Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost a retrospective.

Warning to Travelers: Here There Be Spoilers

I was going to make a post last night after the end of Lost, but admittedly I wasn't entirely sure where I stood on it. I got swept up in the instantaneous twitter feedback (just search #lost on twitter) and the spitting ire of everyone who felt they got somehow gypped. Where did I stand on the whole thing? Did I feel two-timed by the writers for not so much reneging on their promise that the whole thing was the afterlife (it wasn't but it's something a lot of people missed because they were too busy being mad and not taking the time to listen)? Did I feel vindicated for the six years that I dedicated to being a fan of the show? It had my head spinning so much that I, instead of jumping into the debate decided to take some time to really mull on it.

I'm not going to do a play-by-play review of the episode. There are enough reviews out there that do that. Besides, I'd rather see you put in the time to finish the series and savor the episode in its context. What this more is a reflection on the series, and the implications on storytelling.

What Lost is, what it's revealed to me in the hours since seeing the finale yesterday, is a first draft novel. Every episode a chapter. The full story not visible until the conclusion. Why a first draft? Because with a format like television, things are written on the fly. Ideas can change or morph. Bursts of brilliance emerge that weren't initially there (Ben Linus going from a cameo to a pivotal character). What you think is so important at the outset might just be a red herring or a tributary away from what's really at the core of the story. When you get to the end what you have is this unruly mound of stuff. There is a shape to it, and in some places there are moments and periods of truly refined brilliance, but it is still at its core a first draft novel. In need of revisions, and shaping, and sometimes of killing your dears for the sake of the story you're trying to tell.

And that's what Lost is. Like a first draft the early parts are refined. That kernel of a story has time to percolate and the opening chapters of the story all bristle and move with an electric excitement that a new story has. It's bursting with ideas and it's just so damn excited to tell you about them, yet it's still nervously hesitant to give anything away because it wants to make sure that you get a whole story. And we as readers pick up on that. When the writer is excited, we're excited. It's why we can read things that turn out to suck, and get through the opening chapters before realizing it sucks. We get swept along with the sheer exuberance of the storyteller.

Something happens to the story though. Maybe a third of the way through, maybe half. The story gets burdened down. The writer knows where the story has to end up, and the writer knows where the story has already been, but the writer is stuck in the middle. Surrounded on all sides by messy loose ends they've got tie up as much as they can. Tie it all together. Things get wandery as the writer has to try things out and find what's important. They have to make mistakes, and they have to get sidetracked by their "babies" until they realize that, while it might be interesting, it's not important in the grand scheme of things. Lost had these moments right around seasons 3 and 4.

Then a threshold is crossed. Maybe the writer just reaches a point where there is so much goddamned weight behind the story they're trying to tell, maybe the writer has just had it and finally liberates themselves of the burden of the middle, and they come screaming out of the shoot like a rocket, barreling full on to what they hope is a brilliant conclusion. A conclusion that they hope is sound. A conclusion that is just so epic that they can't wait to tell it. A conclusion, which oftentimes feels a little inevitable and expected. The problem is that when examined as a whole the ending might not entirely fit (at the moment) with the story behind it. Spiritually it does. It fits, but it's a little wonky. It fits but there some parts hanging out that just don't quite tie up neatly (not that everything needs to). An ending that for the moment leaves the writer satisfied, but is undeniably in need of the craftsman's hands smoothing out the parts leading up to it. Shaping everything, whittling away at the fat and carving in the details. Killing the babies.

That's what Lost was. A first draft novel. A first draft novel where every week for a year the writers release the next chapter immediately, and can't ever go back to rearrange what preceded it because it was always out there. A first draft novel that realized the importance of somethings and the unimportance of other things, and lacked the ability to go back and change it and tweak it before the world hounded down on it. It's a ballsy statement of storytelling and craftsmanship.

When Jack's eye closed for the final time in last night's episode, no one could deny the power of that bookended image, and the understanding that the writers had a rough idea of where they were going, and probably had an ending in sight (I know I did while writing the first draft of my first novel). That the writers weren't entirely sure where it was going in the middle (again I had no idea, and was willing to play out whatever sidetracks were necessary to find the true story). It's also undeniable that the writers were under some of the sharpest scrutiny ever to be leveled on a show because it demanded the viewers and the fans to give more than just their viewing time, but to full appreciate the show had to immerse completely in the culture. It has and still is changing the face of how we approach media, and the television medium. It was daring and it was ballsy. It demanded a lot of its viewers and it proved its very theme, live together, or die alone.

When the doors to the church were opened by Christian Shepherd one last time during last nights finale, and we were all watching breathlessly as the characters we loved moved on, we the viewer were forced to move on too. But we did, as Jack charged the crash victims of flight 815, live together.

Lost you were and are loved, and you will be missed. Thank you for challenging me to think about writing, and about being a fan, and about being a person.