Netw3rk and I have had dealings via Twitter on a lot of topics, but mostly basketball and Game of Thrones, including discussions about the complexities of adapting books to the small screen. So when a new interview with Damon Lindelof about the ending of Lost surfaced close to the two-year anniversary of that show’s finale, I wanted to have a real heart-to-heart with him on the matter of ambiguity, narrative responsibility, satisfaction, and the way our understanding of all these things is not static but fluid, especially in an age where endings can be changed. But I had no idea it would turn into its own many-headed smoke monster. In addition to Lost, we touched on Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko, Mass Effect 3, The Sopranos, Memento, The Prisoner, and just about every point in between.
Steve McPherson: I have no idea where this is going but I respect your pop culture acumen and your attention to story so maybe you can help me with regards to Lost and this interview with Lindelof. My dedication to Lost was never total; I watched the first three seasons and then kind of checked out, watching scattered episodes before coming back for the finale.
With all that said, my fundamental problem with Lost (and not just the ending) is, I think, grounded in the way we talk about things like satisfaction and ambiguity in terms of narrative. I fully believe an ending can be both ambiguous and satisfying. A lot of people may disagree with me, but I love the ending of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which is more or less an arrow that points back to the beginning of the book. I also don’t really have a problem with the ending of Twin Peaks, even though I now know they weren’t even planning on ending it there (apparently Frost and Lynch returned at the end of the second season to sort of “right the ship” for the third season, but then it got canceled). While its ending is not definitive, it points the way towards what might happen after the credits and closes off enough that I’m satisfied.
I think it’s a mistake to think that the ending of Lost is unsatisfying because it’s ambiguous. For example, Battlestar Galactica‘s ending explains way more about the mysteries of the series than Lost ever did, and where it leaves things open to interpretation (as with Starbuck’s role), it still definitively ends them. And yet it’s only marginally more satisfying than Lost‘s ending.
The failure, to me, of Lost throughout is twofold: 1.) a failure to understand the demands of a narrative that plants itself in the realm of the fantastic and 2.) inserting a big mystery in the last season whose solution obviates the need to solve all the problems they’ve created.
As far as the first point goes, Lindelof in that interview with The Verge references the ending of The Sopranos as being pleasingly ambiguous, but that fails to recognize that The Sopranos is a non-fantastical show. Real life doesn’t necessarily have definite endings. Life goes on and we’re just with these characters for a while before they go on without us. Although it’s far more definitive, The Wire ends like this. It wraps up certain things, but we also get an idea of the future trajectories of these characters. But when you’ve inserted magical wine and wheels made of light and water into a story, when you’ve set it on an island that can be moved wholesale across the world, when there’s time travel, you’re setting up expectations that the mechanisms by which these things happen is going to be explained. Frankly, I would have preferred to find out it was all just a dream because at least that would have been an explanation, instead of what we got.
Which brings me to the second point. The whole “sideways” world that was introduced into the series appeared at first to just be another wrinkle in the convoluted timeline of the show, but it turned out to be the ENTIRE wrinkle. It didn’t say that what happened on the island didn’t really happen; it just meant that the last episode was given over to explaining the “sideways” timeline. It erased the narrative need to answer any questions about how the island worked, which was a huge part of why people were watching. I find it disingenuous to say that what was important were the characters and that all the mythology was just window dressing, because I don’t think the show would have survived if it were only about the characters because the characters aren’t deep or thorough or conflicted enough to hold our interest. The smoke monster, the polar bears, Walt, the Others: all that stuff is the flash and bang that papers over how kind of boring and stereotypical these characters are.
So the very idea that the ending explains anything is a bait and switch: it only explains the last mystery brought in and does so in a fairly predictable way. What do you think?
Netw3rk: Let me get the boring bit out of the way first—I agree with your critiques about Lost. The corn-maze narrative structure; the endless flock of migrating MacGuffins; the mystery-as-panacea for the constraints imposed by the realities of producing an episodic network television program. What I find fascinating about Lindelof’s interview and the reception to the finale of Lost is the concept of ambiguity vs. explanation and the way storytellers are reacting to the changing paradigm in the relationship between a story and its audience.
Storytelling, especially sci-fi/fantasy storytelling, is essentially a magic trick. When I was a kid I went through a phase where I was fascinated by card magic. So one day when I wasn’t busy getting super-duper laid, I checked a couple of books out of the library. Much to my chagrin, I discovered that there is no secret method for reading minds; no way to teleport a card into someone’s pocket; no way to rearrange the molecules of a card to make it become another card. There were only trick shuffles, double-card lifts, and inside-job con schemes.
Even things that seem so fantastic as to stretch the boundaries of reality—like this Ricky Jay routine:
—are really just smooth talking and a ton of monotonous practice in different shuffling techniques. The disconnect between a card magically disappearing and the reality of someone stuffing a card down a sleeve was intensely disappointing to me.
In my opinion, it’s the same with Lost. There is no time travel; no magic islands; no soul devouring smoke monsters. There is only CGI sleight of hand, acting, and copious MacGuffins. What made the Lost finale the network television version of me reading a card trick book was the way the audience became an active participant in the magic trick via the Internet. This is a new development in the relationship between storytellers and their audience and something that storytellers continue to struggle with (see Mass Effect 3, for example).
Let me backtrack a bit.
Lost debuts in 2004. A community quickly grows on the Internet, dedicated to unraveling the mysteries and putting forth hypotheses. Some of these hypotheses are extremely detailed and incorporate aspects of physics, mythology, astrology, and numerology into their logic. This community sustains the show’s popularity when the show seems to falter in season 2. Season 3 unfolds and it seems as if the writers of the show are aware of the some of the more popular fan theories and are either winking at them or appropriating pieces of them. A feedback loop of sorts is created as those Internet-centric fans start to feel that the show’s creators are aware of them, if not outright listening to them. The audience has now been drawn into the magic trick.
By this, I mean instead of passively digesting an ace of spades disappearing, a large segment of the audience is trying to come up with rational ways that an ace of spades would disappear. Not only that, but they come to feel that the magician is letting them become part of the act. It’s one thing to create a world in which a time traveling island exists. It is quite another thing to make that island’s existence scientifically logical. But those were the expectations that were built and when the show’s creators couldn’t stick that landing—and the reasons they couldn’t are have to do with mundane stuff like the realities of television production and the timeframes involved—it was as if millions of viewers realized that no, there is no magic, and, yes, they are still sitting in the audience. No magic: only writers in a room trying to land this unwieldy plane in the time that has been allotted to them.
Now, I don’t mean to absolve the Lost writers of crimes against narrative. What, I hope, I’m saying is that ambiguity wasn’t at all a bad direction to go considering the complexity of this particular magic trick. It just wasn’t executed as well as it could’ve been and the show’s creators (and other storytellers in other mediums) have yet to figure out how to grapple with how much power has shifted to an engaged audience in the Internet era.
Steve: I think your point about how making magic involves monotony is exactly right, and that’s actually one of the problems I have with the way mystery was approached in Lost (this is me trying to keep this discussion somewhere near the rails). To me, it’s obvious that the mysteries in Lost were not built out of the monotonous work of staking them to some kind of reason. And I understand Lindelof when he says that they were often improvising things as they went. I can understand that the way that television gets made is not conducive to the genuine rigor of crafting narrative.
So rather than playing it like Ricky Jay and working on every move until the most complicated legerdemain looks like the most casual hand gesture, Lost just threw ideas out there willy-nilly. Some of them connected down the line, while others were abandoned because they were inconvenient. As I think I’ve mentioned to you before, having groundwork already laid is one of the reasons I’m optimistic about Game of Thrones. The road map is already there for them, and so far, where they’re deviating from it they’re actually improving on what’s in the books to make it work better as TV. But they’re revising a story, whereas Lost was just running a rough draft. And as someone who’s written two complete drafts of a novel and still imagines two if not three more, it’s very hard to get it right on the rough draft.
But let’s take something that works very well and yet has ambiguity: Memento. Structured as it is—running both backwards and forward through time—it has to be rigorous in its mysteries and reveals to be satisfying, and it genuinely is. I would argue that its attention to detail is what allows it to be about more than just the mystery; what we leave the movie with is a sense of how flimsy our grasp on what we call the “truth” of our lives is, how we believe the stories we tell ourselves and not necessarily the ones that are true. That’s a beautiful thing to walk away with. And yet there’s still ambiguity about the film! I don’t think we’re ever really told by a reliable character whether or not Sammy Jankis (and I’m sorry if you haven’t seen the movie, but you just should) was or was not faking his condition. I mean, a whole big hunk of the movie is showing how no one is really reliable. But Memento drew strength from that.
And that’s really where Lost failed with ambiguity, to me, because they failed to make ambiguity part of what the show meant. A good ambiguous ending should in some ways prove that we shouldn’t need unambiguous endings and I don’t think Lost achieved that.
But onto your second (and maybe juicier) point about how narrative is happening right now in the world with instant feedback. The whole Mass Effect 3 debacle (SPOILER ALERT: I haven’t played the game yet) does set a worrying precedent for storytelling in games and TV and films going forward. Undeniably, endings can be unsatisfying, but should the audience have the ability to affect the ending? To me, good art is about exposing people to what they didn’t know they needed, not what they want. The alternate ending to Casablanca (sorry that clip is sideways—maybe it’s being broadcast from Purgatory?) on The Simpsons is my nightmare of crowd-sourced endings. The best stories should cut against the grain and make us question our understanding of ourselves and the world. (Again, ambiguous or not, Lost’s ending failed to do that utterly. It was basically, “People who need people are the luckiest people.”)
But your final point, and maybe Lindelof’s most compelling talking point: Going into the series finale of Lost, how optimistic were you that they were going to handle it? I think I watched just to see how badly they’d fall short. And so yes: they were set up for failure long before. In Lindelof’s own metaphor, they were just inches from the iceberg at that point. So was ambiguity a bad choice? It was probably better than just trying to wrap the whole thing up. Kind of weirdly reassuring that Lindelof basically admits they were just waving their hands around and that there was no ur-text of the story, as with Donnie Darko. Which, speaking of the unsatisfying part of clarity, was such a creepy and great movie the first time through and then so kind of cut and dried once you understood it.
Can I open another can of worms? I don’t think you can address narrative in the realm of fantasy in film without talking about David Lynch. His gradual pulling back from anything resembling conventional narrative sense has been, at least to me, amazing. And he’s very upfront in talking about his process and saying that there is not deeper meaning that he has access to that you as a viewer don’t. He works instinctually with imagery and it will either resonate or not with you and he honestly doesn’t care. He’s almost like Heath Ledger’s Joker in that way: if he were trying to make sense, you could unpack his work and point out the flaws. But there’s no method there, just a vocabulary, a sensibility, and that’s what makes his creepiest, most resonant stuff work so well.
Have at it.
In the spirit of this discussion, we’re going to end with a classic and hated television trope here:
TO BE CONTINUED … [cue ominous music and look for Part Two Wednesday]