Everyone has been talking about the stunning Lost finale, whose final twist has left those who love the show very satisfied, and gave those who felt the show had been spinning its wheels confidence that there is a clear plan, and a strong new direction. Spoilers ahead.
The thing about serial narrative, especially one that centers around mystery, is How do you keep the mystery interesting over a long period of time: explain too much and your mystery disappears; explain too little and people get frustrated and walk away. One device is a variation on the screenwriting principle that the end of an act must resolve one conflict, but that that resolution must introduce a new conflict: Spiderman may reject the simbiote, but it will then find a new host he will battle. Lost answers the mystery of what is in the hatch, but what is in the hatch turns just opens up more mysteries.
The Season 3 Finale does that to a certain extent, but it does something else too – the twist has more to do with format and story structure, than it does with content. This episode is like a great magic trick, proving that the creators are geniuses: you learn no secrets about the mysterious island and its properties, no secrets about the smoke monster, no secrets about Dharma or the Others, no secrets about the numbers, no secrets about Richard or Jacob or Ben or any of the characters, and yet you walk away satisfied because the creators have changed the status of the flashbacks. I have been saying for a while that the point of Lost is the stories about the characters rather than the mysteries of the island – the creators just wrangled characters into the spotlight again, by leaving the island behind and doing what stories are supposed to do: focus on characters. Just as a side-note, people have been calling the Jack “flashback” a flash-forward, but that is not what it is at all: it is that, in earlier episodes, the island was the present and the non-island scenes were past-time; the twist is that you think the Jack story is past-time but it turns out, not to be the future, but to be a new present – it is the story of the island that has become a flashback for Jack.
The show is not without flaws: Why doesn’t Charlie just lock the door behind him as it floods, since it seems he has time? People have said it is because he wants Desmond’s prediction to come true but this raises the same post hoc ergo propter hoc problem that the episode in which they discovered Naomi did: it is not clear that there is any cause and effect relationship between the detail that Charlie dies and the rescue (as there is with flipping the switch). Also it seems like much of the two hour running time was used to lengthen pauses, and Lock appears in the finale for little over two minutes total. But Sawyer killing Tom. Hurley saving the day, and Said snapping that guy’s neck with his feet, and Rousseau’s gentle caress of her long lost daughter’s hair followed immediately by the ridiculous “help me tie him up”: that’s why I watch Lost. It’s all about the characters.
Someone once said Milton could have said everything he had to say about God in a pamphlet of some two or three pages, and thus concluded that it is the poetry rather than the content that is important; Lost could release a memo detailing the mysteries of the island. It is the storytelling that is important. And the formal twist at the end of Season three could not have emphasized that more.