Hauling Like A Brooligan

Stephen Gallagher

Lost and the Long-Distance Plan

I dropped out of Lost a couple of seasons ago, after the introduction of the flash-forwards (which drew a gasp of admiration out of me when they reversed all my assumptions with the first one) but before they started with the sideways-flashes. I was curious about how they’d wind it up, but I’d been too long out of the game to follow the finale so I waited and then went looking to read the after-show spoilers instead.

In the course of which I came across this piece in which Kay Reindl tackles the assertion (by a novelist) that the Lost writing team should have carried a novelist or two, to show them how it should be done.

People, I’ve done both – I made a better-than-good living out of my novels through the 80s and 90s – and she’s right. Try to make episodic TV with just a novelist’s tools and you’ll be chewed up and spat out, left nursing wounds that you’ll be showing to the faithful at literary festivals for the rest of your life.

My favourite part about working as a novelist is that of being an armchair general, in that I can plan a perfect campaign and designate the outcome. Whereas the American TV series is like a feuilleton whose fate, length and scope will depend on factors that can’t be predicted with any accuracy. You put all of your initial energies into getting it sold and while you may have a grand design in mind, that’s like the battle plan that never survives the first exchange of fire. You’re navigating a sea of executives, viewer responses, and unpredictable production developments. There’s no way to account for new ideas you may have along the way, or the contributions of of your creative coworkers whose ideas may take you in directions you didn’t foresee, but which you’d be stupid to pass up because having such ideas is what they’re there for.

Ideally you should have an ultimate destination in mind, in the form of a vision of your finale that you keep in your back pocket and put into the works on the day you hear you’re being cancelled. A classic example would be the spectre of the one-armed man that always stayed out of reach throughout The Fugitive. An early Flann O’Brien Third Policeman hint suggests that this conceit was the back-pocket idea in the Lost showrunners’ minds from the beginning (leaving them with little choice but evasion or denial when some fans predicted the ‘correct’ outcome), but we can be sure that everything in between was live juggling, and the various closures and resolutions were a matter of tidying-up the playground to the best extent possible.

In an early post, I wrote:

For me it can never end successfully with a make-sense-of-it-all revelation, any more than The Prisoner could… it’s all about dread and uncertainty and wondering about what’s on the other side of the door. As Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, the moment you actually open the door all that wonder condenses down into whatever’s there.

The only good ending I can imagine is something like, they find a box that’s the answer to everything, look inside it and go “Wow.” Like the moment in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray whispers something to Scarlett Johannsen that makes everything OK, and we all have ideas about what it might have been that are unique to ourselves, and which are best not shared. Some people won’t have that… a quick Lost in Translation Google shows messageboards with people wanting tips on how they can boost the soundtrack enough to hear what Murray says.

If you saw Lost as a puzzle to be solved, then I guess you were disappointed. If you saw it as a journey – well, to quote Shakespeare, journeys end in lovers meeting.

Which, I gather from the spoilers, is what you got.

7 responses to “Lost and the Long-Distance Plan”

  1. An excellent and insightful summation, Steve. I was just disappointed that the ending of Lost was so predictable and trite – something the rest of the series couldn't be accused of. Meandering and illogical, perhaps, but not predictable and trite.

    Surely the two ending cliches any writer should avoid are A) "it was all a dream" and B) "they are all dead and in a personal Purgatory". Oddly, both Lost and the BBC's Ashes To Ashes ended within days of one another and both chose to go with shock ending B.

    Ho hum.

  2. FWIW I didn't think it was as sucky an ending as that of THE USUAL SUSPECTS, which simply says "nothing you've been paying attention to means anything at all", and where I genuinely felt that my time had been wasted on purpose. At least a dream extrapolates the unconscious character of the dreamer. I simply feel that this kind of ending was done once, justifiably and definitively, in the seminal AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE. It's like the first guy who paints a canvas black and calls it art. Anyone can be the second to do it.

  3. Widds,

    Ashes to Ashes have have gone for option B but for Lost that was only a very small part of the narrative involving the final season's flashsideways. As the characters and the audience were clearly told, "what happened, happened" when it came to the rest of the ongoing narrative.

  4. @ Good Dog.
    Lost had clearly left any connection with the real world far behind within a few episodes of season 1, so to suggest that "what happened, happened" is as pointless as it is mysterious.

    But let's follow that line. If they "happened", they either happened in the reality we all occupy or they happened in a metaphysical realm outside of our reality. If the former, I think the writers had a duty to at least attempt to explain what the island was and how those things happened. If the latter, then how did the characters arrive there, and why?

    From the beginning, Lost was sold to the public as a puzzle to be solved, but it hasn't been solved, and never can be solved. Steve nailed it when he said that if there ever was an intended ending it was guessed by fans and denied, and then muddled by far too many unconnected events in filler episodes produced to spin-out the life of a popular show.