“Lost:” Could It Have Been An Opera?

Yeah, it’s not an opera, but it could have been one during the Scapigliatura, the period of opera I have focused on for the past 13 years. Although I admittedly did not watch the series “Lost,” which is not surprising since I am just now returning to the land of the living after spending the last five years with my mind and soul immersed in 1860s Milan, many of my colleagues and friends did watch the series.  Since I have a deep connection to allegorical narratives and works like Dante’s Divina Commedia, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and of course any poetry or literature of the Milanese bad-boys, the Scapigliatura, this television series seems intriguing to me.  I did watch portions of the final episode and realized, “I may want to watch this and try to figure out its metaphors and allegorical connotations.”

For those of you who did watch, DON’T spoil it for me, but here is a well-written and informative article from the New York Times writer, Mike Hale.  He sheds some light on those things that, in true Scapigliatura fashion, are not always what they seem.”

“No Longer ‘Lost,’ but Still Searching

Published: May 24, 2010
As the last two and a half hours of “Lost” unspooled on Sunday night, Desmond and Jack walked into a cave for the final showdown with evil, and Desmond said, “This doesn’t matter, him destroying the island, you destroying him.” Jack, serious to the end, replied, “All of this matters.”

It was the sort of thesis-antithesis, drama-of-ideas moment that the show had always specialized in. The problem was that several hours later, after the show’s mystical, walk-into-the-white-light ending, it was Desmond who would be proved more right. The battle Jack was about to engage in with the monster inhabiting the body of John Locke mattered in the way that the proper placement of X’s and Y’s matters in an equation — meaning on “Lost” always having been largely abstract, as if it were a product of flow charts rather than imagination.

But when the entire island story line we had been following for six seasons turned out not to matter very much within the internal organization of the show’s narrative — to be largely disconnected from that final quasi-religious resolution of the plot — it was deflating, despite the warm feelings the finale otherwise inspired. Most of the post-mortem discussion of the finale will involve parsing and grading that final 10-minute sequence. Before conducting our own analysis, however, let’s talk about the previous 140 minutes of “The End.” It’s not uncommon — in fact, it’s probably the norm — for successful television shows to soften up as the seasons pass and viewers (and creators) get more attached to characters and more personally invested in how stories play out. It happened this season with “Lost,” and it reached its apogee on Sunday in an episode that was largely a pleasant, nostalgic wallow for the show’s fans.

Tonally, the episode was dominated by the sentimental machinations of the sideways story line, in which Desmond continued to act as a sort of spiritual mother hen or reunion organizer: gathering his flock of characters and leading them to reclaim their memories of the island, one after another, like nonbelievers seeing the light at a tent meeting.
Some of those moments were expertly orchestrated and very moving. Sun and Jin, whose memories were unlocked when they saw an ultrasound image of their baby, Ji-yeon, suddenly were able to speak English again, a plot trick that has always worked. Sawyer and Juliet touched fingers over a candy bar and jumped back as if from an electric shock. Jack’s final memory montage, when he saw all the moments in which he had raced to save others, was lovely.

Meanwhile, the island story, in keeping with a season-long trend, was eventful but strangely thrill-free.

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. “The End” exemplified how pedestrian the action in “Lost” became over the years, a falloff that began even in Season 1. There was nothing to make you tense up in the scenes of Jack and Locke fighting on the cliff or of boulders rolling around as the island threatened to disintegrate. (One exception: Kate telling Sawyer, “I’ll see you at the boat,” and leaping off the cliff into the ocean. But that’s a hard scene to mess up.)

Now let’s get back to the ending of “The End,” in which the big reveal was that Jack Shephard, to all appearances a divorced father and successful surgeon in the sideways universe, was in fact dead. So were all the other Losties who had gathered in the church. The scenario was cleverly constructed to remove the possibility that they had been dead all along (a possibility I erroneously considered, and blogged about, before rewatching the scene), or that any of the events on the island or in the off-island lives of the Oceanic 6 had been other than real.

As explained by Jack’s (dead) father, and amplified by an exchange between Hurley and Ben, life had continued after Jack died on the island, stabbed by the monster inhabiting Locke’s body. The survivors on the Ajira plane, including Kate, Claire and Sawyer, had presumably made it to safety (Kate for the second time), while Hurley and Ben had remained as the island’s new protectors.

Now, beyond some future expiration date, they had all died and gathered because, as Christian Shephard told Jack: “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.”

So that was the answer: the island was college, or home, or Outward Bound. The sideways reality was the former passengers of Oceanic 815, plus selected guests like Desmond and Penny, gathering for a self-affirming reunion before heading off into whatever sort of afterlife the swelling white light symbolized. (The producers hedged their bets by placing symbols of various religions inside the church.)

Rendered insignificant, in this scenario, were the particulars of what they had done on the island. Pushing buttons, building rafts, blowing up hatches, living, dying — all the churning action and melodrama that made “Lost” so addictive in its early seasons — none of it was directly connected to this final outcome, beyond that it constituted “the most important part” of all their lives.

The exception might have been Jack’s defeat of the smoke monster, though it was unclear if even that had been necessary for this beatific gathering to take place. If life on the island had been a test, everyone who mattered (or who wasn’t busy filming somewhere else) had been destined to pass. Except for Ben, who took an incomplete by staying out in the parking lot. The ending felt contrived and disappointing, which was probably inevitable. After years of insane complication of plot and character, no ending could have “explained” the show in a wholly satisfying way, and it might have been better not to try.

When the executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse announced in 2007 that they would cap the series at six seasons so that they could end it on their own terms, it made sense but raised a question: if artistic concerns were that important, why play the network game for even that long?

It was clear from the start that the story could not stretch beyond a season or two without being resolved or completely rethought. Admitting that, and pitching the show as a limited series or mini-series, would have meant going to cable or working with much smaller resources, and you can’t blame the show’s creators for not wanting that. But it always made their protestations about how the show threatened to get away from them ring a little hollow.

And on the other hand: the ending was also elegiac and beautiful, with its stately pace, its elegant cross-cutting between Jack’s death on the island and his awakening in the present, its long shot of the cast arrayed in the church pews like passengers in an airplane. The actors seemed relaxed and genuinely happy, and Matthew Fox, as Jack, underplayed nicely (in a scene where shot after shot was ripe for overacting). The final image of Jack’s eye closing, a reversal of the show’s opening moment six seasons ago, was just right.

As it so often had been, “Lost” was shaky on the big picture — on organizing the welter of mythic-religious-philosophical material it insisted on incorporating into its plot — but highly skilled at the small one, the moment to moment business of telling an exciting story. Which is to say, the picture that actually fit on the television screen.

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