilling its philosophical potential. For somehow despite the way, or maybe even because of way, the show then largely abandoned the challenges and questions it had set for itself, in favour of tackling instead the more manageable emotional and psychological journeys of its main characters, the finale of Lost somehow did in fact succeed, to some degree, in altering the way the world looks, the way life might be experienced, and what the nature of life and death might be. In the end, it did provide a fragile, faint blueprint for determining Lost's Bigger Picture. For me, it was the effort that counted – the ambition that drove the series breathlessly onwards – so that much of the work had already been done, extensive ground covered, before the show’s writers turned to its reliable characters to create closure and resolution that their previous efforts, attempts and ambitions could not quite deliver on.

Is there a message in this?


Well… In terms of the show, I’d say the key to not finding the finale of Lost disappointing is in lowering your expectations of what the Bigger Picture might be: rather like The Prisoner (1967) and Twin Peaks (1990), if a show is going to tackle life, the universe and the nature of human existence, don’t ask of the show what you can’t ask of life. You’re going to be taken on an existential safari of the unconscious, where you get to look and point and stare in wonderment and fear. You’re not going to be shown a Secret Government Dossier revealing The Truth about Everything Ever, laid out in clear concise bullet points.

And in terms of determining meaning from the show and how it might signify in reality, I’d say perhaps the lesson is that the only tools we have at our disposal for even attempting to understand existence and the secrets of the universe – why are we here, what is our purpose, what happens next – is through addressing and focussing on what we can go someway to understanding: each other – humans: love, sex, power, violence, and maybe even to some extent, death.

The languages of love, sex, power, violence and death are the only tools at our disposal. When it comes to articulating 'the universe' these languages and the varying formations of them we create through connection and communication with one another, will have to do. They’re all we have. With these things at least we have a chance to understand our human condition, to express it and to find personal resolution: ‘to remember and let go.’

On a much, much more basic level, there are a few very good reasons why Lost ‘worked’ overall as a series: it was exceptionally well written, magnificently acted, it struck a sublime balance between light and dark, could be brilliantly comic, painfully tense, genuinely frightening, and searing in its emotional intensity. It was enveloped in a wonderful score, and delivered tight, sharp, crafted storytelling episode upon episode. Without this rock solid foundation, (no island-pun intended) Lost would never have been able to even consider broaching bigger questions or aiming for grander goals.

Aside from the why-the-hell-weren’t-Michael-and-Walt-allowed-the-same-closure-as-the-others question (which of course we all know had more to do with the show's creators falling for that old trap of casting a 10-year-old and underestimating how long the show was going to run for etc. etc. than it did with the course of the storytelling), I suppose my only real point of contention would be the decision to open and close the series through one character and his journey and to privilege it over the others.

Jack is fantastic, but one of the things that made Lost special was not only its use of multiple central characters, but the sheer numbers of those very central characters. I can’t remember a drama series (that wasn’t a soap opera) that followed the story through the eyes of so many protagonists and successfully made every single one of them whole, important and worthy of its audience’s emotional investment: of course, Jack, Sawyer, Kate and John Locke were at the core, but with Sayid, Hurley, Claire, Ben, Charlie and Desmond so close in rank, and then Juliet, Sun, Jin, Michael, Jacob, Richard, Daniel, Myles, Boone and Shannon in turn so close to them, any dividing lines between protagonists and ensemble were continually and relentlessly blurred so that for large portions of every series, I regularly forgot which are the characters who are probably supposed to be at the centre of this story about an island.

To learn at the last breath that at the centre of this spiralling whirlpool was essentially Jack and only Jack, and that the implied crux of Jack’s journey – the conflict he must resolve – is his relationship with his father, (though treated with a stately, subtle elegance) was disappointing. Jack, after everything, is the prodigal son who must find his own way back to the flock, guided by his Christian Shephard father. (Oh look, a tank-sized biblical metaphor. I’ve never seen one of those before! …Oh well, never mind. Though in any other show I’d have found it irksome.)

I can forgive this decision to privilege the well-worn Grand Narrative of the Father-Son discourse and The Return of the Father and The Father as God and Redeemer blah blah blah, because the meandering, diverse road taken to make that journey in Lost is so off-the-wall, so experimental, unparalleled and so interested in the Feminine, that the picture of the world Lost created was not ruined by the familiar face waiting at the show’s destination. For me though, Kate’s story was as integral to the whole narrative as Jack’s. She was inextricably bound up in him, and his story in hers, she had 'father' issues easily equal to his, and so it’s a shame that she wasn't treated with equal central significance.

And yet, I can forgive the Lost finale all its sins for the profoundly moving synchronisation of its final sequence. Watching Jack die twice, simultaneously - once with all his friends around him – painlessly – and once entirely alone (save for Vincent the dog) – and in pain - the first managing to be both horribly sad, as well as a relief – the second, both painfully frightening, desperately distressing, as well as somehow also hopeful – is one of the most moving, deeply unsettling and emotionally satisfying pieces of television I’ve ever seen.

It’s the first time I can remember a TV series asking me to consider the nature of death and how to prepare for its coming (what I would argue was really at the heart of the show – the counter to the island’s life-giving light). It’s certainly the first time I experienced genuine grief at a show’s end. And after a six-year commitment to it that involved viewings in three different continents and at least six different towns/cities, pulling off an ending that could even come close to satisfying that level of emotional involvement – no, it had to do more than that, it had to satisfy and then find a justifiable and appropriate way to sever that emotional involvement – is no mean feat. But the creators did it so strongly, so elegantly, I might in time be able simply to remember, and let go.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Well said Jen my lovely! You do have a fabulous way with words. I love what you've written and also thank you for illuminating a few things for me. Makes me want to go back and watch it all again from episode 1. Sarah xxx