Complex TV

p. 326-328: LOST

Lost takes advantage of its broader generic palette to bring back fallen characters in a variety of ways. Hurley’s inexplicable ability to speak to the dead allows Michael to return as a ghostly cameo on the island, serving as a spectral source of mythological answers concerning the role of whispers and spirits on the island. But the bulk of the dead cameos occur off-island through the sixth season’s new narrative device of the “flash-sideways” world, as more than 15 previously dead characters appear in this universe, whose relationship to the main storyworld remains mysterious until the finale’s final moments. It is this sideways world where Lost’s final season most directly embraces its brand of metafiction. For the entire season, the sideways stories function as a new mystery for a series already burdened with layered enigmas; however, the sideways mystery is of a different order than the identities of Adam and Eve or the origins of the four-toed statue. For most of season 6, the sideways realm poses an epistemological enigma as to what the world is and how it relates to the storyworld where we have spent five years, with the most widely held hypothesis being that the detonation of a nuclear bomb at the end of the fifth season created a parallel alternative universe where the island was destroyed in 1977. However, at the end of “The End,” we learn that the sideways realm is actually a transitional afterlife for the characters. As Jack’s dead father, Christian, explains to him in Lost’s final scene, “This is the place that you all made together, so that you could find one another. The most important part of your life was the time that you spent with these people. That’s why all of you are here. Nobody does it alone, Jack. You needed all of them, and they needed you . . . to remember and to let go.” As an emotional denouement to the series, this resolution worked well for me and many others to provide closure and help us viewers let go. But as a coherent explanation for what we had spent the past season watching, it requires a bit more unpacking.

For most of season 6, the sideways stories function as an extended narrative game of “What If?” giving us a chance to imagine different narrative arcs for our beloved castaways had they never crashed on the island and been swayed by Jacob’s mystical influence. As discussed in chapter 9, Lost’s transmedia extensions typically operated with a “What Is” logic of canon or pseudo-canon, but it is within the series itself that Lost most directly explores a “What If?” impulse via this sideways realm.… As discussed in chapter 4, even though Lost is most renowned for its elaborate enigmas and ludic plotting, its producers consider its characters and their relationships as the program’s core appeal, and thus it is not surprising that the final season’s narrative innovation prioritized emotional payoffs regarding characters over plot coherence.

An unsympathetic reading is that Lost’s sideways storyline is a cheat, designed to mislead the audience into assuming it was a parallel universe in which the island did not exist but revealed in the end to be internally incoherent without resorting to a higher power. My more sympathetic reading acknowledges that it is a cheat but views the payoff as more thematically coherent than narratively motivated. As viewers, we hope that we got to spend the most important parts of these characters’ lives with them and want to believe that our connection to them mattered. We also enjoyed spinning theories in search of coherence within a fantasy narrative that often made little logical sense, and the sideways world was our last opportunity to play such interpretive games. The sideways world is Lost’s embedded metafiction, the rumination on why we enjoyed spending time with these characters, a celebration of the series’s shaggy mélange of genre influences and diverting puzzles, and a delivery system of moments of emotional engagement to pierce through its silly but fun pulpy narrative. Looking back from the finale, it becomes clear that the entirety of season 6 worked to refocus our attention on the characters and away from the mythology, for both the characters themselves and the viewers, providing the wish fulfillment of a happy ending and the joy of returning departed friends and reunited relationships without the baggage of the island’s mysteries. In the finale’s closing moments, Christian Shephard is talking to us viewers, saying that this world is what we would make if we imagined new “What If?” tales for our heroes, functioning as a form of embedded fan fiction. The fact that it cheats to let us spend more time with dead characters and debate possible theories on Lostpedia does not matter—and ultimately the purpose of fiction is not to pass a test of logical coherence but to keep us emotionally engaged and entertained.

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