Lost the Morning After: Critics face “The End”
May 24th, 2010
Writing about the end of a television show is a lot like writing about the end of a war. When a war comes to a close, people want to know the facts of how it came to an end, and they want to understand the legacy that it will leave behind, and the same goes for a television show: people want to “understand” the ending, and they want to see the “big picture” in order to evaluate the series as a whole.
However, for critics who have been reviewing the series episode-by-episode, this is a greater challenge than I think people realize. It isn’t that we don’t have opinions about “The End” in terms of where it fits into Lost’s big picture or how its ending concludes the series’ long-term storylines, but rather that we have been in the trenches, so to speak, for years of our lives. Noel Murray likened writing about Lost weekly to “reports from the field…recording immediate impressions,” but now we’re forced to combine the immediacy of our response to the finale with this desire for closure, both within the viewing audience and within our own expectations. These critics are the embedded reporters, people who have dedicated so much of their time to cataloging their immediate responses that channeling that energy towards the end of the series seems like a different and in some cases counter-intuitive experience.
However, they’re also the people who offer a valuable glimpse into the series’ run as a whole, both in their wide-reaching commentary and in their specific analysis of “The End” and its various mysteries and reveals. Their “reports from the field” may be over, but the final transmission will serve as a wonderful starting point for the larger discussion, so let’s take a closer look at their analysis and see how the process of historicizing Lost’s impact begins.
To give you a sense of where I’m coming from with the episode, here’s an excerpt from my own review:
I said going into the finale that I had absolutely no expectations as it relates to the show’s mythology, and I stand by this statement. Lindelof and Cuse confirmed in “The End” that the Flash Sideways structure was designed to highlight character and theme, the two most important part of this series for me personally. It was not as if they tried to use the Flash Sideways structure to tie up loose ends in the mythology, which to me would have been far more problematic; instead, they told the viewers that in the end their point of interest is the characters who lived these lives and the experiences they had. The episode goes out on Jack’s eye closing as he dies, and so we quite literally leave the island as we entered it. Some characters died before that point, and some lived for many years after, but our story (the story of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 and their journey on the island) ends on the island after a finale which gave the characters and the audience time to reflect on the past six seasons.
The time for reflection is an important part of the episode’s impact for me, and is something that many critics mentioned which I wanted to expand on a bit further. The “Full-Arc Flashes” (hat tip to Noel Murray on that one) were a really fascinating bit of production: I cannot imagine the process of sifting through six seasons of the show looking for the perfect collection of images for each character to revisit. The moments we see are often small and insignificant: with Charlie and Claire, for example, they remember the moment where Claire is cutting Charlie’s hair, a scene that I wouldn’t place within a single episode or even within a single season (although Season Three seems a safe bet). So much of the show has become about our forensic knowledge of the series’ plot or mysteries, so the independent of the characters’ recall from our own experience with the series is another reminder of how diverse perspectives are at this stage in a series’ life. While Lindelof, Cuse and Bender carefully designed those flashes, and they unquestionably had an affect on the audience, it felt like they were designed from the perspectives of the characters rather than the perspective of the series’ plot, allowing the emotional recall to go beyond reliving past events to watching characters relive past emotions.
However, those emotional moments were not the only side of the episode, as the finale had a fundamental duality of structure and emotion which Maureen Ryan nicely captures in her review of the episode:
The structural mode has to do with the filling in of answers and with puzzle-solving and with being patient enough to see whether the answers line up with what I’d predicted. It’s the more analytical part of being a “Lost” fan, and it can be a lot of fun (or incredibly frustrating, depending on what happened in that week’s episode)…But then there’s also the emotional, “here and now” mode of enjoying the show. That has to do with how the show makes me feel within that hour and the feelings and reactions it elicits in the moment. I love it when any film or movie or performance reaches down into the pit of my heart or soul and creates visceral, physical reactions — fear, tension, tears, joy, elation, sadness. It’s just the lizard-brain part of my not analyzing anything and living in the “now” — maybe a version of that timeless space that Christian talked about.
Mo, as usual, is spot on with her breadown of the two modes of the series, and what’s interesting for me is how the modes folded in on one another in this episode. I think we all sort of took the Flash Sideways structure as just that, a structural shift designed to solve a puzzle or provide answers. However, it turns out that it was a purely emotional structure, designed as the timeless space that would allow us (or force us) to “live in the now.” On a week-to-week basis, I don’t know if that was ever entirely clear: we’ve been conditioned to read structure as mystery, and to see in time travel or flash forwards a new way of looking at the series from an analytical perspective. The finale was about converting that analytical energy into emotional energy, showing us that all of the time we spent trying to figure out the Flash Sideways was not so much irrelevant as it was contributive to a different ending than we had perhaps imagined. While we may have ended up in the “lizard-brain” emotional state where we’re in tears on the couch unable to focus objectively on the scene at hand, we got there through the same story which defined the structure of the final season, a neat little trick which helps bring it all together.
James Poniewozik focuses on the impact of this convergence, emphasizing the connection between the spiritual endgame and the time spent on the island:
Just as “The End” found a way that both the Flash Sideways and the Island universe would matter, it finally found a way that Locke’s faith-based worldview and Jack’s science-based one would be vindicated. (And not simply because they ended up arguing opposite sides; as each told the other, they have also both been wrong.) In the end, it was right that they were brought to the Island for a purpose; but it was also true that what happened, happened. Empirical answers and physical reality–say, that of duct tape–did affect the physical outcome; and yet without the spiritual endgame, what would it mean?
I wrote about meaning when I reviewed “Across the Sea,” and I think it’s really the goal of “The End” as well. As James points out, the physical outcome of the series remained tremendously important in the episode, as there are still actions taken and wounds received in the process of the island being saved from its certain doom. The conclusion is designed to emphasize, not override, the meaning of those actions, using faith (which is, as James notes, entirely nondenominational) as a way to make the science (which remains abstract) more resonant for these characters. It’s a nice reminder that while we occasionally consider Lost in terms of binaries, like for example the island’s mythology and the character arcs, it cannot be purely defined as a show about one or the other. Just as structure and emotional are intertwined (as Mo captured nicely), rarely standing entirely independent of the other, the show’s balance of characters and the island is important, although Noel Murray intelligently points out how the finale may have tipped the scales too far:
Lost wasn’t just about the characters; it was about the place where the characters met and lived together and died alone and had that shared adventure that Christian Shephard insisted represented all of them at their best. Understand this: I don’t need to know any more about The Island than we already do. It’s a source of great power that can be exploited for ill and thus must be protected—I get that. But in focusing so much on the Sideways resolution, I’m afraid that “The End” doesn’t give The Island itself a proper sendoff. This is a magical place, right? I needed to feel that magic a little more in the closing moments.
Noel’s essay is legitimately the best piece of writing I’ve read about the show, so this brief excerpt doesn’t do it justice, but it captures the honest assessment of the finale that I think we all strive for. While we were all satisfied that the show shifted towards its characters (since critics, as a whole, have been onboard with the show’s efforts to define the show largely in those terms), the rest of the show can’t necessarily be forgotten. In those final moments, the “magic” of the island becomes entirely defined by human experience, the balance shifted entirely in the direction of the characters. While the island’s impact isn’t lost (it is, after all, the reason that they’re all there), the mythology of the series does feel as if it becomes less important based on the series’ final moments. I would probably make the argument that the symmetry of Jack’s death, and especially Vincent’s arrival, offer a last bit of “island magic” which Jack’s smile nicely captures, but even in its vague explanations it does seem like the magic of the island died: when Desmond took out the cork, the Man in Black and Richard became mortal, but when Jack put it back in there was nothing “magical” about the restoration of the light, and a scene to potentially emphasize that return may have been valuable.
However, I think that the episode still prompted plenty of discussion about the nature of the island and its protection, as evidenced by Todd VanderWerff’s analysis of the newfound “freedom” as it relates to the island’s protection:
There doesn’t need to be judgment followed by execution. There doesn’t need to be a moratorium on people leaving the Island. And there doesn’t need to be the constant struggle between light and dark. Rose and Bernard had it right after all. The best way forward is to opt out, is to just do the right thing by those you love. In this way, Jacob was “right” or at least on the side of what the series thinks is “good.” He was more about sacrifice than selfishness, and the finale’s latter passages are about what it means to embrace that ethos, about what it means that Desmond probably could put the stone back in the hole, but Jack is the one to do it because Desmond still has someone back home to live for.
I like the idea that the finale sort of eschews the island’s mythology because that mythology is capable of changing, no longer “set in stone” as Jacob believed it to be. A lot of that, I feel, has to do with the central notion of choice which has been so important at this late stage in the season. The idea that Hurley could choose to run the island differently would have seemed impossible to Jacob, but it works to keep this from feeling like just Jacob and his brother’s story told over again. These characters have taken ownership of the island just as Rose and Bernard took ownership over their own destiny, and just as Jack chose for his fate to be the restoration of the island’s stability in order to continue its legacy. There was a risk earlier in the season that the show would allow the island’s mythological battle of light and dark to swallow these characters, and while I think Noel’s right in that the finale shifted a bit too far towards the characters I think it felt like a justified response to the earlier concerns. I think it was important that we saw characters rise above the island, and even if that creates a hierarchy I think the meaning of that hierarchy goes beyond “the island doesn’t matter” to “the meaning of the island is capable of changing,” something which makes the island more malleable than insignificant.
That malleability goes a long way to explaining the Flash Sideways structure of the episode, in the idea that the magical qualities of the island can be harnessed for other qualities. I personally resisted creating a theory for how the situation was created, but Ryan McGee was willing to put his neck on the line:
I look at the sideways world now as something created by Hurley (with Ben’s help, and maybe the leftover mental residue of each Lostaway past and present) as a stopping ground for all major players in the “Lost” universe to meet at once, irrespective of when or how they died. As Christian says, there is no “now” over there. Time is just a relative construct created by people who are used to seeing events progress in a linear manner. What does Hurley ever want? For his friends to be happy! So what does he do? Well, he doesn’t build a golf course, he builds a space for them to somehow connect after shuffling off their mortal coil and all end up getting the moments of happiness that eluded them, making connections that had been previously missed, and getting forgiveness once thought impossible. They don’t have to be alive to have these things matter once achieved in the sideways universe, which is why I was behind the ultimate explanation 100%.
I’ll admit that I never quite picked out a “creator,” but I like this theory because it “fits.” The idea that many parts of the finale felt “right” isn’t something we can really explain, but the idea that Hurley would be the one who wanted his friends to all reunite and come together completely fits with his character on the island. I think it raises plenty of questions at the same time (which I’ll get to in a moment), but the idea that the “endgame” of Lost would come from the character who has functioned as the audience’s avatar fits nicely with my feeling that this ending was designed for the characters and the audience to experience in much the same way. However, I would contend with the idea that the characters end up getting moments of happiness which eluded them: this was the case with Hurley, perhaps (who quite literally experienced unrequited love), but many of the other characters were revisiting past events more than they were living events they missed, and it’s not as if Charlie and Claire are going to be able to actually raise Aaron or that Jack and Kate will be able to be together forever. It’s one last hurrah more than one more chance, an important distinction that allows the narrative to feel “final” without necessarily closing off every bit of their story.
It has to be said, though, that this doesn’t all add up quite as well structurally as it does emotionally, especially not when we consider Season 6 as a whole. I focused on this in my own review, but Alan Sepinwall nicely raises some other concerns with the “wrapup” to the Flash Sideways era.
Given what we ultimately learned about the nature of the sideways, I’m no longer clear on why Desmond was the special one who was responsible for bringing everyone together. (Charlie, after all, was the one who tipped Desmond off to their real lives, yet he was still largely in the dark until Aaron was born.) And all our speculation on bleeds between the two universes – whether Sun lost her English because alt-Sun didn’t speak it, or whether it was a coincidence that most of the characters who could most clearly remember the real world were ones who had died in it (when, as we learned here, everyone was already dead, because time has no meaning in the afterlife) – proved meaningless. And that’s not to mention Dogen and the temple folk, or Widmore and his crew, or the many trips back and forth across the island, and between the main island and Hydra, and the various factions splitting apart and coming back together. There are narrative dead ends in every season of “Lost,” but it felt like season six had more than usual, perhaps because it was the last one.
Now, I don’t want to make Alan’s review sound inherently negative: he, like many critics, was simply honest about the show’s failings while emphasizing his enjoyment of the finale as a whole, and I’d quote more of his review if only it wouldn’t make this process even longer. It’s telling to me that Alan uses the work “meaningless,” as I’ve focused a lot about meaning when writing about the show as of late. I think he’s right to point out that the “why” of some of the season’s episodes is not properly explained by this conclusion, and that for all of the meaning it provides to certain characters it makes you raise an eyebrow about some of the show’s choices this season. It isn’t that we don’t necessarily like that it’s Desmond who wakes everyone up, but we don’t have enough information to connect the dots between Widmore’s electromagnetic experiment and Desmond’s resulting journey to the Sideways experience. And while you could say that we don’t need to connect the dots, we’re conditioned to do so by our experience in watching the show, so it seemed like the show took some things for granted.
However, I did want to pick up on a point (and a pun, I believe unintended) that Alan makes in regards to these two universes. One of the most satisfying moments for me in the finale is the moment where we go to Sideways Jack right after his battle with the Man in Black and he discovers that his neck is bleeding in the precise place where the Man in Black just cut him. It’s a literal “bleed” between the two universes, the actions in one story influencing the other: it’s not chronological (the bleed has been there since Flight 815, along with the bleeding from his abdomen from the actual stab wound), but it’s a really evocative sequence. I do wonder, though, whether the show settled on “evocative” as the standard for the connections between the two sides: I don’t know if the bleeding actually means anything of significance, but I do know that it helped contribute to the sense that the pieces were all falling into place, which was part of the finale’s effectiveness if at the expense of earlier developments.
Generally, the critics above enjoyed the finale while honestly appraising its faults, but there are some who were turned off by these qualities, including Jace Lacob:
My frustration with the series finale may have been the fact with how the Lost-X timeline–or lack thereof–was presented, introduced in the final season and glimmering with possibility of how it directly connected to the narrative we’d seen unfold over the five previous seasons, the island trapped at the bottom of the sea. By revealing it to have been ethereally connected, it removed much of the drama that had been contained in that storyline. What did it really matter if Jack had a child there or Kate proclaimed her innocence or Locke was confined in a wheelchair once more, if none of it was “real”? They were variations on a theme rather than a full-blown narrative in their own right, offering a sucker punch of emotion that, while moving during the episode, felt entirely false after the fact.
I see where Jace is coming from, but I think I’m struggling to picture how this season would have worked had the Sideways storyline actually been a full-blown narrative in its own right. The problem with the story isn’t so much that it was just variations on a theme so much as it is that the show purposefully hid that function in favour of leading the audience to believe it was something more. From the very beginning, I accepted that it was simply a way for us to revisit the characters at a simpler time, and that the differences were just a way for the show to show how different the characters’ lives were: I never had any expectations that it would become a full-blown narrative, so I don’t share the same response. However, Jace is right that the show pushed it to the brink of becoming a complete narrative, using Desmond to drive the action forward and to bring everyone together for a major climax that (as far as we knew) could have saved the island from another life or ended in some sort of tragic sacrifice.
However, I do think that it all mattered: it’s one thing to focus on Kate’s tepid Sideways story (which was fittingly just as uninteresting as her Flashbacs/forwards), but seeing John Locke and Helen have their final moment went a long way to helping us experience the nuances in Terry O’Quinn’s performance as both Locke and the Man in Black, and Jack’s son helped in rebuilding Jack’s character throughout the season. As much as the Flash Sideways may not have been as structurally functional as we expected, they were still functional for the show’s ability to build character – it was misleading for the show to present the structure was if it was somewhat more, but I sort of left us in the dark for as long as it did. Until the very end, they maintained the sense of mystery that defined the show before revealing that we were really seeing something different: maybe I’m just weird, but I don’t mind getting jerked around a little bit with my television, although I fully understand those who feel differently.
And to bring things to a close by focusing on the episode’s final moments, Jason Mittell nicely ties Vincent’s presence in with Jack’s Season One mantra.
These were moments for the fans, reminding us of how far we’ve come with these characters to reconnect with the relationships and journeys. There were tears, cheers, and gasps – and that’s really all I could ask for after six years of commitment. But the most emotionally affecting moment for me was the final one, with Vincent lying next to dying Jack – the producers have long joked about Vincent’s centrality, but making sure that Jack didn’t “die alone” was the greatest function that could be served.
I think Jason captures the multitudinous meaning evident in the conclusion, which is part of what kept me from reading the Flash Sideways as a rewrite of everything we’d seen before. There has been no part of the sixth season, I would argue, which meant only one thing, and which has thus become meaningless as a result of this conclusion. We read Vincent as fan service on one level, and as a beautiful symmetry on another, but then Jason points out that it also ties in with Jack’s “Live Together, Die Alone” mentality which is also subverted by the Slash Sideways conclusions as all of the characters quite literally die together. For as wide-reaching and as broad as this conclusion was in some ways, it did not rob the show of its complex web of meaning. Lost did not simply refer to a complex mythology within its storytelling, but it created its own mythology through complex structure and character actions – it references itself not just in terms of magical islands but in terms of the characters and their journeys, constantly building on earlier complexity.
These reviews in many ways serve the same function: I think all reviewers felt wary of repeating themselves, knowing that they had spent a lot of time talking about similar subjects in earlier episodes and wanting to respond to them in ways which felt continuous without necessarily rehashing old arguments. And regardless of how people felt about the episode, everyone focused on the experience above all else: they all know that this discussion will continue as it does here, and that there will be no definitive take on the finale or the series. Anyone who tries to “sum up” Lost in a review is fighting a losing battle, but anyone who tries to talk about it without expressing their own perspective is doing a disservice to readers at the same time. We’ve come far enough that I don’t see how anyone could simply “recap” this show without any sort of subjectivity, and if nothing else “The End” forced our emotional responses to the surface.
As those emotions fade, chances are our opinions of the finale will change, but for now the above represents how a portion of the critical community confronted “The End” from within the trenches – it’s been an honour serving with them all.
- For a fun take on the show’s anti-fans, Jonathan Gray has a great post about how pleasant it would be if the fans could get at least a day to allow the finale to decompress before the anti-fans take over which you can read here.
- For more rundowns of reviews, News for TV Majors has a list, and James Poniewozik put together a collection of finale reviews which features many I don’t have time to dissect. I’ll update once Metacritic attaches numbers to the reviews.
- For some more thoughts on the finale, check out some analysis from my fellow students-turned-online critics Noel Kirkpatrick and Cory Barker.
- For more from many of these people, AOLTV’s Instant Dharma gathered a whole host of critics for their finale episode.