I want a new drug

by Bryan

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about television, it’s not to get worked up about a series finale, or to read too much into one. In all but the rarest cases, we follow our television shows like we’re taking a drug, and expect that final, last hit to be the one that validates all the rest of them—to be the one that shows some sort of clarity for our actions, that absolves us for the dozens or hundreds of hours we’ve sat on a couch, staring at a screen, in a life where people outside are interacting with each other. This is, of course, not how drugs work: The returns are always diminishing. You’re always chasing that first hit again. This is, of course, also exactly how drugs work: When you’re chasing it, you don’t realize the futility of your quest, otherwise you wouldn’t do it. You have a delusion that there is supreme clarity at the end of this path simply so that you will allow yourself to follow it, and you do so because it feels good.

There was one series finale that permanently punctured a hole in this delusion, that showed you what this addiction was really worth, and basically smacked across the mouth the people who believe that television “owes” them something: it was that of The Sopranos, the one modern ending to really be all that instructive in terms of understanding how the medium really works. You want answers? Fuck you, David Chase said. Television is not about answers, it’s not about closure, it’s about catnip voyeurism even in the best of cases. Anyone who thought The Sopranos still “owes” them something is missing the gift in front of their face: A way out. Permanently lower your expectations, Chase was saying, because television will never love you the way you love it, and television is never going away. Learn to deal with it, or spend your life being disappointed. Enjoy the ride if you can, but might it be better never to take the ride at all?

I confess to being something of a Lost apologist: the show was not without its flaws, but it created drama out of nothing better than any show I can remember. My favorite example from this season was when Jack destroyed the mirror at the top of the lighthouse and it seemed like this big deal. I was basically shaking when it cut to commercial before I realized that I had known about the mirror for about two minutes before it was destroyed. It felt like a big deal, and maybe it was for Jack’s character arc, but it was something I hadn’t known existed when I had started the evening. Then, I’m sure, the writers went back to some sort of Dogen-themed subplot I couldn’t stand, but I was satisfied. I had my fix for the day.

So then what to say about the logical problems of the finale? I’m not talking about the lack of answers for really anything having to do with the island. I’m grateful for that. I didn’t want some post-facto explanation about what this place “meant,” as if was anything more than a convenient tableau to create drama. I didn’t want answers where they clearly didn’t exist. For example, the Smoke Monster. What and why? We got nothing, and that’s perfect for me. And the island: What was it? Turns out it was an island, and really entirely separate from the ultimate lessons of Lost. That’s fine too. It, like everywhere else in the world, was just a place where things happen.

No, my problem with the finale—in retrospect—is the final scene, where the castaways are all huddled in the multidenominational church in Purgatorytown, waiting to really die, or whatever. I don’t even have a problem with the conceit. What I have a problem with is what Christian Shephard said: The reason that this particular group of people was assembled was that they had spent the most important years of their lives together, despite the fact that several of these people escaped the island. Are we to believe that nothing important enough happened when Kate and Sawyer got back to L.A. (if they did) for the rest of their lives, and that’s why it was this group that their souls had, consciously or not, chosen to meld with to ease everyone’s transition to the afterlife?

And here is where I reconcile my television problem the way some people might reconcile their cocaine problems. I realize that the entire setup was a conceit to get everyone in the same room so that you feel like it’s all been “worth it,” that you can feel good for these characters and about yourself as you both move on… but why am I supposed to be an expert on “TV conceits?” Why should I care? It’s just another way of feeding the addiction. I liked Lost, both as a series and as a finale, but I’m under no illusions about what it was and wasn’t. It was good popcorn fun couched in the world of survival and the language of philosophy. It wasn’t more than that. I might be ready for something different. I might be ready to even heed the lessons of the show: to focus on life as it happens, to spend more time with the people I’m around rather than falling back on the company of a mostly superficial, compelling TV show, and to do everything I can to enjoy the real things in this world before it cuts to black.

UPDATED THOUGHTS: I was wrong to admonish the final scene for being a TV conceit. I thought about them earlier today and came to the same conclusion Jeff Jensen was, in a sideways world somewhere, banging out on a keyboard:

Personally, I don’t think Lost was promoting one faith over another, and I don’t think Lost was sketching an afterlife cosmology. I think the show was offering us an allegory for how life should be lived — with an ongoing effort to understand each other and ourselves; that such a project is best undertaken with a community of people.

I also think, as I wrote in the comments, that the finale was just great.