If you’ve been with me since the early days, way back in 2010-2011, you might remember a little feature I ran called “Re-Lost.” At the time the intent was to go through the entire series of Lost and to give bi-weekly recaps of every episode. I only ever made it as far as the end of season one, mostly due to exhaustion and the realization that I didn’t have a lot to add to what has to be the most heavily commented-upon show of my lifetime. But after rewatching the first season of the show for the third time while I wrote those recaps, I went ahead and continued my rewatch. Not all at once, mind you. I would go in dribs and drabs, burning through a few episodes then setting it aside for a while. I’m now about two or three episodes into season five on this, my third viewing of my favorite TV drama.
Of course, Lost’s legacy has been almost totally dominated by its divisive finale, one that served perhaps as a better capper to the final season than the entire series. It continually tops the lists of the most disappointing finales, and I think some people have made it their mission to make sure Lost is remembered as a colossal disappointment. It was this attitude that eventually drove Damon Lindeloff, one of Lost’s showrunners, to abandon Twitter, after he received a wave of nasty tweets from people who kept pointing to the Breaking Bad finale as the right way to finish a series. This attitude frustrates me endlessly, and not just because no one likes to be told something they love is garbage. I view it as an expression of how nerd culture can wreck the things it loves, and how it destroys our ability to enjoy something for what it is.
Lost premiered ten years ago this week, at which time I didn’t have any interest. I didn’t watch any TV except The Simpsons at the time, and I was skeptical of any show that would require me to watch every episode to follow what was happening. I had many friends who were into it though. My sister was a fan for a number of years before I was, and one of my best friends from college has never let me forget my skepticism when he told me that “The Constant” was one of the best episodes of sci-fi television he’d ever seen. I didn’t get into it until after its fifth season, when my love of Battlestar Galactica had prepped me for serialized shows. Once it had its claws in me, it never let go.
The final season was the only one I watched live, and it was a memorable time for me. Part of that is because my first son was born as it was airing, but also because it was one of the few times I really cleared my schedule to watch something that wasn’t a football game. I even had a get-together with other Losties to watch that finale. My wife made a Dharma Initiative cake. It didn’t take long after that for the complaints to roll in. “It didn’t explain anything!” “They were dead the whole time!” “It made the whole series a waste of time!” I have probably never felt so out-of-step with the predominant narrative in pop culture. I found the finale to be about as good as Lost could have managed, given the scope of the show and the shaggy-dog nature of the plot.
The truth is that the show answered quite a bit. The problem is that almost no one seems willing to take them at face value, or they demand far more detail than is called for. There are a couple of characters who are never really resolved like they should be, such as Walt, Eko, and Libby. But in all of those cases they were gaps in their characters, a disappointment that we didn’t get to unravel them the way we might have liked, or the way we received with more major characters like Hurley and Jack. There were a lot of smaller details that never were resolved, but most of them proved to be pretty inconsequential to the main arc.
A lot of naysayers are probably getting ready to pound out 700-word responses listing all of the things that never were explained, just to prove me wrong. The thing is, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t think Lost would have had the impact it had if it had explained everything. All of the red herrings, the unexplained phenomena, the rabbit trails, are what made Lost as enjoyable as it was. The brilliance of Lost was that it could not be contained in around 120 hours of television. As a show it had so many elements that were only tangentially important. Things like the numbers (say them with me: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42) are so effective because they aren’t properly explained. Lost wasn’t just a story that we saw unfolding, it was part of an enormous world that spanned centuries and the entire world, crossing dimensions and timelines and the lives of everyone involved. If everything had been wrapped up by the series end it would have felt shallow and untrue to the series.
That’s because Lost was a show about many different themes, and one of those was about how we experience the supernatural and the unexplained. A group of people are plucked from their lives and placed in a situation where they are surrounded by remarkable things, and they each choose to interpret those things in their own ways. They might meet other people who claim to know more, but those people are always getting their information and their context from someone else. In that sense, the ultimate nature of what is happening is unknowable to anyone on the show, including the viewer. Indeed, the absolute nature of what is happening in the show is not really the point. The point is how the characters respond and internalize what has happened to them. This isn’t to say there ISN’T an ultimate truth to what is happening, but that our vision is always inherently incomplete. In a weird way, that functions as rather meta commentary on the show. How does the viewer react to the unexplainable thing happening? Do we accept it and move on, or do we demand an explanation? Is there even a right or wrong answer?
Lost probably could have had a better finale, though I’m not really sure how. But even if the finale were a trainwreck, it doesn’t undo all of the amazing things about the show. I have watched a lot of serialized shows, but none have quite approached how much I love Lost. None of them understood the episodic nature of television so well. It wasn’t enough that Lost had a fun story arc, it needed episodes to function as stories in and of themselves. It did so with alarming regularity, to the point where fans remember titles of well-loved episodes, like songs on their favorite album. It rarely got bogged down in the minutia of explaining itself, instead powering forward with relentless momentum. It never lost sight of its characters either. Whenever people say it wasn’t “all about the characters,” I always want to point out that the show took its entire first season to introduce the characters instead of the mysteries of the island. If that doesn’t show the focus, nothing does.
I don’t expect to change any minds about Lost at this point. The rancor towards it is disappointing, because I fear that it keeps people from experiencing one of the most engaging and surprising series ever made. I don’t like the implication that every narrative and story must be tidy and unambiguous. I don’t like the drive to make every show dependent on its ending, and declaring the whole thing ruined if it isn’t as good as we’d hoped. Those are all things that are taken as TV nerd dogma, the wondering if this is “going anywhere,” or whether a show is “telling its story.” If you wrap everything up, you are declared good and pure, and if you don’t you are bad and crappy.
But I know what I saw. I know how much I enjoyed Lost. I know how much I long for something nearly as rich, engrossing, and altogether creative. It was not a flawless show, but it was something even better: captivating.