I first watched Lost in a binge, on DVD, shortly after my older son was born. I’d never recommend that anyone acquire a newborn in order to properly enjoy a television show, but this turns out to be an excellent technique, at least if you want to be imprinted on a series, like a duckling on a goose. Up at 2 a.m., 4 a.m., and 6 a.m., with headphones on and the lights low, I experienced the show less as a story than as a loopy, unforgettable dream, the kind that alienates you from strangers when you try to explain the damn thing.
Which is why I was so surprised, and unsettled, when last week’s premiere filled me with dread. What was this wild goose that I had been chasing so loyally for five seasons? Lost is almost finished, with sixteen episodes to go, and I, like any fan, was relieved when ABC set an end date: Now the writers could hammer out a true conclusion, without any more episodes analyzing Jack’s tattoos. They could do a conclusive shake-up on their highly original mix of genres: comic-book cliff-hangers set in a surreal symbol-scape, puzzle-box thriller plots mingling with sci-fi fantasy, plus the moody vibe of a video game like Myst, with its Easter-egg hints and quests. The result was less a traditional TV series than a skillful magic show, designed to be an Internet-age phenomenon, with fans happily mob-solving its most elaborate tricks.
Yet the thing that initially attracted me to Lost during the first few seasons was not the structural experimentation but the characters, with their psychic wounds and dreams of escape: Sawyer’s quest for vengeance, Sun and Jin’s marital tensions, and especially John Locke, one of the strangest and most original characters on television, a man who was hoodwinked out of a kidney, who was shoved through a window, who had spent his life in a frustrated, quasi-spiritual desire to be chosen and special. Later on, we met Ben and Juliet, villains with nuance and charm. (I was a particular fan of Juliet, whose cold affect hid a great backstory, about an abused woman who develops manipulative coping skills that rival those of her captor.)
Maybe the writers themselves developed manipulative coping skills. A show can be held captive by its own success, as the audience, roaring for action, smashes at the narrative piñata. But what if what is on the inside is just some stale candy? I have enormous admiration for the experimental quality of Lost, which has taken savvy risks with each season—a leap off the island! Time travel!—but my love was always fueled by the sense that there was something more perverse, more adult, buried beneath, that the show had something to say about guilt, about the way society (and individuals) re-form after a crisis.
Now I’m worried those themes are gone for good, that the island is just a chess game played by Egyptian gods, and within that chess game, a pissing match between a coldly scheming CEO and a warmly scheming weasel, Ben, the last great character left. Locke is dead, his fantastic arc brought to a satisfying (and grim) conclusion. Sawyer resolved his central conflict over two years ago, when he killed Locke’s dad. Juliet is dead, too, having first been shriveled from a fascinatingly ambiguous player into a beatific sacrificial sweetheart—along with Charlotte, Ana Lucia, Naomi, Rousseau, Penny, and Libby, spunky women reduced to love interests or unceremoniously offed. (Kate is still around, but I wasn’t thrilled when she was redeemed by motherhood last year—at least in the current season, she’s back to her pen-stealing, con-chick ways.)
I don’t want to be the viewer who watches with her eyebrow raised; it’s more fun to be a fan. But narrative playfulness isn’t meaningful unless it rests on a something real—the way it did in the great chronology-shuffling movies of the last decade, like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which resonated with deeper ideas about identity and the nature of love. Lost’s creators designed the lovable Hurley (and sometimes the annoying Arzt) as their stand-ins for an audience of demanding nerds. But right now, I’m praying I don’t end up like Locke, that crazy bastard who just wanted to know that the path he followed had some meaning and who ended up instead with the saddest possible thought: “I don’t understand.”