Lost ratchets up its degree of difficulty

24May07

I can’t say anything meaningful without spoiling the season 3 finale of Lost, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, avert your eyes!

Speaking of spoilers, just an interesting aside – it seems that the big twist of the episode was, like all the season finales, played close to the vest by the producers, complete with the codename “the rattlesnake in the mailbox.” But unlike the first two seasons, someone leaked it & the spoiler circuit got it. Damon Lindelof offers the following reflection on the act of spoiling in a Watch with Kristin E! interview:

I think there will always be people who want to turn to the last page of the book, but I feel that those people are almost universally disappointed with what they read there, because if it’s cool, they don’t understand the context, and if it sucks, they feel like they’ve saved themselves time. But no one skips to the end of life. You have to live it, and it’s just disappointing to me that people don’t respect the integrity of the show enough to let it unfold naturally. There is a fine line between intriguing the audience with what’s to come and giving them the whole shebang. And I feel the line was crossed with the finale this year, and it’s really disappointing.

Interesting points in conjunction with our spoiler research – fans often do feel regret & disappointment after they watch a spoiled episode (which online conversations I’ve seen about the finale confirm), yet they typically can’t resist gathering any info they can while they’re waiting for a new episode. I’m not convinced that there’s one ideal “natural integrity” to the narrative, but certainly one thing Lost is quite good at is generating emotional responses to storytelling, so doing anything to deflate those opportunities is (to me) unfortunate.

The finale – generally the buzz has been strong amongst the bloggers – see South Dakota Dark, The A.V. Club, Steven Johnson, Entertainment Weekly, and The Boston Globe for some morning-after love, while The House Next Door offers more tempered praise. I feel like I should offer a reflection on Season 3 as a whole, especially after my griping after the mini-season’s finale. So has my faith in the show & its creators returned? Find out, with spoilers, beneath the fold…

When you think of ending a season on a major twist, probably the question that comes to mind to linger over for months is “what will happen next?” Certainly that was central to the two previous seasons of Lost: what will happen to the rafties? Where are they taking Walt? What’s in the hatch? What happened when the hatch exploded? What will happen to Jack/Kate/Sawyer with the Others?

While this season’s finale offered a bit of that type of story suspense (What will happen if & when the ship’s helicopters get to the island? Will Desmond reach the other castaways in time?), the season’s big cliffhanger wasn’t about the story, but about the narrative discourse (or the way the story is told). How will the story be told next year? Focused on life on the mainland with flashbacks to the island? More flashforwards to characters post-rescue? Many alternate futures? For once, the key question isn’t “what will happen?” (as we now presumably know that at least Kate & Jack will be rescued), but “how will they tell us what happens?”

This is a great example of the operational aesthetic, a concept I’ve written about concerning contemporary television narrative – part of the pleasure and engagement with a program is in examining the gears of the storytelling machinery, not just the story itself. Certainly the producers realize that the rattlesnake in our collective mailbox is making us rethink the basic rules of Lost‘s narrative game – given a plot point two and a half years in advance (clever Lostpedians have identified Jack’s newspaper as being the April 5, 2007 edition of the Los Angeles Times!), how might we connect the dots from the island to the mainland? And what storytelling mechanics will be used to relate these two events? The story still matters of course, but the terms have changed – the operative question is no longer “will they make it off the island,” but perhaps “will they make it back?; no longer pure issues of survival as much as greater emphasis on the essential question of which place are these character more lost, on or off the island?

The episode was rewarding primarily in keeping the action and tension moving so quickly that there was little time to reflect on the fact that there were almost no “answers” offered – Jacob, the ageless Richard Alpert, DHARMA motives & activities, Ben’s assumption of leadership, the goals of the Others, and the monster’s relationship to the island political factions are all mysteries raised this year that are unresolved. Even major points raised in season 2’s finale – the giant foot, Penny’s rescue plans, the Hurley bird, the reason for the Swan’s button-pushing, the whereabouts of Michael & Walt – have been ignored for the season. But I don’t see this as a problem, as ultimately when fans gripe that they want “answers,” I really think they’re looking for narrative momentum, a feeling that things are moving forward at a steady pace with apparent (if not evident) rationale. The ultimate gripe about this show isn’t that the producers are “making it up as they go along”; it’s that the producers aren’t always the best at creating the appearance of being guided by a master plan. It’s less a problem with the story than the telling – and if they payoff the flashforwards as the new structure, it will go a long way to sustain momentum into new story areas & forward drive.

The episode also worked for its great little moments & tie-backs. One of the most complained about episodes this season was Hurley’s adventures in VW driving, which was condemned as worthless standalone comedic not adding to the major plotlines. But they’ve since tied the bus into the island’s past (where Ben kills his father) and forward moving narrative, as Hurley plays hero. Other wonderful moments – Alex & Danielle bonding over tying up Ben; Locke’s look when Walt says “you have work to do”; Jack as Moses;
Mikhail without an eyepatch; “I’m a dentist, not Rambo”; and the looks everyone exchanges when Sayid kills an Other with his legs. And then the Charlie storyline was just wonderfully played – a great exit for a character who’d run out of purpose but really added a huge energy to the show. Plus a great narrative parallel – season 2 ends in disaster because Locke makes a bad choice in a momentary loss of faith. Season 3 turns the tables by having Jack make the disastrous choice due to his faith in his own leadership & rationality, which ultimately will lead to him losing rationality.

But ultimately why I loved this episode was as a message from the producers: let’s ratchet up the narrative ambitions and raise the degree of difficulty. Television is not a medium that tends to encourage or reward risks. Lost, for all of its faults, rarely shies away from a risky move. They don’t all payoff, but when they deliver it reminds me of why this may be the most consistently innovative program in network TV history. And I love to watch a show dare itself to fail rather than rest on its laurels. 48 episodes left to go… and nine months to wait for the return!



3 Responses to “Lost ratchets up its degree of difficulty”

  1. 1 Paul Ramaeker

    Though certainly the biggest issue for me is, as you say, to do with how they will tell the story from this point (like, flashforwards replacing flashbacks, or what?), I am not yet ready to give up on some notion of alternate futures. And neither you nor Media Maven have yet said anything about Jack’s notion his father is alive in the future: exactly how crazy were we meant to think Jack is in this future?
    That’s all I have to say so far- I am not in scholarly mode on this one yet, still absorbing it after it aired last night in NZ. Except I will grant this: this had it all over the Heroes finale.


  1. 1 Lost - Season 3, Episode 22/23 - "Through the Looking Glass" « Media Maven Musings
  2. 2 links for 2007-05-28 : Tama Leaver dot Net

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