Lost in The Matrix

Now that the Lost fiasco finale has come and gone, and my blood pressure has dipped back down into safe levels, I am going to attempt to speak calmly about how the show let me down. Yes, I am aware that it is just a TV program, and there are a great many other things in the world worth being upset over (I’m looking at you, BP). But following a weekly TV show from the very beginning, for six years, earns you a little more than the often derogatory sobriquet Fan. We aficionados are not owed anything by anybody, but nevertheless, our investment of time and enthusiasm created an imbalance that was not satisfied in the end.

Henry Ian Cusick in LostNeo Desmond enters Deus Ex MachinaThe Source

As my frustration at being cheated subsides, another problematic pop cultural touchstone came to mind. Certain parallels between Lost and The Matrix trilogy now seem obvious, and it’s not just that both hinge on a mysterious, glowing, ill-defined “Source.”

  1. Start out strong with a very science fiction-y, mostly plot-driven narrative. The characters are marginally interesting, but the focus is on scenario and story. Viewers’ imaginations are teased, speculation abounds, and sequels are demanded.
  2. Follow up with a sequel that reveals a loose framework of philosophy supporting the science fiction conceit. Whether it genuinely inspired the original work or was bolted on after the fact is open to debate. Simultaneously amp up the soap-opera cheesiness concerning flat characters that fans aren’t really invested in. (For what it’s worth, I contend that The Matrix Reloaded – the second in the trilogy – is not only underrated, but in fact the best of the series, despite the nearly universal opinion that both sequels were failures)
  3. Contrive a violent, action-packed ending that A. strains to fit around the philosophical core (kinda sorta maybe) and B. focuses on character melodrama (tragic deaths, romantic pining, etc.). Myriad story issues are neglected and treated as merely peripheral to the creators’ primary concerns.

In short, the creative duos behind Lost and The Matrix mistakenly assumed fans were more interested in the philosophical angle and thin characters than in the narrative. And maybe, just maybe, some of us wondered why we couldn’t have it both ways: a cracking good story with a strong subtext of mysticism and philosophy. As every high school creative writing teacher must explain to students that keep turning in thinly veiled retellings of Bible stories: just because an allegory fits (kinda sorta maybe), it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any additional meaning to be construed. For The Wachowski Brothers, it was Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. For Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, it was John Locke, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, etc. (to be fair, they also leaned heavily on writers outside the realm of philosophy, including everyone from George Lucas to Stephen Hawking).

Keanu Reeves in The MatrixDesmond Neo enters The Source Deus Ex Machina

If, in the end, Cuse and Damon Lindelof neglected their storytelling responsibilities, they had already neatly set up two excuses for them to fall back upon:

  1. That Lost’s appeal was really the characters, and fans ought to be pleased that they all lived happily ever after, after a fashion.
  2. That Lost is really an allegory for a melange of works of philosophy, and that if you don’t get it, you’re a right-brainer too hung up on Star Trek-esque hard sci-fi to have your mind expanded, dude.

I don’t think I would be so upset if Cuse and Linedlof weren’t so outrageously full of themselves and self-congratulatory in interviews (The Wachowskis are probably right to refrain from publicity). At least Lindelof seemed conscious of how their work might be received. He told Wired Magazine:

Locke is now the voice of a very large subset of the audience who believes that when Lost is all said and done, we will have wasted six years of our lives, that we were making it up as we went along, and that there’s really no purpose. And Jack is now saying, “the only thing I have left to cling to is that there’s got to be something really cool that’s going to happen, because I have really, really fucking suffered.”

Maybe Jack and Locke were both right; the show now appears to have been a headlong hurdle into a faux-mystical conundrum, leaving behind countless abandoned plot threads as so much narrative shrapnel. There is no shortage of blog posts clogging the internet with lists of unresolved mysteries (including my own). Cuse dug himself in deeper, in conversation with the New York Times:

our goal is when we’re breaking stories, how are we going to really make each one of these commercial breaks really exciting. Those questions led to a lot of really intense scenes and cool reversals and surprises, and I guess it must have been how Dickens would cliffhanger the end of his serials in the newspaper when he was writing them to try to get people to show up the next day.

Cool like Dickens, eh? Wait, it gets better. In the recap special “The Final Journey” that preceded the final episode “The End,” they actually had the balls to call their series “Shakespearean,” which I think automatically disqualifies them from being taken seriously.

As for The Matrix, I think it’s telling that there’s literally a character in the third film named “Deus Ex Machina.”


Must read: Philosophy in Lost

Must read: The Matrix Explained

Official Lost site: abc.go.com/shows/lost

Buy the Lost Season 6 DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Lost: The End

Lost Season 6 poster

 

I’ve always been a Lost apologist, at least liking the show even during its weak points. Six years of goodwill very nearly went out the window along with my television, thanks to its extremely frustrating final run of episodes. Close to the end, I attempted to resolve myself to the likely event that the finale would not answer every little niggling mystery. I hoped to shield myself from disappointment, and let the creators finish the story how they wished. Yet “The End” still failed to tell a simple story. A story is not a string of dei ex machina, and every character arc need not end with a sudden, brutal, arbitrary death.

Carlton Cuse told Wired Magazine:

The great mysteries of life fundamentally can’t be addressed. We just have to tell a good story and let the chips fall where they may. We don’t know whether the resolution between the two timelines is going to make people say, “Oh, that’s cool” or “Oh, fuck those guys, they belly-flopped at the end.”

The latter, pretty much. What follows is just a taste of my catalogue of complaints, with no concern for spoilers.

Matthew Fox in Lost

SPINNING (DONKEY) WHEELS

For a show built atop a perpetually compounding series of mysteries and conundrums, it failed to legitimately advance or resolve much of anything in the run-up to the polarizing finale. With so little time left, the penultimate episodes wasted time spinning wheels in classic Lost fashion. People getting locked in cages, escaping, getting locked up again. Groups splitting up, hiking to opposite ends of the island(s), splitting up into different groups and hiking back. Boarding watercraft and disembarking again. Meanwhile, the sheer number of abandoned mysteries filled its own wiki, and as usual, CollegeHumor said it best:

BOOM!

From the very beginning, one of Lost’s favorite conceits was the sudden death of characters. To be generous, death is rarely “meaningful” in real life, but these plot twists also laid bare the practicalities of serial television (actors quit, get fired, or age unconvincingly). After the tenth or twentieth fatality, I became sick of characters getting suddenly and arbitrarily killed off for cheap shock. Past victims included Eko, Libby, and Danielle, all violently exiting the show before their storylines reached any kind of resolution. In the final episodes, it happened to Ilyana, Widmore, Zoe, and (it seemed at first) Frank and Richard. We saw just enough of Zoe that I assumed she must be significant as something more than just cannon fodder, but apparently not. Sayid’s season-long arc (was he mystically reincarnated as a soulless killing machine, or was he merely convinced that he was essentially evil?) is short-circuited by his abrupt choice of self-sacrifice. How did he defeat his mystical brainwashing? Just killing off a character isn’t any kind of a resolution to a storyline.

A positive example from the show’s past would be Charlie, a character whose death figured into the mythology in a big way. It had ramifications, as opposed to: BOOM! Look, somebody just suddenly blew themselves up with dynamite, isn’t that HILARIOUS? Aren’t you SHOCKED? No? Well, let’s kill another character the same way!

I was never so sentimental for Lost that I felt the need for every character to live happily ever after. But didn’t these creations deserve a little better?

John Terry in Lost

ACROSS THE SEA

Little of the mythology Jacob finally revealed in the episode “Across the Sea” made any sense, and often directly contradicted my memories of what went before. He tells Kate he scratched her off the list because she became a mother, but the job could still be hers if she wanted it. Does that mean his list is arbitrary? It doesn’t matter which of these last few surviving candidates will do it? And, for whatever reason Jacob disqualifies moms, is it related to why all women on the island die? Were all the other mothers also candidates, for whom disqualification means death? If so, why didn’t he kill Kate? Because she assumed custody of Claire’s baby rather than having her own biological child, I suppose. But if the audience is asked to make too many strained suppositions like this, based on little evidence in the text of the show, we’ll begin to wonder if the writers have any idea themselves.

In the earlier episode “Ab Aeterno”, Jacob told the Man in Black that he brings people to the island to prove a point to him about humanity. But now he tells Jack & co. that he simply wants to find a replacement. Which is it? Both?

Jacob’s list of several hundred names eventually narrowed to a mere handful of survivors. Did he know he had to rule them all out until he got to the last name? And that the Man in Black would happen to be very near escape at that point in time? If so, why didn’t he just scratch all but one name off the list? And now that Jack has volunteered, does that mean that the other few have to die?

Allison Janney in Lost

NARRATIVE CHEATING

It’s cheap to resolve a plot thread by introducing a totally new element, like the adoptive mother of Jacob & The Man in Black (an unnamed character played by Allison Janney). Imagine a murder mystery, in which the murderer turns out to be… oh this guy right here, whom you’ve never seen before now. The answer to the mystery of Jacob and The Man in Black needed to already be there, in the form of shuffled puzzle pieces the audience hasn’t seen the solution to yet. Not in a single-episode guest star.

Which brings me to the glowing cave. If it’s really the key motivating force for Jacob and The Man in Black, it’s the ultimate MacGuffin of the entire series. To not even so much as mention it until near the very end of a six-year long series is cheating to say the least.

Let me go back even further: I’m irritated altogether by the injection of Jacob and the Man in Black into the story. I know that the Man in Black technically appeared in the very first episode (as the sound effect we would later associate with the Smoke Monster), and we’ve been hearing the name Jacob for a few years now. But it does not feel organic at all that the core mystery of the show came down to a mystical struggle between two characters that have barely featured on the show at all. It should be about the characters already on the stage from the very beginning, not two cyphers introduced so late in the game.

And the final, capping atrocity that would get any kid kicked out of high school creative writing class is, of course, the revelation that the final season’s mysterious “sideways timeline” was actually a kind of Limbo or Purgatory. That this is wildly unsatisfactory (the only thing worse could have been an ending in which it is revealed to be someone’s dream, a la St. Elsewhere or Newhart) is overshadowed by the true crime: it’s explained via exposition by a minor character we hadn’t seen for months (Jack’s father Christian). Exposition! “Show don’t tell” is a clichéd rule, and rules ought to be broken, but this case of telling not showing is evidence of contempt for the audience.

Compare and contrast with the truly mind-blowing conclusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its wordlessness is a sublime virtue, and its mysteries linger to provoke discussion and fascination decades later.

Michael Emmerson in Lost

BEN: A COMPLICATED GUY, OR LAZY WRITING?

I’m puzzled by Ben’s apparent boomerang switcher from defeated and sort-of redeemed, to pure evil, and then back again. We’re left to suppose he realized something in the penultimate episode that the audience just didn’t know yet. We naturally expect to share his realization in the final episode, but there doesn’t seem to be anything there to find. After the Man in Black is defeated, he’s not only forgiven for his crimes (remember, he is a mass murderer), but given a leadership role on the island. And, he gets to stay behind in Limbo and shag Rousseau (Mira Furlan, who, incidentally, cleans up good, am I right?).

It bugs me that I had to repeatedly ask this question at each plot turn: was it lazy writing, or part of the mystery?

Henry Ian Cusick in Lost

THE DESMOND ZAP

I’m very confused about how much the sideways characters remember about their alternate timelines on the island after Desmond zaps them. Locke and Ben only seem to get a vague sense of deja vu, but Hurley seems to have complete recall (for instance, he seems to know exactly who Ana Lucia is). By the finale, characters need only touch each other for complete memories to come flooding back. So why didn’t Jack & Juliet spark each other’s memories during all the years were married, and not to put to fine a point on it, had sex and conceived a son? Again, part of the mystery, or sloppy writing?

CITING SOURCES

Some of the above is derived from a morning-after rant I shared with guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait.


Must read: Jason Kottke’s Lost finale roundup

Official Lost site: abc.go.com/shows/lost

Buy the Lost Season 6 DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.