Monday, May 24, 2010

"You Can Let Go Now"

Well, after six seasons of critical acclaim and a worldwide following, the Lost series concluded last night. It kicked off with a better-than-expected two-hour “pre-game” show that reviewed all the high points of the series from the pilot episode all the way up to the point which the finale began. I guess it was kind of a “super bowl” thing. Let’s talk about the thing as much as we can before the thing happens so we can generate as much ad revenue as we can. And ABC charged a boatload for advertising during the finale itself.

But, that’s a bit too cynical for the moment, really. The truth is there are legitimate reasons for celebrating the success of the past six seasons and for the work everyone from the producers to the actors to the technical crew put in to making what was, for me, the best show on television.

The sixth season of Lost was much like those preceding it. Plenty of twists and turns, surprises, complex puzzles, great character moments, action sequences, and multiple story lines weaving in and out of one another. If nothing else Lost was engaging television. As a viewer you had to pay attention, to commit yourself, and to discuss the show between episodes. It was just a natural extension of watching each week and it is the best sign of “great television” – a phrase you won’t see me write very often.

Certainly, I talked more about Lost with friends, family, and work colleagues than I ever have regarding any other TV show. The series was intellectually challenging, philosophical, metaphysical, dealing with the nature of reality, with fate versus free will, with love and loss and transgression and redemption. Plenty of material to ruminate over. But, more than any of that, I found that I discussed the characters.

As I have mentioned before, there has never been a TV series with more character depth than Lost. Even though in the last couple of seasons the focus shifted a bit toward the action, the mysteries, and the major plot developments, the various character arcs were still prevalent as the multiple storylines drove relentlessly toward conclusion.

Along the way I had this nagging fear that they would blow it. That the series would end up dull and muddled and uninspired like the last couple of seasons of The X-Files. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because, unlike The X-Files which FOX tried to milk beyond dry for additional revenues without any additional, genuine story to tell, Lost announced an end date three seasons ago. The producers knew where they were going, what they wanted to accomplish. They remained fully invested in the characters while exploring larger themes. They began resolving many issues throughout season six and left just enough tantalizing details dangling before us to make the finale meaningful and possibly worthy of the rest of the series.

Did the finale live up to expectations for me? Well, yes and no. No to the extent that, try as they might, two and a half hours still seemed a bit rushed to deal with all the towering issues still in play. Also, the producers almost went overboard to give us a happy ending. Almost.

But, the concluding episode was fitting in many ways and was grounded just enough that “they all lived happily ever after” is not really an accurate description of how it all turned out. Perhaps “they all died happily ever after” would be more fitting. (You’d have to be a fan of the show for that to make any sense at all.)

The “formula” for almost every episode of Lost was to propel the primary story line forward by use of flashbacks into a given character’s past – at least until, a few seasons ago, they shocked us all with a flash forwards in time. After that the whole time thing of where and when everything happened got a bit blurred. This season the producers decided to introduce the audience to a different kind of subplot technique known to us cultish-like Losties as “flash sideways.”

In Season Six the flash sideways was an alternate storyline directly paralleling and competing with the primary storyline. In the sideways story, Oceanic 815 never crashed; the characters were the same, but not exactly the same. It followed a possible storyline involving these slightly different versions of otherwise familiar characters.

Initially, many Lost fans responded negatively to the sideways storyline. It seemed pointless to them and many opined that it was “filler.” This infuriated the producers who, of course, knew what they intended and couldn’t fathom how anyone who had stayed with the show this long could believe they would do anything just to fill time. After all, every little detail of this series has been scrutinized and found pregnant with meaning for six years. Filler? Come on.

In the finale, the sideways story and the prime story began to meld together. This was handled very well by the producers. As the characters in the sideways Lost began to “remember” their experiences in Lost Prime, the differences between what was happening in one storyline and what happened in the other began to breakdown.

This is a difficult thing to describe to someone unfamiliar with the series, but it is a method of storytelling I’ve never experienced before. The terrific job done by the writers and cast totally sold it and made it believable, if somewhat disorienting and incomprehensible. But then, so much of the series challenged us as viewers exactly this way. So, in that sense, the finale was the fullest possible expression of how Lost felt as an experience more so than what actually was happening in terms of plot details.

There were several powerful, emotionally charged moments throughout the finale. These were not cheesy. The actor in sideways Lost experiencing a “memory” from Lost Prime was always shocked. They expressed a range of emotions depending upon who the character was. Tears of anguish, tears of joy, outright fear and denial, or just simply an “oh wow.” Watching how the melding of the two stories affected the characters was really the highlight of the episode for me.

As the two stories fused, the importance of the action within each one simultaneously disintegrated to some extent. What was happening became less and less important as to the effect it had on the characters. In the end, Lost became all about viewer’s relationship to what the characters experienced more so than about the action sequences or heady mysteries. This was as it should be. For all of its strange complexity and dramatic tension, Lost remained a show about people.

This melding of the two story arcs was never absolute, however. The arcs remained distinct, yet obviously connected. Finally, in the sideways Lost we experience this grand reunion of all the characters in a church of all places. In the end the show was about friendship and community and faith, both spiritually and in one another as a group. With the sideways conclusion we get plenty of those qualities from the characters in what amounts to a feel-good celebration of who these characters were and what they became – together, in the end.

Meanwhile, in Lost Prime, we experience some salvation but, more importantly, the sense of finding one’s purpose, of never giving up despite uncertainty. The final shot of the series is almost the same as the first shot in the series six years ago. Jack Shepherd is lying on his back, wounded and bloody in a patch of tall bamboo, waving in an island breeze. He is looking up through the bamboo, watching the stands shift with the wind. In season one the first shot of Lost is a close-up of his eye opening. In season six, the last shot is his eye closing.

Sure, tons of unanswered questions remain. To mention them here is pointless and, without context, they would all seem absurd anyway. The point is, in the end, everything isn’t neatly tied up, everything isn’t resolved, and some significant story elements still seem bizarre and unconnected. But, that’s OK. In fact, that is what I wanted. The essence of the mystery wasn’t solved. In many respects, it wasn’t even mentioned. Because the mysteries and questions raised ultimately were not as important as the characters themselves and the joy of watching what they took from the circumstances of the story.

In the sideways Lost, Oceanic 815 goes through some severe turbulence but does not crash. When the turbulence passed and the passengers started to relax the character of Rose looks across the aisle to Jack and, noticing his tight grip on the armrest of his seat calmly says “You can let go now.” That sums up the entire series in one moment, both from a story perspective and from the experience of watching this wonderful tale unfold.

As human beings we become so attached to the circumstances of our lives that we simply forget to just Be. Instead we grip whatever our passions or fears might be as if they are what being is about, forgetting all the while that our Being was happening before any of our passions or fears manifested themselves. It becomes so easy to lose focus, to forget others, to remain fixated in our little worlds of trouble and desire.

How much more rewarding it is to see all that in a bigger perspective. To open to the world around us, to other ways and other beings that are happening just as much and as real as any private realm we ever discover. And in opening up we discover something, the whole fabric of humanity is greater than the sum of its parts. This is known as “emergence." I think this is the heart of Lost. In discovering this simple truth, all the complexity doesn’t matter as much as the sheer joy of experiencing it. Or, in this case, the joy of remembering the experience.

So it is with six seasons of Lost. So, too, are these characters and we as viewers, now Found...even though - as it turns out - Jack is dead.

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