Live together, or meth alone: On “Lost,” “Breaking Bad,” and lingering anger in fandom

There’s something constantly curious about intense fandom, no matter what the medium. I won’t pretend to know if TV fans are different in kind or quality when it comes to this type of intensity versus fans of film, music, or other genres I’m not equipped to analyze critically. But I can take as a base point that all fandoms can be equally intense in their own unique ways. They are snowflakes that way.

What’s curious isn’t that people deeply engage with the art that gives them the most pleasure. That makes all the sense in the world to me. What doesn’t make sense is what that engagement turns destructive, when the act of either watching or discussing a television program turns ugly, when threats of violence and declarations of anger towards either those involved with the show or those that possess a different view on that show from the offended party. It’s one thing to be disappointed when a show starts to fade in quality or takes an abrupt shift into WTF-Ville. But it’s another thing entirely when negative feelings about a fictional program suddenly infect your entire world view and fundamentally alter your perception of it.

Since this is me talking about intense fandom, obviously I’ll default to “Lost,” since that’s the first show with which I both fell deeply in love and managed to curate an audience that wanted to discuss its ins and outs. I had loved other shows before “Lost,” but those (such as “Twin Peaks” and “Cheers”) came around when TV was just something I watched, rather than analyzed. Writing about “Lost” four days a week for three years was the best experience of my writing life…until it was the absolute worst writing experience of my life.

So when I say I relate somewhat with what Damon Lindelof wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, I’m being serious while also acknowledging I got less than one-tenth of one percent of the grief I’m sure he’s received in the years since. How can I come to even that mathematical approximation? Because by Lindelof’s own admission, he can’t stop talking about how much people hated that finale. If someone baits him about it, he can’t help but respond. As he says in the essay,

“I agreed to write this piece because I am deeply and unhealthily obsessed with finding ways to revisit the Lost finale and the maddening hurricane of shit that has followed it.”

grant_g_lindelof11_576.jpgAt least, Lindelof was, until publishing this article, which is simultaneously a rave of the “Breaking Bad” finale but also a way for him to attempt to put some of his demons at rest. And while the wrath of the comment boards is nothing compared to those that have attacked Lindelof for “Lost,” “Prometheus,” or “simply fucking existing, probably,” I remember vividly withdrawing from the vibrant community of “Lost” fans that found my blog at Zap2It during the final season of the show. They didn’t want to discuss the show anymore. Many simply wanted to lay claim to the “right” theory in order to claim victory at the end. Some explicitly said they couldn’t wait for my interpretations, which varied wildly from their own, to be proven false. That, rather than any particular aspect of the show, would give them maximum pleasure.

What was hard to admit then is easy to admit now: While I loved writing about “Lost,” I didn’t care remotely as much about the show as some of these people. But know what? I’m totally OK with that. That’s freakin’ healthy! Because in no way would I ever want a show to get under my skin to the point where any deviation of my own preconceptions would make me lose my shit. I have enough stress triggers in my life and things that send me bouncing up and down the emotional spectrum to have a show like “Fringe” blow my stack and keep it blown for nearly a half-decade afterwards. I am on record as hating much of the final two seasons of “Fringe,” but so what? The showrunners made the show they wanted to make. I didn’t like it. I don’t like a lot of shows. I like a lot of other shows. These things happen. I don’t take it personally. I fully understand why the creators of these shows do. I rarely understand why the viewers of these shows do. These shows don’t owe us anything, and unless your cable package is different from mine, you’re not forced to watch these shows for years. These people make the shows. We watch ’em. Occasionally the interests and tastes on both sides line up. More often, they don’t. Life goes on.

People took the “Breaking Bad” finale as an opportunity to remind Lindelof of how bad he screwed up “Lost,” as if one show had anything to do with the other. The hate is still so raw three plus years later than people feel the need to proactively remind a guy they’ve never met of what a hack he is. This article might be the first time I’ve even mentioned “Fringe” in the last three months, because if I sat around thinking about all the shows that ultimately didn’t satisfy me, I wouldn’t have time to even shower. Hell, I thought the “Breaking Bad” finale was so-so, but overall loved a lot of the last three seasons of it, and I’ve already moved on from THAT. Moving on isn’t a mark of you not loving or hating a show, so much as incorporating it into who you are, what you like, and what you look for in other shows. There’s no shame in incorporation and evolution.

You could argue that “Lost” and “Breaking Bad” are worthy of discussion in tandem because each represent an extreme version of one type of ending, neither of which universally praised its fan base. And to some extent, I get that, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it. But I can certainly see a persuasive case for that being made. But those hurling insults as Lindelof aren’t making any such nuanced judgments. They are explicitly coming down on the side of one type of ending being inherently more “correct” for the end of a television show. Lindelof and Carlton Cuse did absolutely no favors when dealing with the press about setting expectations for what type of ending “Lost” would ultimately have. But there’s nothing in the actual text of the show itself that suggests, “You will get answers to all of your questions.” That was a show in which many things were inherently UNKNOWABLE, and when answering things such as The Whispers, the show faltered.

lost_01.jpgWhere many people hurl insults at the end of “Lost” yet praise the end of “Breaking Bad” comes down to an interpretation of the function of long-form narrative: should it reflect “real” life (which can often be messy and non-linear), or should it provide the type of closure real life prevents? Even there, it’s a slippery binary, because “closure” doesn’t necessarily mean “resolution”. It’s not about dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, but rather arriving at a point in which it feels as if certain thresholds have been crossed and characters have fundamentally changed from where they began. You could argue we did learn what The Island was (spoiler: MAGIC, sorta), but that knowledge didn’t really yield understanding. “Lost” posited that knowledge is something you accumulate (if you’re lucky), but it takes more than one lifetime to actually apply it into something useful. The end of the show didn’t represent the end of the journey for those people so much as another step along a journey. For some, such as Ben, the journey would be longer. The hieroglyphics, smoke monsters, odd magnetic fluctuations, and time travel were window dressing: characters were not fated to die; they were too weak to avoid certain fates. Time travel didn’t force that behavior so much as give it opportunity to fully present itself.

But “Lost” was also a show that ultimately said that individual mistakes could be corrected by a larger group of supportive individuals. That’s an insanely unsexy mission statement that would look fucking stupid on the back of a DVD set, but that’s what the show was! Walter White thought he was going to die alone, and in the end, he did. Rather than spend time with his family, he went off an indulged his worst impulses in the last year of his life. He did it in the name of his family, but ultimately realized by the finale that he could no longer lie to himself about his intentions. The name “Heisenberg” may outlive Walter White, but it’s a signifier that ultimately means little outside of the graffiti on the walls of the Whites’ old residence.

While it arrived at its end through means I found less than savory, it’s still an ending that makes sense for “Breaking Bad”. But just because it makes sense for the show doesn’t mean I respond to it, or the show as whole, with the same fondness that I regard “Lost”. Again: this isn’t some “which show is better” because who cares, really? You like one, I like the other, and pretty much nothing will change that. I can’t make you like “Lost” more than “Breaking Bad,” and I have no interest in doing so. All I can do is articulate why “Lost” works for me more than “Breaking Bad,” which might be a way of saying one IS better, but absolutely is a way of saying why I prefer one over the other. Both shows have something important and accurate to say about certain aspects of humanity and the human condition. But while “Breaking Bad” almost inevitably showed our capacity for evil, “Lost” showed our capacity for forgiveness.

There’s something moving about a group of people that spent more than one lifetime looking for each other in order to heal the wounds of others, and in turn have their own afflictions lifting. Nothing about this was easy. It was about as easy as robbing a train in the middle of the day. But while Walter, Jesse, and Todd formed an impromptu crew, they were merely cogs in a fragile, temporary machine. The bonds between them were temporary at best, with roots that barely dug into the topsoil around their feet. On The Island, seemingly disparate people with nothing in common soon found their lives so intertwined that separation seemed impossible. Things like “time” and “death” were obstacles that not only could be overcome, but had to be overcome, in order to maintain those links.

I took all this in during the show’s sixth season, when I stopped trying to solve the show and simply tried to open myself up to it. And the types of shows I have loved since–“Terriers,” “Enlightened,” “Louie,” “Orange Is The New Black,” “Spartacus”–all have that quality where its characters open themselves up towards the possibility of hope while simultaneously realizing they have opened themselves up to unspeakable pain and heartbreak. Walter didn’t crave life. Walter craved control over life, which is a very different prospect altogether. He wanted an empire, but he also enjoyed playing God. God may or may not exist in the shows listed in this paragraph, but a sense of “something more than this” pervades them all, which makes life worth living but also important beyond the living years themselves. How people treat one another matters, whether as kharmic energy for the next stage or simply a sound ethos for the world of the living. Walter left behind $9 million dollars, but also left behind hundreds of dead bodies and dozens of psychologically damaged individuals. People are capable of both of these end results. Which depicting would YOU rather watch?

I’ll go with “Lost,” which isn’t to say I don’t want cold, hard truths seeping into my television. It’s that I’d rather see people try and fail for reasons that make empathetic sense. I’d rather see shows try and fail to show the good in people rather than default to their worst impulses. I’d rather see stakes that define a life rather than depict death. I’d rather see people work together and fail in the effort than compete against one another and succeed in the attempt. That’s what I like. And it took “Lost” to help me define those types of shows. If it did nothing else for me, it still did more than any other show I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. No show is obligated to put those qualities into its world. But those that do have an eager viewer in me and countless others who think TV is something to be celebrated communally rather than attacked individually.