The title really says it all.
To be clear up front: I’m talking to those that forced Lindelof to leave Twitter, those that bitterly complained about “Lost” with every tweet he delivered, those that nearly four and a half years after the series finale can’t take that episode’s sole mantra and simply let go.
You. Yeah. Talking to you. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the show’s premiere next month, let’s palaver around the fire.
Since Lindelof was the model for showrunner-as-rock star, it’s somewhat fitting that he turned into the archetype for showrunner-as-martyr. Discussion of how television shows might end has become somewhat common since 2010, but there was really little roadmap on how to do it during the final three seasons of the program. Those thirty-six months evolved (or devolved, really) from rampant speculation to increased frustration, with each episode that aired bringing the world of the show closer towards a singular ending, each episode striking down someone’s long-held theory or acceptable destination. Transferal of the show’s ownership shifted, in the eyes of some, from those running the show to those watching it. The end transformed into an expected reward rather than punctuation on the show’s story.
Let’s call this “ownership” what it is: entitlement. That sense of entitlement did not start with “Lost,” but certainly gained power through its run, and has transferred onto a host of shows in its wake. There’s a fine line between fandom and fanaticism, and the membrane between the two has only grow more pourous in the past half-decade. Television shows, so this viewpoint goes, are designed to satisfy the cravings of its fans and reward them for viewing loyalty. This viewpoint gets things backwards, however. Television shows are created from a central point of view, and the best ones follow their own muse in the writers’ room. The fact that anyone relates to that point of view is something of a miracle, especially in a day and age in which entertainment options are more diffuse and appeal to more distinct demographics than ever. But make no mistake: The idea that any show is creating something specifically for you is an illusion.
Now, it’s a pretty great illusion, most of the time, and offers up the chance for someone with a similar attitude towards live, love, or a certain genre of storytelling to seemingly pull the best stuff out of the audience’s brain and deploy it onscreen. In the best cases, it creates a symbiosis between audience and show that makes the latter shake its head in disbelief that the former has been able to articulate unformed thoughts/feelings in an original, compelling manner. Writers of course hope to forge that connection, but clearly Lindelof (and every other writer no matter their current level of public acclaim) simply hope what they find interesting will be interesting to others. The best writers hit on an idea so primal that it pulls out hidden depth of recognizable signifiers. The worst just scrape over well-worn mines of emotion and situation.
As soon as “Lost” ended, and a non-small chunk of its fans declared bullshit, I wondered how the series as a whole might unfold for someone who didn’t follow along week to week, season to season, year to year. I wasn’t specifically wondering what it might be like to watch the show in six weeks versus six seasons, but rather what it would be like to consume the show as a show without ancillary analysis muddying the waters. If Lindelof did anything wrong, he generally did it outside the show. (Well, except for eps like “Stranger In A Strange Land.” That’s all sorts of wrong.) While I have a hard time understanding how fans of the show misread the text of “Lost” so badly, I completely understand how they misread the text of Damon Lindelof’s interviews.
Let’s break down what I mean by that.
The “text” of “Lost” was something that evolved overtime, and rightly so. That made trying to figure out what the show was saying so incredibly rewarding. By the early episodes of season six, “Lost” was a show that didn’t depend on its mythology, but rather deconstructed its mythology. It actively pushed back on trying to draw any singular answer out of its central mysteries, but rather explored what happened to people who couldn’t let those mysteries go. The show’s final reveal of what the “flash sideways” were was consistent with this analysis, with all the show’s characters realizing that the only connections they needed to make was with each other. For crying out loud, this was a show that suggested a phone call could cure a fatal brain hemorrhage! You could roll with this or roll your eyes at this. That’s totally your right. But you can’t say the show wasn’t showing its hand all along.
HOWEVER, Lindelof’s media tour was a complete sleight of hand, one that teased out the mysteries of the Island rather than the strength of its characters. On some level, I understand why: It’s fun to talk about what is unknown, and there were as many cool concepts in “Lost” as characters. And it’s way “sexier” to talk about the hieroglyphics and the hatch than Hurley’s motivations. (That held true for fans as well.) But it also bit Lindelof firmly in the ass, as rabid fans would take his statements as gospel and seek to apply them to the show. As pop-culture consumers, I’d love to say we’re smarter now. But we’re absolutely not! How many articles do you see involving writers and actors “teasing” upcoming content, even in non-genre programming? Those would not happen if they did not get clicks, appealing to the desire for fans to get every scrap of info they can about a show before actually watching the complete episode. The pop-culture media world is great for a lot of things concerning our favorite shows, films, and albums. But getting a true, honest-to-god sneak peak isn’t in the interest of those producing them, which means its really our fault for taking them at face value.
You need not look any further at the disconnect between the show’s content and Lindelof’s comments about it than the phrase “flash sideways” above. It’s not one ever spoken in the series, but one commonly used by fans when talking about the show. It came from Lindelof and Carlton Cuse in interviews with the press, one that intentionally misguided fans into trying to solve what the hell was going on in season six. The word “sideways” implies a parallel construction, one in which the on-Island and off-Island actions were happening concurrently. Of course, that proved to be false, with the “sideways” world really one that existed in a time after the deaths of all on the Island, a way-station so they could move onto whatever was beyond the white light in that church.
Could fans have “solved” what was happening without that media misdirection? Maybe, maybe not. It’s something of a moot point. But again, the attempt to “solve” this show (or really, any show) is the way towards insanity. As miraculous as it is to find a show that seemingly speaks your language, it’s even more infinitesimally likely that the show will always zig instead of zag every step of the way. I’m as guilty as anyone at doing this. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at letting shows surprise me. If anything, me trying to figure out the show’s plot usually means that the program has done a poor job at giving me compelling characters. In the absence of those, I’ll look to the more overtly mechanical parts of the production. But in general, I have poor vision at prognostication. I try to let the show come to me, rather than the other way around.
While I understand that isn’t the only way to watch TV, it certainly seems like the healthiest. Seeing people rip Lindelof a new one each time he tweeted something unrelated to “Lost” three years after the finale suggests to me that being mad at someone for deviating from the supposedly shared vision is an emotionally destructive way to watch a television program, one that all but guarantees disappointment. (Maybe that’s the point?) Those that ‘ship certain couples and take to Twitter when those pairings are denied/split apart aren’t any better/worse than those pissed off than Lindelof never explained why Walt was so special. Things never, ever go as planned (coughMr. Ekocough) on TV shows, so planning something specific in mind would have backfired.
When Lindelof and Cuse asked to end the show, they understood the story they wanted to tell, even if they didn’t have all the plot specifics laid out. Guess what? That means they are like EVERY WRITER EVER. “Lost” wasn’t a show about getting off the Island, as the season three finale suggested. “Lost” was a show about the formation of interpersonal bonds in the twenty-first century, with the saga of the Oceanic 815 survivors playing out as a heightened version of our own experiences in a post-9/11 world. Period. That’s it. The smoke monster aspect of the show was just smoke-and-mirrors, a reflection of the fact that each and every one of us feels utterly alone and afraid to reach out for help. The bonds formed on this Island were so powerful that they transcended this plane of existence. That’s no less magical than the Island itself, but the prosaic nature of this magic ironically made it more difficult for some to accept it.
The night that the show ended, I offered by readers some advice should they want to rewatch, and it’s advice I extended to any first-timers: Follow Hurley. It’s as simple as that. In Hurley, “Lost” says everything it wants to about the proper perspective with which to behold life and to embrace your companions. Hurley wasn’t perfect by a long shot, but his unseen reign as Island Protector was probably presaged the moment he shared all of the hatch food with his fellow survivors rather than hoard it for himself. You can draw an incredibly detailed timeline of the Island, but there’s only one thing you truly need to know about it: Its would-be inhabitants consistently coveted the Island, seeking to exploit it rather than allocate it. The Island’s protector, Jacob, was less of a god than a bored, semi-bemused man who didn’t have the imagination or insight to do anything with the incredible power he had. But in Hurley, “Lost” offered up a vision of how selfishness need not be the de facto response when power is offered. Just look at this, perhaps the most beautiful exchange of the finale.
HURLEY: It’s my job now… What the hell am I supposed to do?
BEN: I think you do what you do best. Take care of people. You can start by helping Desmond get home.
HURLEY: But how? People can’t leave the Island.
BEN: That’s how Jacob ran things… Maybe there’s another way. A better way.
“Lost” fills its world with people held down by rules. Societal rules. Familiar rules. Gender rules. Morality rules. Time rules. Space rules. All of those things weight down our characters, pinning them in place. Only a plane crash shakes them from their stupor. Someone like John Locke can literally walk against after this crash, but all are more or less unshackled on that beach. Over six seasons, “Lost” demonstrated how burdensome that freedom can be. All too much essentially volunteered to have that freedom taken away in order to make sense of things. A world in which conflict is commonplace was too hard for too many to shake. But even thus, there were enough moments of kindness, beauty, and unselfishness to suggest it need not ALWAYS be the way. That made “Lost” a show about the possibility of hope, rather than the possibility of answers. Hope lay in the unspoken gaze between two people, in a simple handshake, in a simple offer to share the same common ground.
All of these little moments ultimately came under Lindelof’s tenure as showrunner of “Lost.” He not only helped create Hurley. He was our Hurley, sharing this slice of his mind one episode at a time. It’s the place he helped make so we could find each other, but also find part of ourselves. To pillory someone who gave us that opportunity doesn’t just make you a jerk. It demonstrates that you didn’t really watch the show. You spent so much time trying to solve it that you couldn’t enjoy it. You committed all the mistakes that the show’s characters did and yet learned none of the lessons they did. There will be no one waiting for you to move on. You will be lonelier than Ben outside the church. You won’t even be outside the church. You’ll be back on your own Island, whispering with your fellow discontented denizens about how Lindelof screwed you over and wasted six years of your life on something no one forced you to watch in the first place.
The thing is, we can’t hear those whispers anymore.
Hell, we can barely even hear your screaming.
We’ve moved on.
So should you.
We’ll be here waiting when you do.