There’s a moment in the third season of Lost, ABC’s soon-to-conclude serial drama of time travel and philosophy, that might have made a perfect ending to the series. Jack, the surgeon-cum-tribal chieftain whose impetuousness drives much of the show’s conflict, has delivered himself into the hands of his enemies, “The Others.” A rescue party of his friends has arrived at a gated camp to find Jack sprinting toward them, eyes ablaze. Before they can react—before they can move toward him or aid his escape—Jack looks over his shoulder, raises his hands, and catches a football. He grins at the captor with whom he’s been playing, and he spikes the ball. Cue credits.
It’s a devastating scene—one of the finest in the show’s history—and a stunning conclusion, had it been allowed to serve as one, to a narrative whose success was built not on revelation but mystery. Though Jack has long been established as the series’ central protagonist, the notion that he has switched sides is just possible. We’ve seen the creeping petulance that has marked his behavior since midway through the first season, and we’ve begun to question our own loyalties. Jack has been alone with the Others for days, furthermore, and their motives and practices are unknown to us. That Jack may have turned is both shocking and quietly plausible. In its mastery of timing, characterization, and narrative momentum—the very ingredients that made the show successful in the first place—the moment is a tour de force. It’s an exclamation point. A bang of an ending rather than a whimper.
That Lost declined to conclude its run here, arguably at the height of its effectiveness, was, of course, inevitable—a byproduct of both its role as a moneymaking venture and, on a larger scale, the commoditization of American art. Whether or not an ending that increased rather than alleviated tension would have worked (see HBO’s Carnivale for evidence that it can), an industry used to wringing the last dollar from its good ideas would not have allowed it. After all, since its peak as a cultural phenomenon somewhere in the middle of its second season, Lost has seen its ratings decline precisely because many of its viewers have come to the conclusion that the show’s creators are less interested in answering questions than in raising them. The show had to go on not only for economic reasons, but because its remaining fans—not an insubstantial number—would never have trusted the network again.
Four years and a writers’ strike later, ABC and executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof are preparing for a sixth and, we are told, final season, an event whose climax will almost certainly draw back to the fold many millions of lost sheep ready for all to be revealed. Closure achieved, Lost may then move harmlessly toward its dusty corner of the collective unconscious, tucked away for generations of SyFy Channel devotees to enjoy in reruns.
Announcing the termination of a serial drama several years in advance of its final season was clever marketing if nothing else. Viewers concerned that Lost was following in the footsteps of The X-Files (by spilling its secrets poorly) or Twin Peaks (by failing to spill them at all) were assured for the moment that a logically-sound conclusion was in sight. Skeptics convinced that Cuse and Lindelof were making things up as they went along were mollified by the end-date’s suggestion of an ordered world. Plot lines would no longer spin endlessly outward, enabled by an unwavering network commitment and the whimsy of their architects. Only so many television hours remained, and that time would have to be given to the tying up of loose ends.
Like many elements of American popular culture, however, the collective desire that Lost resolve its unfinished business (read Open Salon’s list of demands, Blogcritics’ call for resolution, or Damon Lindelof’s breathless promises to wrap things up) is illustrative of deeper, more problematic trends, beginning with the notion of closure itself. Though the word possesses shades of confinement and limitedness (one imagines Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” narrator employing it), its psychological identity is rooted in the setting aside or rejection of trauma as much as its resolution. As such, the word suggests self-deception—the perception of the thing rather than the thing itself. Applied to a narrative, closure speaks to our desire to replace the messiness of the real world with perfect, seamless orderedness, to believe that everything happens for a reason and that every question has an answer.
The problem, of course, is that a program whose guiding principle has been the introduction and prolonging of suspense cannot easily lay suspense aside, regardless of our narrative expectations. An invented world, and one dependent on tone as much as plot, Lost refers only to itself. Its rules, to the extent that they exist at all, are created and enforced internally, and asking its creators what “really” happened is like asking Shakespeare if Fortinbras ruled Denmark wisely after Hamlet’s conclusion. In every conceivable way, the answer is beside the point.
Yet our taste is for certainties and conclusiveness, for proof of our ability to arrive at clean solutions. Like the eighteenth century, the late twentieth and early twenty-first have convinced us—bizarrely, given the abundance of evidence to the contrary—of our capacity to overcome the chaos inherent in nature—in our nature. Hence our election of president after president based on promises to “fix” social security, the budget deficit, and America’s foreign affairs. Hence the predictable and childlike cycle of hope and its abandonment that has informed American politics since well before Barack Obama reintroduced the term. In our faith that reason can impose order on reality, we’ve allowed ourselves to cling to our naïveté—to blame particular men and women for political failings rather than all men and women for human ones. In our disavowal of the inexplicable, we’ve laid claim to the utopianism of novels and stump speeches, imbuing the body politic with expectations that can never be met. However indispensable to progress, these notions are precious, cloying. Over time, they coarsen us.
Unleashed in the writers’ meeting, furthermore, the pursuit of the orderly leads to the Law and Order complex, in which self-containedness trumps every other virtue and plot outlines are sketched on Freytag’s pyramids. As a result, much of network television can no longer be said to have “episodes” in the traditional sense of the word, despite the competing serials that have sprung up in Lost’s wake. Rather, characters defined exclusively by the particular method in which they pursue criminals (or treat patients, or win cases) solve 43-minute mysteries whose two or three plot twists are practically mandated by law. Lost, let’s not forget, was successful in part because it bucked this trend. It did something—anything—different.
Much will be made in the months that follow of what Lost owes its audience, and indeed a concluding season that reveals nothing would be an exercise in artistic vanity. So too, however, would be a final act whose dominant mode is the checklist—the hurried divulgement of one secret after another in the service of honesty. Such a move would be neglectful not only of aesthetic realities—that fiction’s truths are a trickier business altogether—but of the commitments that have served Lost so well: to atmosphere, to subtlety, and to sustained and careful characterization. A conclusion that departs from these gestures for the sake of clarity is an empty promise. A lie. Whatever we ask of it—whatever else it does—a lie can never satisfy us.
Nevertheless, most critics and bloggers are likely to come down on the side of full disclosure, as many have done already. It may be helpful to note, then, that the supreme literary achievement of the age most like our own in its reliance on the rational mind was not fiction or poetry but the Declaration of Independence—that the eighteenth century’s most celebrated writers were a lexicographer (Johnson), a political satirist (Swift), a literary critic (Pope), and a philosopher (Voltaire). Art, it seems, cannot primarily instruct. It must do more than answer our questions.
Is television art? The Sopranos tried to be, and its own ending was widely reviled. In all likelihood, Lost will learn from that misfortune. The proper pressures will be exerted, and all will be made clear. Still, a bolder gesture—a conclusion that acknowledges the impossibility of understanding fully—would perhaps be more fitting for a series that has taken that notion as its creed. It would certainly bring its share of frustration—Jack’s football game would surely baffle us—but we might find that it rings truer.
Graham Hillard teaches Creative Writing at Trevecca Nazarene University, in Nashville, Tennessee. His essay on Faulkner and high school pedagogy was recently published in The Oxford American, and his poems and stories have appeared in numerous journals.