A lengthy digression about “Lost,” television premieres and finales, “The Sopranos,” the entirety of “Lost” and reconsidering “The End” a year later. Again, it’s long, so ye be warned.
It’s been a year since the final episode of “Lost” aired. At the time, fans were incredibly divided, and it felt like nearly everybody who had an opinion had a vehement one. They either adored it or they utterly abhorred it, and while plenty of people probably had mixed emotions, as is often the case they weren’t the loudest voices. Personally, I enjoyed parts of the episode, didn’t love other parts and my feelings on the finale mostly informed and actualized my feelings w/r/t the series as a whole: It didn’t pan out.
Now seems like as good a time as any to revisit the finale because we can reconsider it with the benefit of time and consideration. Far too often with television, we make snap judgments that aren’t apposite to the medium. I get that — it’s TV, life is short and people aren’t interested in sticking around if something doesn’t appeal quickly. But television — particularly network television, shows that air about 22 episodes stretched over nine months of the year — is a marathon, and we judge it as a sprint. Any time a new show starts, critics treat the first few episodes as if they are emblematic of what the show will be forever. Some pilots are like that, but many other shows needed weeks and months to find their voices. And there is also a tendency to judge shows week-to-week, to treat each episode as its own entity worthy of consideration, which seems to have grown in popularity thanks to Alan Sepinwall’s work (which I really enjoy).
“Lost” was a tricky show to judge from the get-go. Early on, it was an adrenaline rush of mystery and foreboding: What was the deal with the island? What was happening? What was with the polar bears!? The spate of shows trying to mimic “Lost” since its debut (“Invasion,” “Threshold,” “The Nine,” “Day Break,” “Heroes,” “FlashForward,” “The Event”) all tried to recreate this phenomenon and flamed out, at least partially due to their inability to match the freshness and sheer excitement of those early episodes. It was also in many ways because by the time these shows premiered, it became clear that “Lost” wasn’t just built around one or two mysteries, but an ever-expanding list of mysteries, riddles and uncertainties, and there was no evidence at all that the show knew where it was going.
After the show had been on for a few months, and going into the second season and beyond, it became borderline pointless to judge the show on a week-to-week basis. Many, like Sepinwall, still tried their best. You could try to discuss what we learned in any given week, what we learned about a character or the overall story, but as the years went on and the scope expanded and the list of mysteries became a novella of unanswered questions, it became clear that judging an episode was impossible because we didn’t know what we were watching. This was mostly evident during the final seasons, when the creative team had their end date in mind, but it was also true during those maddening, frustrating second and third seasons. There is a reason ratings began a steady decline after the third season. Those two years represented the nadir of the show, an endless process of wheel-spinning and pointless plot turns, and the question after any given week was, “Is there a point to all of this?” It certainly didn’t feel like they know what they were doing, and during the lowest point — when flashbacks were explaining how Matthew Fox’s Jack got his tattoos, I repeat when an hour of primetime network television was explaining how someone got their tattoos — the show was unfavorably compared to “Heroes,” then the darling of serialized storytelling for its innovative decision to resolve mysteries. (Man, remember when “Heroes” was a thing? The mid-’00s were crazy.)
The announcement of the end date changed that. The creative team ended the third season knowing they had just three more to go, and there would be no more pointless digressions. There would be no more wasted time. It was all forward momentum from here. And, to their credit, the people behind the show really did deliver. The final three seasons were immeasurably better than the first three seasons, buoyed in particular by the time travel-intensive fifth season, which for my money marked the show’s artistic apex, showing both a desire to utilize the expansive mythology and a willingness to explore and subvert what the show had become while also actually giving the characters interesting things to do and experimenting with forward plot momentum.
I know, we’re discussing the finale here, but for me the finale was more than just two and a half hours of television. “The End” was a do-or-die moment for the show, the time for the series to either legitimize itself as being worth the journey or expose itself as being, ultimately, fruitless and just as pointless as critics and irked fans had claimed all along. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a single (hyper-extended) episode of television, I know. But that was what the series, and everybody involved in creating it, had asked for themselves.
Generally speaking, it’s just as unfair to judge a show based on its finale as it is to judge it based on the premiere. As I said above, television is about more than just one or two episodes. And some shows flame out at the end, or stir up a mess with the final outing, and it doesn’t really change their overall merit or being. The two most controversial finales of the modern era (meaning post-“St. Elsewhere,” which aired its finale in 1988) belonged to “Seinfeld” and “The Sopranos.” The “Seinfeld” finale just wasn’t very good, either as a series finale or as an episode of the show that preceded it. That did nothing, insofar as I can tell, to damage the show’s reputation; it was and remains one of the best things ever created on the medium. The finale wasn’t good, but that had no impact on how we viewed “The Marble Rye.”
The “Sopranos” finale might be a bit different. It aired four years ago, and I’m sure there are still fans out there who are irked by it. Personally speaking, I have only grown to appreciate it more in the intervening years; my opinion on the episode (not how I felt about it artistically, but what I thought the ending meant) has actually done a complete 180, which for me says all there is to say about the final episode’s worth. (If you’re wondering, I used to think it signified the way Tony viewed the world, but this amazing thing swayed me to the “Yep, he died” side.) People didn’t hate the final episode, they hated the final scene. But for an explanation about that Russian dude in “Pine Barrens” (which…come on), there wasn’t a lot left up in the air. The final episode, until those last minutes, was a solid episode of “The Sopranos.” The final minutes angered people because a) it really did seem like the cable went out, b) they wanted to know what happened and c) seriously, what the hell happened, was it the cable? Why are the credits rolling? WHAT HAPPENED!?
(And, for what it’s worth, after that episode aired, David Chase pretty much vanished. A few years later, he’s working on a movie, he’s given a few scant interviews about the thing, but he let his work stand for itself. “Lost” producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who couldn’t go five minutes without giving an interview, never went away, despite their claims of vanishing into seclusion after the finale. As soon as there were DVDs to promote, there they were, and Lindelof in particular still cannot seem to get over the show. He even tweeted a promo for his tweet noting the fact that the finale aired a year ago, and yes, that is an actual thing a person did.)
People who feel unhappy with “The Sopranos” feel that way because the final scene didn’t serve to cap off the show as they viewed it. In some ways, I guess I see the parallel with “Lost,” though obviously the two shows are worlds apart. Mostly, the final episode of “Lost” failed because unlike “The Sopranos” and unlike “Seinfeld,” it actually had things to wrap up, and it had threads to tie off, and it had characters to service and mysteries to explain and resolution to provide, and instead it actually revealed that (a) half of the finale was a waste of time and (b) therefore, half of the final season was a waste of time.
Yes, the “flash-sideways,” which is the term we used all throughout the sixth season for the odd flashes to what viewers thought was a world where the plane never went down on “Lost.” It turns out that, despite all of the hints to this effect, it was a huge red herring, and the “flash-sideways” was actually a purgatory that the characters went to after their various and sundry deaths. And in the final episode, they learned this, went to some kind of all-denominational church, held hands and moved on. The fact that the show ended with an incredibly ham-handed serving of spirituality seemed to annoy many fans, although for me it was the kind of jackhammer-subtle stuff I’d come to expect from a show that had named characters “Locke” and “Hume” and “Faraday” (OH, and C.S. Lewis, almost forgot that), and from a show that often seemed to believe that referencing a prior work counted as creative storytelling (in this sense, “Lost” was like a classier “Family Guy,” never above “Hey, let’s have a character reading Flannery O’Connor so the fans Google it and figure out the meaning”). The fact that the island’s power was some weird pool of light was, again, not the end of the world. I never minded the sci-fi, or the fantastical, and for me it wouldn’t have mattered if it served a point.
This show, all along, had made it very clear that coming to the island was meant to help these broken people fix themselves and have a second chance. And in the final episode, we learned that a full half of the sixth season was wasted watching these same characters go through similar beats — Father issues! Trust issues! Father issues a few more times! — and find new closure again in the waning episodes. It was the closest thing “Lost” had to an in-series clip show with new acting, and it ate up half of the season and half of the finale? That’s utterly wasteful storytelling.
There were other problems in the final season, of course. We were promised constant revelations and resolutions, an unending sea of closure and forward momentum. Instead, we wasted several episodes in that stupid temple, followed by another batch of episodes where people wandered around in circles because they had to kill time until the finale. In the fifth season, it felt like every week something happened and something important was afoot; in the sixth season, each week felt like, okay, did we learn anything new? No? Huh. And by the end, with all of the mysteries left half-explained and the questions unanswered, it felt like an answer to that question we had asked ourselves each week for several years: “Is there a point to all this?” Despite everything left unsaid, at least we got a lot of hokey hugging and saw old guest stars one more time.
The people who worked on “Lost” were fans of pointing out in interviews how the show had a lot of mysteries, but it was really about the characters. It was so character-driven, you guys. I never bought it. There were some interesting characters and some good actors. But mostly, they were just cogs in a puzzle, pieces being moved from plot point to plot point, sometimes doing and saying things that were clever or intriguing but mostly just floating along in a sea of suspense, action, mystery and drama. (There were fans who would disagree, and point to the legions of shippers who watched this show. I am of the opinion that, like the most fervent fans or naysayers, the shippers were louder than their numbers may have warranted.) “Lost” was an undeniably plot-driven show. People tuned into the final season waiting to see how all of the riddles were resolved. People wanted answers, they wanted elucidation and they wanted finality.
Among the show’s flaws (and there were others), nothing was more annoying than the aforementioned fact that you couldn’t really tell what you thought of the show week to week. After the eighth episode of season three, or the fifth week of season six, it was impossible to have a complete judgment, because you were being presented with a piece of the puzzle and nothing more. And the show never stopped reminding you of this: everything was up in the air, everything was uncertain, everything was coming if you were just patient and trusted them. Some moments resonated and some episodes still work individually, but most of the show was in service of something bigger. Nothing stood on its own because it was not meant to. It was meant to be viewed cohesively, and in this sense the show would have been elevated had the finale worked; it would have served as proof that, okay, they didn’t know the entire plan at the beginning, and for a while there they made it up as they went along, but at some point or another the master plan came into shape and they were able to guide the show to a worthwhile finish that made the prior six years a fruitful endeavor.
A bad finale does not always mean a show was a failure, so long as everything that came before it still stands on its own. “Lost” fails that test. And by the time we found out, it was too late. It had been six years, there were highs and lows, there were things we enjoyed and times we hated, but we had followed it to the end to find there was simply no there there. I don’t regret watching the show; I remember things I liked, and I remember Terry O’Quinn and Jorge Garcia and Michael Emerson and Josh Holloway. But I think this is the most damning thing: A year later, having reconsidered how I felt and having come to the conclusion that it was a noble, failed experiment, I pondered what I’d say if somebody were to ask me if they should finally watch the entire show from beginning to end. I’d probably tell them not to bother.