Countdown to 'Lost': What is the Sideways world? What kind of 'mystery' is 'Lost'? PLUS: What 'Lost' means to me
Image Credit: Mario Perez/ABC“The End” is finally upon us. The Super Bowl of Geekdom has finally arrived. How do I feel? Just…weird. Excited. Nervous. Sad. Relieved. Detached. Overwhelmed. I am certain this heightened flux of emotions will make watching the show and enjoying it and appreciating it and assessing it extremely challenging. I have to post a recap tomorrow. I wish I didn’t. I wish I could sit with the episode and my experience of the episode for a few days before crafting a narrative that could summarize whatever it is you and I and a few million of our friends are about to see. Part of me wishes I never had to write anything about the finale. For starters, I’d rather get in a room with you all and talk about it. And then there’s this: I know whatever I say in my recap won’t be my final thought on Lost. I don’t think I’ll ever arrive at a definitive statement about this story. But I must write a recap, and so I will, and it will post tomorrow — for better and worse. And then I will write one or two more Doc Jensen columns in the next week or two, and then that will be it. No more. The End.
One part of the end-of-Lost experience I’m really looking forward to: watching the World Wide Web light up with conversation and argument about the finale — a veritable pentecost of fiery, flaming Lost blog blah blah. The sun that has been the Lost online fan community will go supernova tomorrow. What will happen, though, when this extraordinary event fades? Will a black hole be left in its wake, or will embers of Lost fandom burn on forever? A pretty amazing media organism is about to undergo a profound transition, and I will miss it. The Fuselage. Doc Arzt. DarkUFO. Karen. Vozzek. Jopinionated. The ODI. Bigmouth. Jay and Jack. Todd Hostager. So many more. Someone I’ve had to begin missing — painfully — for quite some time now is the best of all Lost bloggers, J. Wood. If you know J., you know he hasn’t been able to write much about Lost over the past several seasons. J. inspired me to want to be smart and not just smart-alecky about writing about Lost. I’m not saying I fulfilled that ambition. But I have benefitted from the attempt, and I am grateful for his example.
I will miss reading America’s best television critics examine the minutia of each episode, as well as try their level best to make sense of the mythology and even try to spin a theory or two. There’s a really intelligent dude I only recently discovered named Myles McNutt who writes scholarly yet accessible essays about TV and he apparently does it for free. Crazy! I’ll miss chattng with Jen and Liz at The Washington Post, the bright and geeky cross-talk of Dan Fierman, Alex Pappademas and “the Council of Nerds” at GQ, and the sharp observations of the whole Vulture crew. I’ve loved the way Wired has covered Lost over the years. I’ve even enjoyed reading some of the haters. Heather Havrilesky at Salon — damn if she isn’t snarktastically funny. I get a lot of emails that bust on me for “being one of those mainstream media people who don’t have the guts to call Lost out on their s—,” to quote one reader, or “for not being willing to state the obvious, that season 6 has been a complete disaster,” to quote another. Apparently, these folks can’t be content to have an opinion of their own — they seem to think I must share it, too.
Still, I get it. (I also can’t deny that I may have played a small, indirect role in their frustration; more on this in a little bit.) Strangely enough, when I read the dissenters, I find it easy to see their perspective. I just don’t feel it or believe in it. I can’t deny my experience, which is deep and intellectually activated. Lost means something to me and continues to mean something to me. Over time, my engagement with the show has become almost exclusively personal, not critical. (I leave Entertainment Weekly’s formal, critical evaluation of the show to the brilliant Ken Tucker.) Fortunately, if you are one of those fans who feel disappointed with or even betrayed by Lost, you have no less than The Gray Lady herself to speak for you.
And I will also miss hearing from you, the readers. I have enjoyed the dialogue and the exchange of ideas. I will miss the shared project of thinking through the Lost puzzle together. To segue into my final Countdown to Lost essay, which will tackle what is sure to be one the finale’s biggest concerns, I begin with an email/theory from Joseph Cipriani, who writes:
“I am emailing you in one last attempt to get you to acknowledge or at least share your opinion on one of my theories. Here it goes. The Sideways world has yet to be identified as the “real” world and even Faraday has stated that it’s not the right world, so…what if the Sideways world was some sort of elaborate plan to trap FLocke? It’s a faux world, and once John Locke becomes Island Enlightened his consciousness and FLocke’s consciousness will swap, trapping Smokey in this alternate reality with no rules and no way out, plus all the candidates being enlightened act to as his jailer of sorts. You would now have John Locke on The Island fly his remaining buddies (whoever’s left alive) back into the real world where 815 did crash.
“Crazy? I can’t help but think that the Sideways world just can’t be our happily ever after for these characters, there has to more to it than that, more meaning. Thank you for your cockamamie ideas these past few years. Namaste.”
Joseph, I like your theory. It reminds me a little bit of the Phantom Zone from Superman mythology, but with a Desolation Jones twist. (Actually, Desolation Jones has almost zero relevancy. But I live for even the smallest excuse to promote the genius of Warren Ellis.) I’m not a big fan of the idea of forcing the castaways to play the role of his jailers — but still, in general, I like Joseph’s idea. Even more generally speaking, Joseph’s idea is one more permutation of the belief held by a significant number of Lost fans that there is something inherently inorganic and unreal about the Sideways world. Some people think it’s an illusion like The Matrix, or a group delusion, or even ersatz pocket universe created by The Monster’s magic designed to give himself a happily ever after — a twist on Joseph’s theory. This theory differs from the more conventional and commonly held theory that the Sideways world is the next life epilogue for all the Island world castaways — that after their death, the castaways will be reincarnated into the Sideways world.
As for me, I have never quite embraced reincarnation theory. For most of the season, I have believed that the detonation of Jughead in the Dharma past had initiated a reboot of history that hasn’t completed itself. I believed that the Sideways world and the Island world were separate halves of a greater whole that needed to be joined for the true, new reboot world timeline to emerge. I likened the situation to marriage: two separate individuals merging their lives to form a shared super-life. I have since thought of it as a body joining with a soul. The Sideways world is the flesh that needs the spirit of the Island world in order to have meaning; the Island world is a lost soul, akin to a ghost, that needs to be incorporated into something physical in order to be truly alive.
I’m open to my theory being wrong. It’s just my peculiar version of the view that there’s something “wrong” with the Sideways world. I haven’t always believed that this “wrongness” makes the Sideways world “evil;” in fact, like the characters of Lost, I’ve viewed the Sideways world as something that is broken and needs to be fixed or redeemed. Indeed, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the Sideways world is becoming increasingly unstable. And by “unstable,” I mean “unreal.” I think Lost has been dramatizing this idea is an ironic if dangerous way. Some people have criticized the Sideways storyline for many things, most notably the ridiculous pile-up of coincidences (Every single character in the Lostverse lives in Los Angeles? Seriously? And the Oceanic 815 passengers keep crossing paths? Really?) and at least one one striking continuity error: based on info supplied by the show, Sun and Locke could not have arrived at the hospital at the same time because Sun was shot several days before Locke was run down by Desmond. But could it be these contrivances and inconsistencies are intentional? Could it be that the storytelling is a metaphor for the suspect reality of the Sideways world itself?
What is indisputable is that from the opening moments of season 6, Lost has encouraged us to be suspicious of the Sideways world by giving us details that suggest that the structure of world is metaphysically flimsy. There was Jack’s déjà vu moment on the plane with Desmond, who was wearing a wedding band, even though subsequent episodes revealed that the Scot wasn’t married. (Another continuity error, a la Sayid’s Iranian passport? Maybe. Noted, and moving on.) There was also the moment when Jack detected a cut on his neck that couldn’t be explained — an abrasion in the surface of his skin, a literal flaw in continuity. In the most recent episode, Jack woke up with another one of these inexplicable bloody anomalies near his Adam’s apple. Something’s rotten in the state of “LA X” — an alarming laxness in the integrity of reality itself. The outbreak of “Island Enlightenment” is one more example. Are we seriously to believe that a show as intelligent as Lost is trying to convince us that something like cosmic awareness, past life recollection, or just a healthy perspective on life can be obtained by getting the s—t kicked out of us? I got beat up a few times as a kid. Never happened. Yes, Desmond is knocking some sense into his friends — but the reason why it’s so easy is because the world they inhabit is so profoundly insensible, and intentionally so. Sometimes, I wonder if the Sideways world is a critique of cheap redemption — change and enlightenment that isn’t earned with the drama of hard living and introspection.
Now, I know how this sounds. It sounds like I’m an apologist for what could actually be creative lapses. I admit that I’ve done much over the years to earn this charge. I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to second guess many of the “answers” we’ve received this year by suggesting that the characters relaying these answers could be lying or withholding additional information. Many of you have noticed that, too, and some of you have asked if perhaps my creative skepticism is actually a form of denial — that continuously suggesting the possibility of additional possibilities is my way of not dealing with my dissatisfaction with the answers we’re given. I can’t assess or measure the accuracy of the complaint without reviewing every single word I’ve written, and my guess is that I could offer a compelling and truthful rebuttal for every single instance. Still, I do subscribe to a theory of self that says that I do not know my mind and my motives as well as I want or should. Two thoughts: 1. I am not blind to the fact that the writers have made errors. In fact, I think it’s more likely the Sun/Locke cross at the hospital was a continuity gaffe. 2. Even if my process is flawed, my theory actually works.In deliberate, explicit ways, and in (debatably) deliberate, subtle ways, Lost has presented a world increasingly nicked by glitches. The question that needs to be answered is: Why?
Bottom line: this Sideways thing is a mystery. And I’m pretty sure we’ll be getting answer to this mystery tonight. Will it prove satisfying? I hope so. But at the same time, I’m not counting on mystery resolution to be the main criteria for Lost finale satisfaction. Which brings me to this…
THE MYSTERY OF WHICH MYSTERY THIS MYSTERY SHOW REALLY IS
It is customary to call Lost a “mystery.” But what kind of mystery is it? Here at the end, the question is up for debate, and the discussion speaks to the division that exists within the Lost fan community about what constitutes a satisfying finale for this “mystery” series. Other bloggers and critics have tackled the question in their own way. I particularly enjoyed this essay by Ryan McNutt that “celebrates the journey of Lost.“
Yet what has interested me the most about the discussion is the lack of agreement about what kind of mystery story Lost should be. As I see it, there are four different kinds:
The CSI Approach
AKA: The Old Fashioned Detective Story.
In a nutshell: There’s a mystery. The hero chooses to investigate. In the end, he or she follows the clues and comes to a logical and correct conclusion.
The Usual Suspects Approach
AKA: The Long Con
In a nutshell: The entire plot is an intricate conspiracy hatched and executed by a master villain. In the final moments of the story, the hero/heroes will see through the conspiracy (usually too late to save the day), revealing a hidden, intricate knit of sound internal logic to the world and storytelling. (Also see: David Mamet’s trickster crime flicks, House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner.)
The Sixth Sense Approach
AKA: The Big Twist
In a nutshell: A variation of The Usual Suspects Approach. The hero is either deceived or more likely self-deceived about the truth of his world, circumstances, and identity. In the final moments, the hero learns the truth and is faced with a choice: to embrace the truth or continue living in ignorance. (Also see: Memento, Jacob’s Ladder, Angel Heart, Total Recall)
The David Lynch Approach
AKA: The Mystical Mystery
In a nutshell: The trickiest to describe and characterize, which is fitting, as these surreal and oblique tales demand interpretation. The story seems to operate according to an internal logic, thought that may be an illusion, and regardless, the author isn’t interested in revealing story’s “rules’ to the audience. Often, these stories blur the lines of the external and internal worlds and may, in fact, be delusions or fantasies of the protagonist. In the end, the audience is supposed to find resolution and closure for ourselves — although, usually, the point of these stories is to stand as a metaphor for how real life often lacks resolution and closure.
So which is kind of mystery is Lost?
I think most fans wish — especially right now — that Lost was a CSI story. But Lost has never been a CSI story. CSI stories require a protagonist that is deeply invested and motivated to investigate the mysteries of his or her world. Indeed, one of the earliest complaints of Lost was how so few of our on screen representatives, the castaways, were interested in exploring The Island with the exception of John Locke. But even then, his quest wasn’t about acquiring knowledge for himself and his community (and us) but about finding his unique “destiny.” Indeed, his bias colored all of his conclusions.
Lost has shown an affection for The Usual Suspects Approach (see: most Sawyer episodes), and given what we’ve learned about Fake Locke, I think many fans will be reviewing all of Lost once its over from the perspective of The Monster’s series-long conspiracy to assassinate Jacob. Lost has also shown an affection for The Sixth Sense Approach, with stories like “Walkabout” in season 1 and the flash-forward gamechanger at the end of season 3. The show has set a precedent for Big Twists, and in doing so is complicit in encouraging viewers to expect a Big Twist here at the end. If they don’t get one, or a satisfying one, I don’t think they would be wrong to complain. (I also think bloggers such as myself have encouraged this expectation. We’ve spent six years treating Lost like a big, solvable puzzle. Lost has done much to encourage this view, but it always insisted that it is first and foremost a story, not a game. It can sometimes feel like a game — but it really isn’t. I have always seen this distinction, even if my theories have encouraged you to think otherwise.)
When I started watching Lost, I found myself more intrigued by the mysteries than the characters. Over time, though, I have become more moved by the themes and the redemption struggles. In the third season, my engagement with Lost changed completely. I’ve previously shared how my wife’s cancer affected the way I processed the show and expressed myself about the show. I began to see Lost not as a mystery to be solved, but an allegory for living in a state of profound, unsettling ambiguity that dealt with the central concerns of life. Why are we here? Why do we suffer? Is there hope? Do we accept our fate or fight it? What happens to us when we die? Will we see our loved ones again after death? I appreciated that Lost ruminated on these questions. It was like a song — part Psalm, part Lamentation. Lost spoke for my experience of life. It is a Howl,a geeky, fantastical poem of existential outrage and yearning.
Which brings us to the David Lynch modality. The truth is, as much as Lost seems to have been written from The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense approaches, I think Lost has always possessed the philosophy of the David Lynch approach. I see how this is problematic. I can see how people want all of Lost to be an elaborate, series-long version of “Expose!”, with a razzle-dazzle twist ending. I can see how people might cry “Bait and switch!” if they don’t get it. But I decided long ago that my Lost satisfaction wasn’t contingent on the ending. I have loved wallowing in the mysteries of the series and thinking my way through them. In the end, I’m not unlike JJ Abrams: I dig mystery boxes. My orientation is to shred them open and see what’s inside. But Lost has shown me that there is great value in wondering what’s inside them, and that the wondering may actually be more valuable. In fact, my guess is that your degree of satisfaction with the Lost finale will greatly depend on how you feel about Abrams’ TED talk about his beloved mystery box from a few years ago. If you haven’t seen it, take the time now to watch.
Believe me: I want the finale to rock. And if it doesn’t, I promise to do my best and take off the rose colored glasses and say so. But what I can’t deny is the experience that has brought me here. And that experience has been amazing — the best ride TV has ever given me. Thanks for taking it with me.
I’ll have an instant reaction tonight about a half hour after the finale. Love to hear your thoughts. Twitter: @ewdocjensen email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Update: Totally Lost is live! Check it out below.