Friday, May 21, 2010

The "Lost" Series Finale and the Chain of Promises

Having watched 6 years of Lost, I've come to expect that their finales pose more questions than they answer ... but I'm hoping that isn't the case for the series finale. Sure, there will be some questions left open, but the big ones need answered. In this respect, Lost has always suffered from the best and worst in storytelling, because it continually offers promises/questions to the reader (as any good story should) but it has fallen far short of fulfilling them.

What's odd is that, throughout the series, the "big questions" have been moving targets. Most of the earliest questions have, at this point, been answered, but others still dangle before us to varying degrees. Some of the dangling questions matter and some do not. 

Consider the big questions established in the 2-hour series premiere, was the hook that got many people onto the show. The premiere had three big questions:

  1. What was the monster in the jungle?
  2. Why were there polar bears on the island?
  3. What's up with the French woman who's been transmitting a distress signal for 16 years?
Question 3 was basically answered within the first season (though more detailes of Rousseau's story have been fleshed out with time), and question 1 has finally been (mostly) answered, even if there's still some mystique behind the exact nature of the "Man in Black."

But question 2 still bugs me. Six years ago, I was promised an answer about why there were polar bears on a tropical island, and by God I want that answer come Sunday night or I will be upset.

To be honest, I don't expect one. They have a lot to do on Sunday, in just two-and-a-half hours, and I don't think they'll squeeze the polar bear explanation into it. To some degree it's already explained, because we know that the Dharma people kept the polar bears in cages for some sort of purpose, probably related to their zoological experimentation. But that's not good enough for me, because that doesn't really explain anything.

An interesting explanation proposed at lost.about.com is that they were being trained to turn the time-travel winch, so that the island could be moved without teleporting a person off the island. This would explain the related mystery of why there was a polar bear in the Tunisian desert. However, so far as I can tell, this explanation is not at all explicitly stated in the show. I want to know this answer for sure.

Telling a story is about a chain of promises, and when you present a mystery there's an implicit promise being made that the mystery will be solved by the end of the story. Lost has always been better at setting up the mysteries than at providing satisfactory resolutions, and this cost the show a lot of credibility throughout season 3 until they switched to the flashforward (not to be confused with FlashForward, a show that has sadly been cancelled by ABC, while they keep the mind-numbing V) format of the show. There were still mysteries, of course, and questions that never quite got resolved, but ... well, that's life.

It's a tough balancing act, because not everything in a story has to be explained. But enough has to be explained that the reader, or viewer, doesn't feel cheated. If the polar bears are not explained, I will feel cheated.

However, the show is good enough that other major mysteries do not need to be explained, and I'll be fine with it.

For example, I no longer need to know what's up with Walt. Season One established that there was a lot of mystery surrounding Walt. The Others kidnapped him, and at the end of Season Two it was established that it was, in part, because he had some ability to appear other places, like astral projection or something. What the heck was up with Walt?

I thought, at the end of Season Five, that Walt would return to the island with Jack and the others. I was really surprised that didn't happen, because it seemed like a natural course for the storyline, and would have allowed the show creators to resolve Walt's mysteries. But he didn't, and I have no expectation that Walt's role in things will be explained.

And, oddly enough, I'm fine with that. I'm fine with Walt being explained as just some random psychic who  happened to be among the candidates chosen by Jacob. That's a sufficient, if not entirely satisfying, explanation.

At this point, I think the finale will definitely focus (as it should) on resolving the more recent mysteries of this season - the strange situation with the alternate timeline/island timeline, and explain what's going on with Desmond, and how the cross-time memories are working in the alternate reality. There's a lot to do, and minor plot issues that haven't come up for three seasons are not likely to be high on the list.

Still, there continue to be a handful of other dangling mysteries that I would like to have explained:
  • Why did Benjamin have Michael kidnap Jack, Sawyer, Kate, and Hurley at the end of Season Two? How did he get that list of names? Is it a coincidence that these are the same four people who made it to stand against the Man in Black in the series finale?
  • What did Charles Widmore do to get banished from the island?
  • Why did Jacob & Richard make a deal with Ben, and kill off all of the Dharma people?
  • When Jack saw Christian & Kate saw Claire on the mainland, was that a hallucination or Jacob? (Presumably it wasn't the Man in Black, since he can't leave.)
  • Why was Libby in the mental institution with Hurley? What was she doing on the plane?
  • How did Ben get detailed files on everyone? They clearly go beyond what you can get in a normal background check, including the information that Locke's father was the con man who ruined Sawyer's life.
  • Was that really Locke's father who Sawyer killed? How did Ben get him there?
  • If the Smoke Monster cannot kill candidates, why has he been able to kill people on the island before, like Mr. Eko? Did Mr. Eko cease to be a candidate, and became fair game?
  • What's up with Bernard & Rose? They're still on the island, after all, living in Jacob's abandoned cabin.
There are, of course, many more questions ... but these are the main ones that come to mind. Any other ideas?
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