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.

8 Comments

  1. Mattstodon
    Posted October 2, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    What an excellent piece, Ryan. I find both themes very moving and powerful if done correctly, although I think the “something more than this” theme is done more often and thus is more difficult to land. I can understand some views that see destiny (or whatever you want to call it) as a cheap way out, and in some cases over the years (none coming to mind, sorry) I’ve agreed. I don’t want destiny as an answer to tie everything together, but as a thematic element to examine characters and add emotional heft to a storyline. John Locke’s tragic life and it’s effect on Jack during Lost is one of my favorite “fate” storylines ever. And I definitely connect more to the warmer, optimistic (though still incredibly painful) way than the caustic pessimism of a show like Breaking Bad (which produces more visceral reactions). I must admit that I found the final season of Breaking Bad quite refreshing thanks to their avoidance of all “things work out the way they were meant to”.

    In the end, I love both shows and enjoyed both finales. Nothing will ever compare to Lost for me, I think, which was my first true love. I could barely sleep the night after the finale. I agree that we don’t need to dredge up the Lost finale to compare the Breaking Bad finale, especially if it’s not for honest examination but for another round of the airing of grievances. I tired of defending the show/finale to my friends long ago. I can only imagine what it’s like for you, or even worse, Lindelof and Cuse.

  2. BRabbitt
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Excellent read - so very well said. I loved Breaking Bad, but for me, no show will ever compare to LOST. I will always stand by the finale - the fact that it is so polarizing makes me love it all the more.

  3. Cat
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Ryan, having followed you since those “Lost’ years, I think this is one of your finest pieces. While I didn’t always agree with you during the last season of Lost (or the last two of Fringe), the above piece just reinforces that it doesn’t really matter. I am happy that Lost is still so emotional and important to you as it is to many of us. Never watching Breaking Bad but happy for it’s followers that the finale was satisfying for them. I still have mixed emotions about the Lost finale but in the end, it was my favorite show ever. Lost was an experience rather than just a fine show.

  4. Birdmocker
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you,man. As a Lost fan who can’t quite unplug from geek sites where I’ll eventually run into ideological hatred against something I personally like, I appreciate this very much. Lost is a great show that will outlast the hatred. The fact that it created so much passion either way speaks volumes about it’s inherent quality as a piece of art. I think that in terms of narrative tidyness, and visceral storytelling, Breaking Bad is a better show (and strangely enough, I find Lost and BB stylistically more similar than any other two shows in the “golden age”). But I love Lost more. The most important point you made is that out of all the greatest shows of the last 15 years (I’m talking cultural juggernauts like The Wire, Shield, Sopranos, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, maybe BSG), all have had something to say about human nature, and yet Lost is the only one who embraced the best of us, who insisted that it is as important and profound as our capacity to murder and steal and cheat.

  5. Alice
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this. So perfect. What makes Lost special is how much heart it had, and I think that’s what you’re getting at. It was actually a very dark show (what with kids getting shot in the face because their daddy’s bluff was called, and people getting shot by their moms), but it managed to be uplifting and FUN, which is something the other Golden Age shows don’t often manage to be, or are too scared to be because it will tarnish their prestige or something. Celebrating uplifting themes in this snarky age takes courage. I think that’s why Game of Thrones is the only true Lost successor (at least so far); it is extremely dark, but the theme seems to be about “the meek shall inherit the earth”, like Tyrion’s speech to Jon Snow early on about “bastards, cripples and broken things”… The people we are supposed to root for are physically or socially disadvantaged or disenfranchised in some way. They find power when they decide to stop feeling sorry for themselves and turn their disadvantage into a strength (Jamie started to be rootable when he lost his hand; Cersei, on the other hand, is wallowing, and therefore getting weaker) . It’s as heartwarming of a theme as Lost’s “your friends can help you get over your baggage and be the person you want to be” message; like you say, when you boil it down to something like that, it sounds really unsexy, but makes for my favorite kind of show.

    This new obsession with endings is detrimental to TV, I think. I’d much rather watch something that entertainingly tries to do a lot and ultimately fails to ‘wrap things up’ than watch something that plays it safe so it can ’stick the landing’. I’ve never understood how disappointment with the ending completely undoes the sublimity a viewer felt while watching “Not Penny’s Boat” and the end of The Constant. Those highs were possible only because there were risks at stake that it would all fall apart or not satisfy in some way. I don’t read the books and have no idea where Game of Thrones is going, but even if it has the worst ending ever, nothing will erase the joy of watching Jamie jump into the bear pit or Sam killing the White Walker.

  6. Lindsey
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    This is a really, really great piece. I enjoyed reading your LOST blog on Zap2It back in the day, and I agree with basically everything you’ve written here.

    “I stopped trying to solve the show and simply tried to open myself up to it.” - DING DING DING!!!! That happened to me sometime during LOST’s third season when I tired of my anxiety for immediate answers, and it has changed and informed every TV viewing experience I’ve had since. It only happens with shows of a certain caliber - ones that don’t try to take me by the hand and ones with characters who respond to situations in understandable ways - but it’s made me a better viewer, I think, and it always makes for a much more entertaining, interesting, and thought-provoking viewing experience.

    While I won’t say that LOST is “better” than Breaking Bad, it was my first great TV love for reasons you’ve already eloquently spelled out. Opening myself up to wherever Breaking Bad was going always gave me a lot to think about with regards to morality and the human condition, and that’s something I’ll be thinking and talking about for a long time.

  7. Op/Con
    Posted October 4, 2013 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    Hey! This article just answered the question I asked over in the comment section of “The Millers” — you are THE Ryan (from LOST)! Long time no read!

    (I watch so little TV that after LOST I lost track of you.)

    I only scanned the above article since I’ve never seen a single episode of “Breaking Bad.” (Didn’t sound like my cup of tea, plus I don’t have cable!)

    Plus it seemed like a re-statement of what you’d already wrote after the ending of LOST.

    At the risk of starting things up again, I really don’t think you or Lindelof really understand the fan’s hatred of the ending, though.

    Those who defend the ending (or at least not being upset by it) like to state why those of us who hated the ending (or care so much) shouldn’t — but the problem is they are wrong about our reasons we (or at least I) hate the ending, and thus their explanation for why we shouldn’t feel the way we do have no relevance. (They arer simply making straw men to blow down.)

    First of all, you have to talk about what “ending” you are talking about. So many people (who defend the ending) don’t even seem to realize there were two different endings: First, the one that took place in the current time frame (culminating with some, such as Kate, getting off the island on the plane and some, such as Jack, dying on the island.

    This ending, while kind of boring and predictable, was nothing to get too upset about. What upsetness there is simply derives from Lindelof’s and Cuse’s own admission that they basically decided that half the people had to be killed or the monster wasn’t too formidible, then went about figuring out how half the people will be killed. Pretty pedestrian and boring by LOST standards, but Cuse and Lindelof admit they were pretty burnt out by then.

    What is much more annoying is them tacking on an ending that takes place, say, 50 years later after everyone is dead. It makes little sense that in all that time Kate and others wouldn’t have formed other relationships that were more important to enter heaven with.

    Furthermore, this ending could be tacked onto ANY ensemble story; it had nothign to do with LOST in particular.

    I think when people drop the ball this bad they should be called on it. Cuse and Lindelof could have handed the reigns over to others (such as David Fury who wrote “Walkabout” I believe), keeping the cast and crew employed and the fans happy. (”Kate” and others have said they were up for more seasons. If “Jack” wanted to go he could… though I think in retrospect he now wishes he had simply lobbied for his part to be better written, as it was in the first 4 seasons).

    Cuse and Lindelof made the decision to end the show on their terms, instead of thinking of all of the other people (writers, directors, actors, crew, and fans) who were also responsible for its success and wanted it to go on until an organic, satisfying ending could be determined. They were arrogant, and it is perfectly legitimate to call them on it.

    In conclusion, I think it makes a lot more sense to be critical of where a good show goes bad than to simply veg out and watch endless TV (whether good or bad). Would you want to be forced to watch “the millers” every week just because some twits out there think it is good?

  8. Martisco
    Posted October 4, 2013 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    Lindelof gets grief because he aggressively invites it. This has nothing to do with Lost and everything to do with his raging insecurities, which have become downright painful to witness, not to mention unprofessional. I detected the same whiny personal me-me-me with you and Fringe, Ryan, but you eventually got over it. Lindelof is in a hell of his own making: like any kid on any playground, he invites more abuse by his own obsession with what is really just one part of his career that drew criticism (by no means universal). I can’t believe people are cheering this “OK I’m done” article because it’s so obvious Lindelof ain’t done. It’s nothing but self-indulgence - the guy needs to SHUT UP and get on with his career. No, not write more tweets and meta articles… he needs to go away from his public.

One Trackback

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