LOST in Disappointment

I loved LOST. Right from the start. I remember the first time I saw the Pilot episode, I was crashing at a friend’s apartment in NYC after a party they’d hosted. I was set up to sleep on the floor with my then-girlfriend-now-wife right next to his bed, with the light of his pet Bearded Dragon’s aquarium casting the room in a soft glow. Asked me if I’d been watching Lost, and was I ready for season 3?

No, I hadn’t seen it. I’d been busy student teaching and finishing my degree. I’d heard about it, but I’d never seen it.

He flipped out, insisted that we watch it “right now,” and put in the DVD. My GF and I were both pretty tired, and not ready to start watching a new show at 1:00 in the morning, but we acquiesced. Boy am I glad we did!


That night launched us into years of enjoyment. Trying to figure out if Ben was a good guy or bad guy. Wondering what happened if the clock was allowed to count down to zero. Theorizing about the Dharma Initiative. The whole bit. The quality of the story telling was so high that we knew…I mean KNEW…that when we finally found out what was going on it would be awesome!

As the episodes of the final season counted down, I got more and more anxious about the fact that they weren’t explaining the physical nature of the island. I mean, it had to be complicated right? The whole show was based on this uber-complicated island with crazy electromagnetic properties and time-travelling side effects. They were going to need some time do get the audience to understand, but they were running out of time. I mean, they had given some esoteric metaphor descriptions about what the island represented, but obviously that wasn’t the whole story. They always had real explanations for stuff. They hadn’t let me down yet, so I trusted that they were going to deliver the goods in spectacular fashion.

Then the final episode. I was super excited. I sat down to watch it with a big bowl of Cinnamon Life and a comfy blanket, ready to have a big chapter in my life come to a close…..

Then it was over. No explanation. A couple of trivial things were answered, and they showed some cool stuff with the plug down in the cave, but no big tying-it-all-together explanation. I just felt empty.

Then sad.

Then pissed.

Then resigned.

It’s taken a while for me to suss out what irked me so much about the way the ending of the show was handled, but a recent interview with the Cast and creators at the Paley Center had a moment that drove it home for me. Here’s that moment, skip ahead to the 47:00 mark.

To paraphrase, they didn’t tie everything together because, “Every answer would beget another question.” “There was no way to do it that wouldn’t have been didactic and boring.” and “What we wanted to do was tell an emotional story about the characters.” He’s said all those things before, but for some reason this interview drove home to problem for me. The main issue was that the creators of the show didn’t know who the majority of their audience was. Or if they did, either didn’t care, or messed up and are now trying to justify the mistake. It was the gaping disconnect between how they see the world and how their audience sees the world that caused the problem.

The show they created was one that appealed to people who like puzzles. These are primarily people who enjoy intellectual pursuits, like challenging themselves, and generally try to understand the world around them. People that tend to like Sci-Fi. For those people, the show was incredibly curiosity inspiring. They were telling the story of this crazy island that was invisible to the outside world. It had huge magnetic pockets that could mess with time itself. It somehow turned a man into a sentient column of black smoke. It could heal someone with cancer. It was amazing!

But for all it’s wonder, it obviously wasn’t just magic. There were physical reasons for everything. We know that it wasn’t just magic because the Dharma Initiative had calculated how to get there and back, and manipulate the magnetism. Farady was able to figure out missle timings and trajectories. The black smoke was stopped by the sonic fence. Etc. There were hundreds of cues that there was a hard physical explanation for everything. As the audience, we didn’t know the specific math, but we knew that a mathematical explanation existed because IT HAD BEEN DEMONSTRATED countless times!

A word about “magic.” One of Arthur C Clarke’s laws states that any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic. In the context of fiction, especially science fiction, the audience is willing to suspend it’s disbelief in magical seeming phenomena like Transporters, FTL travel, etc because it’s implied that it isn’t just “magic.” It’s understandable and manipulatable technology within the world that the story creates. We may not understand that technology, but we accept that it’s technology that’s just as foreign to us as a cell phone would be to a cave man.

LOST very clearly set up that same expectation for us. By so strongly implying an underlying physical phenomena, they caught the interest of the very same people that like those science fiction shows. Then in the end, the explanation they gave for all of that crazy stuff was basically:

“It was a magic island. This was a character driven show, why are you all so worried about the questions we didn’t answer, we answered tons of questions!”

Well boys, Christopher Hitchens once said “that which explains everything, explains nothing.” After setting up the expectations of your sci-fi loving audience that you were going to tie it all together, are you really surprised that they’re not satisfied with the answer “it was magic.”?

Frankly, they did a wonderful job wrapping up the characters story lines. From a character perspective, the show was extremely satisfying. And yes, they answered a ton of minor questions like:
-Where did the polar bears come from?
-Why were there still Dharma food drops?
-Why was there a hundred year old slaving ship in the jungle?

And we certainly appreciate those answers, but none of them are even remotely close to the PRIMARY question raised by the show:

What is the nature of the island?

What is it? What the f*ck is the island??? We never found out who made the big statue and I don’t care. We never found out who the other skeletons in the cave were and I don’t care. We never found out where Jacob’s adopted mom came from and I don’t care. There are hundreds of questions raised by the show that don’t matter. They didn’t spend 6 years implying that they were going to explain every little mystery. But they DID imply that they were going to answer the mystery that was at the HEART OF THE STORYLINE!

When asked why they didn’t explain anything, they respond, “what do you mean? We explained tons of things. The island is the cork that keeps evil from wreaking havoc on the world.” Therein lies the rub. Remember all those audience members that aren’t willing to accept “magic” as an explanation? The creators of the show are not only willing to give that as an answer, they think it’s a satisfying answer. Given the “spiritual” undertones to the entire run of the show, it seems obvious in hindsight that the writers would think a vague “spiritual” explanation was good enough.

But they were wrong. And after years of being harassed about the ending of the show, they probably understand that by now. The only thing making them feel better is to keep assuring themselves that if they had answered that question, it only would have raised more questions. And/or anything they came up with wouldn’t have been satisfactory, so they were justified in not attempting it.

I call shenanigans. I could probably come up with a dozen examples of possible explanations for the island that would have been fine. I’ll only list a few, but if you want more, just google “LOST Theories.”

1) The island is a cloaked ship.

This is my personal favorite. Thousands of years from now, humans have mastered time travel and have created an installation to study “ancient” humans (us). Or if not future humans, maybe it’s aliens.

Either way, no cloak is 100% perfect, so they knew that there was a chance that we’d end up there somehow. So the disguised the ship as an island. Their technology is extremely advanced, and not clunky bulky machinery like we know, so it just looks like an island to us. Long ago, the observers had some accident and died, but not before passing control of the island to a human. The island can be controlled by thought, without even knowing how you’re controlling it, so protectors have passed along that control ever since, culminating in Jacob (then Jack, then hurley).

This opens up the door for a zillion satisfying answers about the other minor mysteries: The magnetism is part of the power source. It can move because it’s a ship. The time travel-skipping in season 5 is part of it’s malfunctioning disrepair. The black-smoke/man-in-black is the sentient Nanobot Cloud that was intended to be a repair system. The observers had the ability to transfer consciousnesses into that cloud and back, but good ‘ole MiB doesn’t know how to fix his body and transfer back, so he’s stuck on the island until it’s destroyed or de-cloaked. The lighthouse was there way of observing us. The pool in the temple was their sick bay/healing tank. Only certain “special” people with a given genetic disposition have the ability to handle the “thought controls” of the island, and thereby take over as protector. This can go on forever.

All of this provides a physical explanation without having to resort to Magic.

2) The island is a matrix-like simulation.

Physical laws can be broken in magical ways because it’s not real. Probably less satisfying for most people, but certainly workable. It can still matter what they do in the context of that simulation. They’re not “dead the whole time” as so many people complain about.

Maybe the whole thing was put together by the Hanso Corp to conduct studies on humans. Maybe, like in the Matrix, the world is actually post-apocalypse, and the island world is a fantasy escape that malfunctioned and trapped them inside. Maybe it’s an elaborate video game.

Who knows, there are a crapload of reasons for a simulation, but all of them are more satisfying than “it was magic.”

2) The island is magic, but it “is what we make it.”

While I wouldn’t have been happy about it, I would have accepted it if the explanation was magic, but it made some sort of concession to why all of those signs pointed at a physical explanation.

Say it is a magic island, but it reshapes reality to fix the expectations of the people on it. That’s why Locke saw fate being realized, Jacob saw his mother’s “rules” come true, and Farady/Dharma were able to be accurate with calculations. Whatever you subconsciously needed, the island provided it.

Again, it would have bothered me, but it at least would have made an attempt.

As it is, no such attempt was made. Only weak excuses. I think it was a betrayal of the trust their audience placed in them. I know I feel cheated. I still love the show and my experience with it over the years, but not nearly as much as I could have. And everytime I think about it now I get a little angry. If that’s what they intended, they were successful, but somehow I don’t think “anger the audience” was on their to-do list.