The Lost Payoff

14May09

Gotta take a break from grading to write about Lost‘s rollicking season finale, and season 5 in general. Spoilery goodness beneath the fold.

One of the things that has long fascinated me about Lost is that it is simultaneously a “genre show,” but has often been quite opaque as to what genre(s) it is embracing. By “genre show,” I mean that it lives in the lower cultural hierarchy like “genre fiction” vs. the more aspirational realm of “literary fiction.” All television is genre television, of course, but some shows present themselves as transcending simple categorization – the HBO premium series are the best example here, as The Sopranos and The Wire are not interested in simply being great gangster or cop shows, and ask to be judged on the higher criteria of what we might consider “literary television.”

This distinction is all about fairly arbitrary hierarchies and setting up expectations for viewers. You go into a sci-fi show expecting particular pleasures and frames of reference – your judgment of the show is tied into how well it both delivers and transcends those expectations. Most shows are content to work within their genres, making television a comfortable medium of clear expectations and classifiable content. Some shows aspire to genre revisionism and mixing, highlighting how they are doing more than expected of the medium, and highlighting how combination and revision can raise the bar for what a program can do – from Twin Peaks to The Simpsons to X-Files to Buffy to Arrested Development to Dexter, the past two decades of televisual excellence has typically inhabited this space of genre revisionism and recombination.

And then there’s Lost. While it often uses a set of highbrow cultural references to signal greater aspirations, the show has always had a pulpy core – like all of the productions under J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot label, the goal seems to always be to entertain first. Compared to revisionist shows like Battlestar Galactica or Deadwood, Lost is primarily interested in keeping us wanting more – we are invited to drill inward to its storyword, rather than reflecting outward about what it means in a broader context. This is what I mean by “genre television.”

The unusual accomplishment that Lost has achieved is to signal a clear “genre television” tone, while burying the specific genre categories. For the first two seasons, it denied sci-fi more than it embraced it, and nodded to many genres, from horror to adventure to melodrama to comedy to religious passion play – yet it never seemed like a truly “literary” show that was interested in transcending its genre roots. Even as it toyed with Big Ideas like science vs. faith, fate vs. free will, it was at its core an action-adventure more interested in thrill than theme.

Now with season 5 in the books, Lost has found its genre groove in full-swing, embracing its pulpiness to offer a show whose narrative mode is best decribed as “rollicking.” It’s all about the fun, from the playful early-season time jumps to the DHARMA dance parties – I found this season to be consistently entertaining and surprising unlike nearly any other show on the air. It doesn’t have the thematic or character richness of “deeper” shows, but it is so effective at hitting its pleasurable beats that I find it more enjoyable than anything else I’m watching these days. It still offers a hodgepodge of genre references that muddle the minds of genre purists – yes, if you want everything to be scientifically feasible, you’re going to be pissed – but the show has created its own melange of science, spirit, and intertextual references that feels true and coherent.

The finale pays off so many threads that have been lingering for years in a way that (to me, at least) seems to rebut most of the “making it up as they go” accusations. As I’ve written before, it’s less about actually having a master plan than feeling like there is a sense of unity and purpose. The episode gives answers to questions that I’d forgotten mattered – like how did Locke survive the fall from the window, or why Hurley got on the plane – and others that had been on my mind – the fate of Rose, Bernard & Vincent, how Chang’s arm got injured, the deal with the statue. It references long simmering themes and motifs – the black/white imagery of Jacob and his rival, the creation of Wizard of Oz-like artifices for leaders, the permanence of destiny and fate along with the desire to create loopholes. It feels like these revelations have been in the works for years, and thus the episode delivers on its promises of revelations and coherence.

And then it nukes everything. I fully expected that the last shot of the season would be a nuclear blast, but I didn’t realize how transformative that would actually be following the other revelations. Ben and BadLocke killed Jacob (man on fire FTW!), a larger battle for island supremacy seems to be waging at levels far beyond Ben and Widmore, and our heroes are mere pawns in a larger game.

But how much of that actually happened? We have two competing loopholes happening simultaneously (and 30 years apart!), and have no way of knowing which is more important. Did Juliet’s dying blast trump Jacob’s death? Does the 2007 escape from the cycle of war over the island’s leadership break away from the nuclear reboot? I have no frakking idea what’s going to happen next – and that may be the greatest pleasure of genre fiction at its finest.

A few odds & ends:

– I loved the Rose & Bernard scene, with our wise old couple (whom I bet will become the Adam & Eve corpses in some version of reality, if that ever happens/happened!) offering a pre-critique of the inevitable gunfight still to come. I’m with them – the shoot-outs are getting old.

– I’m glad that Miles got to voice the seemingly obvious question as to whether the bomb will cause “the incident” rather than prevent it. And it fits that the rest of the gang hasn’t really thought about it and refuses to engage.

– Jack has become so annoying to me that I was glad to see him shown to be shallow (he wants to blow up the island to have a second chance at Kate?!), maybe fail to prevent anything (as far as we know), and get kicked in the nuts by Sawyer!

– Season 5 was a mirror of season 2, with shared focus on DHARMA, heroes searching for meaning and purpose, and twisty revelations of concealed motivations and identities. So it was beautifully fitting that both ended with electromagnetic implosions and heroic triggerings of game-changing bomblike devices.

– I’m bummed that Locke is really dead, as I do so love the character and want more of the real deal rather than a Bad Twin (hmmm….). However, who knows what season 6 might bring post-nuke – we could get a reboot of 2004 with all of our heroes (including the deceased) making it to LA.

– Likewise, I loved Juliet, but knew she was a goner from internet news of Elizabeth Mitchell being cast in another show. But please don’t let Juliet’s elimination make the Kate love triangle retake center stage in season 6!

– Great cameos by objects: Charlie’s ring, Kate’s toy plane, an Apollo Bar.

– Here’s a crazy theory: what if the off-island time-hopping Jacob visiting the Losties we saw in “The Incident” was not part of the timethread that we’ve experienced in the first 5 seasons, but rather a post-nuke reboot effort of Jabob to reassemble the Oceanic 815ers to come to the island, and thus those sequences were actually a flash-forward (in the past) to season 6? Does your head hurt yet?

– My take on the mythological war: Jacob’s rival (whom the internets are calling Esau for obvious reasons, though I prefer Bert just because it sounds more menacingly mundane) is on the team of the smoke monster, and may even be an incarnation of smoky himself. Various forces we’ve attributed to Jacob, like Christian and the cabin, are actually allied with Bert and the dark forces. Jacob, his minions, and his loom are all about keeping the dark side in check via “good powers” like healing, immortality, and list-making. The time-loop demands that nobody ever wins – but Bert finds a loophole through Locke and Ben. Of course what each side really wants and what the stakes of the battle are must wait for another year…

And finally, a few links to other things you should read if you’re obsessing: Todd at House Next Door embracing the awesome; Maureen “The Watcher” Ryan on parallels with BSG; Alan Sepinwall complaining about Jack’s romantic motives as the only real flaw (agreed); James Poniewozik calling Jacob’s rival Fred instead of Bert; and Myles McNutt winning the war of the word counts. Enjoy!



9 Responses to “The Lost Payoff”

  1. 1 smclaypool

    I’m not sold on the idea that Juliet detonating the nuke definitively split the timeline. I think that there are several reasons to believe that the nuke either A) actually set off the proper “incident” or B) allowed the electromagetic pocket to be contained long enough to build the hatch properly. I have a lot of trouble believing that we’re going to deal with alternate realities and multiple timelines here. With the richness of the show’s mythology and the strictness to which time travel rules have been adhered thus far, I’d be shocked if it were all suddenly erased (although being “shocked” is certainly something I should expect from lost by now). I also think that certain events, such as Chang injuring his arm, point to the timeline we witnesses being continued. After all, why would Chang even have been at the Swan station to have his arm injured if it weren’t for Miles and co. interfering with history in the first place? (Of course, this could just be universal course correction, but even that concept, explored in “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” indicates a singular, constant universe in which certain events HAVE to happen.)

    I think that the real variable in this equation is Faraday. The bomb was modified according to his journal entry, and I’m not convinced that we know entirely what he was up to during his three years away from the island. Until we have a clearer picture of what Faraday wanted done to the bomb and what his motivations are, I’d say that everything is up in the air.

    My personal theory: the white flash at the end of the episode was the nuke breaking through the last layer of rock between it and the electromagentism, triggering the incident proper and creating another flash, sending our survivors forward in time to the present, where they’ll spend season six waging war against Dark Locke. Where Ben, Widmore, etc. fit into this, I’m not sure.

    One more thing: Jacob’s cryptic “they’re coming” could refer to any number of things. He could be talking about the imminent return of the people he’s touched from the past to the present. He could be talking about some entirely new group of people. Or he could be talking about the people who are off the island but who have a special connection to it or special powers because of it – think Desmond, Aaron, Walt, and Ji-Yeon, among others. Thoughts?

  2. 2 ninabeth

    Your off-island, time-hopping Jacob theory may be crazy, but I had the same idea. Time travel allows the writers to pretty much create any semi-plausible “loophole” that can take the story where ever, which is why I’ve always thought the time-travel plot device was lazy and rarely well executed. Did you notice that Jacob touched each of them as well? Significance to be revealed later, I suppose.

    The episode comments have been fascinating to read, but I’m curious why so many viewers seem to hate the idea that Jack did it all for love? And that Juliette’s actions were compelled by the childhood trauma she suffered when her parents divorced? Along with the touching scene of Rose and Bernard, I found the moments defined by love to be the most human and believable in the episode. I too bristle at Evangeline Lilly’s acting, the lack of chemistry between Kate and Jack, and silly mud wrestling scenes with Kate and Juliette, but the underlying idea that people are motivated by deep emotional histories/wounds/patterns seems at the heart (pun intended) of human nature. Plus, I think Jack is actually still mourning the loss of his first wife Sarah, but has transferred those unresolved feelings to Kate who he managed to “save” (like his first wife) but lose anyway.

  3. Stefan – I’m skeptical that the bomb won’t reboot in some partial way, as the premise that a H-bomb wouldn’t kill people/structures seems somehow more unbelievable than the time-looping reboot. Add in Sayid being dead or nearly-dead, and I don’t see them being able to sell your idea without it being perceived as a major cop-out. But as you note, being surprised is our default expectation with Lost.

    Nina – I guess I just don’t buy Jack as emotionally central to the show. He just seems like a mopey perma-adolescent with daddy issues. While it makes sense that he’d act that way, I don’t enjoy it. But agree that Jacob’s touch is crucial…

  4. 4 Trevor

    A few comments:

    1) I disagree with your comment that “It doesn’t have the thematic or character richness of ‘deeper’ shows.” One of the things I love about Lost is that it builds characters and backstory (or, at least, it did when it used to focus on flashback). I don’t think that an action show is very interesting when the characters aren’t explored with any sort of depth, otherwise I don’t particularly care about their fates (i.e. Season 6 of 24). This is why I never got too attached to the freighter crew (except for the wonderfully quirky Faraday) until they finally gave some of them flashback episodes this season.

    2) I agree that Jack’s motivation for setting off the bomb was one of the biggest flaw’s of the episode, but what about Juliet’s equally ridiculous motivation. She wants to reset everything because she can’t stand the idea that Sawyer still looks at Kate like he loves her? Why can’t Jack and Juliet deal with their feelings through alcohol like normal people instead of setting off nuclear bombs? That whole love story, while I give them credit for making it a quadrangle instead of a traditional triangle, is weighing down the whole show. Its clear that it’s trying to adhere the old standard in television that everything has to have a love story, but it’s not a very good love story. There must have been a way to advance the whole nuclear bomb plotline with a better motivation than Jack and Juliet trying to forget about their broken hearts.

    3) People on Lostpedia brought up something I never thought of: this “Bad Twin Locke” is almost certainly the Smoke Monster. Notice in the episode when Ben called on the Smoke Monster to judge him, he expected the Monster to come out of the woods, but Locke came out instead. Then, Ben went to talk to the Monster, which didn’t appear to him until Locke had left the room. Then, it disappeared when Locke came back. The way Locke and Jacob talk at the end of the episode, though, it implies that Locke is also another form of this character “Bert” (as you’ve called him). Thus, it would stand to reason that “Bert” is the Smoke Monster as well.

  5. 5 James Welsh

    Jason, I appreciate your insightful commentary about Lost as a genre show and a genre-defying show. This whole season has been one of the most enjoyable for me, full of long delayed payoffs and surprises. I agree that ‘rollicking’ is a good way to describe the season as a whole.
    Nina and Trevor, I’m interested in your comments about romance on the show. At some point last season, or maybe early in this season, it occurred to me that the show was overburdened with romantic subplots. In season one, it seemed like the Sawyer-Kate-Jack was the primary romantic story of the show, but other recent and strong ongoing romantic stories have centered around Desmond and Pennie, Sun and Jin, Sayid and Nadia, Faraday and Charlotte, etc. Ben even had a girlfriend briefly, if I remember right, although he probably gassed her with the rest. I’d almost forgotten about old pairings like Sayid and Shannon, or Hurley and Libby. And Ana Lucia briefly mixed things up with the main triangle, making Kate jealous and sleeping with Sawyer.
    So many romances, and so few that I cared about!
    And then, of course, there’s the recent quadrangle. I love the character of Juliet, but I didn’t buy her romantic motivation for wanting to blow the island up. As Trevor points out, there are other means that most people use for getting over heartache. On the other hand, Juliet has been on this island for so long and she’s been so close to leaving so many times, that I could believe she’d rather get nuked than hang out with those people any longer. The criticism applies to Jack too, but his arrested adolescent state makes it more plausible that he would blow up an island rather than deal with his feelings.

    Anyway, great season finale and lots of time to think about what it all means before next season.

  6. Hi Professor Mittell,

    I thought it was interesting that Jacob was acting like Jacob Ex Machina, popping in at key events of the story and steering them. The writers clearly winked at audience with this “God in the machine” concept when Jacob retrieved the candy bars for Jack. He was saying the “machine” was “stuck” and he had to move it along.

  7. Good review. Here’s my theory.
    The main clue is “the loophole”. This is not an agreement or regulation. It’s a safeguard physically programmed into Jacob and the Dark Man. They are both people from the far future from a time when men and women are routinely conditioned against committing violence. Or, they are artificially created human replicas so programmed. So the Dark Man (DM) is restricted to persuasion and deceit. He literally cannot physically kill Jacob. And he wants to because Jacob keeps bringing people to the island and DM has no faith in contemporay humanity. (“They fight, corrupt, kill….).
    Which must mean that the island itself is an artificial construct (and refuge) from the far future.
    Perhaps Jacob and DM are the only survivors of the island’s first trip through time (Time travel kills some or most humans. Remember Charlotte’s death?). Hence the ancint Egyption motifs. I don’t think the Egyption references actually mean much, other than that the island was once in that time period and in proximity to North Africa at some point. Ancient Egyptians were some of the people that Jacob once brought to the island. (Maybe that should read “The Island”).
    That The Island is a future construct is obvious. It’s miraculous healing properties (Locke, Rose Gin). the time travel, the smoke monster etc. Consider Clarke’s Law: ” A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
    Time travel explains why Michael couldn’t commit suicide. He’s alive in some future time and therefore can’t die yet. Maybe (and I’m not so sure about this one), that is why Ben and Widmore can’t kill each other either). It’s also why Jack’s demented plan will fail. The future can”t be changed. (Has Jack completely lost it? This not the same guy I remember from previous seasons!)
    So why is Jacob bringing people to The Island? To repopulate the future? Is humanity extinct at some future time. (That is why I called The Island a refuge). To identify people who can survive time travel? To reward the good and the innocent?
    Stay tuned!


  1. 1 Lost in “The Incident” Part One: The Ramifications of Jacob « Cultural Learnings
  2. 2 Some of the Best ‘Lost’ Finale Analyses & Reviews on the Nets « ab initio. ab intra.

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