in defense of the lost ending

(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or TV show, or sets their sights on something seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: a defense of the final season of the ABC TV series LOST.)

LOST was once at the pinnacle of the early Golden Age of TV. Ambitious, awe-inspiring, and frustrating, it brought forth a new age in serialized primetime television and was perhaps the last great TV show to command the attention of audiences across the country before streaming and prestige cable shows dispersed them.

You remember those glory days, right? The connective flashbacks, the masterful character work, the scavenger hunt for hints, the jaw-dropping cliffhangers. It was like nothing on TV. And it ended seven years ago today, airing its series finale on May 23, 2010.

So it pains me that LOST, one of the most exciting and daring sci-fi TV series — and one of my favorite shows of all time — is met with derision because of its final season. To be sure, it’s an oddly opaque finale for a show that until then, had operated in grays — espousing realist and borderline nihilistic philosophies that called into question the nature and morals of man. But one of the charms of LOST was that it never tried to answer these questions. Yes, it bludgeoned you over the head with that “man of science, man of faith” debate between Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) and John Locke (Terry O’Quinn), but neither were able to ever really win the upper hand.

The finale changed that. The answer, it seemed to say, was faith. And in a show that depended so heavily on sci-fi tropes and staples, this switcheroo understandably angered people.

I was always defensive of the final season of LOST, though I couldn’t quite articulate why. My protestations of, “It’s about the journey, it’s about the characters!” seemed feeble in the face of the overwhelming flaws — the plot holes, the hastily introduced mythology, the damn Smoke Monster.

But then I came to realize: it’s not about “the answers” or even the sweeping “heaven and hell” mythology — that much was clear in the title itself — because LOST had mislabeled itself as a science-fiction show. LOST is a fantasy show. And that finale is perfect for a fantasy series.

lost final episode 1

LOST is a Fantasy, Not a Science-Fiction Show

To be more accurate, LOST is a magical realism show: a mostly realistic story with occasional elements of fantasy thrown in. But what does a new genre label have to do with the disappointment that you felt upon the closing cut to white in the baffling final episode, “The End”? A whole lot.

Science-fiction, by definition, has parameters and limits: the stories have to be contained within a somewhat realistic universe where everything has an answer. As speculative and implausible as the genre can get, it’s still rooted in the logical rules of science.

Fantasy has a lot more freedom. While high fantasy like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter depend on the kind of world-building and mythology that you’d see in science-fiction, fantasy doesn’t necessarily need answers. It may seem cheap to explain things away as “because magic,” but that’s honestly what much of LOST is: magic.

The anticlimactic revelation that the mysterious recurring whispers on the island were the trapped souls of those who had died on the Island is a prime example of why magic beats myth. It was so…disappointing. That was it? A throwaway line from a ghostly Michael (Harrold Perrineau) was all we were going to get? It was a moment that felt like showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse bending to the will of the fans, not maintaining to the air of mystery that surrounded the Island. The whispers, like LOST itself, worked best on a metaphysical level: abstract, without answer, and open to interpretation. (Like, what do the whispers mean to you? It could be anything!)

This realization dawned on me after I read Haruki Murakami’s surreal 1Q84, a hulking novel about an assassin and a novelist who unravel the conspiracies surrounding an alternate reality. Other than the premise, 1Q84 has more than a few similarities to LOST. Unexplained phenomenon, weird fantastical happenings, unanswered musings about the meaning of life set to the backdrop of a heightened reality. Plot threads weave and collide, but are ultimately inconsequential compared to the emotional catharsis of the two main characters. Yes, I said the thing you’ve probably heard from the few LOST defenders: It’s about the characters.

in defense of the ending of lost

Where the Flash Sideways Ends

Okay, let’s get to the meat of the problem: the sixth and final season’s “flash sideways” — a new iteration of the flashback and flashforward elements we’d had in the seasons leading up to this arc.

After Juliet detonated the h-bomb in the 1970s, we were lead to believe that it created an alternate reality in which the characters had never met. This turned out to be a red herring: the “flash sideways” were instead a purgatory universe where the survivors, as well as others like Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) and Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) dealt with their lingering issues — and for the last time, no, they weren’t dead the whole time.

The finale, unsubtly titled “The End,” resolved with all of the characters congregating in a church, having found each other and their personal peace, ready to be rewarded for their tribulations on the Island. It was a far cry from the action-packed showdown between Jack and the Man in Black (now in possession of John Locke’s body), battling for the fate of the Island and, by extension, the world. That epic tale was whittled down to a small story about a few people finding themselves — not something that viewers who had tuned in for labyrinthine conspiracies, time travel, and tropical polar bears had hoped for.

But, because LOST is not a science-fiction but a fantastical, magical show, everything that happened up until then was inconsequential compared to the characters. They waged a battle to keep the personification of evil (the Man in Black, AKA Smokey) from escaping the Island and unleashing hell upon Earth, but that wasn’t the final resolution. Weird events could happen and then fade into obscurity, the Dharma Intiative and Charles Widmore could try to harness the Island’s electromagnetism and ultimately have no effect on the big picture, Walter could seem like an all-important character for a few seasons but never appear again. Those ordeals came and went, but the one constant (heh) were the characters who left their mark on each other and the Island. Like in the show’s magnum opus episode, “The Constant,” the anchor of LOST has always been emotion.

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