I’m wrapping my head around the notion that it took me this long to write this write-up of LOST, given that upon finishing the series on Monday, I was rendered a blubbering baby for whom viewing the series in a two-month period dealt an emotional wallop that I hadn’t experienced before. Then again, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise, considering it took me nearly a year after the finale to actually watch the show. But there was something missing, some counter that would help me begin this post with a solid lead-in that would encapsulate all I wished to talk about.
And then I watched Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN.
I had looked forward to this film for a long time. I’ve seen every Aronofsky film in theaters, except for BS, and I suppose it’s appropriate. I was greatly disappointed. Not because it was a bad film – it wasn’t – it was an exceedingly well-made film with flashes of genius throughout. But it left me cold, emotionless. I didn’t care about any of the characters. So Nina achieved perfection, so what? Didn’t matter to me. I didn’t care about anyone.
On the flip side of my viewing this week, the LOST finale left me a whimpering baby. All of these wonderful characters, people I had grown to love – a love, no doubt, made even more intense by watching the entire 121-episode series through a two-month period – let go and move on. The idea that the island had been the most important place of their lives, that everything happened, but that it was time to move on, is especially poignant in my current life situation, a theme I’m embracing wholeheartedly as I move forward into the next phase of my life.
Where Lost succeeded, and so many imitators have failed is in its characters. Sure, there was the mystery of the island. 4 8 15 16 23 42. Jacob. The Man In Black. Richard Alpert. The Smoke Monster. And all that was cool. But mysteries are meaningless unless one genuinely connects with the characters for whom those mysteries play out. The number of LOST imitators is legion, but the number of repeat successes remains zero because most focus on the wrong thing: the mystery box.
The mystery box is the Macguffin. It’s the “secret documents” of North by Northwest, the money in countless heist movies, the Ark of the Covenant in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. LOST should illustrate to anyone with a passing interest in storytelling that mysteries tantalize and can be fun, but they must always be secondary to characters we care about and love.
When LOST stumbled (and it did, several times), it was always with exposition (the Jacob/Man in Black flashback episode prior to the series finale the most glaring example) of the mystery. It could have worked if it had been revealed earlier in the series, as a character thing, but by being thrown in, seemingly at the last minute to clarify what was going to happen in the finale, could have dealt a fatal blow to the impact of the finale of a show that so masterfully executed its set-ups and payoffs throughout the run.
The mystery doesn’t matter. The mystery is fun. It’s exciting. It’s perceived interactivity. The reason Lost failed when it attempted to answer the mysteries that were not character-related was that any explanation they could have come up with was never as good as the ideas and creations of the legion of fans who created things like Lostpedia to decipher and disseminate the little bits and pieces revealed throughout.
LOST is also known for THE LOST EXPERIENCE, an ARG effort (one of the earliest) that also failed to live up to expectations. It created games and fostered interactivity to figure out answers to things that didn’t really matter (the numbers, etc.) Again, leaving it up to the viewers’ imaginations would have been much more exciting. Had the producers (who admitted to being uncomfortable with branching out into other media at the time) used the transmedia elements to tell the stories of other characters (“Gary Troup’s” book, BAD TWIN was a novel released, written by one of the Oceanic 815 passengers) who crashed on the island, we may have avoided the Nikki and Paulo situation, offered tighter season offerings (every season could have been 12-13 episodes and truly made for perfect television), and created an immersive experience that didn’t answer questions, but rather expanded the stories of the other survivors.
But where other shows would have crashed and burned under the weight of their own mythologies, Lost survived, and it survived only because of the rich, well-drawn, and empathetic characters that populated the island and the world. For many, these were characters that they welcomed into their homes for six seasons, characters they bled with, they felt with. So, it’s at this point, I thought I’d lay out three important storytelling lessons that Lost reenforced like Locke’s knife into Naomi’s back.
1.) Character is EVERYTHING.
Every story has already been told. Everything we see is a permutation of different stories as old as time itself. What separates the stories are the characters we place inside those stories. And those characters come from us – from our experiences, our failures, our loves, our lives, our losses. For 122 hours, I welcomed the characters of LOST into my home and my life. When I realized I would never see them again after they “let go,” it was a painful yet bittersweet separation. We had experienced this journey together. That is true interactivity. Which brings me to my next point…
2.) Mysteries are fun, but Character is EVERYTHING.
LOST had some of the coolest twists and turns ever put on screen. There were questions in nearly every frame. But those questions would have been meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters (FLASHFOWARD and any number of LOST imitators). It was fun, it was exciting – but it was only because the characters were so rich and so well-drawn that we cared about how the mysteries and questions effected the characters – not what the answers to the mysteries were. As I mentioned above, any attempt to open the mystery box (a favorite term of Abrams, and one that I’ve co-opted and will use liberally), invariably disappoints – unless it is in service of character (the smoke monster becoming Locke, Christian Shephard, etc – these revelations effected characters, and weren’t answers that merely “shook up the world.”)
3.) Drama is bad things happening to people we care about. (Or, Character is EVERYTHING).
The deaths on the show came furiously and without warning (except anytime anyone said “I love you.” That was a surefire bit of “you’re fucked” foreshadowing). Boone. Shannon. Charlie. Mr. Ecko. Juliet. Sayid. Jin. Sun. Locke. Jack. But the only reason these deaths mattered was not shock value – it was that we cared so much about these people (except Nikki and Paulo, that was just wonderful), that it hurt to realize we wouldn’t see them again. That they had come so far as characters (even Boone and Shannon, who weren’t my favorites, had developed as characters and people convincingly) that we knew their story was over.
Which brings me to the final episode.
I loved it.
I mentioned a few paragraphs ago that “We experienced this journey together.” We all have our “island” experience. Mine, coincidentally, ended right around the time I watched the finale, so it profoundly moved me to “let go” not out of anger, but out of peace. We as an audience grew with the characters on LOST, and while their time on the island was moving forward, so too were our lives, with its twists and turns and mystery boxes.
As Christian Shepard said in the finale, “the most important part of your life was the time you spent with these people… nobody does it alone.” We have people in our lives that we never want to let go of, but many times, we have to because it’s what’s needed to be done. The characters of LOST were the same. The resonance of the episode comes not of the amazing storytelling (the symmetrical end to the show with Jack closing his eyes for one), but from the realization that all of us have to let go and move on, not matter how painful or hard or peaceful is may be. That will be the legacy of LOST – not the budget, the thrills, chills – but the emotional connection so many had with the characters, making it one of the first truly great television experience of the 21st century, and one that will be mentioned in the same breath as THE TWILIGHT ZONE, M.A.S.H., THE SIMPSONS, and THE SOPRANOS.
The comment field lies in wait. Let the debate commence!