“Lost”: Never About Time Travel
“As I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and I felt as a husband might, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife. …She was stripped of all enchantment now and I knew her for an uncongenial stranger to whom I had bound myself indissolubly in a moment of folly.”
—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
The end was at hand. It came, and then it went. And now it has gone.
You’re leaning against the rails of the first-class deck, eyes burning from sleeplessness, tuxedo coat pulled tight against the predawn chill. You smooth your rumpled hair and brush away the last traces of confetti from the evening before.
You knew this moment would come. And though there were times you dreaded it and times you positively longed for it, you both knew from the start that you were playing with borrowed time.
Below you hear the chugging of the tugboat as it maneuvers the liner into the harbor, and you know that when the gangway comes down and you cross over to shore, you’ll be stepping out of her life forever.
This was how it felt watching the four-and-a-half-hour Lost Series Finale Event, like the bittersweet end of a shipboard romance that had lasted a breath too long.
You remember when you met that first night in the piano bar on the Lido deck six long years ago, you were so arch, so insolent.
“So you’re a new sci-fi series?” You said, peering over the rim of your highball. “Cool.
“Ah, a plane crashes on a tropical isle….” You swirled the ice cubes in the bottom of your glass, contemplatively. Then you pounced, “So the passengers are all dead, and the island is Hell?”
Her no brought you up short, but you didn’t show it. As the evening advanced and the bar tab mounted you ventured to discover her secret again and again—Hollow earth? A prehistoric jungle enclave improbably preserved in the Antarctic? Ultima Thule? Outpost of the Elder Gods? But she brushed aside your advances, one by one.
This looked like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
You’d been around the block, and knew what it was to love a television program. Hard experience had taught you the folly of giving yourself too completely to their caprices. In college there had been Twin Peaks, whose initial quirks, offered up in Manic Panic tints and black fishnets, quickly blossomed into full-blown personality disorders; then came the slow motion accident of The X-Files, who ground your love to dust in unpredictable fits of grandiosity and paranoia.
So when Lost walked into your life, it was first names only and no questions asked. You’d signed an unspoken contract in which you agreed to make no demands and she would tell you sweet lies.
And how she delivered.
To outside eyes, it was a perfect union.
“Man, I haven’t seen a customer so happy in years,” said Isaac the bartender, setting a frothy blue drink in front of you one afternoon. “You two are made for each other: You’re a time-travel writer and she’s all about time travel.”
But Isaac the bartender was wrong. Lost was never about time travel. Not really. You knew it, and she knew you knew it. That was the secret to your happiness. The pleasure was to enjoy her artifice and not push too much. After all, what could a primetime episodic drama tell you about time travel? Or the Torah or the Eightfold Path, for that matter; or C.S. Lewis or reader-response theory or any of the other allusions Lost would toss behind her as you played your game of paper chase on the Fiesta deck.
The only mystery Lost was ever about was the mystery of storytelling itself. She was a long con, a meandering cock and bull story that stretched the rules of narrative as you knew them while stopping just short of snapping the web she wove.
Lost may have thematized time travel, but in truth she was a mighty destroyer of time. Your relationship was a type of momento mori, a reminder that the essential activity of life is merely filling up time until it runs out. That might not have been much, but it was better than hip-hop cardio and shuffleboard and the other tawdry pastimes of the S.S. Network TV.
It was enough, almost, to make you forget that Lost was merely a mouthpiece for a team of writers, closeted in a basement somewhere and transcribing koans incanted by Carlton Cuse’s black long-sleeve polo; to forgot that she was a product, a series of transactions among corporations, advertisers, marketers, executives, actors, agents, consumers, fans; and to forget that in the welter of vying priorities someone was going to come up the loser.
Those were not the exact thoughts you had as you dressed for the final Black-Tie Gala Event at the captain’s table. But clearly you had apprehensions, or it wouldn’t have taken three tries to get your bow tie right. Truth to tell, your affection for Lost had cooled. You hated long good-byes, and, frankly, the ice sculptures and the goose livers and the confetti cannons and the laser light show and the twitter channel all struck you as somewhat overwrought.
You arrived late and lingered in the lounge, nursing cocktails and munching canapes and trying not to pay attention as she flirted with scrofulous fanboys and a tableful of Mormons who were returning from a mission in Burkina Faso. A little mystery, you’d found, greatly enhanced the quality of your relationship. From across the seafood buffet you winced at her book club observations and the way she would suddenly namedrop Joseph Campbell and then pause meaningfully, gazing at nothing in particular.
And you started to question what you’d seen in Lost in the first place. Her obvious drama queen moves; the braying way she’d laugh at her own jokes; her inexplicable love for L.A.—this really was never your scene.
And you spend an hour in self-questioning and reproach, until you become aware that Lost is conjuring a hospital scene in which Juliet is performing an ultra sound on Sun—beautiful, pregnant, tearful, gunshot-wounded Sun—whose life on the Island comes rushing back to her in a jumble of micro-flashbacks. And then steely Jin leans over and touches his wife, and the floodgates open for him too—the separations, the reunions, the explosions, the baby, the near-deaths, and the real one.
Then at once you remember everything that made you love Lost, and under the spell of the hype, and the ridiculous fan tweets, and the champagne cocktails, and the trailing streams of confetti, and your irrepressible hunger for narrative—pure, exuberant, scripted narrative—you begin to forget your rules and your unspoken contract. You think that, maybe, somewhere beneath the citations and allusions and name-dropping and red herrings and dead ends and self-reflexivity there might be some substance…
Then Lost waves her nervous, pale hands, and you see Sawyer and Juliet meeting for the first time since she died in his arms 17 episodes ago. And Lost repeats that scene where Sawyer catches Juliet as she’s being pulled by the electromagnetic field into shaft with the atomic bomb in it, and Sawyer’s grasping Juliet by one hand and and he’s telling her not to let go, but he knows she’s going to, and she does, and for a moment you forget that for three years you’ve been certain that Desmond and Penny were the heart of the show, and you think you might be crying, but you don’t really want to know.
And with just 17 minutes left in your six-year romance, your cynicism finally leaves and something whose name you’ve forgotten stirs deep within you and your throat feels dry and your voice sounds strange in your ears as your whisper, “Could this really work out?”
Then Lost cuts to commercial, and when she returns she has one of the Mormons from Burkina Faso on her arm and she won’t meet your gaze. And for 12 agonizing minutes she systematically dismantles something you now realize you’ve been building together for six years. It’s a purgatory plot, just like she repeatedly assured you that it would never be. And faith unambiguously wins out over reason—and not a rich and nuanced faith, not Thomas Merton, but a simple your-dead-father-arrives-to-say-he-loves-you and now-it’s-time-to-step-into-the-beatific-golden-light kind of faith. And everyone’s making the sign of peace and waving at the camera and you kind of feel like you’re among the Raëlians getting ready for the mothership by drinking poison, and the thought makes you put down your own drink, and now you can’t even take a drink to deaden the pain because now even that’s been ruined.
And dumbstruck, searching the blogs and the twitter feeds for support or explanation—some kind of succor—you let the TV play through Jimmy Kimmel Live, and now you’ve got that in your brain, too.
So you take to the deck, to be alone with your sorrows. Nearby a drunken fanboy is crying and muttering through his tears about how it all makes sense if you connect Lost to Kafka’s Amerika, Haley Joel Osment, and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and you let him babble.
You light a cigarette and stare out at the ocean. On the horizon, you can just make out the thin industrial shadow of the shoreline, spreading ever wider, slowly sundering the slate sea from the gun metal sky.
There’s a whole world out there. Already your puzzlement over the missing Walt and the Dharma Initiative and Island-based infertility and C. J. Cregg’s terrible, terrible Latin accent is being displaced by anxiety over oil spills and double-dip recessions and Kelly Bensimon’s public meltdown.
Scripted TV is languishing. Publishing is dying, and journalism might already be dead. Where Lost has gone, you can’t follow. But it doesn’t take much to see that your feelings of loss and anger and betrayal don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
You take one long, last drag and muse, “We lost so many threads last night; but we’ll always have season three.”
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