A Defense of the Finale of Lost

During the last season of Lost, I've enjoyed reading the conversation between Chadwick Matlin, Jack Shafer, and Seth Stevenson after each episode on Slate. However, all three (including the show's biggest defender) have been bashing on the finale. Personally, I was satisfied. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but after reading some of the brutal commentary I think the episode needs some defending. And, unlike these three, the more I think about it, the more I like it.

Warning: Spoilers (at least one big un').

Seth Stevenson sums his dismissal up this way: "I've seen the idea posited that there are two kinds of Lost fans: 1) those who watch for the sci-fi twists and surprises, and 2) those who watch for the characters and relationships. If you watch for the mysteries, this theory holds, you were disappointed by the finale. If you watch for the characters and relationships, you were thrilled to wallow in those happy reunion hugs in that nondenominational spiritual venue."

This depends on a false distinction. It was the sci-fi twists that illuminated the characters and their relationships, and in the end, it was possibly the biggest twist of all which brought those relationships to some (schmaltzy, warm and fuzzy) closure. It fit the show perfectly.

I think a lot of folks are missing the element of the finale that was most successful: The show has always been about discovering that our assumptions about characters are wrong because we make those assumptions at a given point in time. Hence the flashbacks that opened our eyes to characters' choices in Season 1 hooked many of us in the first place. That's what sold me on the show at first; discovering that I was understanding what a character did in a previous episode only after learning about their life from a flashback. Then the flashes-forward served this function in a new and really cool way. Then the characters themselves were lost in time, so they were experiencing the same thing we had already grown accustomed to as viewers. The last season seemed to be plodding along, revealing all this information about the island in a more traditional, expositional way while doing the same in an alternate time-line caused by the A-bomb, but both time-lines, on their own, seemed straightforward. Admit it: How many times did you have that "Ah-ha" moment when some event in the parallel world told you something revelatory about the people (seemingly) still on the island? Never. We reveled in the cleverness of the parallel world, noticing the connections to the world we'd come to know, but we didn't gain new insight into the people on the island, as we had before. Only the flashbacks about Jacob/Smokey/Alpert seemed to have that "Oh, now that makes sense" phenomenon. By the end we were all hoping to see how the two stories would intersect because we'd all assumed they were parallel and had begun at the moment of the A-bomb.

And then, in the finale, we're given one of the biggest Ah-ha's yet. The parallel world didn't begin at the A-bomb explosion! It began where the island story ended! It wasn't a flash sideways at all! It was a flash forward that we all assumed was a flash sideways!

Just like in the first season, our assumptions were being exploited. Only this time our assumptions weren't small and limited to specific character's behaviors. Our Season 1 assumptions were small: We assumed "Kim is a jerk because of the way he treats his wife," only to discover that he really loved her and had essentially sold his soul to her father, only to have that blow up in his face and push her to cheat on him. Now his behavior made more sense (and made him more likable). But in the final season our assumption was huge: We'd assumed the A-bomb caused the rift, and someone (Desmond? Jack? Ben? Hurley?) would bring it all back together at the end. When the assumption was revealed to be false, instead of saying, "Oh, I was wrong about that particular guy", we had to reconcile the fact that we were wrong about half the season, and all the moments throughout which had seemed to be straightforward might have been revelatory about the characters on the island after all.

Admittedly, I didn't like the purgatory angle particularly (and I had a real moment of panic where I thought Christian Shepard was going to say it had ALL been purgatory and I would start to froth at the mouth and throw things at the TV) but I realize that my personal agnosticism shouldn't be any more piqued by a reference to purgatory than to ghosts or smoke monsters or magical islands. I'll bet lots of "haters" are frustrated because of the seeming religious (though insultingly vaguely religious) overtones of the finale. But let's face it: If we could accept the elements of the island as fiction, why can't we accept purgatory as part of that fictional universe? Once I can do that, then I see that the great twist of the flash-sideways becoming a flash-forward is not lazy or merely clever, but genuinely earned. This wasn't a deus ex machina ending, but a thematically consistent ending, since the show has always been about betraying our assumptions about its characters. Moreover, it's been about betraying our assumptions about characters to make us like them, or at least sympathize with them enough to care about them, despite our first impressions. So if the ending was schmaltzy (and, hoo boy was it) that fits, too.

If someone doesn't like that the show cleverly played with our assumptions, or that it did so to appeal to our sympathies, then I wonder why they have been watching it for the last six years.

Is the Internet like Edward Scissorhands?

If you haven't seen the new video for the OK Go song "This Too Shall Pass", you've short changed yourself. If you missed their last viral hit, for the song “Here It Goes Again”, well, I'm not sure what you do with your time on line, but you either work too hard or don't know how this Internet thing works.

As I watched the video for "This Too Shall Pass", I caught the little Easter Egg of the smashed TV showing the Video for “Here It Goes Again” and remembered lead singer Damian Kulash's op-ed for the New York Times. He describes the way his record label, EMI, shot themselves in the foot by trying to maintain ownership of the video and keep it from going viral. He tries to empathize with their old-world view of property rights but explains how they stood in the way of democratization at their own economic expense.

Watching the new video (backed by their new label, Paracadute Recordings) I'm reminded of the kind of quality appearing online. Without the gatekeepers (or in spite of the efforts of gatekeepers like EMI) the quality of work on the Internet seems to be bifurcating. On the one hand, we have artists like OK Go and, arguably, Lady Gaga, have come to the attention of mass audiences because they work so well in the medium of video and thus benefit the most from YouTube. That’s not to say that OK Go and Lady Gaga aren’t talented musicians (I have three OK Go songs on my ipod right now) but their videos are better, and I don’t think that’s any knock against them. They are masters of a medium, in very different ways. That particular medium, the music video, has been well served by the rise of the Internet. But all other media have been affected as well (I’m struggling to think of one that has remained largely unchanged. Opera, maybe?) and that got me wondering: has the loss of gatekeepers been good in other media, as it has for music videos, or bad, as it has for music?

When I say music has been adversely affected, I don’t mean that people aren’t listening to music. Thanks to iTunes, which essentially saved the industry from Napster and the like, we’re still even willing to pay for some of it. But pop music, as a whole, has been diminished. Artists used to be able to think in terms of an album, if they so chose. Top forty radio could then turn audiences on to a track from an album, but the album itself retained that cohesion. Now, the concept album is dead. The Decemberists, a band with a loyal following who could risk a concept album, came out with one just last year, called The Hazards of Love. I listened to the tiny samples of songs on iTunes and bought one song I love. It just seemed too expensive to buy the whole thing knowing some songs wouldn’t really work while on “shuffle”. Goodbye, concept album.

Worse than that, many songs are written not to stand alone (no shame in that) but to be even more fragmentary, as ring tones. Some of the most cynical science fiction authors predicted that our musical tastes would one day come to resemble advertising jingles. Tada.

While the music industry seems to have been generally negatively affected by the rise of the Internet, something far more interesting is happening with Television, Film, and Novels. To me, it seems all three of these media are bifurcating as their gatekeepers disappear. As a greater quantity gets through, we’re seeing a lot more bad, but also more good work. It’s too soon to tell the degree to which this will affect publishing. People love to sound the death knell, as they did for your local movie theater when the VCR became popular, but sales of novels are up. Are we seeing better books? Not yet (as a feminist, don’t get me started on the terrible message the Twilight series sends to teenage girls). But ask any agent and publisher, and they’ll tell you that social networking, viral marketing, and the sheer ease of email have sped up the business to a fever pitch. The effect: We can burn through the dreadful tail-ends of trends much faster (Don’t start writing that teen vampire novel now. Too late. Wait a decade.) and rush to brave new ideas more quickly. Also, I am hopeful that the explosion of YA Lit will rejuvenate a generation of readers who will want more from their books as adults, improving both YA (the best writing being done today) and “Literary Fiction” (which could use a shot in the arm).

When it comes to television, the bifurcation of quality is even more dramatic. On the one hand, TV fans like me are living in a Golden Age. Shows like The Sopranos and Lost have opened the doors to some of the highest quality TV ever, in terms of the writing (I know. I know. I need to watch The Wire.), the acting, the production values, and more. The stigma about working on the small screen has essentially vanished for big name actors, and rightfully so; good TV beats bad movies any day of the week (literally). On the other hand, the successes of so many cable shows has brought cable to the forefront, which has produced so many new slots in the schedule that need to be filled, and with diminished ad revenue thanks to TiVo, so networks have turned to Reality TV, arguably the worst art you’ve ever voluntarily let into your home. Maybe this shift has nothing to do with the Internet. Maybe the rise of the high quality pay channel series simply happened to coincide with the rise in Internet use. But I doubt it. The Internet may not magically get you HBO (though, with some tricky finagling, it can be done) but it does allow your “friends” on Facebook to turn you on to a new show, and then it allows Netflix to send you the DVDs right to your house (Confession: This makes Netflix a more important friend to me than a few of the people on my Facebook friend list).

Similarly, it seems movies are simultaneously getting better and worse. Thanks to vastly improved, inexpensive technology, many more people can make high quality Indie movies. And with the help of the Internet, you and I can find out about them without the massive marketing machines of the big studios, and can see them without the going to the local Cineplex (thanks again, Netflix!). The gatekeepers aren’t gone, but they are playing a very different role, capitalizing on directors and actors who’ve already shown their brilliance in the Indie scene rather than taking such big gambles while deciding who will get through the studio gate. Talented directors, actors, editors, light and costume designers, etc., will now get through. Movies that wouldn’t have made a good pitch will now get made. Imagine: “It’s about an old man and a young boy who go for a ride to South America in a house lifted by balloons. It’s animated, but adults will probably enjoy it more than kids. And it probably won’t sell many toys. And there’s not really any way to make a sequel. Can I have $175 million dollars?” Yes, I know Up was made by Pixar, which is now owned by Disney, a major studio, but Pixar began as a small firm making animated short films. Who watches animated shorts? Everybody. Thank you, Internet.

But are all movies getting better? Certainly not. Name your top ten favorite comedies, and if more than half come from the last decade, I'd bet good money you're under twenty years old. And in the horror genre, for all the buzz created by the viral marketing campaign, Paranormal ended up being a universal let-down, while The Shining and Jacob's Ladder will still freak you out twenty and thirty years later. Movies, like TV, are getting better and worse.

This leads me to Edward Scissorhands, not as an example of an Indie film, but as a metaphor. I teach Edward Scissorhands as part of the school adopted ninth grade language arts curriculum, which has a whole unit on reading film as text (I know! How cool!). If you missed it back in 1991, it really was a wonderfully made movie on many levels, and worthy of the kind of close reading my students give it each year. Spoiler: It’s a fairytale about an unfinished android with scissors for hands who comes down from a creepy mansion to an exaggerated, stylized suburb. There, he’s the subject of fascination, until the community turns on him for being too different, and he’s exiled back to the mansion.

Before Edward leaves, he changes the community. First, the changes are superficial. He trims the hedges. Then grooms the dogs. Then cuts the women’s hair. But the changes become more and more substantive. He humiliates the community’s vile cougar by rejecting her. He earns the love of Kim, the girl of his dreams. He turns Kim’s boyfriend from a small-time crook and consummate d-bag into a homicidal maniac. He turns everyone in town into a torch-wielding mob. And we know these changes leave a lasting impact, because the whole fairy-tale is presented as a bedtime story Kim tells to her grand-daughter generations later.

So, is the Internet like Edward? At first, our art changed, but only superficially. Now, it can never go back. Similarly, our politics have changed. As Paul Krugman pointed out, the regime in Iran could not hide their violent suppression of dissent from the Iranian people in the same way the Chinese government was able to hide the Tienanmen Square Massacre. Like Edward’s foray into the suburb, the Internet made Dean a candidate in 2004 (and sunk him, too), but made Obama a phenomenon, and, arguably, President, in 2008. It’s also unleashed some of the most despicable vitriol in the protection of the anonymity of message boards, and that level of anger contributes to a kind of partisanship we haven’t seen in the U.S. in over a hundred years. In fact, the “War on Terror”, in many ways resembles the battle between the old gatekeepers of war, nation states, and the Internet warrior, the “non-state actor”, and that’s no coincidence, as global jihadists use the Internet as one of their main tools. Like Edward’s story, the story of the Internet is one of ever deepening effects on our lives.

But Edward isn’t the Internet. Edward is us. As we watch the quality of our TV, our movies, and our politics bifurcate, we can’t blame the technology. The Internet is just Edward’s trip down the hill. We, the boring, controlled community of little houses made of ticky-tacky, are being confronted by ourselves, a screaming, whispering, beautiful, ugly humanity which is, like Edward, incomplete. The gatekeepers didn’t necessarily make our media better, but they kept the rabble out, and made the arts more palatable and digestible. Now we can see what our entire species really looks like through a screen, and it’s not too far from Tim Burton’s vision back in the early days of the Internet; a lonely teenager who can create beautiful things, who desperately wants to be loved and accepted, and who is very dangerous to himself and others.

EdwardScissorhands - Share on Ovi