Did Lost’s Flashforwards Spoil Its Own Finale?

As you may have read, earlier this week I had the privilege of being a guest on the second episode of the /Filmcast, the official podcast of SlashFilm.com. It’s quickly making a name for itself as one of the most thorough and lively entertainment podcasts around, largely due to the dedicated of Dave, Devindra, Adam and Peter to making it an interactive and enjoyable experience – it was an honour to only briefly be a part of it.

The episode is now available for download @ Slashfilm.com (Or should be soon, I’ll update the link later), or you can subscribe via iTunes (Link will take you into iTunes to do so, FYI), and I had the pleasure of discussing the Lost finale with the fine gentlemen in the show’s first quarter (Starting at about 14m, but listen to the whole thing folks). And, well, it got me thinking (What doesn’t?).

In a third season episode of How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson (played by Neil Patrick Harris) finds out ahead of time that his friend Marshall plans to slap him (as part of a “Slap Bet”) during Thanksgiving dinner. At first, he chides Marshall for this childish error: now that the element of surprise is gone, all of the suspense is taken away, and the slap has lost its impact. But then the anticipation gets to him, tearing apart his emotions and leaving an empty shell of a man who (eventually) gets the slap and a celebratory song to go with it.

Now, I doubt that the writers of this particular episode were necessarily thinking in these terms, but I find great meaning in this storyline in lieu of a re-engaged question of “spoilers,” a four-letter word in a lot of internet circles. I am part of these circles, an adamant believer that spoilers need to be marked extremely carefully if not excised entirely. For example, I’m okay with a spoiler being found in a review of an upcoming episode, but not on the front page of a popular entertainment site (Not that Zap2it has ruined countless episodes of Survivor for me, or anything).

I raise this issue for two reasons: first off, Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker recently fired a shot at people like myself. In admittedly his harshest pullquote, he ends with the following:

Knowing the way something turns out shouldn’t ruin anyone’s pleasure. Hey, it’s a 24/7 media world. The best way to kill spoiler culture, if you don’t like it, is to say one thing to both spoilers and spoiler ”victims”: Grow up.

Admittedly, this is bound to upset a lot of people, myself included – yes, it’s a 24/7 Media World, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse unlabeled spoilers within 12 hours of an episode airing. However, Tucker’s point gained more clarity through something he said earlier:

I admit that if someone tells me who won The Amazing Race before I’ve seen it, I may gnash my teeth a little. But chances are, it will make me want to see how those people scored their victories and how the producers edited the game even more.

First off, if anyone ever ruins The Amazing Race for me, I might have to hurt them.

Second, after discussing it with the folks on the /Filmcast on Monday night, one of the things that came very clear was that Lost Season Four had one problem for quite a few people: it had been spoiled. We knew how it ended, knew that our castaways would get off the island and that they would be called the Oceanic Six and that there was a whole lot of fishy things about their departure. It wasn’t just that we presumed what might happen (Like Chekhov’s gun, for example), but that we actually knew the end result: we just had to, as Tucker seems to argue, enjoy the journey and how the producers take us to that conclusion.

So when we all sat down to discuss the Lost finale, and we all kind of agreed that the ending being spoiled had a profound impact on how we viewed the season, I wondered whether here we have a microcosm, a perfect test for Tucker’s thesis and the argument of spoilsports around the globe. And while it is certainly open for interpretation, I tend to believe that it both proves and disproves this concept that knowing only makes the heart grow fonder.

Lost’s decision in “Through the Looking Glass” to flashforward was an issue of risk/reward. The risk is that, knowing how the story ends so to speak, we as viewers will lose interest. The reward, however, is a whole new dramatic structure that feeds into our uncertainty about that conclusion. Just as Tucker wouldn’t know how such and such a team won The Amazing Race, we didn’t know how they got off the island, what they did off the island, who all got off the island, and what this all means for the show’s future.

The result was some of the series’ strongest episodes: whether the stunning “The Shape of Things to Come,” the gripping reality of “The Economist,” or the powerful emotion of the dueling flashback/flashforward in “Ji Yeon,” there is something about this new shift in time that sent the writers into overdrive. Admittedly, they weren’t all winners, but even a mediocre Kate episode (“Eggtown”) and a perhaps too typical Jack episode (“Something Nice Back Home”) were more meaningful than their respective episodes from previous seasons. It breathed life into a show that, even coming off of a fantastic end to a third season, desperately needed it.

I don’t think that knowing the end result killed the journey, but what Tucker doesn’t get into is what happens when he finally does reach the conclusion of that Amazing Race finale – when that team crosses the finish line, he can’t honestly say that the moment has lost its impact. Fine, the episode can be pure enjoyment to see how each team fails or succeeds at various tasks, but at the end of the day aren’t most viewers going to be a bit disappointed if they know the ending?

And this was the problem facing “There’s No Place Like Home” – much as The Wizard of Oz (Spoiler Alert) loses most of its impact if you know it’s all a dream and that Dorothy was never in any real danger, one could argue that this episode was bound to disappoint a lot of viewers considering that we knew how it ended. We knew that something happened to Jin, that something happened to Sawyer, and that only six of these people could find their way off the island.

So as the helicopter ran out of fuel, as Sawyer leaped into the ocean, as Ben put on that parka, or as Jin stood helpless on the deck of the freighter, our reaction wasn’t “Wow, that’s amazing.”

Rather, it was “Huh, so that’s how that happened…” And there’s something inherently underwhelming about that, whether you liked the finale as much as I did or disliked it as much as some others. Even if they had executed to the height of their abilities, which is an arguable point, could they really have kept this reaction from bringing them down when it came to the season finale? We were satiated with the “How?” question for the season, perhaps, but when it came time for an answer it was bound to disappoint.

This is especially true when we remember that Lindelof and Cuse committed the cardinal sin of a serial drama that prides itself on questions: it set itself up for answers. Answers are a rare thing on Lost, so when viewers are promised some of them, they can’t help but desire answers to other questions: they want smoke monster, they want four-toed statue, they want everything. Sure, my immediate response is to sigh and remind them what show they’re watching, but this can all be traced back to the decision to provide new, central questions based on a “spoiler” of what’s to come.

How this all reflects on the finale is up to each individual viewer, but I think that looking past it there’s a lot of great things to say about “There’s No Place Like Home.” For example, Desmond’s fate was a total variable: he isn’t part of the Six, but wouldn’t be, and the show creates an honest moment of suspense in his near death (Followed by a strong emotional beat in Desmond and Penny’s reunion). Combine with a potential answer to the Polar Bear Mystery (They moved the island), some great Ben/Locke banter, and a well-staged fight scene between Keamy and Sayid, and while it’s no “Through the Looking Glass” even outside of the “spoiled” elements this was strong television.

And it also set up a lot for the future: of course, it also set itself up with the same problem yet again, where we know that Locke has died. And, perhaps, this situation will just repeat itself, cycling back and creating yet another “underwhelming” Lost finale that brings calls of the show’s fading glory. However, even though it was spoiled, the journey was certainly worth it: outside of a few rough points, this was certainly up there with season one and the end of season three in terms of overall quality.

So where do I sit on Ken Tucker’s little theory? I think it has merit: I knew that these six people would get off the island, but doing so kept me on the edge of my seat for almost an entire season. However, Tucker is talking about a single hour or two: Lost had fourteen, and as a result in a long-term situation I can’t blame people for finding disappointment in the eventual conclusion to the long reveal. But I do hope that, at the very least, said viewers understand the situation and realize that they’re in for a whole new round of it if they keep watching.

It may not make me a fan of having things ruined for me by people other than the show’s writers themselves (As it’s obviously a very different situation when it’s planned and “on purpose,”) but Lost at least owes part of its finale divisiveness to the principles at stake.

It’s a risk/reward world, and I’d argue the risk was worth it…and others wouldn’t. If you’re in either camp, feel free to offer your own views below. Did Lost ruin its own ending too early, rendering this finale lifeless; or, conversely, did it only make you more excited?

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Did Lost’s Flashforwards Spoil Its Own Finale?

  1. Pingback: Season Finale - Lost - “There’s No Place Like Home, Parts 2 & 3″ « Cultural Learnings

  2. Myles, insightful stuff as always. A few thoughts of my own:

    While I don’t agree with Tucker’s live and let be philosophy about spoilers, I don’t necessarily think that was the problem with the finale. I’m honestly glad Lost risked a game-changing narrative move during last season’s finale. It definitely injected a sense of vitality into the show, and as you pointed out, was probably responsible for all the great episodes this season.

    Desmond’s mind-trip of an episode is the best example. While all of the episodes this season relied on the flash forward, Desmond’s episode combined the notion of flashback/foward to astounding effect and really showed us why Lost is one of the most brilliant TV shows ever made.

    So no, I’m not sorry at all that they brought in the flashforwards at the end of last season and “spoiled” the fact that they’d get off the island. I am sorry that they couldn’t craft a finale that lived up to the best episodes of the season. I don’t need blowout or game-changing reveals in a finale, but I do need a show to step up and offer some closure, along with a reason to look forward to next season. The Locke reveal may have done that for some, but definitely not for me.

    I also wonder where Abrams is during all of this, because he was responsible for some of my favorite season finales ever via Alias. I know he’s working on his new show, but I honestly wished he was a bit more like Whedon and actually stuck with his creations throughout. His absence is what turned Alias into a parody of itself, and when he seemingly disappeared from Lost somewhere in season 2, I began worrying about the same thing.

    I guess my main point is that the episode wasn’t necessarily bad to me, but for someone whose love of television is heavily based on Whedon/Abrams/early-24 finales it just seems a bit limp. As I argued in the podcast, all Lost finales, save the one from last years season, have been this way. Perhaps I expected more than I should have from this finale, especially after such a strong season.

  3. See, I think bringing Abrams into this is really dangerous, Devindra. Yes, you’re right: Alias had some kick-ass finales, and perhaps his touch would help Lost build up to the same level in this area in your eyes.

    However, Abrams could never deliver after the fact – the second season finale was a stunning piece of television considering its own shocking flash forward, but have we forgotten how awful the third season was? Sure, it was an amazing finale, but when the season afterwards offered a complete lack of momentum can we really say that we want Abrams to jump in here?

    (I’ll admit here that the first season finale was kind of fantastic, and that the second season premiere was also so – but one finale does not a trend make, Lost should have proven that for you, eh?)

    I think that, all too often, we romanticize the notion of J.J. Abrams – while he wrote some great finales, and helped create this show, it hasn’t belonged to him since the pilot. This is Lindelof’s show, having been brought on during the early development stages to work with Abrams on it. If anything, Abrams’ signature (Confusing mythologies that are never answered but instead used as a frame for character/plot development) is the only thing that remains from his involvement – we can blame him for the smoke monster, but I don’t know if we can give him credit for much else.

    And at the end of the day, you will have no argument that this finale pales in comparison to the season’s best episodes and to “Through the Looking Glass;” however, if the spinoff of this is that we got a fantastic season of television and a great setup for a fifth one (Even ignoring Locke, you have to admit that the time-shifting island, the unknown fates of Juliet/Sawyer/Faraday, the promise of more details about Charlotte, and the quest to get everyone back to the island has a lot of potential), then I’m satisfied.

  4. Pingback: Finale Thoughts: Lost | Pop Vultures

  5. izikavazo

    Think of all the people who have been watching Lost and complaining about too many unanswered questions, this season shut them all up, we got the answers we asked from last years finale and most of the questions that were raised this season were answered this season. So is it really so bad that this season turned it’s back on the original serial fomula? I think this season served it’s purpose and we will get back to the original format next year. In the meantime be happy that the majority of Lost viewers are satisfied.
    – Izi

  6. Thanks for writing the most thoughtful and thorough response I’ve read yet to my EW piece. I wish I had about 800 more words to explain the nuances, but with a close reader like you, I know the debate will continue, as it should. Best to you and your readers.

  7. Thank you, Ken, for the kind words – it did seem like you could have used more space, but at the same time it has opened up a broader discussion than further explanation may have.

    Hopefully, as you indicate, there shall be further responses to come to help extend this even further.

    Thanks again.

  8. Pingback: Season Premiere: The Amazing Race, Watermelons, and the Loss(?) of Uncertainty « Cultural Learnings

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