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 mélange 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.