While the headlines focused on the millions of Americans anxiously awaiting the finale of "American Idol" last night, an equally rabid group of fans were frothing at the mouth in anticipation of the two-hour finale of ABC's drama series "Lost." Thanks to a suspenseful second season punctuated by increasingly provocative clues and a few unexpected and devastating plot twists, followers of this multilayered, character-driven drama were already working themselves into a lather when the show's creator, J.J. Abrams, busted out some seriously grandiose proclamations about the finale, calling it "incredible" and "the greatest finale I have ever heard [of]."
Those are mighty strong words to describe a show about a bunch of pretty castaways stranded on a tropical island. But what looked like a slow-moving, character-based monster drama back in the fall of 2004 has evolved in its second season into a dynamic and intriguing maze of story lines, competing ideologies and hidden messages. The last few episodes of the season, in particular, featured some deeply unsettling new developments, from Michael's shocking murder of Ana Lucia and Libby to Locke and Eko's discovery of another hatch, "The Pearl," in the island's interior. While at first it was easy to assume that Michael had been brainwashed by the Others, we learned last week that he had simply struck a deal with them to get his son Walt back. But what did Walt mean when he told Michael that the Others were "pretending"? And did the newly discovered hatch, which was apparently set up to monitor and observe the other hatches, suggest that the button-pushing and the countdowns in the survivors' hatch were all just part of some elaborate experiment in human behavior?
With all of these questions hanging in the air, it seemed tough to imagine a final episode that would provide some satisfying answers, but still leave enough doors open that anticipation for the next season would be stronger than ever. Amazingly, the writers delivered just that, a finale as suspenseful as it was heartbreaking, and the speculation as to the meaning of it all, on blogs and in fan forums and among friends, has grown to a fever pitch, encompassing everything from experimental psychology to Greek mythology to electromagnetism.
Of course, despite the rampant conjecture, the most fascinating aspect of "Lost" lies not in the mysteries of the island, but in the competing philosophies of its inhabitants. Whether the island is a giant magnet or an elaborate invention created by the Hanso Foundation, what we're witnessing, most importantly, is a microcosm, a tiny reproduction of the human experience over the course of history, with each character representing a different approach to the struggle for meaning.
To say that "Lost" is character-driven doesn't really begin to do justice to the layers and layers of influences, personal traumas, and constructed meanings each survivor arrives with on the island. In most dramas, "character-driven" can stand for psychological profiles as shallow as "Sipowicz is a former alcoholic who doesn't like surprises or emotional outbursts" or "Mackey often plays father figure to needy women." On "Lost," characters not only have intense, emotionally taut back stories, which we witness with our own eyes, but their experiences are rarely one-note: They're offered chances at redemption and they refuse them, they're afforded opportunities to set the past straight or to escape their obsessions, and they get distracted or come up short, they struggle with compulsions and obstacles and bad habits that remain as confusing and uncertain to us as they are to them. On top of that, we see each character's worldview, explicit or implicit, forming from this soup of confusion, guilt and hope for the future. This final piece to the puzzle -- the structure of a character's thoughts, the ideology a person forms in order to give a sense of order to a dismayingly chaotic world -- is at the heart of every conflict we see unfolding on the island.
And in this second season, there have been vivid catalysts for the revelation of these ideologies, from the button-pushing routine in the hatch to the management of Dharma Initiative food and supplies to the capture and torture of "Henry Gale." Jack (Matthew Fox), for one, grew up with an unpredictable alcoholic father, which once compelled him to focus excessively on work, and now leads him to want to exert control over every aspect of life on the island. He seems to represent the traditional Western authority figure -- in his mind, as the leader of the group, he should dictate every course of action and be informed of everything that happens at camp. When disaster strikes, Jack repeatedly blames the fact that he wasn't told, as if, with the proper information, he could prevent any negative events from occurring on the island. Locke (Terry O'Quinn), on the other hand, who's named after John Locke, an anti-authoritarian empiricist concerned with human knowledge and the rights of man, seems to feel that meaning and the proper course of action can be determined by carefully observing and cobbling together information about the hatch and the strange occurrences on the island. This interest in evidence makes Locke a rational, reasonable presence, but it also makes it easy for "Henry Gale" and other characters to manipulate him, simply by offering faulty evidence ("The numbers ran out and nothing happened!") that supports their claims. This basic difference in perspective naturally sets Jack and Locke at odds with each other.
And then you throw in Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a man of the cloth whose faith is based both in empirical observations and in the personal traumas of his past, which include being responsible for the death of his beloved brother, a priest who inspired Eko to become one. Strong faith alone motivates Eko's actions, from building a church with Charlie (who, as a former addict, needs something concrete to occupy his time on the island) to taking over the button-pushing when Locke becomes disillusioned by the discovery of the second hatch. In contrast to Eko, you've got Sawyer (Josh Holloway), a relentless pragmatist whose parents' brutal murders have made him distrustful of any outlook that's remotely optimistic or faith-based. Sawyer embodies the brutality and contradictions of capitalism, relentlessly insisting on the exchange of goods on the island, maintaining control over the guns and drugs without being swayed by sentimental or emotional appeals. He brings his own sort of order to the camp, but not without underpinnings of greed, guilt and longing. While he's exceptionally good at keeping himself occupied, between reading books and playing poker with mangoes as betting chips, he's an opportunist and a con man who lacks a reliable moral compass. His self-hatred is evident in the name he's given himself -- Sawyer -- the name of the man who killed his parents.
Sayid (Naveen Andrews) represents the rules of engagement -- or lack thereof -- in times of war. He's suspicious and is always on the offensive, sniffing out traitors. He feels certain that, with enough focused effort, he can get to the truth -- at the heart of the island, or at the heart of any man. This approach came in handy in handling "Henry Gale" -- Sayid was suspicious of the man from the outset, became convinced that he was lying after interrogating him, and then took it upon himself to discover the truth about Gale's crashed hot-air balloon -- but it also makes Sayid one of the more brutal and perhaps overconfident members of the group.
Kate (Evangeline Lilly) may be the toughest to parse of all of the island's characters. Like Sawyer she's practical and opportunistic, with a criminal background, but her major crime -- killing her abusive father -- was motivated by years of emotional turmoil and vengeance. Unlike the other main characters, who have elaborate belief systems in place to justify their actions, Kate seems to lack any kind of philosophy or spiritual center, and ends up being led in circles, from anger to guilt, from Jack to Sawyer and back, by her emotions.
As the finale began, all of these very disparate approaches to life on the island were in play. Upon spotting a sailboat on the horizon, Jack and the other men swam out to the boat and stormed its lower deck, guns drawn, only to discover Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick), the man who'd been manning the hatch and pushing the button until Locke came and essentially relieved him of his duties at the start of the season. Desmond, who shares Kate's emotional nature, not to mention a seriously heavy dose of sentimentality and fear, was drunk and despondent at having sailed for so long, only to find himself back on the island. Soon afterwards, he tells Jack that he's convinced the island is all there is in the world.
Since Sayid is convinced that Michael "has been compromised" and is working with the Others, he hatches a plan in which he'll scout out the Others' camp from the sailboat and signal to Jack with black smoke when the coast is clear. Along the way to the camp with Kate, Sawyer, Jack and Hurley, whom Michael has been ordered to bring with him in exchange for Walt, the group discovers two of the Others following them, and Michael finds that the gun Jack gave him is empty. This leads to Michael confessing to the group that he's leading them into a trap, and that he killed Ana Lucia and Libby. Soon afterward, they see the black smoke from Sayid, who's discovered that the Others' camp is empty. Just as they realize that Michael hasn't led them toward the shore at all, poison darts fly through the air and they're carried away by the Others.
On a wooden dock, "Henry Gale" appears on the same motorized boat that Walt was kidnapped on at the end of the first season. "Gale" seems to be the highest ranking member of this group of Others, and he sends Hurley back to camp to have him warn everyone not to come after Sawyer, Kate and Jack, who will stay with the Others. Michael is given Walt and the motorized boat, and in a heartbreaking scene, Michael motors off while his shackled friends, on their knees at gunpoint, stare after him. It's a remarkable choice by the show's writers, not only because we expect Michael to have a change of heart and help to rescue his friends, but because Michael has been portrayed as a formerly selfish guy who's been reformed by having taken responsibility for Walt after Walt's mother died. Instead of making Michael, the worried dad, into a hero -- and when is the worried dad not a hero? -- the writers place the demands of parenting at odds with the needs of the group. In this final moment of the season, Michael represents the chaos that results from extreme individualism, the insistence of one man putting his interests above the interests of the entire community. The fact that this outcome matches Michael's original character profile is a testament to the careful planning and attention to detail that's gone into this show in its second season.
Meanwhile, Locke and Desmond are determined to let the clock run down in the hatch without pushing the button. Locke is a man who's lost his faith in destiny and in having any kind of a meaningful role on the island, and Desmond is utterly confused over what the purpose of the hatch could possibly be, despite having wasted years of his life pushing the button. Shut out by the two in the hatch, Eko, who believes that the button-pushing is essential to preventing death and destruction, tries to blast down the door with some dynamite Charlie found for him, but the door stays put and Eko and Charlie are injured. Just as the clock is running down to a few minutes, Desmond checks the logs from "The Pearl" hatch and realizes that the one time he let the clock run down was the same day the plane crashed -- in other words, the release of electromagnetic energy caused by the hatch's system failure was what made the plane crash. Desmond rushes to find a key to try to stop the process that's already in motion -- or to destroy the hatch, it's not exactly clear which -- and Locke looks at Eko and says, "I was wrong."
An enormous blast, a bright light and a piercing sound has everyone on the island covering their ears and blinking, and the lid to the hatch lands on the beach at the survivors' camp. Meanwhile, somewhere icy and cold, two guys stop their game and check a readout on a computer, then pick up a phone to call ... Desmond's one true love? Huh?
Plenty of questions remain unanswered, of course -- Are Locke and Eko dead? Did Desmond survive? Will Walt and Michael return to the island like Desmond did? Will Desmond's girlfriend find some way to come to the island? Are the mysteries of the island all wrapped up in this strange magnetic charge? -- but the finale offered just enough revelations and plot twists to keep fans of the show salivating for the start of the third season.
If this astonishing finale leaves you unconvinced and unmoved and you suspect that J.J. Abrams takes idle pleasure in tossing out big ideas and then leaving them unexplained, maybe it's time for you to peruse Lostpedia, a Web site that lays out the complex web of character profiles and plots set forth in the first two seasons of the show. Then there's "The Lost Experience," an online interactive game based on the TV show, with clues found during the episodes, or on e-mails or phone messages, making up "an elaborate Easter egg hunt," as the Web site puts it. And if you really want to get bowled over by a labyrinth of theories, listen to the "Lost" podcasts or lostcasts, created by fans who read many of the "Lost" forums online and condense the latest discussions into seriously detailed notions on what's behind the mysteries of the island.
The possibilities are limitless, of course, and even when you start to get the tiniest glance at what could be the guiding paradigm of the island, you pull on some loose end and the whole thing wads up into a big, tight knot that it would take half a lifetime to unravel. But as impatient as we can be, as viewers, with one of the only shows on television that's not spelled out for us every step of the way, would it really be more interesting if it was? Given the big, unruly concepts that the writers bat around -- existentialism, faith, pragmatism, destiny, luck, empiricism -- it may not even be possible to weave it all together into some cohesive whole.
Besides, if the island is an intensified, more dramatic mirror of the human experience, it makes perfect sense that its essential nature should shift in and out of view, and its meaning should be as evanescent and elusive as any philosophy. Our lot in life, after all, is to sally forth without a concrete answer, left only with our own best guesses and most carefully reasoned theories on the nature of our existence. More than any other show I can think of, "Lost" struggles with the biggest, most difficult, most unanswerable questions. Clearly enriched by a wealth of historical, psychological and philosophical perspectives, the show's writers seem to delight in exploring the limits of emotional endurance, the darkness of human nature, and the challenge of a community to govern itself in the face of a messy tangle of disparate dispositions, ideologies and flaws. After an excruciatingly slow first season, my only frustration with the provocative, inspired second season of "Lost" is that it's already over.