'Lost' EP Carlton Cuse looks back at plotting the series finale
The finale of a TV show can provoke all sorts of feelings — from devastation to elation, from closure to closed-fist anger — and Lost‘s last episode has drawn the full spectrum from different factions of its deeply passionate fan base. Four years after its airing, the epic and polarizing farewell installment of ABC’s obsessed-over mystery drama about a group of plane-crash survivors on a bizarro island still has people talking/debating/clogging message boards. (Should you need a refresher and/or guidance, may we suggest (re)reading Doc Jensen’s insightful recap.) As this is the time of year when veteran series often ascend into the afterlife — How I Met Your Mother signed off with a fair share of controversy a few weeks ago — we decided to explore the finale phenomenon with a story in EW‘s April 11 issue titled “The Art of Saying Goodbye.” The creators and showrunners of 10 iconic shows shared with us the challenges of trying to satisfyingly wrap up years of story in a single episode. In the bonus Q&A that follows, Lost exec producer Carlton Cuse — who wrote “The End” with co-creator/exec producer Damon Lindelof — discusses how they plotted the final beats of the Lost saga, why they opted for a spiritual resolution instead of answering questions, and how the overwhelming pressure placed on a show’s last episode can “only lead to disappointment.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When and how did you and Damon start fleshing out the finale?
CARLTON CUSE: There was this grand plan that we had — the idea that the show would start with Jack’s eye opening and it would end with Jack’s eyes closing, which meant that Jack [Matthew Fox] had to die. That was a hugely significant choice because we couldn’t think of a finale of a show that we’d seen where the main character had died. I think that idea went all the way back to Damon writing the pilot. That was right in the DNA from the very beginning… And then pretty early on, we started talking about, “Someone has to end up in charge of the island,” and we’d debated back and forth who that might be before deciding that inevitably and perfectly it was Hurley (Jorge Garcia). The finale is like a hedge. You plant it, but then over time it grows bigger and thicker, and as we went down the stream with the show, we kept getting additional ideas. While some of the basic ideas remained from early on, it was made much richer just by going through the creative process of making the 119 episodes that preceded it.
Can you pinpoint when you locked in the story points for the finale?
It’s hard to say because there was a lot of debate and discussion. I don’t think anything was locked in on our show until we wrote it. (laughs) There were three phases of planning. There was the grand plan that we had, with things from the beginning like Jack’s eye going to close, and we’re going to get people off the island before the end of the show. There was larger operative principles. Then there were seasonal discussions that we’d have these writers mini-camps for where we would discuss the architecture of each upcoming season. But then as we wrote each episode, we left ourselves plenty of room for discovery, invention, to change our minds. So when we sat down to write the finale, it wasn’t like, “Oh, we’ve now come to an episode that we know exactly what it is going to be in every scene, in every shape, and in every form.” Damon and I and the other writers approached it like we did other episodes, where we gave ourselves room to make creative discoveries as we were writing it. We obviously had a lot of conversations about where we were going to land or what the ending was going to encapsulate, but it wasn’t written until it was written.
How heated were the discussions in the writers’ room about coming up with the story points and in trying to address the show’s big questions?
Obviously, the main conversation that we had was, “How are we going to deal with this issue of unanswered questions?” The more we understood the show, we really realized: “This show is about people that are lost on an island, but truly about people that are lost in their lives, so the best and most appropriate ending for the show is one that deals with: What sort of redemption do these characters get? Where do their lives lead them?” We felt like a spiritual resolution was the thing that would ultimately be the most emotionally satisfying. We felt like there was no possible way to answer questions. We actually attempted on a number of occasions to shoehorn in things like who’s in the outrigger, and we found ourselves doing all these sorts of narrative backflips. To put something into a story that really didn’t belong in the story that we were telling. We did “Across The Sea” third from the end and that was the closest thing to answers that we gave. It was the Jacob [Mark Pellegrino] and Man In Black [Titus Welliver] origin story. And that was an episode that was very polarizing and, for us, that was kind of confirmation that the answer version of a finale would never be satisfying. It would just beget more questions and that, in a way, it wasn’t really true to the spirit of the show as we intended it — that the show was a mystery. I feel like we did wrap up a lot of the biggest mysteries on the show. There was no way to sustain a mystery show for 121 episodes of television and tie up every loose end. It was just not possible. So, we really opted to find a way to take the characters to the end of their journey, and in so doing, we felt we were being fairly bold by tackling questions that were really as large as “What is the nature of existence?” and “What’s meaningful in life?” and “By what measure do we find value at the end of our journeys?” These are sort of large, ponderous questions that have no concrete answers but that was the territory we wanted to explore.
NEXT: Cuse talks about extreme measures to keep the finale secret
What do you remember about the extreme measures of secrecy that you took to keep the finale a secret?
ABC had this retired FBI guy who was our security consultant… Most significantly, for the whole end church scene, we were concerned that people would figure out what was going on, so we hired two extras who looked like Sun [Yunjin Kim] and Jin [Daniel Dae Kim]. We put them in wedding clothes, and we had them walk around outside of this church we’d rented for the finale and so photographers who were across the way taking shots would think that we were staging a version of Sun and Jin’s wedding. These [people] spent several days just sitting around, walking in plain sight enough so that people would think that “Oh, it’s Sun and Jin’s wedding!”
Fans had voiced strong opinions about the kinds of things that they wanted in the finale, and you guys were interactive with the fans. When you sat down to write the finale, did you try to tune that out and say, “We just have to write what we think is satisfying?” Or were you also thinking about how to address their desires?
I think our mantra was to do what we’d always done, which was to write the show that we would most want to see. For Damon and for me and for the other writers, it was always about: “What is it that makes us happy? What is it that we would like to see in the finale?” And we trusted our gut and instincts, and we felt like it would be a mistake to suddenly change the methodology for the final episode. We wrote the version that we wanted to see. We stand by the finale that we wrote. It was the version of the story we wanted to tell and I think a lot of people found it enjoyable. It was inevitable that some people wouldn’t and I made my peace with that before we even wrote it. I knew that there was no version that was coming out of our computers that was going to please everybody.
Before the finale aired, you guys said that the finale was the concrete ending for Lost. Do you remember conversations at any point about even considering leaving the door open for a spin-off or a reunion or a movie, or how the franchise could be revisited one day?
We absolutely made no contingency for a sequel or a spin-off. We so definitively had decided that this was the end of our journey with the Lost franchise. We wanted to tell a story that was ending, and with our ending, and it’s called “The End” for that reason. It is the end of the story that we wanted to tell and we had no plans to go back and revisit it. I think it’s likely that at some point, ABC will want to reboot Lost because it’s a valuable franchise, and there will be some young, bright writer or writers who will come up with a great idea that the network responds to, and that’ll be great. I do not begrudge ABC the opportunity to do something more with the franchise. But we told the story we wanted to tell, and I think there’s kind of a wonderful sense of closure for us. I feel like there’s not a moment where I certainly say, “Oh, hey, I wish we had told this story” or “I regret that we didn’t get to do this or that.” I feel like we had ample opportunity to tell all the stories that we wanted to tell.
Do you think there’s too much pressure on finales these days?
There’s this almost crazy expectation about finales. Somebody might say to you, “Well, I love Breaking Bad but the finale wasn’t the best episode of the show.” Like, really? It has to be the best episode of the show? This idea that you can watch a show like True Detective, and it was awesome, but is it really ruined for you if the finale is not your favorite episode of it? It’s just odd to me. I feel like if you enjoyed the 119 hours that precede the finale of Lost, is that whole experience ruined by the fact that you might not agree with everything that we did in the finale? I would hope not! I would hope that you would appreciate the fact that you were entertained for 119 hours even if you didn’t love the finale. Certain shows are harder than others — if you’re doing a show like Lost which is a mystery and everything about the show is mysterious, the expectation is just much higher in terms of what you have to do…. Social media has created this bell curve effect around finales that is really overblown. I can’t say that the ending of a story is always the best part of the story, and yet there’s sort of this implicit idea that the finale is somehow supposed to be the mind-blowing best episode of a show. The question is: Why is that? Why do people make that assumption? I don’t know why the expectation is that it should be…. For both Damon and me, “The Constant” is our favorite episode. The finale of The Sopranos is not my favorite episode, as much as I love that show. I would name a number of episodes before that — notably the episode where Tony takes Meadow to college and strangles that dude. Breaking Bad, I would say “Ozymandias” was an episode I liked better than the finale. The finale is an ending but somehow there’s this idea that it needs to be topping everything that’s come before it and I think that those expectations can only lead to disappointment.
What lessons will you pull away from your Lost finale experience that will impact the way you may ultimately write the finale for a current or future project, like Bates Motel and The Strain?
A lot of people joke with me that probably subliminally the reason that I did Bates Motel was that there was a pretty clear ending to that story. (laughs) We know what’s going to happen, and it’s actually kind of a relief. That’s the last thing we really have to worry about in Bates Motel. We’re not going to do exactly what happens in the movie, but we’re going do a version of it. The show is really about a journey to a point that people actually already know in some way, which is a really interesting way to approach a show. The Strain is based on this trilogy of books and while the series is a lot more detailed and rich and goes places that the books don’t, the books provide a pretty clear road map in terms of where the show is going to go. So again, we might not literally do every beat of the ending that’s in the third book, but it’s a pretty good road map. The two shows that I’m doing, neither is a mystery. Breaking Bad wasn’t a mystery and The Shield wasn’t a mystery, so the expectations for what you need to accomplish in a finale are really dependent on: What is the genre of show that you’re doing? I admire both of those endings because I feel like they were really well-suited for the story of the show. Having Vic Mackey [Michael Chiklis] end up a desk jockey was kind of a perfect choice I thought that Vince [Gilligan, Breaking Bad‘s creator] did a fabulous job tying up the story points of Walter White’s [Bryan Cranston] life. And the ending was in the DNA of the premise, you know? Walter White was going to provide for his family before his life ended.
That was told to us at the beginning of the story.
It was! It was told to us! It was not a surprise. What was wonderful was watching how it was executed. And David Chase’s ending which was: We’re going to cut out because really at any moment at any time, someone can show up and take Tony Soprano out and snuff his existence — I thought that that was brilliant. So I feel that in the case of Lost, whether you loved it or hated it, the show was defined by bold and audacious storytelling choices and that was what we did in the finale as well. Inevitably, when you choose to tell stories like that, you’re going to excite some people and disappoint others…. I think that the challenge in the future is always going to be in a place where there’s increasingly so much feedback and social media noise surrounding shows that are popular and successful, to stay true to yourself in the middle of all of that noise. Television used to be made much more in a vacuum, the only feedback the audience had for a long time was in a Nielsen number that would arrive sometime after the show had been broadcast. And now, people are just completely engaged on so many levels and I think that you have to find a way as a show creator to follow your own compass. You don’t need to willfully ignore the audience, but fundamentally you need to stay true to whatever intentions you had when you set out to tell the story.
Is there one finale that sticks out to you as the gold standard?
The Sopranos. I think David Chase actually pulled off the hat trick. He told the story he wanted to tell, he did it in a way that was provocative, and he did it in a way that was absolutely thematically appropriate for the story of this character. I just think it was very impressive. And while it is not my favorite episode of The Sopranos, it created a shock and complete moment of surprise and revelation at the very end of that story, which is a really hard thing to accomplish.
You stand by the Lost finale and have made peace with the reaction. But if you could change one thing in the finale, what would it be?
The one thing that we did that we should not have done was [listen to what] Barry Jossen, who was an executive with ABC who supervised the show and was our closest partner in the network, had said to us, “How about if we give you a little bit of time coming out of the finale? What if you just put in some nice, beauty shots that give people a chance to emotionally transition before we slam into a commercial?” We thought that was a really good idea, but we didn’t shoot a bunch of extra footage. We didn’t have establishing shots of our island. But we had shot some plates of the plane on the original beach — in the first season of the show, one of the first things that happened was that winter came, and we had to move the plane off the beach because the tides change and that beach erodes away. So before all the plane pieces were carted off, we shot a bunch of pictures and plates, thinking that at some point, if we needed to, we could walk the actors back to that beach and we could put them in front of green screen and have them walking in front of the plane parts again. We never ended up doing that narratively, but we have these shots. So, we just thought, “Well, we’ll stick these shots in…” We thought it would be artful — you go back to the beginning of the show, but now you just would see that the hull of the plane remained on the beach and it was just sitting there and there was no one around anymore — this was sort of the remnants of their former lives — and it would just be a nice emotional, transitioning thing. But what we did not anticipate was that people would, like everything else, read clues into everything we were doing. So by putting that footage at the end of the broadcast, it seemed to imply that “Oh well, the plane crashed and no one survived, so this means everyone was dead.” It created this misperception that we were trying to signal with that footage that the people had been dead all along. And the intent was just simply to create a pause to breathe after the story was over. That’s why we answered that question at the Paley festival when I said, definitively: “No, they were not dead.”