There’s a story, possibly apocryphal (and I’m not even sure where or when I read it), about science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who had been hired as a consultant for the original Star Trek series (back in the 1960s). As the story goes, some network executives were after Ellison for ideas, telling him that they wanted “something BIG” for Star Trek. Ellison pitched the following idea: The Enterprise gets tossed into deep space, and as they are trying to figure out where they are, they, surprise, come to a huge wall signifying the end of the universe. Curious, they use photon torpedoes to blast a hole in the wall. They pull the ship up to the hole, and what do they see looking back out at them, but the very eye of God, and thus they discover the first verifiable scientific evidence of God’s existence. After a moment’s pause, one of the network executives spoke up, “No, no, no. We said ‘something BIG.'”
Ellison got up and walked out of the room.
There’s something about the final episode of a series, especially one as teasingly mysterious as Lost, that seems to turn us all into network executives. No matter what is revealed in the finale, it’s greeted by a nearly unanimous cry of “No, no, no. We said ‘something BIG.'” Even before the episode aired, people were expressing their disappointment in a conclusion they hadn’t yet seen. And expressions of disappointment and scorn have been appearing at various blogs and online newspapers ever since.
The episiode brought in over 13 million viewers (a number that, according to the New York Times, stayed pretty much consistent through the entire 2 1/2 hour episode, as well as big rating numbers for the 2 hour recap that preceded it and that carried through to the show that followed it). The consistency of the audience through a block of time that ultimately stretched over 6 hours is remarkable, nearly unheard of in today’s television market—and, yet, a quick internet search found several posts about the disappointing ratings. (“No, no, no, when we said big ratings we meant BIG ratings.”)
Other than Mike Hale’s “No Longer Lost” (The New York Times), which provided a nice balanced critique of the episode, I seem to be one of the few that liked the finale. As Hale noted, it was very much a sentimental rather that action-oriented conclusion, which is true, but that emphasis on sentiment only placed it much more firmly in the camp of Charles Dickens (whose novel Our Mutual Friend got a nice shoutout in an earlier season) and the 19th-century serial novel, a form that Lost in many ways updated for a 21st century television audience.
Spoilers follow from here on out:
The big mystery solved involved the so-called sideways universe, the place where the characters were all living out parallel existences in a world where the Oceanic flight never crashed. As it turns out, this parallel universe was a kind of waystation where the souls of the Lost survivors gathered together one last time before “moving on” to whatever comes next (whatever that might be remains a mystery). This does not mean that they all died during the plane crash. Rather, they all lived out their individual existences, dying at different times, but all gathering at this place outside of time for a big reunion.
And it was nice to see all the characters again, many of whom had died in earlier seasons, and to see them smiling and happy, after 6 years of island torment, sadness, and death. Sentimental, indeed, unlikely, certainly, but also somewhat reminiscent of the alternate ending of Great Expectations, in which Pip and Estella meet accidentally on the site of the ruins of Havisham’s house for a kind of reunion and reconciliation. So, Lost, good job with the Dickensian ending.
As Mike Hale notes, there’s a lot of cheesiness in Lost, much of it revolving around the bad wigs and the worse fake beards. However, to me, that’s part of fun, part of the way Lost embraces some of its other, less reputable, generic roots (not the novel but the cheap science fiction film). Bad hair, dubious set design, all that has seemed to me an intentional part of the Lost aesthetic, an homage to those disreputable roots. What would the original Star Trek be without the garish colors or William Shatner’s acting style? That’s part of the fun of watching the series.
This also seems to be where Lost is influenced by one of its creative predecessors, The Adventures of Briscoe County, Junior, the western (with sci-fi touches) series created by Carlton Cuse (who went on to become one of Lost‘s executive producers). Briscoe was both straightforward western and straight-out parody of the genre. “Just under over-the-top” was the mantra for Briscoe, and it’s a philosophy that Lost also often put into practice (although, probably not getting as close to “over-the-top” as Briscoe often did). Also, Lost‘s island has long reminded me of Briscoe‘s mysterious magical Orb, with the island sort of being the Orb writ large. And Matthew Fox (who plays Jack Shephard) reminds me a little of a young Bruce Campbell (who played Briscoe, Jr., and who was doing “Jackface” when Fox was still a kitten).
And, so I’ve been thinking about Hale’s comment on the finale: “The production crew was never able to make the cave holding the all-important, island-binding golden light look more impressive than a water ride at a cheap amusement park, and it was a major problem that the scenes of Desmond and Jack lugging stones around the sacred pool inspired giggles rather than awe.”
Okay, fair enough, but, as I say, I kind of liked the aesthetic of the look, and I wasn’t inspired to giggles by the scene. What I liked about it was how it referred back to events in the Hatch, where Desmond had been for years, repeatedly entering a code into a computer to prevent an electromagnetic disaster from occurring. In this episode, however, his purpose was to cause said disaster–or, to turn off the magic of the island, thus transforming our immortal characters (the Smoke Monster, aka UnLocke, as well as Richard and newly immortal Island Guardian Jack) into mortal ones, and, of course, setting off storms and earthquakes, and allowing the cast to engage in some classic Star Trek really-the-ship-is-being-horribly-shaken acting.
The “sacred pool” was really just another version of the computer, a much more ancient one, although still operating on a simple binary code: on/off. Rather than entering a string of numbers, this ancient computer had only one operation. Pull the rock out of the hole, off. Put the rock back in the hole, on. The operation of the device of the sacred pool is the ur version of all the other island operations (and perhaps of the other Island binaries).
And it was a nice touch to have the series end the way it started, with a point of view shot looking up at palm trees, and with a close-up of Jack’s eye, which closes rather than opens (on/off) as it did at the series beginning.