Lost’s best season?

03Jun08

I forced myself to finish grading for the semester before I could post about the Lost season 4 finale. But grades are in, so spoilery commentary is beneath the fold. But first, here’s a great fanvid showing the deep intertextual roots of Gilligan’s Island – no spoilers there!

This season’s finale, “There’s No Place Like Home,” lacked the mind-bending jaw-droppers of previous finales – I never bolted upright in shock as when Walt was abducted, or freaked out at the presence of a giant foot. But in many ways, the lack of the big twist or shocker highlights how great season 4 really was. A frequent lament (that I do not fully share) about Lost, especially in season 2, was that the episodes were five great minutes up front and five more twisty shocks at the end, with a bunch of filler in between. You could say the same about the seasons as a whole – typically they start strong, drift off in a few directions, and then with a bang.

Season four lacked that inconsistency, with nearly every episode delivering both character and plot. Baseball statheads talk about judging a player both on peak value and overall career value – the same holds true for television seasons, as we can look at the best episodes or the overall quality on average. I’d hold season 4 up as exemplary on both counts – the best episodes (“The Constant,” “Cabin Fever”) are definitely in the pantheon of all-time greats, and overall quality is rivaled only by season 1 (which I’d need to watch again to be sure that it holds up). The only subpar episodes in my book were “Eggtown” and “The Other Woman,” but both were still quite strong in moving the plot forward to set-up their great follow-ups. While I don’t agree with all of her rationale, Juliet Lapidos (which sounds strangely like a Lost pseudonym, no?) in Slate makes a good case for season 4 as the best yet.

There are many reasons why this season worked so well. Certainly the shortened number of episodes reduced filler, and the writers’ strike, while disrupting the flow, allowed the remaining episodes to be frantically paced toward a tremendous climax. Clearly the fast-forwards were a great creative jolt to the series, allowing a sense of storytelling discovery that often disappeared in the more mechanical and obligatory flashback sequences from seasons 2 and 3.

But I think the most important change may have been the announced ending at the conclusion of season 6, allowing the writers to plan the story to maximize revelations, suspense, and excitement, rather than the “tap dancing” they admitted to in season 3. Knowing how long they had left to tell the story, the pacing was much more even, with fewer diversions, people stuck in cages (literally and metaphorically), and dead-ends. This, of course, makes total sense, highlighting how telling a story without an ending in sight is much more exceptional and odd than having a clearly defined set of parameters with a planned ending – American television is quite unusual in this regard, and the success of Lost‘s fourth season highlights one of the intrinsic limits of this infinity model of storytelling.

On to the finale itself – Lost is at its best combines a range of genres and tones, from romantic melodrama to creepy sci-fi, jungle action to quirky character dramedy. The finale delivered this all, complete with nearly every character getting a heroic moment or time for pathos – some of my favorites were Hurley playing chess with ghostly Mr. Eko and visiting with Taller Walt, shirtless Sawyer’s moment with drunk Juliet on the beach, and Ben questioning if Jacob is happy now as he follows orders. For sheer chuckles, nothing beats the scene in the Orchid with Locke watching the film and Ben snarkily sabotaging the station – “time-traveling bunnies” indeed. I’d kill to see a production of Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead starring Michael Emerson and Terry O’Quinn!

An interesting moment concerning television storytelling is Jin’s death. I’m skeptical that he’s really dead, as the show has set itself the intrinsic norm that when lead characters die, they get a moment in the sun – to have such a key character simply be blown up like that would be quite uncharacteristic and unsatisfying. But what’s important is that Sun believes he’s dead, answering the question lingering from “Ji Yeon” as to whether Sun was mourning Jin’s actual grave, or just missing him from the absent island – and Sun’s helicopter breakdown shows how real that mourning was. One of the many complexities inherent in a show like Lost is the differing threads of knowledge, between characters and viewers. In this instance, we can remain skeptical about Jin’s fate while Sun acts as if he were confirmed dead, adding a layer of intrigue and emotional engagement.

As for our other corpse, Locke’s death seems definitely temporary, both in the guarantee that he will remain in flashbacks/sideways to the island life in seasons 5 and 6, and that there’s a lot more of Jeremy Bentham’s story left to tell. Again, it’s a bold move to put such a mythically central character in a coffin, but I don’t see it as a final death – remember other corpses who end on the island end up like Christian, speaking for Jacob and causing mischief.

One question before indulging in speculation – in the bonus press conference footage in the finale’s first hour, Jack reveals the names of the three passengers who made it off the plane but didn’t get rescued: Boone, Libby, and Charlie. But in the justification for their lie, they never explain why they added this part of the story. With Lost, that doesn’t mean that it’s a plot hole, as such material can also trickle out later. But it does seem like an odd move. Perhaps they meant to honor some of the heroic victims of their island adventures, which makes sense for Charlie and Libby (for Hurley’s sake) – but why Boone? Wouldn’t Sayid want Shannon to be remembered more fondly?

Now for some guesses that will certainly be proven wrong. I definitely think that the island moved in time as well as (or instead of) space. One theory I read suggests that the jump forward would correspond to the 11 month or so jump forward that Ben took into Tunisia. But from a storytelling perspective, the more interesting option would be to go back in time, tackling earlier eras in the island’s history. Perhaps they’ll encounter Magnus Hanso and the Black Rock? Maybe Sawyer and Juliet (or Bernard & Rose) will end up as Adam & Eve? Perhaps we’ll see Danielle’s arrival on the island as a hostile threat to our heroes? Maybe Locke/Bentham will lead the anti-DHARMA purge from afar? My inner geeky fanboy definitely would love to see the ret-con time-travel stuff from island lore played out in this way, as Ben and the O6 try to make their way back… to the future!

What are your thoughts on the finale and/or future of Lost?



11 Responses to “Lost’s best season?”

  1. 1 KF

    I really like your reading of the season, Jason, and largely agree with you that it’s the best so far. I’d tend to put the emphasis in thinking about why, though, on the filler-reducing writer’s strike rather than the “sense of an ending” produced by the announcement that the should would end with season six, if only because, in meandering around Lostpedia after the finale, I got directed to this EW interview from the mid-season 2 hiatus, which pegs several things that happened this season as likely falling in “year 4.” Not to say that it’s definitive, of course (at least one thing they mention as a year 4 bit of plot never happened, perhaps due to the season’s compression), but it certainly does lend a good deal of weight to the assumption that there actually is an overall plan for the series as a whole…

  2. 2 KF

    (Whoops — the article actually comes from the mid-season 3 hiatus. Somebody tell EW to put the publication date at the top.)

  3. 3 Elliot

    This raises a problem I have with character death and suspense. Unlikely resurrections are rampant in TV narratives and, to me, this keeps TV drama from achieving the emotional resonance of films or novels. The meaninglessness of TV character death is approaching that of video game character death – because they are so easily reversible, they are of no consequence, nor are the threats posed to characters. I respect a show when it can kill off a character and they stay dead b/c I know there are economic incentives working against it (they wouldn’t want to lose Jin fans). If Locke, Michael, AND Jin are all still alive, I’m bailing on this show, though I’ve heard Cuse and Lindelof hint at there being some third option between “dead” and “alive.”

    Other than that, I loved it, and I feel that the show is maintaining its greatest strength by continuing to inspire incredibly creative speculation by the online fan community. I like the “portable bermuda triangle” idea of an island jumping around in time and space, accumulating different bits of history from all over the world. The island isn’t Atlantis or purgatory or anything like that, but rather a collection of lost (perhaps discarded?) cultures.

  4. 4 Jason Mittell

    KF: Agreed that this season did a lot to highlight the sense of a plan, which I always believed was there in rough form. The producers regularly suggest that they know where they’re going, but haven’t mapped out the journey in full, as they need to make course corrections along the way. For instance, in the interview you link to, they say Libby’s tale will be explained in a s4 flashback – that didn’t happen because of compression or other reasons. My guess is that Farraday’s past intersected with hers, and we didn’t get much of the freighter folks’ back story.

    Elliot: I didn’t mean to suggest that Locke was not actually dead, but rather that his story will be told to fill in the gap between his death and moving the island – because of time traveling stuff, that might be decades of life! Plus Charlie and Boone have both appeared from beyond the grave, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michael reappear, even though he’s definitely dead. Jin is the only one I think is not at all dead (except in Sun’s heart).

    And as a bonus link, a great Daily Show piece on why the primaries aren’t as cool as Lost

  5. I love reading your thoughts on Lost because we disagree so much about the show. I used to watch it begrudgingly because the show oscillated between great suspense and frustration. Now I just hate it. The characters, the plot, the creators, the whole thing. I watch it only to bask in that hatred.

    The big disappointment this season is really the deus ex machina of metaphysics. There was, if I’m remembering correctly, some promise early on that the show wouldn’t depend on idiotic science fictional turns. (I don’t mind science fiction, but Lost promised resolution via human drama, away from which it quickly and consistently drifted.)

    I admire your hope and trust, but I’m quite certain, both intuitively and via information I’ve heard through the grapevine, that the 6 season limit does not represent a planned narrative arc, but rather the rhetoric of one.

  6. 6 James

    Brilliant season of television, as evidenced by its multiple nominations for the Television Critics Association Awards, and the obvious greatness as seen on our TV screens over the last few months.

    I absolutely love the heightened complexity with which the faith vs. reason theme has played out during this season. A lot of the science fiction elements that were elaborated on (finally!) not only fleshed out the Lost universe and made it even more interesting, but showed how good science fiction can achieve great human drama (The Constant.) I loved how subtly the finale kept weaving through the faith vs. reason, (Ben bypassing the hi-tech Orchid to get to the lo-tech donkey wheel, John Locke changing his name to Jeremy Bentham).

  7. …And then there’s “the ageless Richard Alpert, M.D.,” who may be guilty of “timing it” (to borrow a phrase from another part of sci-fi). The finale knocked my socks off, though not, as you noted, at any one given moment. Nonetheless, my mouth made a round O at Locke’s body. I am a sucker for dramatic reveals.

    I just spent some quality time reviewing the details of the collection of Wikipedia articles on Lost because they represent in concise, edited format a large portion of the allusions and not exactly-Easter eggs in a given episode that I’m not quite obsessive enough to find on my own. Discovery of layered meaning and massive deconstruction of text are two facets of media study that strongly attract me, and I anticipate a deconstructive corpus focused on this show. At the very least, it would be entertaining for those of us who are big enough nerds.

    On an unrelated note, my mother hung around as I watched “The Hub” the other night, and she is now primed to spend the summer watching BSG from the beginning.

  8. I completely agree with almost everything you said about this past season of “Lost.” For me, the episode “The Constant” made it clear that the writers did, in fact, know what they were doing, and that all the problems and weaknesses that plagued season three were definitely a thing of the past.

    Also, so many people seem mystified by the fact that the Oceanic Six name Boone, Libby, and Charlie as the three passengers who made it off the plane and then died. But I don’t find it odd at all. If you are telling a lie, adding some truth makes it far stronger, more convincing, and easier to tell. So naturally Jack would choose three people who DID survive the crash, only to die later on. Obviously, with “Lost,” there could always be much more to it than that, but I don’t really think so.

    Now that Desmond and Penny have reunited, I pretty much already have the “Lost” happy ending I’d been waiting for. If they could just explain the four-toed statue next season, I’d be completely satisfied.

  9. 9 Craig Jacobsen

    I’d add just two thoughts:
    1.) The writer’s strike tightened up the broadcast schedule. You alluded to this, but what I’m thinking isn’t so much the reduced number of episodes leading to a tighter narrative, but that the writer’s strike essentially burned off weeks of delay between new episodes, weeks the would have been filled with reruns or alternate programming. Because the program’s high seriality demands attention and memory, those gaps between episodes can be devastating to the audience’s experience of the narrative. So I’ve found myself wondering whether this season was better or just SEEMED better because of how I experienced it. Some of both, I suspect.

    2.) I also suspect that some of the improvement in the narrative (he said, undercutting the premise of his first point) is because the show is perhaps more the show than it has ever been. With peripheral narratives like The _Lost_ Experience, novelizations, and other transmedia manifestations receeding (c’mon, who has played _Lost: Via Domus_?), the narrative focus is more firmly on the broadcast television aspect than it has been in a long time. There’s only so much compelling narrative to go around, even in a story as complex as this show’s, and only so much attention that can be paid to sprawling transmedia arms. Maybe this season is an argument against spreading too much, too fast.

  10. Thanks all for the comments. A few thoughts:

    Jessie: Interestingly, the deconstructive corpus is already emerging – there’s at least one scholarly anthology coming out this fall, and I’m sure others in the works. The challenge is to write knowingly about a text that is incomplete. I have an article in the book, but fear that my points could be undercut as the serial moves forward. But if you don’t write about a series as it’s on air, it becomes passe (witness the perception of Buffy studies as living in the past…). An interesting conundrum.

    Caitlin: I agree with the rationale, but was surprised we didn’t get a moment when the O6 discussed this strategy, as it would be interesting character callbacks. Like if someone said something about Shannon to have Sayid ask that her name not be brought up? Maybe a deleted scene…

    Craig: Actually, the plan was to run all 16 episodes straight through with no breaks – the strike disrupted that. Also, the transmedia stuff on Lost is not taken that seriously by the showrunners (arguably to the detriment of the paratexts), so I don’t buy the divided attention argument.

    Ian: Oh well…

  11. 11 Dan

    Prof. Mittell,

    I’m surprised to see you not mention Claire once in this write-up. My father and I have been puzzling over what happened to her since the episode in which they showed her in Jacob’s cabin with her father. I guess it’s kind of clear that we are meant to assume that Claire died? — and has become a ghost and can now hang out with her ghost father?– but I don’t love this practice of killing a character off with no fanfare. Sure, we might see how she “died” in a later flashback, but not if my suspicion is correct that island “flashbacks” to before the time when the 6 left the island are over. My guess is that most, if not all, of the on-island action will now be in present time, i.e. what is going on with those who remained on the island (Locke, Sawyer, Juliet) juxtaposed with the other “present” of the Oceanic 6 at home (not to be confused with the future we saw in the finale, the near future in which Ben appears to Jack and tells him to bring the 6 back to the island with Locke’s body).

    ANYWAY all I mean is that the Claire thing is, I believe, one of the strange mysteries of the end of season 4 that has gone largely under the radar– and by that I mean infrequently commented on by reviewers, bloggers, etc.– and I imagine it’s because everyone has, apparently, just accepted that she is dead and now a ghost. (??)

    As for those on the freighter when it blew up, I agree with those who choose realism– I know that this is not a ‘realistic’ show at all, but all I mean is realism with the human body and what would kill it– in other words, they better all be dead. Michael, for one, definitely is dead for good. Remember, all he really wanted was to die anyway, but couldn’t– then he did his ‘duty’ with diffusing the bomb temporarily, and Christian ghost appeared to give him permission to die. As for Jin, I *guess* he could be alive, but, again, he was on the boat when it blew up, I think he should be a goner, by all logic.

    Thoughts on Claire?


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