May 23rd, 2010
“There are no shortcuts, no do-overs – what happened, happened. All of this matters.”
[For more of my thoughts on "The End," check out my analysis of the critical response to the episode, which expands on some of the points I raise here while bring up arguments that I didn't get to.]
I don’t know where to begin.
I know how I feel about “The End” because I have notes which capture my intense emotional responses to the action onscreen. I also know many of the points I want to make about the episode as a whole, and how it fits into the sixth season, and how it works with the remainder of the series. In fact, I could probably write every other part of this review but the first sentence, and I’d probably be able to fill it in just fine after the fact.
However, that would be dishonest: it would make you think that I, the moment I sat down at my desk after the finale finished airing, knew precisely the topic sentence which would boil this finale down, the words that would unearth its secrets and solve its mysteries. I may know the things I want to say, and I may have my opinions about the quality of this finale, but I don’t know what I can really say to get it all started.
As the quote above indicates, and as I believe the finale embodied, there are no do-overs: what happened, happened, which is why you’re reading a short meandering consideration rather than a definitive statement. “The End” lacks any definitive statements: we learn nothing about what the island really is, we get no new information about the Dharma Initiative or any of the people involved, and the episode leans towards spiritual conclusiveness rather than any resolution of the series narrative. Lost doesn’t try to end in a way which closes off its plot holes or pieces together its own meandering qualities, but rather creates an episode that says the journey was worthwhile, that the time these characters spent with each other and the time we spent with these characters was all worth it.
And for all of the questions that we may still have – and trust me, I think all of us still have questions – I firmly believe that the quality of this series finale and the overall quality of the series simply cannot be among them. Beautiful and heartwrenching, “The End” captures more than any other series finale I’ve watched the sum total of the series’ experience, awakening in viewers the same power of recall which pulls together half of the series’ narrative.
Lost was more than our experience, featuring a complex plot which goes beyond those powerful and emotional moments so lovingly punctuated by Michael Giacchino’s stirring music, but I feel “The End” paid respect to the series that’s been: it may have taken shortcuts, and it may have prioritized certain questions differently than some viewers, but at no point did it feel like the series was making that argument that what we saw tonight was the only thing that mattered.
All of this matters, for better or for worse, and by wearing its heart and soul on its sleeve Lost has gone out the same way it came in: presenting a very big world with some very big ideas through the eye(s) of those who live their lives within it.
In some ways, “The End” is like cheating. When I chose the above quote, as I note in the introduction, I knew that the “no shortcuts” point was sort of glaring in its inaccuracy. What is the Flash Sideways but a shortcut, a way to be able to bring the entire cast together at the end of the series to provide emotional payoffs regardless of whether the characters were alive or dead? The Sideways storyline has always felt like a chance for the show to revisit things that we were missing in the current storyline: it gave us a chance to see a version of Claire who hasn’t morphed into Rousseau, or a version of John Locke who remains John Locke. It gave us, as an audience, moments that could serve as a fitting goodbye for characters we knew had already had their goodbyes earlier in the series.
I’m still sort of stumbling over the function of it all: the way Christian explained it to Jack, it sounds as if this really was a form of heavenly purgatory that was somehow engineered by these characters’ spirits in an effort to give them this final moment together. This is, as I’m sure many will note, a completely spiritual conclusion to a series that often has its finest moments when grounded in reality. We’ve spent the season wondering how the Flash Sideways came to be: was it Jughead that created this alternate reality, or was it some sort of manifestation of the Man in Black’s promises to the people he brings into his camp? Instead, it turns out that it was always something positive: what was “wrong” about their world was not so much that it was evil or some form of prison, but rather that they hadn’t yet remembered. It wasn’t just a pre-heaven/hell class reunion, but rather a sort of “This is Your Life (without the Island)” designed to place it all into perspective.
It raises the interesting question of whether or not you want a series finale to feel “designed” to be a series finale, especially since it sort of blurs the line between what we’re seeing and what was “created.” This case is especially unique, as the Flash Sideways serves the same function for the characters as it does for the audience, each of us experiencing it as a way to look back on the past and reflect on what has come before. The problem is that, while we may be able to accept this now, the Flash Sideways were dropped into the narrative with no explanation, which meant we spent the entire season focused on why they were happening: that it was because Lindelof and Cuse knew it would result in a more effective emotional conclusion to the series where they could pay homage the show’s entire journey isn’t necessarily the answer people were looking for, as it takes the show out of its own universe and calls attention to design of the season. If you think about the way this finale was designed from a distance, ignoring for a second the effectiveness of the episode, you could say that it seems convenient or even contrived.
However, I’ll be honest: I don’t care. 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.
It wouldn’t have worked, however, if the “awakenings” had not been executed to near perfection. At first, I was ready to complain that everyone seemed to wake up with positive feelings: Jin and Sun, for example, should be more sad over their tragic deaths than happy, especially when you consider that they abandoned their daughter behind them, so why didn’t they “wake up” resenting the fate which led them to this point? It’s convenient for the show, as we would much rather see Jin and Sun smiling happily as a confused Juliet commends them for their quick study of English, but the sense of distance from the events from earlier in the season just doesn’t make sense. If the show had designed this entire structure to be able to create these moments of realization and then not delivered, I think we’ve be having a very different discussion right now.
However, I thought the show did a much better job with the other awakenings, capturing the weight of the island’s events within their emotions. When Juliet “wakes up,” her response is overpowering, less a happy realization of love and more the weight of a challenging life experience pouring out of her all at once. And when Ben comes to his own realizations, he isn’t ready to join everyone else: the sheer weight of the terrible things that he did to those people is too great for him to look past so quickly, and he needs more time to process than others may need (plus, of course, more time to spend with Alex, the daughter who he saw die in front of his eyes). It’s moments like that which kept it from seeming too tidy, allowing the Sideways narrative to evolve beyong a “love conquers all” sort of fairy tale which erased the past six seasons of dramatic turmoil. It helped that “love” was not simply defined. When Desmond and Hurley achieved their own awakenings in earlier episodes, it was through connections with the people they loved in the romantic sense, fitting for their characters but perhaps a bit reductive. It’s not that I don’t believe in love (as my review of “Happily Ever After” veered fairly close to proclaiming if I remember correctly) so much as that I want love to be something more than just romance. So I was ecstatic that John Locke’s emotional awakening was the result of regaining his ability to walk, and that Kate’s awakening was the result of Aaron rather than Jack.
And while I think the show reached a bit too far back with Shannon and Sayid to make much of a connection, the various scenes of awakening for the show’s other characters had me on the verge of tears as a general rule. This was particularly the case for the absolutely unfair combination of Kate, Claire and Charlie which was just a constant barrage of emotions that I don’t think anyone can really handle (and which was tremendously well-played by Evangeline Lilly in particular, who had a marvelous episode as a whole). When you think about the scene in retrospect after the conclusion, you realize that it is Claire experiencing the birth of her son all over again, and Kate remembering her experience raising Aaron on her own, and Charlie getting to return to the woman he loved and the boy who was like his own son. And for us as an audience, it’s about being able to see Charlie and Claire back together again, and seeing Kate finally reunite Mother and Daughter like she wanted, and just experiencing something that we had given up hope of ever seeing “in the real world.” I don’t really care about the logistics of these scenes so long as they send me rushing back into the series’ past to relive moments like Charlie’s death or Aaron’s birth, so I was incredibly moved by this scene and Sawyer and Juliet’s reunion in particular.
This is all well and good, but what really makes the Sideways conclusion something more than just a narrative device is the idea these characters are not the same people we saw on the island. When Kate and Claire wake up, they have lived longer than Charlie, so they may well have been able to see Aaron grow up and lived long lives as friends. When Hurley and Ben meet outside of the church, they talk about the time they spent as the island’s No. 1 and No. 2, time that we haven’t seen and that has an indeterminate ending. It keeps this from feeling like a reality show reunion special, where the people come back to revisit the last thirteen weeks of interpersonal mayhem: instead, they’re there to reflect on a particular point in their lives where they were together, a point in their life’s that regardless of their lifespan has stuck with them in a powerful – and, considering the nature of the Flash Sideways, spiritual – fashion.
Some viewers may be frustrated that this only creates new mysteries, and that we don’t know what happened to the six people on the Ajira plane heading for the mainland or whether Rose and Bernard ever decided to move back home, or any of the details about the island’s past which only tangentially involves these characters. And in some ways, the Sideways stories dropped the remainder of the characters too quickly: we don’t know what happened to Miles, or whether Charlotte and Daniel Faraday were able to move on, or what happens to poor David Shepard when his parents have moved on without him. It gives you the sense that some of what we saw in both narratives didn’t actually matter, that there are parts of each story which we spent a considerable amount of time with that in the end amount to window-dressing more than true content.
However, isn’t that what life is like? There are things in our lives that we are part of which don’t define us, elements which influence us in some way but are part of a larger story in which we are, in fact, only tangentially involved. If this is the afterlife for these characters, isn’t it logical that they wouldn’t be thinking about the Dharma Initiative when they’re reflecting back on a life lived? It’s also part of the extensive meta-narrative running throughout the sixth season, as the Sideways conclusion functions as an argument that we should treat this television show like we would treat a life. That may seem a bit strange, but it works because Lindelof and Cuse do not make the argument that everyone would treat it the same way: Jack acts in death as he did in life, struggling to believe in his reawakening until the moment he touches his father’s coffin, while a character like Faraday is so wrapped up in numbers and figures that he can’t truly tap into the emotions he once felt for Charlotte. There will be some viewers like Jack who don’t want to believe, and some viewers like Faraday so caught up in the logistics of it all that the emotion was lost on them, but no single event or experience will affect all people the same way, whether it’s a life lived or the time spent watching a serialized television series.
I’ll talk a bit more about the Sideways conclusion towards the end of the review, but I want to turn my attention to the island activities, which were less controversial but caught up in similar dialogues over the balance of characters and mystery. Considering that the Flash Sideways were ultimately not helpful in terms of solving the island’s mysteries, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that the island storyline took on a heavy slant towards character that I was personally really happy with. The show eventually delivered some major action sequences, but early on it simply let the characters interact with one another: the first scene where Jack and the Man in Black confront one another is rife with great dialogue, showing that tension does not have to be defined through violence. It reminded me of “Through the Looking Glass,” in those moments before Jack’s vicious attack on Ben, so it was fitting that “The End” would head in a similar direction with Jack and Locke’s amazing battle on the Cliffside. That running punch was one of the finest actbreaks I’ve seen in my entire life, but it worked so well because their conflict had been established on non-violent terms earlier in the episode. It also worked because it felt like the ending of a six-season-long argument, which has now been placed as the latest chapter in a centuries-long rivalry. It was a punch filled with history, and the ensuing battle felt like more than just this season’s storyline being resolved: we can’t help but see that shot of John Locke, dead on the cliffside, and try to wrap our heads around the strange journey that got us to this point.
No, I don’t know what precisely happened when Desmond pulled the plug out of the sink, nor do I really know what happened when Jack put it back in. All I know is that it created a bunch of earthquakes and tree uprootings which were more or less just barriers to make it more difficult for the Ajira Six to escape the island (and which in some cases disappeared magically, as we never saw Ben get out from under the tree). However, I thought the island story did a better job of wrapping up its characters than I had anticipated: even when we had the Flash Sideways coming together in such a powerful fashion, I was still moved by Jack and Kate’s final moments together, just as I enjoyed Jack and Sawyer sharing one final salutation. I still responded to Hurley dealing with Jack’s death even when I knew he was “alive” in some sense of the word, and I was still really excited to see Lapidus (as I predicted) alive and well. There was a risk that the island would feel as if it was the plot half of this equation while the Sideways storylines filled in the characters, but in some cases it allowed characters to have two endings, packing double the emotional punch in the process.
This is especially true for Jack Shepard, and Matthew Fox deserves a lot of the credit for that. I’ve written a fair bit already this season about the ways in which Season Six’s legacy may be the rehabilitation of Jack as a character, but his sacrifice in this episode combined with his reluctance to “wake up” and “move on” was a really beautiful story that Fox stepped up to the plate for. I might not have bought some of the decisions that Jack made, or at least not the logic behind them, were it not for the work the season has done at building up Jack’s sense of confidence. These were not informed decisions so much as they were confident decisions: just as it was important that Jack chose to perform surgery on Ben or that Desmond chose to go with the Man in Black when he threatened Rose and Bernard, Jack chose to be the protector of the island. And with that sense of choice comes a sense of control, the control that Jacob was so anxious about that he refused to let people leave the island lest he lose it entirely. Jack knew when to give control up to someone else, and he knew when to take things into his own hands, which made it that much more poignant that he struggled with controlling his visions of the past within the Sideways storyline. The episode captured the duality of leadership and turmoil that has defined the character from the outset, and feels like a fitting end to his character in a way that I would never have anticipated a season ago.
The island story was told more through moments than through major plot developments: you have the great moment where Richard Alpert discovers he’s going grey, or the to-the-death exasperation of Lapidus, or the pleasure of seeing Rose, Bernard and Vincent again. You also have small moments that tie into previous stories, like Kate telling Jack that “nothing is irreversible” (which I believe Locke said to Jack in “LA X”), or the Man in Black being the first to predict the oncoming storm (which was one of John Locke’s weird island powers early in the series). You have Miles fixing the plane’s hydraulics with duct tape (“I don’t believe in a lot of things, but I do believe in duct tape”), or Ben being willing to go down with the island should that be his fate. We didn’t get to see the “final” moments for these characters in their normal lives, but we got enough small moments that it felt a fitting conclusion to our time on the island. And similarly, the Flash Sideways had many small moments as well, like Hurley testing to see if the tranq gun would wake up Sayid or Boone complaining about how tough it was to get Shannon to Los Angeles, providing another sense of symmetry to the two stories as they converged (in a fashion).
That brings us to the important question of the evening, in terms of our satisfaction with this as a series finale and as an ending to the season. I think I’ll tackle the second question first, as it’s somewhat more complicated. We’ve been wondering all season whether or not earlier episodes would play differently (read: better) if they were viewed in the context of our knowledge that the Flash Sideways were *Insert Explanation Here* but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s not as if we were seeing emotional conclusions in those episodes that we had no context for: it was simply that the characters were meandering their way towards these conclusions, and nothing within those episodes has been given any sort of deeper meaning. Outside of the residual emotions from the finale making earlier episodes more poignant, there isn’t anything that makes Kate and Claire’s rendezvous in “What Kate Does” anything more than circumstantial, or something which keeps Jin and Sun’s story from seeming pretty rote at the end of the day. The two worlds did eventually converge in a way, but it wasn’t a conclusion which rewrote anything which came before: normally, I’d say this was a good thing (and said as much above), but I do think that it means that we spent a large chunk of this season setting up this single emotional moment.
Now, to the season’s credit, it worked some other stories in there to keep things slightly balanced: Richard, Desmond, Hurley, and Ben all had their emotional moments in earlier episodes, and even Locke got to have his moments with Helen independent of this particular conclusion. Still, though, a lot of the other characters were (in some cases forcibly) held back until the finale, which contributed to the lack of momentum in the Flash Sideways until the point where Desmond stepped in, and nothing we saw here necessarily changes that. There is pleasure to be found in putting the pieces together, of seeing things fall into place, but it didn’t end up feeling particularly surprising, and as much as those emotional conclusions worked they didn’t necessarily make material from earlier this season any more interesting.
It keeps me from saying that Season 6 was actually one of the show’s strongest seasons; however, I’d say that “The End” (along with a host of episodes from the season including the characters listed above) was one of the series’ strongest episodes. It’s for this reason, the individual strength of the episode, that I’m willing to say it’s (for me) the perfect series finale. It is not, to be clear, a perfect episode: I think that it, like “Across the Sea,” went so far in one direction with the spirituality and metaphor that it risked shoving aside those viewers interested in mythological questions, but I think even its flaws perfectly capture the last six seasons of television. The one constant through all of the show’s seasons is the consideration of character, investigations of what makes these people tick and how they come to terms with their surroundings. From “Stranger in a Strange Land” to “The Constant, from “Expose” to “Greatest Hits,” the show was interested in who these people were, who these people are, and who these people eventually want to be. By presenting an episode where we see who these people became, and how they reflected back on their own experience, it forces us to consider their entire lives and how they were affected by the time we spent with them on the island.
The Flash Sideways may not have come together well enough to pull together the sixth season, but the lack of “new” plot developments that the show was burdened with in the finale (due to the intense focus on recall over revelation) allowed it to feel like the perfect end to the journey as a whole. As a fan of this show and its characters, I found “The End” to be extremely emotional in a way that you don’t necessarily get in plot-heavy finales; I may find the mythology interesting, but I don’t feel like it is capable of moving me, and while there are forensic elements to Lost’s fandom which were perhaps ignored here I think that’s a necessary sacrifice. The problem with Lost is that “how” and “why” became conflated, the latter somehow dependent on the former for the sake of tying in with the polar bears, donkey wheels and mystical forces at work. But once it all happens, is the “how” really that relevant? If this story is going to end with these characters having escaped/died on/protected/sacrificed for the island, then isn’t “why” the more interesting question independent from logistics, and isn’t that question more about individual characters than it is about the forces which manipulated them?
“The End” is not the end of Lost’s impact on popular culture: people will be dissecting this finale all week, and the show’s legacy will be discussed for the next decade in both critical and academic circles (I’ll be responsible for some of that longevity in both). However, it is the end for these characters: this is not the last note for the show’s mysteries, but it is the finale note for Jack and Kate, Sawyer and Juliet, Hurley and Ben, Locke and Sayid, and everyone else. And while it may push the show too far into the spiritual for some, and it may avoid answering tough questions and instead ask how these characters will reflect on their time on the island upon their death, in doing so it gives those of us who have become attached to these characters an opportunity to say goodbye without necessarily having to worry about smoke monsters and ancient statues. It was a bittersweet feeling perfectly captured in that final scene, as we see Jack walking through the place where he woke up in the “Pilot,” and then smile with Jack as Vincent emerges from the bamboo to lay beside him, and experience that rush of nostalgia coupled with the sense of loss. Lost ends how it was supposed to begin, with Jack dying and leaving behind an island with an uncertain future, and the poetry in that is meant to connect with our experience of watching the show more than with any of the island’s mysteries.
I said above that I didn’t know where to begin, and in some ways I don’t know where to end either: various other critics are currently writing their own reviews, and I’ll be considering the finale in greater detail probably all throughout this week, so it’s not like this is my final word about the the episode. However, I’ll make this one final note: Jack asks his father, as he realizes that he has died and that he is experiencing something beyond the normal plane of human existence, “where are we now?” It’s a callback to Charlie’s question of “Where are we?” in the “Pilot,” but it also reintroduces this idea of place which is so important to these characters. The show started as a meditation on being stranded and the ways in which that isolation in a particularly hostile location challenge traditional human dynamics. However, as the show evolved, that sense of place became complicated by time travel and later the mythological qualities of the island, and the simplicity of the original premise became something far more complex (and, in some ways, more interesting).
However, it’s fitting that Jack is still interested in the question of “Where,” especially since “how and “why” are usually considered more important. Sometimes what matters most is our immediate surroundings, just as sometimes what matters most in an episode of television is the experience of watching it rather than dissecting or discussing it. While Lost is a show that has been incredibly valuable to consider from the perspective of critical analysis or elaborate mythology, “The End” is more about where it transported viewers than the reviews or the theoretical dissections. I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t analyze the episode, but rather that while watching it I don’t think I was in that mindset: if you were to ask me “where” I was while watching Lost’s series finale, it would be “in the moment,” as lame as it sounds. Even while taking notes, and even while sitting through dozens of commercial, I always felt like the show had complete control of where I was in its narrative and what I was experiencing.
As someone who has admittedly kept the faith all along, this was a tremendous way to experience the end of an amazing series, although I’d imagine those who have wandered off in the past or who “lost faith” were likely in a different place than I was – however, in the spirit of the series and the wonderful critical culture surrounding Lost, I look forward to meeting on common ground in the weeks, months and years ahead to discuss the ways we experienced this television “event.”
- The show threw me for a loop when they included all of the returning actors in the “Starring” category rather than “Guest Starring,” so the spoilers came faster than I had anticipated.
- In terms of who was missing, Michael and Walt seemed like the obvious omissions, along with Mr. Eko – would the show simply argue that they also weren’t “ready” (like Ana Lucia, or Faraday), or is that too easy?
- The show did a fine job hinting at some larger stories: I loved the indication that Eloise has been resisting “letting go” for a long time in order to spend more time with the son she mistreated and eventually murdered in life. Her story has always been tragic and complex, so to see the character using this afterlife as a chance to “make up for lost time” and so fearful of Desmond taking Faraday away was a neat touch, and I wish we could have gotten a similar scene for Widmore. They were two real “characters” central to the island’s history, so I do think we could have done with more of them.
- I think using Christian to “wake up” Jack brought things full circle nicely, but I do wonder if the “risen from the dead” element to Christian’s appearance didn’t take the Flash Sideways storyline that one step too far.
- I noted it a few times above, but Michael Giacchino will win an Emmy for this episode if there is any justice in the world. While some part of me feels like Bear McCreary is due (and he did some fine work on Human Target this year), Giacchino is so dialed into these characters’ emotional arcs that the scenes simply would not have worked without his music. That final scene was emotional with just the characters, but imagining that sequence with generic pop music instead of his music makes me wonder what would have happened if Lost had debuted to smaller ratings and ABC had tried to take greater control over its creative elements.
- I really enjoyed the symmetry of Hurley trying to tell Sayid that he isn’t inherently evil and that he’s a good person in the Sideways story while Jack and Ben have to tell Hurley that he’s the person who should be in charge of the island.
- Jack’s smile at the end was one of many moments of awareness that Jack showed towards the end of the episode: “I guess I’ll see you in another life, brutha” was another.
- Who does John-Pyper Ferguson know at Lost to get a gig in the finale? It’s not like he’s a no-name actor (at least not in my TV circles), so he seemed a strange choice to be playing the Oceanic coffin deliverer.