The Lost Payoff
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
May 14, 2009 – 11:07
Gotta take a break from grading to write about Lost’s rollicking season finale, and season 5 in general. Spoilery goodness beneath the fold.
One of the things that has long fascinated me about Lost is that it is simultaneously a “genre show,” but has often been quite opaque as to what genre(s) it is embracing. By “genre show,” I mean that it lives in the lower cultural hierarchy like “genre fiction” vs. the more aspirational realm of “literary fiction.” All television is genre television, of course, but some shows present themselves as transcending simple categorization – the HBO premium series are the best example here, as The Sopranos and The Wire are not interested in simply being great gangster or cop shows, and ask to be judged on the higher criteria of what we might consider “literary television.”
This distinction is all about fairly arbitrary hierarchies and setting up expectations for viewers. You go into a sci-fi show expecting particular pleasures and frames of reference – your judgment of the show is tied into how well it both delivers and transcends those expectations. Most shows are content to work within their genres, making television a comfortable medium of clear expectations and classifiable content. Some shows aspire to genre revisionism and mixing, highlighting how they are doing more than expected of the medium, and highlighting how combination and revision can raise the bar for what a program can do – from Twin Peaks to The Simpsons to X-Files to Buffy to Arrested Development to Dexter, the past two decades of televisual excellence has typically inhabited this space of genre revisionism and recombination.
And then there’s Lost. While it often uses a set of highbrow cultural references to signal greater aspirations, the show has always had a pulpy core – like all of the productions under J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot label, the goal seems to always be to entertain first. Compared to revisionist shows like Battlestar Galactica or Deadwood, Lost is primarily interested in keeping us wanting more – we are invited to drill inward to its storyword, rather than reflecting outward about what it means in a broader context. This is what I mean by “genre television.”
The unusual accomplishment that Lost has achieved is to signal a clear “genre television” tone, while burying the specific genre categories. For the first two seasons, it denied sci-fi more than it embraced it, and nodded to many genres, from horror to adventure to melodrama to comedy to religious passion play – yet it never seemed like a truly “literary” show that was interested in transcending its genre roots. Even as it toyed with Big Ideas like science vs. faith, fate vs. free will, it was at its core an action-adventure more interested in thrill than theme.
Now with season 5 in the books, Lost has found its genre groove in full-swing, embracing its pulpiness to offer a show whose narrative mode is best decribed as “rollicking.” It’s all about the fun, from the playful early-season time jumps to the DHARMA dance parties – I found this season to be consistently entertaining and surprising unlike nearly any other show on the air. It doesn’t have the thematic or character richness of “deeper” shows, but it is so effective at hitting its pleasurable beats that I find it more enjoyable than anything else I’m watching these days. It still offers a hodgepodge of genre references that muddle the minds of genre purists – yes, if you want everything to be scientifically feasible, you’re going to be pissed – but the show has created its own melange of science, spirit, and intertextual references that feels true and coherent.
The finale pays off so many threads that have been lingering for years in a way that (to me, at least) seems to rebut most of the “making it up as they go” accusations. As I’ve written before, it’s less about actually having a master plan than feeling like there is a sense of unity and purpose. The episode gives answers to questions that I’d forgotten mattered – like how did Locke survive the fall from the window, or why Hurley got on the plane – and others that had been on my mind – the fate of Rose, Bernard & Vincent, how Chang’s arm got injured, the deal with the statue. It references long simmering themes and motifs – the black/white imagery of Jacob and his rival, the creation of Wizard of Oz-like artifices for leaders, the permanence of destiny and fate along with the desire to create loopholes. It feels like these revelations have been in the works for years, and thus the episode delivers on its promises of revelations and coherence.
And then it nukes everything. I fully expected that the last shot of the season would be a nuclear blast, but I didn’t realize how transformative that would actually be following the other revelations. Ben and BadLocke killed Jacob (man on fire FTW!), a larger battle for island supremacy seems to be waging at levels far beyond Ben and Widmore, and our heroes are mere pawns in a larger game.
But how much of that actually happened? We have two competing loopholes happening simultaneously (and 30 years apart!), and have no way of knowing which is more important. Did Juliet’s dying blast trump Jacob’s death? Does the 2007 escape from the cycle of war over the island’s leadership break away from the nuclear reboot? I have no frakking idea what’s going to happen next – and that may be the greatest pleasure of genre fiction at its finest.
A few odds & ends:
- I loved the Rose & Bernard scene, with our wise old couple (whom I bet will become the Adam & Eve corpses in some version of reality, if that ever happens/happened!) offering a pre-critique of the inevitable gunfight still to come. I’m with them – the shoot-outs are getting old.
- I’m glad that Miles got to voice the seemingly obvious question as to whether the bomb will cause “the incident” rather than prevent it. And it fits that the rest of the gang hasn’t really thought about it and refuses to engage.
- Jack has become so annoying to me that I was glad to see him shown to be shallow (he wants to blow up the island to have a second chance at Kate?!), maybe fail to prevent anything (as far as we know), and get kicked in the nuts by Sawyer!
- Season 5 was a mirror of season 2, with shared focus on DHARMA, heroes searching for meaning and purpose, and twisty revelations of concealed motivations and identities. So it was beautifully fitting that both ended with electromagnetic implosions and heroic triggerings of game-changing bomblike devices.
- I’m bummed that Locke is really dead, as I do so love the character and want more of the real deal rather than a Bad Twin (hmmm….). However, who knows what season 6 might bring post-nuke – we could get a reboot of 2004 with all of our heroes (including the deceased) making it to LA.
- Likewise, I loved Juliet, but knew she was a goner from internet news of Elizabeth Mitchell being cast in another show. But please don’t let Juliet’s elimination make the Kate love triangle retake center stage in season 6!
- Great cameos by objects: Charlie’s ring, Kate’s toy plane, an Apollo Bar.
- Here’s a crazy theory: what if the off-island time-hopping Jacob visiting the Losties we saw in “The Incident” was not part of the timethread that we’ve experienced in the first 5 seasons, but rather a post-nuke reboot effort of Jabob to reassemble the Oceanic 815ers to come to the island, and thus those sequences were actually a flash-forward (in the past) to season 6? Does your head hurt yet?
- My take on the mythological war: Jacob’s rival (whom the internets are calling Esau for obvious reasons, though I prefer Bert just because it sounds more menacingly mundane) is on the team of the smoke monster, and may even be an incarnation of smoky himself. Various forces we’ve attributed to Jacob, like Christian and the cabin, are actually allied with Bert and the dark forces. Jacob, his minions, and his loom are all about keeping the dark side in check via “good powers” like healing, immortality, and list-making. The time-loop demands that nobody ever wins – but Bert finds a loophole through Locke and Ben. Of course what each side really wants and what the stakes of the battle are must wait for another year…
And finally, a few links to other things you should read if you’re obsessing: Todd at House Next Door embracing the awesome; Maureen “The Watcher” Ryan on parallels with BSG; Alan Sepinwall complaining about Jack’s romantic motives as the only real flaw (agreed); James Poniewozik calling Jacob’s rival Fred instead of Bert; and Myles McNutt winning the war of the word counts. Enjoy!